Thursday, 18 January 2018

Bonus #6: Crying Freeman (1995)


Director: Christophe Gans
Screenplay: Christophe Gans, Thierry Cazals and Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami
Cast: Mark Dacascos as Yo Hinomura/Crying Freeman,  Julie Condra as Emu O'Hara, Tchéky Karyo as Detective Netah, Byron Mann as Koh, Masaya Kato as Ryuji "The Blade" Hanada, Yoko Shimada as Kimie Hanada, Rae Dawn Chong as Detective Forge, Mako as Shido Shimazaki

Synopsis: Emu O'Hara (Julie Condra) awaits her death after accidentally witnessing the work of the Crying Freeman (Mark Dacascos), an assassin for the ancient Chinese society known as the Sons of the Dragons. However love blossoms between the two as the Crying Freeman, real name Yo Hinomura, is a brainwashed pawn regaining his humanity. As a result they find themselves in the midst of Japanese yakuza, corrupt cops and the Sons of the Dragons not reacting well to his insubordination.

After covering the animated adaptation of Kazuo Koike's manga [No. 46 on the blog], it seems fitting to also cover the first version of this story I ever saw, one in a small pocket of film adaptations of manga and anime in the nineties when both were slowly becoming popular in the West. Only a handful actually exist, not just speculation like casting Geena Davis as Sailor Moon, and they vary drastically in quality and in terms of their tone next to the source material, as anyone who has watched the Fist of the North Star adaptation from 1995 with Gary Daniels can attest to. Brian Yuzna, famous for producing and directing cult horror films, is behind a couple of these adaptations that actually saw light. One was the not-so successful take on The Guyver  in 1991 [Bonus #3 on the blog] that required a sequel without his involvement to work with more success with the premise. Another is Crying Freeman, a co-production between Japan, the United States and Canada which is strange knowing its source material. Very strange frankly.

If this was the only version you saw as I once was in the camp of, you'd presume the source material was a serious action like many a manga, one very compromised by trying to shove too much narrative into less than two hours. Its co-creator Kazuo Koike however, despite a legendary career that led to Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, is a storytelling of an extreme kind, something you don't learn of from the live action adaptations unless you've managed to see the infamous Hanzo the Razor trilogy. The anime version, which covers the whole narrative over six episodes, shows how utterly silly and bizarre Koike's story was. The live action film turned out to be an adaptation of what was only the prologue, in spite of trying to tie the narrative up in the end. This itself, especially as it's a serious action film, leads to a strange emotional reaction for me returning to the picture.

Between the live action film and the anime, I have to choose the anime even if it's complete trash. Though it is rough - in tone, its attitude to sex and violence, and sometimes in animation quality - the straight-to-video animated version tells the entire story. Even if it falls off the cliff immediately after the first episode, it's a compelling trajectory downwards, where even its more indefensible moments do not affect how utterly compelling the experience altogether is. For the live action film it's the exact same issue I have with the 1991 live action version of Masahiko Takajo and Tetsuya Saruwatari's manga Riki-Oh, apt as Saruwatari was a student of Koike's. Both live action versions are faithful to their source material, but only cover what is effectively the prologue. Riki-Oh especially has lost its power for me, which would amaze people as it's still an infamous Hong Kong film today were it not for the fact I have read the manga, which goes further on and goes beyond mere insanity to madness that exists in its own logic. Crying Freeman is helped by the fact it takes a different tone to the material, at least in how a viewer intentionally reacts to it. The problems are entirely to do with the narrative being slight, which if you didn't know its source is still anti-climatic by the ending and barely covering a lot in the characters etc. If you know the source even just from the anime, you then learn why as its the prologue that sets up a larger story.

It's not a great film in the long run because of this. It barely covers the main character Yo Hinomura  and how he early on in the story takes over the organisation that brainwashed him, Emu at his side and the pair in a narrative that spans multiple plots. Emu's romance to him is weak, with the added issue that Julie Condra is not that great, the character even in Koike's tendencies for problematic gender portrayals still shows her eventually gaining a demonically possessed sword in the anime. The Sons of the Dragons, renamed for the film, aren't talked of greatly as needed for dramatic closure, especially as they still have an unexplained supernatural edge to them, their leader being a hundred plus year old witch and involving an ancient tattoo of a dragon marked on the Crying Freeman with mythological details to it. There are characters like Rae Dawn Chong's Detective Forge who are undercut by her casting and the fact that, in the anime, the Crying Freeman tale is a serialised pulp story which takes place over multiple plots with characters who only appear in one tale than leave. Those that stay don't really appear in the film, a shame especially knowing the existence of Bai Ya Shan in the anime, a giantess of a woman voiced by female professional wrestler Dump Matsumoto who would've been fun to have included in the film if practical.

Where the film is of interest is in its director Christophe Gans. He belongs to the school of directors paying tribute to older genre films and characters, without the sarcasm and irony that seeped into more modern adaptation. He is someone who has always taken his material serious; from his own genre hybrid Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) to his 2006 adaptation of Silent Hill, his fan base wishes he made more films and even the list of characters he wanted to adapt to screen but couldn't (Fantômas, Space Adventure Cobra) reads as someone very different from even a Quentin Tarantino in attitude. He's also someone who officially got into filmmaking through Brian Yuzna. His first work after making shorts is sadly in the disappointing Lovecraft anthology Necronomicon (1993), but Crying Freeman even if it's a very cheesy mid-nineties action film shows where he got his fan base from onwards.If anything it has a personality that's admirable even if the results are a failure, how sincere it takes its source material an admirable attempt. This in particular is important as, if the film was significantly better, there are aspects that were already in the film we got which would've made it great in another context.  

That it feels like an international co-production and embraces that fact with various languages spoken; it even does Canada a service of filming there but not just to represent other countries, scenes explicitly set in Vancouver. That I loved the music by Patrick O'Hearn immmensely, of its time but moody and compelling. The style of the film in production design is stylish as was the case even with the worst of the nineties adaptations of pop culture. And Mark Dacascos was a great choice to lead the film, who in a list of actors who should've had bigger careers is that most depressing for me. Someone who is striking onscreen, an accomplished martial artist in films like Drive (1997), yet never having a big break. (Not helped by how some of the films he was in the mid nineties were not released in the US (Crying Freeman), were cut down for release (Drive) or were like The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) where his small role would be barely thought about in the infamy of that film's production history). If anything, whilst the film does not succeed in the slightest, there was at least an admirable attempt at creating an interesting film with the 1995 Crying Freeman adaptation. Whilst the results do not fully come together, like a lot of these early attempts at adapting other media in the nineties, they possess a sense of character that you can even dispute exist equally in the more financially successful ones of a few decades later, films which are more focused but have significantly less personality then their predecessors.


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

#51: The Humanoid (1986)


Director: Shin'ichi Masaki
Screenplay: Koichi Mizuide
Voice Cast: Kazuki Yao as Eric; Yoshiko Sakakibara as Antoinette; Yumiko Shibata as Sheri; Eiji Maruyama as Libero; Hidekatsu Shibata as Dr. Watson; Hikari Akiyama as Ignasia; Kazuyuki Sogabe as Governor Proud
Viewed in Caffeinated English


Synopsis: On a distant planet, the ironically named Governor Proud desires to use a forbidden spaceship to take his people and their princess back to their home on the other side of space. Even with the various warnings of the spaceship's destructiveness, he still goes ahead with this plan and requires two keys, one which will involve two Earthling pilots and a female android named Antoinette.

How do you create an anime as generic and un-dramatic as The Humanoid? Well, first you bear in mind the Japanese economy at the time of its production was riding high. In the eighties, in the midst of their economic upturn before violent economic depression downwards, excess also meant a lot of money was available in the animation industry, not just the super theatrical productions like Odin: Photon Sailor Starlight (1985) but also the amount of straight-to-video productions created when the market came to be and needed product. Also bear in mind that even after this into the modern day there's still stuff inexplicably being produced, but that a work like The Humanoid gained infamy because it was released in the West and developed an anti-cult. In the case The Humanoid, part of the many licenses US distributor Central Park Media released. These licenses would linger even into the early DVD age where I can have an ILC release with the original English dub available in the UK, thus ensuring another series of viewers witnessing its infamy before it gets lost to nostalgic blog posts.


At forty or so minutes you manage to see when there's a lot of time to fill and not enough at the same time with a generic sci-fi story like The Humanoid, as rudimentary as you can get with its simplistic tale. Its opening text crawl, likely added for the English release, imitates Star Wars but is completely superfluous to a story where the villain's name gives away what happens, when he fancies piloting a spaceship a former governor keeps warning him against only for the expected to happen. The heroes are stock types, one the stereotypical anime male protagonist with a love interest, the other memorable both for Burt Reynolds quality facial hair and his coffee fixation. The one character who gets anything remotely close to detail is Antoinette, a female android clearly inspired by the work of artist Hajime Sorayama, whose work on sexualised female robots even made its way onto an Aerosmith album cover. Her story, that she is a synthetic creation who eventually learns the human emotion of love, is agonised over through the anime. Not only is her story in truth cut short by the length of the anime, only having time to learn of love through the younger hero and his love interest splashing each other in the sea at one point, but even when it's played out with her heroic sacrifice in the ending there's a monologue at the end that stresses a very simplistic and obvious concept with great concern.

How it is The Humanoid is still entertaining with this in mind is just as complicated. Nostalgia for an era of anime I wasn't even born within let alone able to appreciate. Where even the rudimentary animation and colour palette of this, as low budget as you can get, is still aesthetically pleasing even if it's an embarrassment for hand drawn animation. How television anime, stretched over hours of episodes, is so much more painful to stand through than a single forty or so minute animation, which unless its unbearable is tolerable in any extreme. How this eighties kitsch - from the animation to the music - is significantly more pleasing than the pure dirty nastiness of more infamous anime from this era, and is especially more tolerable than later post-digital anime as bad as this, which don't have necessarily the same notoriety both for their lack of availability or not hitting the right notes to stand out. Paradoxically for one of the blandest anime I've ever seen, that's actually a virtue in how The Humanoid manages to actually succeed in doing this. I haven't even gotten to the coffee obsession either. From the original Japanese script or added in the English dub, it's the most well known trait of the series in how the cast are obsessed even as aliens to Earth coffee. Not since Devin Townsend's Ziltoid character as outer space been defined by coffee, so much so the English dub sneaks in a reference to an old American advertisement at the end. Only an anti-tea sentiment would emphasis this quirk, the sort of thing that alongside the complete ineffectual anti-virtues of The Humanoid made is harmless. Not defendable, just watchable. Not in the least bit the "bad" anime you need to go out and see, but a reminder that anime once which this cheap sci-fi malarkey.


Monday, 4 December 2017

#50. Golgo 13: The Professional (1983)


Director: Osamu Dezaki
Screenplay: Hideyoshi Nagasaka and Shūkei Nagasaka
Based on the manga by Takao Saito
Voice Cast: Tetsuro Sagawa as Duke Togo/Golgo 13; Gorō Naya as Leonard Dawson; Kousei Tomita as Bob Bragan; Kumiko Takizawa as Rita; Reiko Mutoh as Laura Dawson; Toshiko Fujita as Cindy
Viewed in Japanese with Dub-titles

Synopsis: Golgo 13, codename for Duke Togo, is a mysterious hit man with his own moral code and an inhuman ability to complete every assassination mission he is paid for. When someone manages to acquire an ungodly number of resources to hunt him down and starts to pick off his contacts however, the legendary figure is backed into a corner.

The story of Golgo 13 is fascinating even from a surface knowledge of his origins. His creator Takao Saito worked on James Bond manga for the three years before he created the character in 1968, and thus it's impossible to imagine that he didn't take the concept of a figure who is a perfect killer and womaniser and adapt Duke Togo from this. However in contrast to the debonair British character capable of being exceptionally absurd in certain films as he is serious, Golgo 13 is a far more nihilistic and grimy figure befitting Japan's strong history of dark, mean crime thrillers. Even in this film, which has more outlandish aspects, this is an alien film in tone from the James Bond films made this year when the official one Octopussy fought with the unofficial one Never Say Never Again, both of which make the material in The Professional that feels like a stereotypical manga for men seem more serious in comparison.


The character at this point, with stories still being published five decades on in comic book form, is a metaphysical entity rather than a human being. Practically an emotionless automaton who kills, sleeps with women, kills and so forth in repeat. In the first of only three animated adaptations - this in the eighties, a forty minute OVA also by Osamu Dezaki in the 90s and a TV series in 2008-9 - this is not necessarily a problem is you imagine not a character in the same state of pulp heroism as James Bond but a representative figure for bleak morality plays. Even if it was to still be pulp as its more exploitative end, knowing that Golgo 13 as a character has been thrown even into stories with real life politics and existing figures of the real world emphasises this, and the Angel of Death persona he effectively is in this theatrical film does allow for interesting potential. A figure to surround by characters in their own specific stories who Golgo 13, perfect and capable of impossible feats like shooting through bullet proof glass in one scene of this theatrical feature, merely intervenes with when he's got a paid contract he'll execute exactly.

The Professional compared to modern anime is absurd. There's still a lot in modern anime in depictions of sexuality and violence which still raises an eyebrow, but certainly you don't get a film like Golgo 13 a lot at all now. Beautifully animated but set in dank urban environments or idyllic environments where violence, gun battles or explosions destroy their serenity. The portrait of women is no way near as bad as other example of this macho Japanese pulp in any medium, but female characters are naked a lot and take a back seat for this story. Blood is shed and the storytelling is in the context of the kind originally for salary men to escape from their ordinary lives, still so in the modern day only now with the emphasis in a lot of anime on cute schoolgirls for male otaku to imagine as their little step sisters. Frankly though, even whilst this isn't PC in the modern day, you can make an argument there's so much worse than The Professional just in anime. Even if I have to warn of certain content, like a rape scene which will be immediate trigger warnings for some readers, such moments are no way near as explicit and frequent as some infamous and problematic examples in other anime. It can be argued James Bond has always been worse in gender politics and its chevalier attitude to violence. Golgo 13 here, even if streaked in absurd cartoonish moments, follows the bluntness that its inherited from Japanese crime and noir stories, from those made by Nikkatsu studios in the sixties to later, more grounded yakuza stories and thrillers. Actually for all its absurdity, compared to the Roger Moore era of Bond taking place as this film was released, even the snake-like mercenary named Snake, who can writhe on walls on his back and belly, is less ridiculous. Even the unfortunate English dub dialogue about a female tech wanting Togo to pull her trigger lovingly doesn't undermine Golgo 13's edge.


Helping is that, for its simplicity, The Professional actually has a plot in the end that's surprisingly  moral. How, after his son is assassinated by Golgo 13, a powerful American oil baron gladly uses his power to try to take out the assassin. It's absurd as he gets the FBI, US military and CIA to help him, an evil version so corrupt its revealed he got them to assassinate JFK, but ironically the story does become about his downfall over bloody-minded revenge. Whilst lurid, he traumatises his surviving daughter-in-law, using her as sexual currency for the Snake assassin in scenes which are played as horrifying, brainwashes his granddaughter as an assassin and will gladly kill many on his side and others to get Golgo 13, which is revealed to be more complicated than it appears in his intent. As much as this is still a film which wades in with violence and sex, a machismo looked down on for some, it's interesting how those films that are still remembered like this actually have more complex moralities even if they're within exaggerated form. This is not like some of the more dubious examples in Japanese pulp storytelling in anime or manga, like the live action adaptations of Hanzo the Razor which is sumptuous to look at but disturbing in premise. This adaptation of Golgo 13 even if of its era is still actually defendable in how it emphasises a moral plot even in all its over-the-top bombast and excess. Even considering its very simplistic plot structure - a string of separate missions for Duke Togo before he deals with the actual villain of the film - it's interesting after so many viewings how actually more well put together the story is, even for something meant as pulp first and isn't trying intentionally to be profound.

What helps as well as this isn't a rudimentary animated production either. Its theatrical anime from the eighties, so a lot of hard work and budget is behind it, and its helmed by one of the best working anime directors of his era. Osamu Dezaki, who at his best before his death in 2011, was not only incredible as a craftsman but brazenly experimental. The postcard memory, a trick of stopping scenes for highly detailed still images, is one of his popular trademarks, but between Golgo 13 and his adaptation of Space Adventure Cobra in 1982 is probably some of his most out there and openly surreal productions I've seen of his work so far. His work here is dynamic, a flair with how scenes are presented and even going as far as bringing the kind of techniques more associated with live action cinema such as splitting the screen into smaller images. When he's staying within the more traditionally realistic aesthetic of this film, he alongside the production team uses colour and absences of it to a striking advantage, as can be seen within the sequence where even bullet proof glass is not a problem for the anti-hero, the vast neon and elaborate environment of the city sequence incredibly elaborate in detailed before you get to the style putting the sequence together.


The film is also willing to become overtly abstract too. The mourning of a watchmaker who worked with Togo is presented, with Golgo 13 and the man's body in a chair, not with the background or floor of the latter's work area shown but with all background between the character models being replaced with clock faces. Space can become distorted and even x-ray of a bullet entering a skull can suddenly happen for effect. It helps connect the gritty realism with its more overtly cartoonish aspects, the kind of story where Golgo 13 fights anyone from hook handed military goons to Gold and Silver, two former military mercenaries and sociopaths who dress in suits of the respected colours. It also however, taken even further with the pure aesthetic bliss of Space Adventure Cobra's depiction of outer space, emphasis a certain magic to be found in this type of anime, a creative streak in Dezaki's work that embraced the inherently flights of fantasy animation allows. This even goes as far as one of the more infamous aspects of The Professional in which, to depict a series of helicopters firing on Golgo 13 in a sequence, the production used what was state of the art computer animation at the time. Being early 1980s, this animation is so obsolete to current day work it's unfair to laugh at the green shapes floating pass representations of buildings. But, alongside my love for the weird energy of obsolete animation, it emphasised the desire to play and create within the film, beyond just telling a pulp tale to also using it as a way to stretch and manipulate animation for innovation. The opening credit sequence, also using computer animation but also live action with prop skeletons and a handgun, emphasises this creativity a lot better but also how The Professional is also tinged with the bizarre, the opening credits scene (once removed from releases) pretty unconventional and strange for what should be a conventional, lurid action anime.

And it's that which helps Golgo 13: The Professional stand up against charges of just being distasteful, dated anime from the ye old days. Compared to what would be made in the late eighties and early to mid nineties, it's actually less violence and sexually explicit. (Dezaki would sadly drop the ball in production quality with the admittedly humorous epic known as Sword for Truth (1990)). Compared to other anime the likes of Manga Entertainment also released from that later era like Violence Jack (1986-1990) or Mad Bull 34 (1990-2), the latter by all accounts directed by his brother Satoshi Dezaki, Osamu Dezaki's work is a cut above even if it's still tinged in an attitude you rarely get now, not just gross  or dumb as those later works are whether your opinion on them. The best way, actually, to think of The Professional is to compare it to the live action film Dirty Harry (1971), Don Siegel's best known film with Clint Eastwood which is un-PC in the modern day but, for a macho crime thriller, has a bit more complexity in its morals even if also black-and-white and nihilistic on the surface, both works a testament to exceptional production and technical value contributing a greater sense of class and nuance to the material. It's still saddled with a silly English dub, but considering the on-going popularity of the manga, I have to look at Golgo 13 here as being a lot more interesting than its offspring, the more bleaker and edgier work when others later (at least in anime) waded in misogyny, gore and sex without its inherently "off" and more rewarding idea, that its central pulp figure is a blank anti-hero to cheer on but one who stands by as the grim and filth is around him. One who isn't meant to be sympathetic, and is far less a problematic figure than others created in ultra-violent anime inspired by him, one they can still create so much material around as the world around him is shown as chaos he can simply overcome with the preciseness of a sniper's bullet. 


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Bonus #5: Uzumaki (2000)


Director: Higuchinsky
Screenplay: Kengo Kaji, Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo
Based on a manga by Junji Ito
Cast: Eriko Hatsune as Kirie Goshima; Fhi Fan as Shuichi Saito; Hinako Saeki as Kyoko Sekino; Eun-Kyung Shin as Chie Marayama; Keiko Takahashi as Yukie Saito; Ren Ôsugi as Toshio Saito

Synopsis: In the small town of Kurouzu, things are becoming weirder around Kirie Goshima (Eriko Hatsune). Her childhood friend and crush Shuichi Saito (Fhi Fan) is becoming isolated and morbid, his own father (Ren Ôsugi) becoming obsessed to a disturbing level by spirals. Shuichi himself believes the town itself it cursed by the spirals, something Kirie is quick to react to with bafflement until the first death, a student falling down a spiral staircase at school, acts as a catalyst to bizarre and horrifying things. Where Shuichi's father twists down into an awful path, bodily and even follicle mutation is taking place amongst the populist and the wind's moving in spiralling gusts ominously. 

Junji Ito is a legendary figure in horror manga1. His work is also one, whilst adapted to cinema a lot, that would also be difficult to get right. Practicality in adapting their cosmic and horrifying content, with their surreal panels of bodily and physical mutation, it's going to be nigh on impossible to do some of them accurately unless animated or if  you had the kind of budgets an adaptation of his work would never get. Tomie (1987-2000) has had a lot of films, nine in fact, and that's probably because barring an anti-heroine who regenerates even from death, and can split into duplicates if chopped up into pieces, it's as much a work about the pettiness and worst in human desire as it is the physical horror. Gyo (2001-2), about undead nautical creatures like fish on robotic legs invading the land, had to be adapted into animation in 2012 but that film, which drastically altered characterisation by following a female lead instead of a male one, also showed another potential issue with Ito that, whilst he has main characters, they are bystanders to their worlds and the horrors, undercutting a safety net for viewers to experience the horrors he depicts but also jarring against the desire for narratives film productions usually want for adaptations. Uzumaki (1998-9) would be the toughest of the entire lot, his most well known work and also one whose growing level of spectacle and weirdness could only be possible with a large budget, and is also affected by the fact that until the halfway mark it's a series of separate segments which just have to have the same protagonists involved.


And yet Higuchinsky, a Ukrainian born Japanese music video director, took the challenge as his debut feature no less. And while it's not to its level, I'm willing to comparing the result to how experimental filmmaker and commercials director Nobuhiko Obayashi threw every technique he knew at his debut House (1977) and concocted a one-off experience. Likewise Higuchinsky throws everything he can at Uzumaki just in the first ten minutes before anything sinister fully happens. Unconventional camera shots. An obsession with sickly green lighting. Characters speaking directly to the camera for conversations with other characters. Higuchinsky manages from then on, in spite of the issues the adaptation has eventually, to actually turn this adaptation into something entirely of his own. The one glaring issue which does undercut what feels like an entirely unique film is that Uzumaki abruptly ends. With its segments in chapters - using film celluloid textures for added effect to place this all in its own hazy, hallucinated dream - the last of them is just a series of still shots of the gruesome body horror that takes place later in the manga. The problem was clearly that, due to the large scale of the events that take place in the original manga, including the town itself completely changing in form let alone anyone in it, there was no possibility on this film's particular budget in depicting it even in CGI. Unless Higuchinsky and the screenwriters, in their one major flaw, actually took advantage of this issue or rewrote the ending, than Uzumaki would've been a much more successful creation. It does technically have an ending, but it's the one thing that jars badly. When I first saw the film years ago without reading the manga, I found it an issue, and now having fallen in love with said manga it's still a shame.


What Higuchinsky succeeds in, having also to truncate chapters out of the original or blend them into others, is an atmosphere completely different from the source. He has scenes play with a slower, growing sense of dread that turns Uzumaki less outright weird horror but a bizarre supernatural story which grows and grows into that strange body horror as it goes along. (Not to mention, especially with certain uses of CGI, managing to evoke the Black Hole Sun music video by Soundgarden of all things). It's here, with a drastically different pace, that you also see how genius the original source material is. Whilst so much of his work can seen absurd, including the elaborate facial expressions of horror the characters have, he takes weird ideas which however touch upon primal fears. The symbol of the spiral is not that absurd as a force of evil as the notion of a symbol, even words, illicit abomination emotional or physical reactions is found in horror and even myth. Symbols were used as signifiers for greater meanings and with a spiral there's so many unnerving connotations you can think with them. Usually viewed going into the centre rather than outwards, a vortex or a black hole that's synonymous with dizziness and disorientation that one is pulled into. Seeing spirals in everything - how tap water goes down the drain, food, snail shells, springs etc. - was just ripe material for Ito to work with, emphasising this fact with a hilarious (and fake) writer's commentary imagining himself as a deranged manga creator researching the true nature of the spiral as reference material for Uzumaki, playing the genesis as a little weird horror story like the others he's written in the past and emphasising how even the simplest of things like a mere symbol is potentially frightening.


This gives Higuchinsky a lot to work with in terms the material he does use - the spin of a pottery wheel, the way of a character obsessed with wanting Kirie to date him springs out to scare her like a Jack in the Box, the snails which some classmates start to mutate into - which he takes advantage of. He also has the advantage of what you can do differently in cinema compared to the page and various details you don't get in illustration, such as those who begin to become snails speaking slower as well as having wet, dripping slime dripping off them. Even when some sequences are just non sequiturs - like the entire chapter from the manga about a girl's hair becoming living curls reduced to an odd image - it all has a delirious effect of interest. The director has no qualms either, after the slow mood is breathed in for some scenes, in showing gore and gruesome effects like Ito does. He retains Ito's power of suddenly showing the freakish but done in entirely his own style. If it's sad that Uzumaki the film sadly needed more of an actual ending, that doesn't detract from the eccentric imagination that had been shown from before. The result of which is definitely memorable and is one of those rare feats, in spite of that major flaw, where a director manages to take a source material from a very idiosyncratic and unique creator, and produce an adaptation only they could've made. Something that has to be applauded even if Higuchinsky's career after has sadly never punctured the West as it should've done after this.


(1) Finally having his work easy to acquire in English as well in the 2010s has been a vital way of bringing more attention to Ito. Mainly the work of Viz Media but even smaller companies are releasing stuff like his biopic manga about raising cats with his wife, with material still planned to be released in  Christmas 2017. This availability and how eclectic its been beyond his major work builds up a reputation for him and shows how distinct he is as a creator in general.

Friday, 6 October 2017

#49. Ghost Hunt (2006)


Director: Rei Mano
Screenplay: Reiko Yoshida and Rika Nakase
Based on the light novel series by Fuyumi Ono
Voice Cast: Kaori Nazuka as Mai Taniyama; Yuuki Tai as Kazuya "Naru" Shibuya; Ken Narita as Koujo Lin; Kenji Hamada as Hōshō Takigawa; Kousuke Okano as Osamu Yasuhara; Masami Suzuki as Ayako Matsuzaki; Nobuhiko Okamoto as John Brown; Rie Kugimiya as Masako Hara
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: When she accidentally damages a specialist piece of technology used by a pair of paranormal investigators at her school, sixteen year old schoolgirl Mai is dragged in to help said investigators Kazuya "Naru" and his bodyguard Lin to repay the costs. Their group, first investigating her school, swells up to include an Australian Catholic priest named John Brown, a self professed Shinto shrine priestess Ayako Matsuzaki, a Buddhist monk Hōshō Takigawa and a popular TV medium around Mai's aged named Masako Hara. Mai will eventually become a full fledged member, with latent talents she didn't know she had, as this team stays in this new form to investigate sinister supernatural cases over multiple narrative storylines.

Ghost Hunt was pure catnip. In spite of being pretty conventional in plotting and tone, I confess it's impossible for me to give an un-bias review of this twenty six episode show because I was completely entertained by it. A show which surprising manages to both be fluffy, fun paranormal horror yet delves into surprisingly grisly material the further it goes along. The creation of Fuyumi Ono1, which had a manga adaptation by Shiho Inada which influenced the animated adaptation, it gladly embraces stereotypes of anime and stock tropes, managing with them to stay breezy and intriguing as it goes along. Structured with one template - the team investigate a place, are violently threatened or injured or possessed, and eventually uncover the mystery - a lot of the series is about its characters' personalities and how they both gel together emotionally and reoccurring jokes about them teasing each other. With a lead heroine in Mai whose the traditional high spirited schoolgirl but is easy to irritate, everyone in the paranormal group follows a stereotype. John the affable priest. Ayako the proud, confident woman who, despite being apparently in her early twenties, has jokes about her being "old". Hōshō, the cool and trendy Buddhist priest who you discover has left his sect in favour of joining the ordinary world. Masako the quiet, modest girl who always wear a kimono, and of course Naru, the mysterious and very young head of the organisation whose salty, almost emo personality makes him more attractive. It could've been tedious to sit through these stereotypes from other anime you've seen, but the combination works.


The first reason is actually part of Ghost Hunt's most distinct and interesting personal touches, that in this world these drastically different theological and belief groups can co-operate fully. Christianity, Shintoism, Chinese mysticism in Lin, paranormal science - all of which works together without any conflict and complete cooperation between the members. It's a nice, positive message that never gets brought up explicitly, and poses a really significant issue with the supernatural in this world as it means that a Catholic or a Buddhist exorcism both work as well and depends on what's appropriate to the specific incident, suggesting some complex theological issues where all belief systems exist at the same time. Instead it's about the characters themselves who get along but have various pieces of their background drip fed to the viewer alongside certain emotional issues, such as both Mai and Masako being both infatuated with Naru and about more blunt to each other about this. That this works, without becoming generic, is the second factor in the series' favour.


The tone is so affable at times its amazing especially with how the series piles on the darkness more and more as the narrative arches, usually three or four episodes, build up. For all the humour its tackling pretty gristly subject matter from the first few episodes on, with only one story openly light and humorous entirely, a one episode tale where a ghost is splashing couples with water in a park out of spite. Even the Christmas story, two episodes long and immediately after, is bleak and involves an orphanage. But it's still within the tone of just being sinister with just some threat. Of cursed schools and possessed dolls.  Then it continues to escalate with the potential of a school's worth of students being sacrificed to ward off a monstrously large hex over an entire academy. But that doesn't top when it gets to The Bloodstained Labyrinth and The Cursed House stories, the last of the series, where things get even more darker for what would be pulp horror for teenagers. Where there's blood sacrifices and characters introduced for those stories will be picked off and killed. It's actually for the series' virtue that, even when it still has the humour and sense of excitement that's from the beginning, that it just pushes up the intensity of the material instead for a sense of escalation. The only real issue for Ghost Hunt is that, whilst it has an ending, it could've easily gone on. Whether it would've succeeded is to debate, especially if it tried to bring in actual dramatic stakes for the central characters, but this is again another series where one is left for more.


All the episodes are conventional television anime. Pretty okay, not as elegant in character design as the manga, but it's a series that lives up to being pure pulp. Ghost Hunt really likes to use the "To Be Continued" screen to wrench tension a lot, ending episodes with characters in peril so much for a cheap but effective shock. It's not the pinnacle of horror but I like Ghost Hunt nonetheless. It's visibly fascinated in the subject in all the religious and spiritual topics it takes tangents to explain in detail. How, whilst the heroes are pulp invisible, their stories start from creepy haunted house stories to mass murder and a whole family, one by one, being possessed with homicidal tendencies whilst never ditching the humour even in the bleakest of points. Right from an opening credit track that evokes a Theremin noise amongst its ethereal orchestral music, Ghost Hunt is openly popcorn anime with blood instead of butter on top of it I happened to enjoy.


(1) Fuyumi Ono by herself is a prolific fantasy and horror writer, also known for another adapted to anime called The Twelve Kingdoms (1992-present). Her husband Yukito Ayatsuji is one of the founders of Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan, and whose most well known novel in English would be Another (2009), a horror tale that was adapted both into  live action and a 2012 anime adaptation [covered HERE as Entry #9]. Thus making a married couple who would be fascinating to get together to talk about their work collectively.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

#48: Mononoke (2007)

Director: Kenji Nakamura
Screenplay: Chiaki J. Konaka; Ikuko Takahashi; Manabu Ishikawa; Michiko Yokote
Voice Cast: Takahiro Sakurai as the Medicine Seller, and various others
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: A series of different stories, mostly set in Edo period Japan ], following a mysterious, nameless Medicine Seller. Found wherever there is a mononoke - when a supernatural spirit (a ayakashi) is corrupted by the worst of humanity and starts to interact with the human world in violent ways - he can only be able to exorcise them with his magical sword when he finds out their shape (form), truth (truth) and reasoning (reason in the English subtitles).

A series I had always wanted to see, Mononoke was actually a spin-off from a 2006 horror anthology series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. Both came from the Noitamina bloc, a syndicated time space on Fuji Television which has started to broadcast more mainstream anime, or to be more technically honest anime that will appeal to stereotypical otaku more, but has always been a place syinominous with experimental animated programming and shows which strayed away from the stereotypes of modern anime. It is where Eden of the East (2009) came from or, for the perfect example, Masaaki Yuasa's The Tatami Galaxy (2010) which shows how these shows, original tales or adaptations, are idiosyncratic both in look and the storytelling they have. Ayakashi was a series of three stories told over multiple episodes. Two were adaptations, of folklore and a play, whilst the third was an original story by Mononoke director Kenji Nakamura with a co-writer for the spin-off series Michiko Yokote, the original tale introducing the world that first introduced the world to the Medicine Seller, a figure in his own series the exact definition of what Wikipedia calls an "Occult Detective" story, a sub genre where figures exist to investigate supernatural and paranormal mysteries.  


The Occult Detective genre is more common than I once thought - John Constantine of DC Comics one of the most well known characters from the sub-genre, but it's a trope that especially thrives in anime and manga if you step back and see how much it's been used. Just in anime, there are works that I've seen (The Garden of Sinners (2007-2013)), to those I've yet to see (Nightwalker: The Midnight Detective (1998)). Even anime with different genre tropes brush up with this subgenre - like Chrono Crusade (2003-4) and the original 2001-2 version of Hellsing - because their set ups follow organisations that deal with strange cases even if they're more likely to use firearms than detective skills to deal the mysterious involved. All of them usually have enigmatic figures, male or female, in the centre for which everything paranormal circles around them, be they on their own and with a team behind them. It's a great trope to use as, if the character has a drama, it can be built upon from episodic tales beforehand until they fully take centre stage. If they are like in Mononoke, with the Medicine Seller an aloof and even sarcastic figure between the mortal and supernatural world, then the characters and tales that they encounter if done well are engaging by themselves but with a constant onlooker between them that can drive the narratives to their ends.

The series, from the first (two episode) tale Zashiki-warashi, immediately stands out as a beautiful production. The tale's pretty obvious in which a pregnant young woman on the run stays in a brothel with a sinister past, but the way Mononoke presents it is entirely unique. It's an exceptional looking show which appears to have been made with cut outs or even with paper used as animation cels, making the fact (as behind the scenes footage on its US DVD shows) that it's a computer animated production which layered this two dimensional look on top of computer drawn sketch lines a perfect marriage between the two styles. It argues, if used as a lecture tool, the balance between the old hand drawn era and the new digitised era perfectly, having aged without fault from 2007, and that some of the best anime of the 2000s onward made a conscious decision to marry the two sides or embrace the expressionistic. The use of colour as well is also significant in how bright and vivid a show with such morbid subject matter is, something that was lost in Western appropriation of Japanese "J-Horror" a decade back. Even with stories which had intentionally dank, dark  looks, the visual and colour palette significant with a lot of these stories in terms of aesthetic detail when with the absence of colour, used to signify details carefully.


The stories tread on well worn tropes but the unconventional look through the stories, alongside the time given to them over two to three episodes, gives them new personality here. The tone for Mononoke as a result, even with realistic character designs that are rarely distorted, is openly symbolic and surreal both for style and to tackle exceptionally grim subject matter, where the titular beings known as Zashiki-warashi in the first story are connected to unborn children, symbolic imagery blatant in meaning like red ribbon but allowing material that would be gristly to actually depict to be show in a heightened, meaningful manner. Sometimes it's useful for the limitations of a TV anime production whilst presenting an utterly artistic flair, such as the final arc of the series replacing moving crowds of bystanders with mannequins in costume.

A story like Umibōzu, in which there are a group of people on a boat in the midst of a haunted area of the sea, shows how all the stories are effectively chamber pieces, supernatural detective stories where the Medicine Seller is the judge of mortal sins as he has to figure out the cause of the mononoke to cleanse them away, the auditor who usually extracts the truth from all the characters with him in each particular story. Rather than laborious plot twists, its closure to peeling away the layers of an onion and using the stories to depict human fallacies, Umibōzu particularly poignant for this as its about guilt, the masks people in any stature wear and how cleansing it actually transforms a person for the better. This could also alienate the viewers in place expecting actual monsters, the next story Noppera-bō about a woman who might've murdered her husband and his family becoming an existential drama all within her own head, but constantly in these tales they are using conventional plot structure to tackle human drama through these folk creatures. That most folklore is naturally based on human behaviour and the acts we commit, than it feels more sincere to depict them as such than the (usual) Western model of such creatures being mere monsters outside our species.


Also as a result of this, openly existential and psychological tales using the wild and wonderful yōkai of Japanese folklore, the series openly embraces the strange even if it's by means of rewriting said creatures of Japanese culture for new meanings for the stories too. One thing that can never be denied is that the penchant for the strange in Japanese storytelling is embraced and is not just a "cute" thing for non-Japanese outsiders to be patronising about, but idiosyncratic creativity where the combination of the country's rich folk heritage and idiosyncratic creativity gives carte blanche for undead fish musicians and faceless mask wearing entities to wandering in story arch without needing to explain their existences to the viewers. One of my favourite stories, Nue, is openly weirder than the others, a literal chamber piece involving two dead bodies, four people including the Medicine Seller and a mystery to solve...only that its surrounded by an incense smelling competition between three of the individuals where, for one game, the answers have to be named after chapters of Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji (1021). Alongside writing the arc Umibōzu, naturally the oddest arc of the series, which includes visual clues that on future watches will immediately show the story showing its hand early, comes from one of my favourite anime screenwriters Chiaki J. Konaka who has made a career of this type of distinct writing. Both loved and notorious for his existential and abstract plotting, his goes from fan favourite Serial Experiments Lain (1998) to frustrating viewers of the second season of The Big 0 (1999-2003), a legitimate candidate for an auteur screenwriter in anime who just happens to be in a production like Mononoke where the scripts by all the screenwriters involved are all strong too.


The only issue with Mononoke is that it could've been longer. A risky proposition as the future stories might've dropped in quality, but like the best of anime series, unless they have full conclusions with finite endings, they always leave you wanting more. Mononoke offers a tantalising conclusion by jumping forward abruptly in time to the 1920s, the story Bakeneko about a group of people trapped on an underground train who may have all been responsible for a death of a young female journalist. I actually find it to be the best of all the story arcs in the series for how far more bold in style it is even against the others, with moments of legitimately gruesome horror by way of expressionistic imagery and the nihilistic tone it has for three quarters of its length. It's a great way to have ended the series but with the obvious connotations, with the Medicine Seller ageless on the train, it does leave one gasping for more episodes that will never be about the character existing in modern day Japan, standing out in his appearance but still have a cool, humorous air to him dealing with mononoke still.


Wednesday, 20 September 2017

#48: Kekko Kamen (1991-2)


Directors: Kinji Yoshimoto, Koji Morimoto, Nobuhiro Kondo and Shunichi Tokunaga
Screenplay: Masashi Sogo
Based on a manga by Go Nagai
Voice Cast: Emi Shinohara as Kekko Kamen; Arisa Andou as Takahashi Mayumi; Jouji Yanami as Principal Toenail of Satan; Kazue Komiya as Gestapoko; Kikuko Inoue as Yuka Chigusa; Kiyoyuki Yanada as Mizutamari Tsuyokarou; Mika Kanai as Tanaka Hanako; Mitsuaki Hoshino as Teacher Ben Kyoshi; Tesshō Genda as Shuwarutsu Negataro
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: At the Sparta Academy, a strict system of punishment is carried out by the head master, a masked jester known as Principal Toenail of Satan. Openly uninterested in any of the male students succeeding in life, and openly a pervert alongside his sidekick and teacher Ben, he employees bizarre punishment teachers to sexually humiliate female students who fall behind in their studies, especially drop out Mayumi Takahashi who takes the constant brunt of the staff's interest. Unfortunately for the evil school staff, or fortunately for them, there's always a mysterious female figure there to protect Mayumi. A figure named Kekko Kamen who wears a mask, a scarf, boots...and completely nothing else.

As the synopsis describes, and images of either the anime, the manga or the live action films show, this is one of those franchises which could be embarrassing to talk about. Not necessarily the salacious sexual content either but its blunt, crass surface appearance and how eyebrow raising it sounds in said synopsis. And yet one should never automatically fall into the trap of "weird Japan", that phrase in various forms which dismisses this as something normal from the country. It never factors in what pop culture bizarre to Western eyes is actually mainstream in the country. It never factors in whether certain, controversial examples are actually made for a very niche, small minority, even the most offensive. That the internet has become an echo chamber that amplifies the existence of centre works that are, and will remain, obscure in regular Japanese pop culture. It also doesn't factor in how Kekko Kamen was actually a joke Go Nagai created to send to his manga editor at the time. A parody of Gekkō Kamen, a legendary superhero figure and one of the first of Japanese superhero characters, it was meant to only get a reaction out of said editor only for that person to actually want to publish it as a continuing series. Nagai is not one to have shied away from the perverse in his time. Between becoming a legendary figure in manga and anime, including his significance in giant robot stories, his first successful manga, Shameless School (1968-1972), was a sex comedy which made him a pariah of moral standards groups. However the fact that Kekko Kamen, this joke he created, managed to last for five volumes, had a 1991-2 anime for the video market, and eleven live action films, is probably something he's still baffled about to this day.


Brutally, the anime of Kekko Kamen is a chore to sit through. It never drags strangely. Four episodes, twenty or so minutes long, it passes by under two hours quickly without the pain of time being lost. Instead it's really the fatal combination of how icky the premise is and how utterly lame it all is. Even the masochist in me who likes weird, crudely made anime from this era was numbed by it. Even the masochist in me who can find virtues in works with issues in gender depictions and are in poor taste cannot find a lot to defend in this anime between the crassness on display. All four episodes follow the same template exactly. A new punishment teacher is introduced, they always torment the main female character Mayumi, and Kekko Kamen eventually steps in to save the day, usually with her nunchakus and with a finishing attack that cannot be described any more politely as nude spread legged suffocation. Even with the Barbie Doll nudity, it's a fetish anime full of ripped underwear and fan service that's off putting because it's all at the expense of the female characters. It's not kinky, where kink or a fetish really denotes participation from all the individuals male and female involved. It's not like fanservice in other anime where there's a cheek, a sense of humour, and male characters being smacked in the face and being called perverts. Its harassment and its distasteful here. Even BDSM has this sense that everyone is participating in acting out a scenario they've all worked on with the desire to enjoy it equally, even if on the surface images of it might shock outside onlookers. Here its uncomfortable, like adolescent boys who've really gotten to a weird viewpoint on the opposite gender.


It's worse because Kekko Kamen's meant to be a comedy but dies on its arse immediately. Even if you are less uncomfortable with the sexual content than I am, the comedy will mortally wound even a viewer tolerant of bad anime. It's meant to be distasteful on purpose when the first punishment teacher is Miss Gestapoko, BDSM queen from (sic) Auschwitz Academy and ranked by fully uniformed Nazis, as offensive as you can get but (actually) dumb to witness, never followed with anything similar and quietly buried afterwards. (The other punishment teachers stay with a gay bodybuilder whose muscles are the heroine's kryptonite, a female android and a stereotypical ronin samurai). The rest of the humour is meant to be light-hearted, contradicting most of its content, and very meta. Where the villains complain about Kamen not appearing with her main super heroine theme playing in the background. The humour's more painful rather than if the show took itself seriously, the only consistency funny joke the end credit songs, usually penned by Go Nagai himself, sung in earnestness by female singers and deserving a better sex comedy anime.


Production wise, it's a cheap show. As much as I reveal in this type of crackerjack, cheap OVAs from this period, with Kekko Kamen the only thing of considerable interest is composer Keiju Ishikawa's score, of its time and low budgeted but still more interesting and diverse than what's onscreen1. After that it's the various little details, the rare moments where the humour work, which made the viewing experience worth it. That the Toenail of Satan has nightmares of Kamen entering his bedroom while he's sleeping to give him permanent testicular pain, or how Mayumi's friend Chigusa Yuka can break the fourth wall, aware of the viewer and able to talk to the screen away from the rest of the cast. The rest of the four episodes are full of numerous resolved questions and illogical decisions. That barring her appearance Kamen's a vacuum and utterly useless as a heroine, only there to protect Mayumi and none of the other female students in the school who are also molested by the staff. That the Toenail of Satan and his lackey Ben come up with an un-villainous and only partially perverse method to improve grades - create a charismatic and beautiful female student who'll coach fellow students - and realise that barring Mayumi the quality of the students' test scores increase far more than if they continued with their physical punishment. That hiring a gay bodybuilder un-phased by a super heroine who uses her sexuality, whilst inspired for the villains, gets whittled down into a sexist idea of Kamen being completely paralysed by his physic and that it takes an entire episode for her to realise she can close her eyes to fight him.

Coming from someone who believes that almost any idea, no matter how bad or tasteless it is, can work if the tone or point of the premise is exactly right, Kekko Kamen is completely misguided in presentation and point. It should be, even if an embarrassing anime to show others, a light hearted comedy. Without the Nazis. Without the uncomfortable harassment fetish. Without the awful jokes. Something which, even if the idea of a super heroine who parades herself completely naked barring a mask and accessories is still juvenile, was fluffy and silly, sex comedy with a farcical edge to it. Everything that this anime never was. Considering its origins as a gag, the chance of sustaining it was virtually slim from the beginning and the anime proves it.

1) Not the last Go Nagai anime he's composed for either. Inexplicably I've seen Iron Virgin Jun (1992), which no one talks about and is just as tasteless in places.