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.

Friday, 21 July 2017

#47: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)


Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Screenplay: Eiichi Yamamoto and Yoshiyuki Fukuda
Based on the non -fiction book Satanism and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet
Voice Cast: Aiko Nagayama as Jeanne; Katsutaka Ito as Jean; Tatsuya Nakadai as The Devil; Masaya Takahashi as Milord; Shigaku Shimegi as Milady; Chinatsu Nakayama as Narrator; Masakane Yonekura as Catholic Priest
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: Set in Medieval France, a farmer's wife by the name of Jeanne is lead towards Satan, spurn to him when originally raped by the Lord of her village and furthered to  the Dark One when trying to survive within the context of a poverty stricken environment under said Lord's thumb. Further incidents - the growing suspicions against her attempts at a better life with her husband John, the pressure of war and the need to fund it taking its toll on the village, the jealousy of the Lord's wife when Jeanne does command power - eventually lead Jeanne to fully embracing the Devil, becoming a fully formed, nymph-like witch of great power.

Belladonna of Sadness is unique. Ditto, an obvious assessment dumb to repeat but it's worth mentioning because of how idiosyncratic it is next to what anime is today. Subtle influence does exist - Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of Yurikama Arashi (2015) (reviewed as #41 on this blog) and Revolutionary Utena (1997) is a known admirer deeply influenced by the feature - but like experimental animation from Japan from the same period its utterly alien next to what anime stereotypically means in the West. It feels like a project that threw caution to the wind and was, the last film created by Mushi Productions before its death. Founded by manga god Osamu Tezuka, his studio would innovate in terms of animation, but before 1973 he'd already left the sinking ship to start creating some of his darkest, adult manga like Ode to Kirihito (1970-71) in response to the more adult manga others were creating, the likes of director/co-writer Eiichi Yamamoto back at Mushi deciding, rather than play it safe, to finish off what was a trilogy of erotic animated films with an openly experimental and politically minded work. It's even alien to what the trilogy originally started as, attestable having seen Cleopatra (1970), a frankly bizarre take on the Egyptian figure full of surreal tangents and flourishes that I love but understand led to it being a box office bomb, the kind that helped led to Mushi Productions sinking financially in the first place. With that in mind, it emphasises how radically different Belladonna still is within anime when its different next to already unconventional productions from Mushi.


The result with Belladonna is a period set erotic drama which sensualises witchcraft and occultism but inherently from its source text is about a figure kicking back at the world that pushes her down. Plenty of softcore, live action films from Europe from this period did the same to varying qualities, but whilst it has the gender politics of its time on the surface, Belladonna of Sadness is still exceptional when considering the period it originates from. Japanese cinema by this period and before reflects a vast conflict in terms of gender depictions, flip-flopping between films about women and their place in the world, from Kenji Mizoguchi to this, to the more problematic erotic and dramatic exploitation films. Even if trigger warnings may be appropriate to bring in when discussing Belladonna, its pertinent that for every individual who views it as being dated there's yet as many male and female to praise Belladonna regardless of it being a seventies film made by men with very explicit sexual content. A lot of the issue is a modern conundrum where inherently the idea of sexuality is immediately bias towards objectifying of women, that nudity and sexuality equals a male gaze, when pro-sexuality feminism and female writers, commentators and academics are pushing back on this bias and emphasising the greater complexity with this view in terms of films like it and how women, as viewers and/or fans of these movies, digest them. Whilst there are plenty of moments in Belladonna which are extreme and purposely transgress, it's a significantly more complicated narrative which, between the sensuality, eventually leads to a figure becoming a dominant, powerful female figure, muddying a response one can have to its attitude.

Jeanne, as merely a drawing of womanly perfection given life by art director Kuni Fukai's obsessive detailed and Western influenced illustration, and voice actress Aiko Nagayama's emotional tenors, is a sexual figure, found in many states of undress but feeling far less a figure of objectification than a figure of purity slowing gaining individuality in a patriarchal and utterly unfair world. Even if it's by means of an openly phallic Devil who starts as a little phallus than turns into a giant mushroom shaft - voiced by one of the greatest actors of all Japanese cinema Tatsuya Nakadai for added startlement - its only because of the evil of the world around her and hierarchal power that Jeanne becomes a witch, not openly embracing her sensuality but becoming a literal forest entity who transformation, much to her initial surprise, isn't the vindictive croon she wished to become but the figure of beauty and love. Paradoxically her hatred is channelled into helping the villagers when the Black Death arrives, the cost for them merely to join her in the bliss of countryside Satanic orgies where everyone is happy and is transmogrified into enough blatant imagery to give Sigmund Freud an aneurism. In fact, for a slight spoiler, the only reason her tale is a downfall is because Jeanne refuses to play ball with the hierarchy and stubbornly refuses to bend to them.


All of this is not something that can just be dismissed as merely erotic animated porn. Its openly sexual and willingly perverse, able to slide into utterly weird sequences of literal beast-human sexual organisms and conga-line coils of human sex trains that are strong images even in the current decade, but like the best of erotica (or porn, mincing terms) it's also utterly gorgeous and sticks a middle figure up to a lacksidasical ideal of this type of material being merely base or without meaning. It's too gorgeous, now restored when thought to be a mere obscurity, the weird uncle in erotic anime's closet, to view as anything but art; having known Belladonna when it was an obscurity covered on a podcast like Anime World Order as a mere fascinating dead-end in anime's history, only viewable on YouTube, seeing its resurrection by Cinelicious is utterly awe-inspiring because the artistry is so pronounced and successful. The story, while rich in meaning, is told (in the best decision) through its simple fairytale-like narrative that leads to tragedy, the focus instead in how to show its story onscreen.

Belladonna was a low budget production when Mushi Productions was on its last legs but used this context as its aesthetic template. The elegance of Fukai's work alongside the animators is helped by the fact most of Belladonna is actually still images, scrolls of illustration where time passes within the same canvas, bleeding through each other as the camera usually pans left or right along like a comic strip. When elaborate movement is done, legendary animator and director Gisaburō Sugii as the animation director for the production it's for the most subtle of facial or body language, or for the most extravagant and/or extreme moments. The willingness to push the form of the film goes as far as even breaking the historical context, suddenly breaking out a mad collage of modern sixties/seventies symbolism like cars and flairs suggesting Jeanne's full transformation into a witch allows one to see the enlightened pop art future centuries later. Keeping all of this sewn together is Masahiko Satoh's music, an academically trained jazz musician and musician who like many of his field willingly experimented into other genres, his here full scale acid rock that, far from feeling out of place as an anachronism, actually fits like many period genre films who flirted with this type of music because of its openly occult, hallucinogenic qualities appropriate for tales of classical mysticism and emotional melodrama you can synch up to wailing cosmic guitar solos.


Altogether Belladonna of Sadness is an incredible film, one that I am grateful to see properly available and in restored form. Now what was for me a mysterious, vague film in the annuals of anime - like Angel's Egg (1985), a more well known but still difficult to access experimental anime from Mamoru Oshii, another person openly inspired by Belladonna of Sadness - is now available for more to see and had the kind of retrospective premieres and screenings one would find for legendary art house films. Having only known it as a weird cult oddity before, its lush artistry grows in 4k form as does its theme, a greater power in its finale where it suggests many women will become like Jeanne in the end, climaxing in a finale still image originally from a later cut of the film Cinelicious kept in, realising that as a finale, touching upon a legendary piece of French artistry, there was a sincere coda, a meaning, to the production that does strike the heartstrings. It may have taken decades to get to that point, barring its Berlin Film Festival premiere and its box office failure nailing the coffin for Mushi Productions, a least a DVD release in Japan and maybe Germany beforehand, but the wait was entirely worth it. 


Friday, 14 July 2017

#46. Crying Freeman (1988-1994)

Directors: Daisuke Nishio and Shigeyasu Yamauchi
Screenplay: Higashi Shimizu and Ryunosuke Ono
Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami
Voice Cast: Chiharu Kataishi (as Emu Hino); Toshio Furukawa (as Yo Hinomura/Crying Freeman); Dump Matsumoto (as Báiyá Shàn); Gara Takashima (as Nina Heaven); Kōhei Miyauchi (as Bǎiba Lóng); Masako Katsuki (as Kimie Hanada); Yoshiko Sakakibara (as Bagnag)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: Artist Emu Hino crosses paths with an assassin codenamed Crying Freeman by accident during one of his killings. Real name Yo Hinomura, Freeman is a former potter turned brainwashed member of a secret Chinese society of paid assassins, Hino rightly concerned that her is soon to end before her thirtieth birthday because of her interaction with him. However due to the love that blossoms between them on the night of her supposed death, Freeman not only spares her but begins a rollercoaster that includes leading the assassins' guild together and having to face every underworld criminal, lust crazed leader of mercenaries, ancient bear cults, fellow assassin guilds and wrestlers that wants to take their territory.

For a disclaimer, the only actual Kazuo Koike manga I've read is Color of Rage (2008), one of his obscurer titles. Koike however has had a LOT of his work adapted to anime and live action cinema to the point that in terms of context in adaptations, a significant picture of his style is found within them all, one of the most successful manga creators of his kind whose influence spans arguably beyond manga and anime as well, more surprising knowing he only writes his stories, leaving the illustrations to a variety of different collaborators over the decades. His storytelling has visibly influenced pop culture, from Frank Miller being influence by the Lone Wolf and Cub (1970-76) manga for his comics to Quentin Tarantino being influenced by the live action adaptation of Lady Snowblood (1972-3). That's not even taking account that his Gekiga Sonjuku program, which taught manga writers/artists like Fist of the North Star creator Tetsuo Hara, Vampire Hunter D writer Hideyuki Kikuchi and the legendary Rumiko Takahashi, which is nothing to laugh about in terms of the effect he brought to the medium.

The issue with Koike as a storytelling though, to found with this adaptation with Crying Freeman by Toei Animation, alongside other examples like the 1990-2 anime adaptation of Mad Bull 34, is that he is arguably an originator of a very extreme style of gekiga manga; gekiga, a more serious or explicit form of storytelling for adults in theme and content, in his hands leads to a form, from the issues of challenging deadlines and having to constantly make sure readers stay with a series, which pushes the limit of logic and good taste to a delirious level. In fact it actually pushes both off a cliff, which makes even the adaptations of his work a challenge for viewers who may be put off by the extreme content within something like Crying Freeman, or a challenge in how it can become utterly nonsensical if an attempt to rationalise it all is tried. This will be impossible to ignore with this adaptation of Crying Freeman over its six episodes, as much an OVA series which you have to overcome the problematic gender representations, nonsensical plot points and tasteless decisions as you can appreciate its mad illogic even if some of the stranger moments from the manga were likely removed.


Really the biggest issue in terms of good taste, where Crying Freeman does feel of its time, is in its portrayal of women, the one real issue I have with the series even in terms of an erotic crime narrative. It's because it leads to what is a frankly bland lead being the kind of figure whose only personality is how perfect he is and how any woman - daughter of a Triad leader, leader of an African assassination guild, even enemies - can fall in love with him and become part of what is affectively a harem in spite of only saying he loves main female character Hino. There's so much sex and nudity over six episodes that its actually possible for a viewer to feel numb if marathoned in how absurd it gets, female character designs objectified to the point either you find it distasteful or just absurd to an unintentional extent. Only the sexual violence the sets up the plot of episode 4, even if its slight in depiction, feels like the show steps too far, something that the episode is stuck with as its from the original source material. The rest, if disconnected from that one scene, feels like a mere bugbear or a farce in how hard it's trying to be; if you can get past the initial reaction to the gender politics, it does become comical, especially as there's no discrimination - between men and women of any age and size including a female character named Báiyá Shàn who is a enormously tall and large woman - suddenly taking their clothes off for sex, to fight or no rational reason in terms of plot in the slightest. In the same way, some of the more ridiculous moments are also too absurd to be offended by even when they're un-PC, the concept of full body blackface for one of the more bizarre examples coming off as less offensive but being so unexpected and something you'd thought to never see in an anime its silly as long as you bear in mind why it would be deemed in poor taste for other potential viewers, and that at the same time the same character than poses as a female golfer, the world of Koike more the result of being scatterbrained than deliberately provocative.

Crying Freeman is a cautious tightrope being stoic, serious action and being as dumb as a plank, and if there's a virtue in spite of its many flaws, it's that the OVA is at least unpredictable. The first episode, which was adapted into the entirety of Christophe Gans' 1995 live action film of the manga, is pretty conventional but from episode 2 on it starts waddling off in into the great absurd quickly, even in the first two sequel episodes being two short stories clipped together into one hour long one for added strangeness. Whilst the main character is the bland perfect hero, the real interest is all the strange plot machinations and characters around him, where the best form of revenge by a female lover of one of Freeman's targets is to dress in a skimpy, entirely metal corset that she can electrify people with upon contact. Where to take revenge on a wrestler who harms one of the women in his life, Freeman actually gets inside a wrestling ring in front of a crowd wearing a luchador mask, or that there's a female leader of a mercenary group called Nina Heaven who captures Freeman as her sex slave to dry hump when he refuses to cooperate with her obsession with him. Whilst Koike's more divisive work more feel too grimy and tasteless to approach, even in terms of the adaptations, there's as much this sense of utter randomness which negates the more tasteless material; it still needs to be brought to mind when experienced, but Crying Freeman the OVA as it goes along is so lost in its own train of logic, you give up the moral high ground or high ground of "quality" and attempt to survive at the end.


It's actually not the strangest material Koike would produce just from the adaptations - the live action Hanzo the Razor films are as extremely poor taste in premise as you can get, even more problematic in gender politics, yet strangely compelling especially as they're still high quality, artistically minded Japanese pulp cinema, whilst Mad Bull 34 has everything from the lead police anti-hero smuggling grenades in his trousers tied to his pubic hair and a Predator-like serial killer in the finale episode roaming New York City. (Even one of the more serious and critically acclaimed adaptations, the Lone Wolf and Cub films, get stranger in later sequels, not in terms of poor taste but plotlines which meander with odd tangents and ideas to how events weave together, soldiers suddenly springing from the snow like anime henchmen or the maddening tangent in one such sequel where the protagonists can only get the entirety of a piece of information from multiple messengers). Where one finds entertainment in Crying Freeman is knowing full well how absurd it is, even offensive, but viewing it with as absurd, its hyper masculinity impossible to take seriously and instead the heightened events within its gritty world standing out as more as pure fantasy, where Freeman naturally has his own submarine early in the series and that's considerably normal next to everything else that happens.

Also ironically, whilst there are action anime with less nonsensical qualities, Crying Freeman does have one legitimate virtue in its style in spite of its low budget; when an anime like Black Lagoon (2006) (reviewed on this blog as number #45) should be superior to this in every way, it yet suffers from feeling homogenised in style and tone whilst this scuzzy, scrappy OVA does have it in buckets even if it's gone off and tastes a little rancid. Baring a transition in look that helps the later episodes, an increase of shading and black in details, Crying Freeman for all its moments of roughness and inexplicable creative decisions nonetheless possesses the aesthetic tone that I find myself attracted to, one shared in late eighties and nineties anime even when scraping the bottom of the barrel. A lot of it is to do with how drastic the changes between hand drawn and computer assisted anime are in appearance, but it's as much how even cost cutting techniques like narration over still images are still a technical design choice even if for cost cutting measures. As much of this is the material too, both the dank underworld environments of metropolises and criminal hideouts, but also in terms of the realistic character designs right down to the elaborate tattoos - dragons, tigers, phoenixes - that many characters have on their bodies. In many ways, whilst it could've been a lot better written and less pointlessly tasteless, even some of the tackier aspects of Crying Freeman in their perverse, janky flair could add a lot to modern anime if honed and done as a purposely aesthetic choice. If something like Black Lagoon, which just missed out greatness for a lack of excitement at the end and feeling too clean in presentation, could marry Crying Freeman's style with aspects far better done in its modern equivalents, then everyone would win.


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

#45: Black Lagoon [Season One and The Second Barrage] (2006)


Dir. Sunao Katabuchi
Screenplay: Sunao Katabuchi
Based on the manga by Rei Hiroe
Voice Cast: Daisuke Namikawa (as Rock); Megumi Toyoguchi (as Revy); Hiroaki Hirata (as Benny); Mami Koyama (as Balalaika); Tsutomu Isobe (as Dutch); Jun Karasawa (as Sister Eda)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: When his company's boat is hijacked by a mercenary group named the Black Lagoon Company, salary man Rokuro Okajima becomes "Rock" when, after being kidnapped by them and having his ties to the company severed by upper management, he decides to join the Black Lagoon in a form of forced upon Stockholm Syndrome, joining leader Dutch, computer expert Benny, and gunwoman/living weapon Revy with nowhere else to go. Living on an island known as Roanapur, where all manner of mercenaries and criminals house themselves, they interact between the Russian mafia outfit Hotel Moscow, psychopaths, triad and yakuza, neo Nazis, and a maid with the combat ability of a Terminator in their various paid jobs.

For the first twelve episodes, what is technically called season one, Black Lagoon takes a successful stab at the American action genre in animated form, reinterpreting its tropes in a way that someone who isn't a fan of the genre like myself can still appreciate. Animation naturally has an advantage in terms of unlimited possibilities in terms of the stories and depending on the budget, their kineticism, alongside this TV series having the time to stretch out characterisation, one of the biggest disadvantages action cinema have. In terms of style, it attempts to have a more grounded realism next to the action fantasies of other anime, absurd to consider when one of the first major action scenes of the entire series is a boat being driven up a sea wreck as a ramp to fire a torpedo at a helicopter, but more prevalent in everything else. There's still the exaggerated characters in design and manner - stoned out getaway drivers, Gothic Lolita female Leatherface - and the visible John Woo influence so  blatant there's a Chow Yun-fat figure amongst the cast, but there's more moral greyness and real world politics on display that stands out greatly.

In terms of plot, the first twelve episodes, episodic narratives stretched over two to three actual episodes each, do much to establish the series both as a pulp action show but also in establishing a world full of anti-heroes, Roanapur a place entirely morally grey and off-radar whilst Black Lagoon themselves are willing cooperate with murderers, mafia and corrupt officials on either side of a conflict just for pay. Rock plays the stereotypical innocent outsider whose moral high ground clashes with Revy, the completely opposite whose give-less-of-a-fuck attitude clashes against his immediately, eventually becoming the trope of anime of the more brazen female character jarring against the more quiet or cautious male and building up a relationship as a result. The show manages to go further than even so American action films in touching on grim subject matter (Nazism, child slavery) which allows these moral conflicts to be brought out even while its enjoying its explosions related carnage.


It's for Black Lagoon one of its saving graces in the first half that it openly has a large cast of memorable characters who are outright villains but can be heroes compared to other worse figures than them. The few glimpse of Roanapur as a city let alone an island in the first season particularly gives the show a distinct character, a world with its own rules and various factors at play, from Hotel Moscow to the Triads led by the Chow Yun-fat stand-in, who are on friendly terms with each other, to places like the bar that gets constantly blown up by various events throughout both seasons. It's a rundown hellhole, where Heineken is the beer of choice (though with the letters in the name switched around for copyright reasons) and one has to rely of cars ready for the scrapheap to travel around in. It's an inherently fascinating location for this world to be mostly set, even allowing quiet moments of humour and introspection as a tropical environment before you get to the figures within it who'll change allegiances depending on the money involved.

One of the biggest virtues of the show is that a lot of these figures, and the strongest in most cases, are female. Colourful and exaggerated figures, but many women who are more dangerous and memorable than the male characters. Revy is obvious the poster woman of the series, but there's also Balalaika, leader of Hotel Moscow whose burnt face and body are matched by a back-story of fighting for the ex-Soviet Union in Afghanistan and becoming a ruthless, powerful figure in command of ex-soldiers who follow her devotedly. Other such memorable female characters include Sister Eda the nun, a member of a church on the island who are more for gun smuggling than religion, the aforementioned Roberta, the aforementioned maid with the tenacity of a T-800 who got a narrative for herself in a 2011 spin-off story, and various other distinct female characters who stand out even more than many male characters in the narratives.

Amazingly as well for a show about exhilarating action, it's actually subtle at points just in terms of the dialogue. Whether it's the translation of dialogue to English subtitles or Sunao Katabuchi's screenwriting work on display, for a period until by the end there's a considerable stab at giving characters not only their own idiosyncrasies but also distinctions between different characters they talk to. (I.e. Revy and a minor female character Shenhua, a Taiwanese knife user whose love-hate relationship, trading insults and Revy mocking her ability to speak English, becomes entirely different from how they speak to anyone else). That the series, even if voiced entirely in Japanese for its original language track, makes it clear the characters speak in different languages, and actresses like Megumi Toyoguchi as Revy and Mami Koyama as Balalaika have to speak in English many times in the show, gives Black Lagoon personality in tying these characters to distinct traits. Even the most sadistic figures feature usually have tragic back stories or even real life historical details woven into their origins - the most overtly, stereotypical anime characters, two Romanian twins who dress in period Victorian dress and are bloodthirsty monsters in spite of being children, are for example given origin in the real life anti-abortion policies of ex-Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and the effect of the resulting growth of the birth rate after his overthrow. The dialogue occasionally tries with difficulty to be even philosophical, but the attempts are all admirable.


The series for me however does falter within what was originally Season 2, The Second Barrage. The Second Barrage is only three actual narratives strung over twelve episodes. One involving the Romanian twins, which is good by itself, the second about a female counter fitter whose bounty, due to an ill advised decision by Sister Eda to milk the reward of protecting her, leads to the misfits and lunatics of Roanapur to hunt her down on mass. The problem really comes to head, sabotaging the two seasons, with the final six episodes, an entire narrative set in Japan with Hotel Moscow trying to take over the criminal underground against a yakuza clan. On one hand it's the perfect conclusion as Balalaika is shown to almost be entirely evil with Rock forced into a moral issue, challenged in his complacency, where a young girl Yukio Washimine has to take over her yakuza family's heritage against the military strategy and greater numbers of Hotel Moscow. However, it also means Dutch and Benny are merely cameos, squandering Black Lagoon as a team when the final narrative could've had them all stuck in a dangerous situation, and the character of Yukio and her loyal bodyguard are not interesting figures. The later is worse as the series falls victim of an issue with pulp storytelling where, in narratives where normalcy for main characters always returns by each chapter, the story specific characters who can be effected permanently however need to be as interesting as possible or the entire narrative's worthless.

As a result of the failure of these final episodes, half an entire season, it started to stain and reveal flaws in the previous episodes. For all the virtues, the strong female characters and fun dialogue, there was also repetition and less than inspired moments which are forced into the open due to how much the finale fails, marring the two series. This was especially when I compared it to another series from the same era, Baccano! (2007), another action series influenced by American pop culture that was a period fantasy-action story primarily set in early 1930s America, with strong female and male characters, memorable dialogue, and even more ridiculous action and gore, but also an imaginative puzzle box of a plot structure which jumps back and forth in time, and more lavish style in look and music. Against something like it, what started off perfectly in Black Lagoon didn't succeed further with its original virtues and came a disappointment. 


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

#44: Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero (2002)


Director: Shinji Ishihira
Screenplay: Sakichi Sato
Based on the manga Ichi the Killer (1998-2001) by Hideo Yamamoto
Voice Cast: Chihiro Suzuki (as Ichi); Sayaka Ohara (as Midori); Shinpachi Tsuji (as Jijii); Takashi Miike (as Kakihara); Atsushi Imaruoka (as Nobuo); Daisuke Sakaguchi (as Hirose); Ema Kogure (as Jiro); Eri Saito (as Mother)

Synopsis: A prequel to the Ichi the Killer narrative, following the origins of the titular figure, a sadistic assassin who cries as he kills and yet paradoxically enjoys inflicting pain on others in an extreme fashion. This short animation shows both how as a high school student constant bullying and a series of events placed him in prison for murder, and how after he's released a mysterious benefactor turn him into the cry-baby sociopath of the Ichi the Killer story.

Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero is a fascinating extra for Takashi Miike's infamous 2001 adaptation of the Hideo Yamamoto manga. However the word "extra" is apt. It even feels at odds with the film its meant to be an addition of in spite of the presence of the same screenwriter Sakichi Sato between them. Miike's film is a much more complex, subversive creation, which shows horrifying and taboo material only to twist a knife into the viewer's stomach for viewing it. Episode Zero instead of this feels like one of the final throwbacks to the idea of anime, especially in the West in the nineties, being adult and transgressive. Violent and adult anime is still being made, but particularly with the straight-to-video market (OVA) there was a lot of this nasty (and sometimes utterly cheap) anime in the late eighties and nineties before it ebbed out with this being one of the last gasps.

And Episode Zero is grotty, explicitly depicting material. That Ichi's parents, through consensual S&M sex the room next to their oldest son, are part of the cause of the confusion he has between sex and violence. How it depicts Ichi beginning to torture and kill small animals in school to relieve his inferiority from bullying, including the school rabbit which leads to him being blackmailed by another student. Clichés mixing with pertinent topics on Japanese culture, especially the issue of bullying and the stress school students and teenagers go through which appears in a lot of Japanese films, but without enough time forty minutes (six or so for end credits) to fully work. It's also an entire rewrite of the far more interesting back story for the Ichi character that you get in the live action film, a far more vague figure whose only past detail, about a trauma at high school, is fake and his handler (played by director Shinya Tsukamoto) being a much more interesting figure than the version found in the animated version. The cameo by the character Kakihara, voiced by Takashi Miike in what counts as merely grunts and a few words, isn't that interesting either when you have Tadanobu Asano as a fully fleshed out character in the feature film.


The tone for Episode Zero, whilst with potential to be a deliberately provocative story like the live action film, does merely become scuzzy to the point I actually felt guilt viewing this, questioning having actually sat through the film. It's brazen in what it explicitly details but can come off as pointlessly offensive, particularly when you get to female martial artist, Midori, who takes an interest in Ichi only to be shown to be turned on by violence and eggs him on in a motel room to beat her up to erotic climax, barely stumbling on top of a knife's edge in terms of avoiding being crass and dubious. It's strange considering that the screenwriter was able to take similarly problematic ideas in the live action version and make such subjects more nuisance and provocative, the same found in a later Miike work Gozu (2003). As much the issue, alongside the tiny length, comes from the production itself feeling low budget, cheap and nasty in a way that's befitting the early processors but from a weird transition period of the early first few years of the 2000s, where the switch from hand drawn to computer assisted animation was awkward.

Even when placed next to another problematic anime from the yesteryear like Violence Jack (1986-1990), as notoriously cheap as some of them were gruesome, Episode Zero is dank in appearance even to those controversial works in character design and style. The exception is the music by Yui Takase which is the one thing of legitimate positive to take away from Episode Zero, memorable and helping to bandage up the glaring issues a little, an unnerving and edgy soundtrack to match the nastiness onscreen, including a peculiar hip hop song on the end credits where the rapped lyrics are heard under dialogue clips from the anime in a ramshackle way. (Sadly his only other credit on Anime News Network is Samurai XXX (2004), samurai themed hentai porn). Value to Episode Zero will vary drastically; for myself, it's curiosity, but as someone who'll defend the Miike film as an intelligent, transgressive cult movie, this pales in complete comparison and doesn't look good next to it. 


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

#43: The Flying Luna Clipper (1987)


Director: Ikko Ono
Viewed in English Language with Japanese Subtitles

Synopsis: Having acquired a rare boat plane from the early 20th century, a Martin M-130, and renovated it to flyable again, a company offers a luxurious holiday trip in the Hawaiian Pacific for those who are the "deepest dreamers". Made with the graphical capabilities of a MSX game console, this film follows the flight patrons through a compilation of lessons and strange experimental shorts within its near hour length.

While this blog is meant to cover Japanese anime, it's be a crime to ignore the other areas of animation(1) that come from Japan alongside anime. The Flying Luna Clipper's existence, as a near hour long film made in glorious 8-bit game console graphics, wouldn't have even been known outside of obscurity in Japan if a blogger by the name of Matt Hawkins hadn't had found a second hand laserdisc copy. The result's a fascinating curiosity; the MSX is one of many Japanese video consoles from an early period of video gaming that would've only been known in its homeland, where the Metal Gear franchise began in fact, used here as an example of creative individuals experimenting with video game consoles beyond merely playable games to outright artistic experiments, be they interactive or not.


Sadly, like many before and after, these experiments tend to end up doomed to obscurity or beloved cult works that are hampered by archival preservation yet to be publically provided to videogames, especially those which required idiosyncratic controls or require actually being re-released again rather than tracking down second hand, rare copies or online uploads of. It's a shame here as this is a proto-vaporwave head trip to experience, where the 8-bitera of illustration and character design created a colourful, Tropicana world of snowmen wandering around sunny Honolulu and palm trees at dusk. In spite of the limited animation, there's a lush charm from the incredible (and painstaking) detail, an old arcade game in its bright lights and sincerity. Adding to its strangeness and its warm hearted sense of accessibility is that it was likely made to appeal to Western viewers as its dialogue is mostly in English, moments of odd pronunciations in the voice acting against more solid performances which yet come from the mouths of moving portraits of cartoonish oddness. A black bird business tycoon, an air hostess whose a bespectacled banana, Polynesian bananas in coconut bras and grass skirts, a green haired chimp or living singing Hawaiian volcanoes =part of a more sexualised version of a Fantasia (1940) musical number.


Japanese pop surrealism, the type of bubblegum surrealism not just found in videogames but in all their media, is absolutely charming. Unless you're viewing the spectrum which follows the traditions of the original movement in being transgressive, there's no sense of the more eccentric side of it of being merely commercial product, instead of cornucopia of full of cute anthropomorphic animals, talking plants, bright colours and spectacle, something I grew up with having a port of the scrolling shooter parody Parodius (1995) for the Sega Satan and hazy memories of episodes of Samurai Pizza Cats (1990-1). For all the darker, illicit areas of Japanese horror and dark fantasy which cross into the unreal and the mind bending, there's this opposite even when its occasionally morbid and full of sexual innuendo that's cute, silly and playful. The Flying Luna Clipper becomes a literal series of dreams for both the passengers of the ship and the viewer them self, the director of the animation literally one of the co-pilots of the clipper as it travels across the pacific ocean and even into outer space briefly. Barring one unfortunate image of a blackface character, on a TV in the background of a single scene, it's a surrealism that's a playful escapade.


Alongside a lesson on the Holose taught by a seahorse with a Germanic accent, to music numbers, you also have material that could be shorts by themselves, one of the most memorable likely an older project by the director in 1986 which is live action, a playful music video of babies falling over, waterfalls and diving women that's charming as its strange, feeling the most dated of the whole work but not a detraction to its value. The whole film in general makes an argument, now becoming known again in a post-vaporwave world, for a period of late eighties and early to mid nineties pop culture as escapes for audiences that shouldn't inherently be dismissed outright for that reason, a lot of anime to videogames even in commercial industries that emphasised escape, dreamscapes and the purely fantastical. Far from cynical, The Flying Luna Clipper feels sincerely fun, more so as its brazenly (proudly) weird even next to a lot of actual anime, its end playing as a series of dreams as the closet to an actual protagonist swears the clipper has been a giant pelican for all this time in the tourist trip.


It's sadly a work that, unless a drastic re-evaluation takes place and enough people keep bringing it up in online topic, will be only known in a YouTube presentation, eternal gratitude to the man who pull the film again out of subterranean cultural memory but with an unknown time period of how long the upload will exist. Whilst from a period just before my birth let along childhood, it revisiting it for this review is why it was fitting to have moved away from videogames by the end of the PlayStation 2 to my permanent love for cinema instead. Less brightness and unexpected weirdness, the joys of childhood playing videogames scored by the soundtrack of Daytona USA (1993) and set in fantastical elaborate worlds, replaced by more "realistic" turgid aesthetics and a restriction in how games are meant to present themselves. I occasionally flick over reviews and clips online of new games, and alongside the cost and space required for new consoles, most of the actual games now are uninteresting for me to return to the medium. In spite of the apparent maturity of the medium in terms of storytelling, which I have to admire, as an outsider I'm put off by the mirrored sense of the bloated, store brand tone that also exists in mainstream cinema having infected the industry as well. In spite of its strangeness, there's a greater knowing sense of playfulness here in The Flying Luna Clipper I'd gladly recommend people explore if just as an antidote of this issue.

(1) The last time something different from the mould was covered was number #24 Yuki Terai - Secrets (2000), a compilation of shorts and music videos for an entirely fictional female star which you can read the review of HERE

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

#42. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva (2009)


Director: Masakazu Hashimoto
Screenplay: Aya Matsui
Based on the videogame franchise Professor Layton from Level-5.
Voice Cast: Yo Oizumi (as Professor Layton); Maki Horikita (as Luke Triton); Fumiko Orikasa (as Melina Whistler); Nana Mizuki (as Janice Quatlane); Atsuro Watabe (as Jean de Scole); Houchu Ohtsuka (as Inspector Clamp Growski); Iemasa Kayumi (as Oslo Vislar); Saki Aibu (as Remi Altava); Sumire Morohoshi (as Nina)

I have no previous experience with the Professor Layton franchise baring a passing knowledge of a videogames. I gave up videogames at the start of my twenties, or at least at the time of the Playstation 2, due to the ludicrous costs of the game themselves let alone the consoles, so I've stuck to films for nearly ten years and have missed at least a two generations of gaming consoles. But I have to admit that, separate from them entirely, there's some success in that this film spin-off does intrigue a layman like me with its universe. Imagine a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's profound influence only instead of Sherlock Holmes, it's a new type of period English detective called Professor Layton, archaeologist by day and one of the greatest solvers of puzzles who's assisted by a young boy called Luke Triton, "apprentice number one" learning to become as good as his mentor. The influence of Holmes is found even right down to the film being bookmarked by the pair recounting a previous mystery they investigated, an opera singer called Janice Quatlan who brings them into a mystery about an ancient civilisation called Ambroisa and an elixir for eternal life being offer to the winner of a contest based on intelligence.

I like the world that's depicted in particular. A whimsical depiction of London stuck in a nebulous past that never existed, not the modern day but mixing cultural periods without any sense of modern 20th century technology being visible. It's steampunk neither in this one story, which makes an interesting change of pace, closer to actual Sherlock Holmes stories but with a greater expansion into the purely fantastical with its fantastic tone. It also has a very welcome sense of cartoonish exaggeration where opera houses turn into cruise ships that look like giant crowns, and a black castle later in the narrative looks like it was built from Lego. The world particularly stands out with its character designs, a mix between dolls and Looney Tunes, facial features of all shapes and sizes., heads larger than the bodies, and each character, even minor ones, standing out in silhouette with their own distinct physical depictions. It allows a sense of humour to this adventure just in the exaggeration and means that a film which has a very sedate, pleasant tone still has energy to it as everything bounces or distorts with cartoon physics. Amongst such highlights is the henchman of the possible villain, forcing people to go through puzzles and riddles until only one can have immortality, that kind of look like William Finley's titular character from Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to the Scotland Yard detective and comic foil Inspector Clamp Grosky, who has a giant grey pompadour and a barrel chest covered in so much chest hair you could fill a cushion with it. Adding to the mood too is the score; it's been a long time since I've heard an xylophone in a soundtrack, but the vibrancy of Tomohito Nishiura and Tsuneyoshi Saito's music helps immensely add to its adventurous tone.

The only thing that comes off as a disappointment is that, as one would expect for a feature film in such a big franchise, it doesn't really have any sense of greater dramatic weight for the central characters and entirely depends on those only found in this narrative to be greatly affected by any plot events that happens. This is an issue with pulp storytelling, where the protagonists are never effected by events of stories and normalcy resolves itself, which varies on each story. Sherlock Holmes stories could get away with this because they don't end with a giant robot rampaging across a woodland like The Eternal Diva does, this Professor Layton film just in the ending somewhat undermined by the action scenes that take place near the end feeling like a quick resolve. It also does seem to descend into probably what the games are in how it becomes a series of riddles for Layton in the middle of the narrative to solve, not necessarily interesting without more drama to it or being able to solve them oneself with a game controller. This is a shame as the film takes a risk in it does tackling death explicitly as a family film, the narrative about a figure having to accept the loss of a loved one that's incredibly painful after denying this led to destructive behaviour. Japanese cinema will talk of this subject differently than Western ones for family audiences, but since I haven't seen an anime here that wasn't for adults only, it was a surprise to see. The only shame is that, when it does wrap up with some great emotional content to it, a sweetness even in the end credit epilogue, there's still more that could've been done to make the film stand out as something even more triumphant beyond being a videogame tie-in. It's one of the best, especially in anime, I've seen, but I only wish that The Eternal Diva had been more ambitious alongside its initial virtues.