Tuesday, 27 June 2017

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

From https://myanimelist.cdn-dena.com/

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.

From https://assets.mubi.com/images/film/58024/image-w856.jpg?1445938925

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. 

From https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-3aBMwrwEfy8/WSF-OhEG2aI/AAAAAAAAxww/7

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

#43: The Flying Luna Clipper (1987)

From https://www.msx.org/sites/default/files/news/2017

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.

From https://i.ytimg.com/vi/6uD6pfH4q1s/hqdefault.jpg

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.

From http://68.media.tumblr.com/9d5cdcc78b0362fc3059812988af41ac/

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.

From https://www.msx.org/sites/default/files/news/

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.

From http://68.media.tumblr.com/7fcd20cdd7e96eec6fabbbf2d048ac01/

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)

From http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/professor-layton/images/8/8d/

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.

From https://image.tmdb.org/t/p/original/

Friday, 21 April 2017

Bonus #3 & #4: The Guyver/Guyver: Dark Hero (1991/1994)

Director(s): Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George (The Guyver)
Steve Wang (Guyver: Dark Hero)

Screenplay: Jon Purdy (The Guyver)
Nathan Long and Steve Wang (Guyver: Dark Hero)

Based on the manga by Yoshiki Takaya

(The Guyver): Jack Armstrong (as Sean Barker/The Guyver); Vivian Wu (as Mizky Segawa); Mark Hamill (as Max Reed); David Gale (as Fulton Balcus); Michael Berryman (as Lisker); Jimmie Walker (as Striker)

(Guyver: Dark Hero): David Hayter (as Sean Barker); Kathy Christopherson (as Cori); Bruno Patrick (as Crane); Christopher Michael (as Atkins); Stuart Weiss (as Marcus)

Note: The version of The Guyver (1991) I watched was the director's cut. The flashy editing technique added to cut between scenes, involving a lightning bolt symbol and a musical motif, isn't actually that bad and adds to the comic book style. The visibly removed scenes of violence however do detract, and add further emphasis to one of the film's biggest problems I'll talk about in the review.

From http://s020.radikal.ru/i701/

Yoshiki Takaya's manga The Guyver was at one point one of the first Japanese manga and anime franchises to transition over to the West well, and was exceptionally popular. In fact one of my earliest memories as a child was seeing a small news article about The Guyver (1991), probably the first introduction as a child of the idea of "manga" or "anime" I had, which had the exceptionally deceiving poster of one half of co-star Mark Hamill's face against one-half of the iconic Guyver helmet. In terms of adaptations, there were two anime adaptations straight-to-video, 1986 and 1989, which I still need to see. Between 2005 and 2006, there was an attempt to rejuvenate the franchise by way of a TV series, an admirable attempt but one undermined by sanitising the violence that made the reputations of the previous anime, worse when the late anime distributor ADV Films sold the series off that infamy, and having no actual ending or a second season. Then there were the two live action adaptations, one produced by Brian Yuzna with special effect designers Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George making their directorial debuts, the sequel three years later with Steve Wang on his own in the director's chair and taking a drastically different direction in tone.

Unfortunately The Guyver (1991) is dreadful barring the practical effects. Inexplicably, despite the franchise being an ultraviolent mix of tokusatsu storytelling (like the Power Rangers) with body horror nods, Yuzna's Japan-US co-production decided not to follow his wheelhouse of gore and elaborate special effects in films like Society (1989) or Bride of Re-Animator (1990), but only have the special effects and make the film more family friendly. The result is one of the many bizarre attempts Hollywood and the American film industry attempted to adapt comics and videogames, usually from Japan, throughout the nineties but for every one that's perversely entertaining (Super Mario Bros (1993) for example for the weirdest), The Guyver drags itself along until dying on-screen. The strange alien bio-armour called the Guyver is transposed to American soil, Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong) finding it and becoming the Guyver with the evil Chronos Corporation, led by leader Fulton Balcus (David Gale), wanting it back, sending Zoanoids, humans who can turn into humanoid monsters, after him.

From http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-JLSBGXlgPjk/VI8NYXAnZ9I/

The one success, the only success, is the practical effects. Screaming Mad George is legendary and notorious for his work, from the human cockroach sequence from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) to the "Shunting" scene from Society, visceral body horror which even if you can see the seams is so nightmarish and gooey that it borders surrealism. Moments show this in this film, seeing him and everyone in the practical effect department having a field day with the premise, Michael Berryman and various actors turning into various humanoid beasts or the spectacular Guyver armour itself, a warrior with cyberpunk and insect-like traits, which are all applaudable. Tragically these enough cannot redeem the film they're in, even when the effects go full out in detail like a graphic full body melt to weird test tube creations as background props, trying their hardest to create quality work but unable to overcome to mountain of terrible production decisions in their way.

First the cast is incredibly weak. Mark Hamill, playing a cop on the edge trying to get the scope on the Chronos Corporation, at least has a sense of grandeur to his appearance, and the late David Gale steals scenes with his bizarre intonations and wall chewing, even enraged by burning toast as he is by the incompetence of his minion, but Jack Armstrong as the hero is an absolute charisma vacuum even by the standards of a pulp story that emphasises practical effects first. Vivian Wu, as the female love interest, is visibly struggling with her dialogue and not helped in the slightest by a wet, one dimensional female character who's main existence is the exclaim words from other characters' exposition or look distressed; thankfully five years later in Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book (1996) she'd stand out more in a central role, but here it's like a deer caught in the headlights particularly in a film sandwiched between a Bernardo Bertolucci film and Greenaway.

Despite Steve Wang's later work such as with the Guyver sequel and Drive (1997), with fight choreography from the tokusatsu school and of an incredibly high quality in terms of fighting and stunt work, the fights here look stilted and suffocated by the presentation, lacking what the sequel did in sacrificing some of the practical effects in terms of beast designs in favour of men in rubber monster suits likely injuring themselves in painful stunts but bringing an exhilarating air of chaos to the proceedings. The result before these films is as stiff as in a lot of (if not all) American martial arts films, without the fluidness of Asian productions even when participants are in elaborate costume. More surprising is the lack of scale even by the standards of a small budget genre film, feeling like only a couple of rooms and some exterior shots were used, lacking of interest, and the script as swift in getting to its end without any sense of dramatic conflict being found.

From https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-VfC8nyQ3Ox8/WFvSn1QBEkI/AAAAAAAAFuY/

The final issue, ultimately the horrible creative decision which maims the film fatally, is deciding to play most of the film as a comedy. It worked in other Brian Yuzna productions like Re-Animator (1985) which had incredibly grim senses of humour, but this is a broad slapstick that is utterly ghastly to sit through, not taking itself seriously and jarring against the more visceral moments of the film. Famously [Spoiler Warning] this is where Luke Skywalker gets painfully turned, with Hamill submerged in practical effects latex, into a cockroach, a moment that if it had been in another production would've been up there in Yuzna and Screaming Mad George's filmographies as being iconic; here, its suffocate in a film so painfully bad in its humour that it both makes little sense tonally but loses its power in context. It's worse as, with such dumb joke ideas as a multi-ethnic gang of clumsy hoodlums, most of the humour is at the expense of Michael Berryman, a man who should be imposing, only really acceptable and actually funny when its David Gale chewing him out as his leader, but not with comic buffoons as his own sub minions especially Striker (Jimmie Walker), a terrible and obnoxious performance that imagines Flavour Flav from Public Enemy as a politically dubious portrait of a black character who's also like a walking set of nails on a chalk board. Ultimately it's this humour, against the paltry production, which makes The Guyver insufferable; after the first viewing should've been enough for me, but at a risk of wasting money on the Arrow Video release1, I found that on the second viewing I had indeed wasted money on the film.


From https://img.yescdn.ru/2016/02/13/poster/

Guyver: Dark Hero
is vast contrast is thankfully a better case, always having the reputation of being the superior film. Having watched it multiple times over the years, long before even seeing the first one as the 1991 adaptation never had a UK DVD release, it's still a step-up in quality on a revisit, and more so after watching the first in a double bill for this review on the same night. It's got a lot of b-movie qualities you can't ignore - wooden acting, an erratic tone - but as a curious attempt to meld an older American monster movie with Japanese tokusatsu action sequences, I can't help but still love it for just ambition.

It's still sadly attached to the prequel, like the other's an evil twin, but baring little nods in exposition and the opening monologue, it completely severs itself from the first film eventually and feels like a drastically different creation. David Hayter (future Solid Snake and scriptwriter) is now the Guyver, finding himself dragged subconsciously through the alien armour into flaying criminal in the introduction before going on a journey to Utah, where an archaeological excavation has found symbols on the wall similar to those found in his notebooks recording his dreams. The result is far more a no-nonsense sci-fi plot, ditching most of the comedy as the archaeologists are working for a deeply suspicious company and something in the woods is killing any locals bumbling near the excavation site.

From http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-37dmoaAUG20/UVpAbTlTilI/

Baring badly dated computer effects, a compromise for losing Screaming Mad George and the higher practical effects budget, there's however such a bizarre irony to be found in how Dark Hero was probably a lower budget production next to the prequel but has such a drastically improved sense of production value and ambition in its scale. Noticeable Steve Wang's collaboration with Koichi Sakamoto and his Alpha Stunt Team, the Power Rangers reference apt as Sakamoto worked on many of the TV series, ups the scale drastically to the fight scenes to something utterly exhilarating. You can argue the plot's a little flimsy, but seeing a man, even with the padding of a giant rubber monster costume, get propelled into metal scaffolding is still painful and striking to witness, rough but efficient fight scenes that replace the grace of Hong Kong martial arts for a more visceral nature of Japanese combat movies.

The result, mentioning that cross between the American monster movie and a martial arts film, does stand out more from its forest setting and exterior cave sets too, a sense of atmosphere in general the original adaptation of Guyver never had. For every line reading slightly under the mark or the clichéd plotting sticking out, I can't help but admire the clear love put on display to make a great film, more so as the woodlands have a significant positive effect on the mood and that, even if the transformations are cut down and simplified, the production value is actually superior everywhere else in the film against the prequel. It's also a significantly more serious film, even with a few moments of weird humour, the gore there in its nastiest form whilst also having the zeal in its imagination. The plot becomes the back-story of the Guyver's origins, leading to the film going as far as an elaborate, living interior of a spaceship for a set with multiple rooms and even an elaborate flashback to primitive times with stage bound sets, model work and almost psychedelic colours as cavemen dance around a bonfire and turn into monsters.

In the perfect world, the Screaming Mad George effects and David Gale would've been used in a film like Dark Hero rather than the 1991 Guyver film, making one better film, but in the real world it's a case of a sequel far, far superior to the prequel, almost completely suffocating the original until it was recently made available again on Blu-Ray and has been unfairly made more easy to access. Like a lot of the American adaptations of pop culture from the nineties, they're peculiar to their times and in their looseness in adapting the original material. The first film should probably be lost in the early nineties but the sequel was not only great, but should've had the HD transfer instead.

From http://cdn30.us1.fansshare.com/image/guyverdarkhero

1 Unfortunately even the 2016 Arrow Video release, from a company on the pinnacle of quality physical releases, is just as disappointing from an organisation known for moving the earth in their releases' quality. With only the Director's Cut and a sole ten minute interview with Brian Yuzna on it, one that's a little bias to the film's favour without great depth, honestly without coming off as cruel , it's a lowly release from a company known for stacked discs whose extras could have actually helped me warm over lesser films and even soften my grudges with them. Only the shiny slipcase and the written booklet from the ever reliable anime and manga expert Helen McCarthy stand out, but not enough for shelf space.

Friday, 7 April 2017

#41. Yurikuma Arashi (2015)

From http://altairandvega.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/kumashock.png

Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara
Screenplay: Kunihiko Ikuhara and Takayo Ikami
Voice Cast: Miho Arakawa (as Ginko Yurishiro); Nozomi Yamane (as Kureha Tsubaki); Yoshiko Ikuta (as Ruru Yurigazaki); Ami Koshimizu (as Konomi Yurikawa); Aoi Yūki (as Mitsuko Yurizono); Aya Endo (as Reia Tsubaki); Junichi Suwabe (as Life Sexy); Kazutomi Yamamoto (as Life Beauty); Kikuko Inoue (as Yuri-Ka Hakonaka); Mariya Ise (as Eriko Oniyama); Mitsuki Saiga (as Life Cool);
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Ironically my love of Kunihiko Ikuhara as an anime director who can qualify as an auteur Ironically, this love is entirely just from Mawaru Penguindrum (2011)  and now Yurikama Arashi, Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) and his contributions to the Sailor Moon franchise, which he is the most beloved for in general, difficult to access in the United Kingdom. Without the weight of his work in either, the former his own fully formed break out including the series and 1999 feature film, it's a love of his work growing naturally through how he pushes the bar higher in television anime higher than many.

It's blatantly pro-homophile in theme, a moral fairytale where Ikuhara is openly explicit in wanting to tackle negative portraits of lesbianism in Japanese culture within a fairytale where bears have become sentient and eat human beings, causing a wall to have to be erected between the two species. The catch is that, unlike other fairytales, there are no male princes or that many men either, every human onscreen female set within an all female school, and almost every bear female too. (Even with the few male bear characters as well, only two of than are actually voiced by male actors as well). This is also a world very much like Beauty and the Beast where, with protagonist Kureha in the middle, most of the human girls around her are part of a mob mentality called the Invisible Storm, a group who ostracise and punish "non-invisible" girls who have individuality out of the herd. The bears themselves, even those wanting to merely devour Kureha, are far more complicated, disguised as humans and having their own emotion strifes to deal with. Two of them, Ginko and Ruru, are in fact at the school for more moral and meaningful reason, Ginko connected to Kureha with Ruru there to help her whilst openly admitting her love for her fellow bear.

Its exceptionally obvious in message, a fairytale that the creator openly indulges in the tropes of including fairytales within fairytales, but how this message is shown is done with so much open imaginative and metaphorical tropes to a stunning extent that it gets away with the obviousness easily. Bizarrely, the other tale that Yurikama evokes the most for me is Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, her 1979 short story compilation, and especially Neil Jordan's 1984 film adaptation The Company of Wolves, imaging the beast people (werewolves and here girl bears) being representations of people freed from the puritanical confines of society and sexuality. They at least  are far more complex and fascinating against the faceless normals, their plot strands having more emotional affect when Ikuhara plays a scene fully seriously. How Ikuhara adapts this idea is completely his own, a cute and fluffy tone even when he's dealing with serious subject matter, managing to even make the scenes of bears eating characters completely gore-less and still perversely cute. Considering he managed to tackled even more serious subject in Mawaru Penguindrum, (affectively a metaphor on the long lasting effect of  the 1995 Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subways a decade and more after), with success, so he's fully able here in this intentional small scale narrative to play up the cuteness and eccentric humour without any problems in the tone and still playing the drama seriously when vitally necessary.

Openly drawing on obvious symbolism (fairytale castles, bear princesses, the sexual and cultural symbolism of lilies etc.) and a director with a knack for combining it with the modern with incredible ease (as is seen in how, even next to other current day anime, he's so good at using technology like mobile phones here to drive the narrative along), he's able to make the story work because the style takes the blatant and gives it a sumptuous beauty. Not only is the show beautiful to look at but he has no qualms with the show taking on a fully dream-like tone for scenes. Even if the characters stay on template in animation, the bear girls in beast form are literal anthropomorphic bears with more cartoonish movements, compared to the penguins in Mawaru who can play out slapstick and absurity whilst still, miraculously, fitting into tragic scenes too. The world around them is just as capable of distorting instead to represent psychological and fantastical states, of stairways into jury courts between worlds and goals to happiness, not to mention the creator's penchant for just openly weird humour - thus never imagining a scene such as a snowy war terrain covered in the bodies of cute bears on the ground with rifles, but having such a scene on display. That he repeats symbols and motifs constantly helps in this, allowing it to all start to interconnect. This animated playfulness goes to the music as well, standard J-pop for this type of anime show but actually good music, legitimately affecting for scenes but also, with its frank Sapphic and beast imagery in the lyrics, having a subversive side to its candy coated electronic beats.

From http://www.bostonbastardbrigade.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/

The subversive side is very much also why Yurikama Arashi succeeds. Even if its moral point of tolerance is as subtle as a sledgehammer, the really progressive aspect of the series is its completely relaxed attitude to sexuality and how upfront it is in depicting it. Without explicitly drawing characters in appearance, it gets away with artistic but explicit nudity without qualm, and the sexuality is so prominent, including gratuitous symbolism involving flowers and honey, that its even in the opening credit animation for the first episode. Its constant and gladly viewed through both humour, fantasies played for laughs that the characters themselves have for others, to seriously in romantic moments. The frankness is startling, whilst not "explicit" or even ecchi softcore, celebrating lesbianism the depiction of lesbianism casual to a form that's beyond progressive but amazing. Even within the Invisible Storm, relationships between women, between friends, between classmates, even between teacher and student, are numerous, in terms of romance, jealousy, power play and entire spectrums of drama.

The almost entire lack of men in the cast turns the world shown into an almost all-matriarchal one, going as far with cheeky humour to have a "yuri" supermarket with magazines with two women cuddling on the cover with the tagline of how to win a lover over through her stomach, in the type of feminine reality where the cops and even the soldiers in the war that took place between bears and humans being all female. Even in terms of the bears, while there is a boy bear character important to Ruru's back-story, the only ones with real prominence (and only two of them audibly voiced by male actors) are the trio of bear judges, those who live within the wall who judge the humans and bears alike, allowing them to eat girls, to become human, to be judged for their desires and grant their wishes. Even they however, as a Greek chorus, have to step aside in the end of the series and let the female characters conclude their tales.

After a long wait from Mawaru Penguindrum, waiting for a new Kunihiko Ikuhara project is an event for me as much as it is waiting for either Hiroyuki Imaishi or Masaaki Yuasa, which shows how he's stood out so much from the crowd as a one-off auteur whose work has mainly consisted, like the other two mentioned, in television. It's one thing to be like a Mamoru Oshii or the late Satoshi Kon, careers mainly been built from theatrical films, but having an auteurist style mainly from anime television is a unique cap to wear in itself. In all three cases, the execution and tangents they add to well worn stories is why they succeed as they do, all three idiosyncratic in their styles even when other directors and writers create individual episodes within the projects. All three naturally as well appeal to my love for the surreal and openly fantastical out of animation even when they tackle serious subject matter. If Imaishi is hyperactive, and Yuasa is eccentric and philosophical, Ikuhara is a flamboyant pop surrealist who's sincere even when proudly camp at points, Yurikama a pretty story whose theme is aptly described in its English title translation as 'Lily Bear Storm', a blast of eroticism and fairytale whose ending is both sad but also triumphant, carrying you alongside fully. 

From https://rayoutblog.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/ykadesire.jpg

Thursday, 30 March 2017

#40: Dark Myth (1990)

From http://cdn-2.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/

Director: Takashi Anno
Screenplay: Takashi Anno and Tomomi Mochizuki
Voice Cast: Alan Myers (as Takeshi); Jay Harper (as Kikuchihiko); Peter Marinker (as Takeuchi); Blair Fairman (as the Narrator); Daniel Flynn (as Brahman); John Baddeley (as Hayato); John Bennet (as Jiku); Larissa Murray (as Miya)
Viewed in English Dub

Covering Dark Myth opens up an odd tangent Manga Entertainment, a British anime distribution company who worked both in the UK and USA, would probably like to forget but also manages to be a time capsule to a type of anime for Western viewers that's drastically changed in only a decade and a bit, involving a sub label only known as The Collection1 that I caught at its tail end on DVD and was meant to clearly take advantage of VHS era acquisitions they still had the licence to. With a preview burnt into my memory, from constantly viewing it as an extra on the DVDs, a sizzle reel built around The Mad Capsule Market songs, almost all the titles released in this series, English dubs only, are infamously bad or the obscure of the obscure. That most of them were dubbed in 1996 into English onwards informs a history of, after helping to fund Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell (1995), Manga Entertainment having to tighten their belts by scraping the barrel. The term "beer and curry anime" particularly comes to mind with The Collection too, informative a dead breed of Western anime viewing where it was mainly a young male audience who'd watch new releases in the UK on a Friday night with beers and takeaway curry; whether this actually happened or not, its definitely a time stamp to a medium that's (thankfully) changed so drastically in terms of gender balance in the titles released and the audience for the medium being both male and female, the type of stories we see now drastically away from this. Viewing this though, while the generation we have now is for the better, even something as flawed and maligned as this anime reminds me of something admittedly lost, which I barely caught in the early 2000s and was too young for anyway, in how I wish more of these stranger, rawer type of anime from the late eighties and early nineties were still being made but with modern sensibilities.

Like a lot of the Collection, Dark Myth aka Ankoku Shinwa has in inherently interesting premise, combining ancient Japanese folklore with horror, but like most of them is a failed work, as much to blame on the English dub its only available with as it is the flaws inherently in the production. The young protagonist Takeshi finds himself on a journey to become the Atman, the personification of human energy and connected to the Hindu personification of cosmic reality Brahman, the Atman a messiah figure will either bring enlightenment or destruction depending on whether Takeshi who's forced into this position against his will, chooses either side. An elderly man with a surprising amount of knowledge on the subject represents the former choice, whilst the leader of the Kikuchi Clan (descendants of Japans first inhabitants) pushes Takeshi to the later as he hates the fact Takeshi has been chosen and not himself. The issue immediately, and this is as much culpability on the English dub's lack of quality, is that beyond this basic plot, the two part OVA is expanded with such elaborate mythology that, based on real mythology and spirituality or partially made up, the narration and exposition is so vast and constant, with pronunciations in the English dub which vary in utterance and sound, that it gets convoluted and maddening to catch up with. Half the difficulty with Dark Myth, and why it's likely looked down upon if the Manga Entertainment version is the only one available, is just having so much audio information to follow that eventually drowns your grasp of the plotting.

From https://68.media.tumblr.com/acb76f3904117e1f933f12a4a5ba6312

This denseness causes such a lot of problems as, whilst perfunctory in a lot of places, Dark Myth does pull out moments of real interest. The narrative, if it didn't make such a simple plot so convoluted, has a type of mythology on display that is unique and fascinating in terms of horror and fantasy. Stone eggs as a method for people to preserve themselves over centuries (unless they sleep for too long and fall to pieces like literal dolls). Armless snake headed demons and a horse head god. Or the reoccurring monsters the hungry ghosts, the dead who've escaped hell who're represented as chimp-mammal like hybrids with old man hair, packs of them who lead to a few moments of extreme splatter in how they can shred people to pieces in spite of being the size of a pug dog each. It's a testament to anime as a vastly different cultural item compared to Western horror and fantasy, where it can draw on a rich reservoir of myths and inspirations for even a significantly lesser work like Dark Myth, allowing it to be rewarding even if the plot, leading to a form hanging over Earth as an evil miasma for a convoluted reason, becomes too garbled to follow eventually.

There's also a surprising sense of technical quality for an anime packaged with the likes of Violence Jack (1986-1990) and Psychic Wars (1991) in The Collection, which could be easy to forget. The most blatant is the surprise appearance of composer Kenji Kawai, Mamoru Oshii's regular composer, creating the score, here creating a late eighties synth score that reinterprets traditional Japanese folk music with a nostalgic sheen to it. The other aspect of worthy mention is when the work does take a few risks with its aesthetic and animation, managing to succeed in the few cases. Imagining, while Takeshi is in a trance, wandering between shrines across Japan to get the marks needed to be the Atman being depicted in a genius way where everything is entirely white and not even pencil outline is visible, literal blank whiteness like a cel from an animation sequence, with only sound and monologue around him informing us of where he is.

From https://vintagecoats.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/dark-myth-

The other are the tripper moments such as eight armed, horse head gods and Brahman 's world being depicted by way of Salvador Dali creating a space rock album cover. It's a shame that such detail and invention is wrapped around such a convoluted narrative, when it could have cut three thirds of the exposition out and still succeeded. If anything the lesson to learn from The Collection in general is that, my fondness for it in its ineptitude aside, that the style of these hand drawn animated works, even the grottier ones, is something that we could still have now, their tones and moods something that would be a breath of fresh air next to the more modern anime of now when it fails, as long as you don't forget that particularly with the likes of Dark Myth, there's a reason why "guilty pleasure" might be a justifiable term to use to describe it.

From http://pm1.narvii.com/6387/

1 For those interested, barring two unofficial entries (Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 (1987) and Tokyo Revelation (1994)) and two South Korean animations (Red Hawk: Weapon of Death (1995) and Armageddon (1996)), The Collection consisted of: Dark Myth, Vampire Wars (1990), the maligned sequel to Bubblegum Crisis (1987-1991) called Bubblegum Crash (1991), Landlock (1995), Psychic Wars, candidate for many as one of the worst anime ever made, Sword for Truth (1990), one of the great director Osamu Dezaki's less than stellar efforts, Amon Saga (1986), New Gall Force (1989-1990), a sequel in the Gall Force series which is actually a good entry in The Collection, and most infamously Violence Jack, until recently when Discotek in the US decided to traumatise people with the uncut Japanese language version was enough to suffer through badly dubbed in English and butchered.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Bonus #2: Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)

From http://image.tmdb.org/t/p/original/

Director: Lam Nai-choi
Screenplay: Lam Nai-choi
Based on a manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari
Cast: Fan Siu-Wong (as Ricky Ho); Fan Mei-Sheng (as Assistant Warden Dan/Cyclops); Ho Ka-Kui (as The Warden); Yukari Oshima (as Rogan); Tamba Tetsuro (as Master Zhang); Gloria Yip (as Anne); Kwok Chun-Fung (as Lin Hung/Andrew); Frankie Chin (as Oscar); Koichi Sugisaki (as Tarzan); Wong Kwai-Hung (as Brandon)

My review of the live action adaptation of Tetsuya Saruwatari's manga is going to be drastically effected by having been able to read said manga, an issue that can entirely effect someone's opinion on the adaptation depending on the context, and definitely is the case for me here. Never officially released in English, fans have translated it and quite a few years ago I read the entirety in full. Trained by Kazuo Koike, the legendary manga writer of Crying Freeman, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Lady Snowblood, Saruwatari has developed his own success through series like Tough, Riki-Oh and Dog Soldier. He also learnt from Koike, whilst also the artist of his own work, a frantic style of storytelling that, whilst Koike is critically acclaimed, has made his teacher also notorious for his almost insane plot twists, complete disregard for tastefulness and the sense of having had his work, just seeing some of the anime adaptations like Mad Bull 34 (1990-2), spun out as it was from the hellishly short deadlines of manga publication and the need to constantly keep a reader turning pages constantly. Riki-Oh, a live action Hong Kong film, is exceptionally faithful to this lunacy, even close to panels and details from the original manga, but it's also only the first few chapters following the introduction of the titular character (Fan Siu-Wong), a noble man sent to jail in a privatised prison whose martial arts ability allows him to withstand pain and mutilation that would kill a regular human being, and in turn transform opponents into meat pate with a single blow.

A large part of the weight the film adaptation suffers from is that it only covers the beginning, where the stakes are simply the evil prison warden (Ho Ka-Kui), his underling Cyclops (Fan Mei-Sheng), and the four prisoners that lead each ward - North, South, East, West - with incredible power, such as the beautifully androgynous and dangerous Rogan (legendary Japanese actress/stunt woman/martial artist Yukari Oshima playing a man) to the giant Tarzan (Koichi Sugisaki) whose ability to rush a man's head with a single clap gave the film a clip that could be used in American media to help it live on in infamy. The full manga in comparison however is so mind-bogglingly stranger and mad  after these initial chapters that, not only would this adaptation seen far tamer in comparison, but I was likely permanently effected after reading said manga after all these years. A story where Riki-Oh is actually a Jewish-Japanese superhero whose bullet wounds in his chest, with the bullets still left within them, are actually shaped like a Star of David in the pages, and is fighting on the side of atheist, Japanese-Jewish heroes fighting for goodness and atomic energy against the forces of evil, including Chinese Nazis and a twin brother who became evil after a game of tag as a child, who believe in religion. Against this and such sights as Riki-Oh punching out an elephant, fighting grunts on miniature AT-ATs, a minor villain whose similarity to M. Bison/Vega from the Street Fighter games is so close its likely Capcom tipped their hat to him, another a sadist who uses his ceiling fan death blades just on a servant who gets a hair in his tea, and it's a one-off whose list of events I've barely scratched the surface of. Alongside dialogue so strange it actually starts to make sense in its randomness and the extreme gore, and the live action film has a mountain to scale in comparison.

What I have to admire with the adaptation though is that it does manage to adapt it well, right down to the obsession with the violent splatter being intercut with its naive emotional core, where crying of manly tears is common place from Ricky, lamenting all those who die violently in spite of his own responsibility for knocking half a person's face off or splitting a giant fat man's stomach open like a balloon full of red paint. It's also feels like one of the more off-beat films that came over from Hong Kong cinema, making the decision to adapt a Japanese manga like it with incredible faithfulness a rare case of material so perfectly fitting its new home, fitting the tone of many Hong Kong films as eccentric as it equally. The one difference to a lot of the more lurid martial arts films however is that, whilst there's plenty of actors in the cast who are exceptionally talented in this area, the combat ability depicted in the film is significantly more simplistic, so that rather than the spectacle that is the common benchmark of Hong Kong cinema of exceptional and athletic fight scenes, the result is actually a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter film on a higher budget with more elaborate production design. A punch doesn't just hit flesh but take a huge chunk off a person, half their hand if they are throwing one back, or the whole jaw. This is the film where, straight from the manga, someone losing a fight cuts open their own stomach and attempts to strangle their opponent with their own exposed intestines. This gore, in elaborate cheery prophetic glory, is ridiculous and without concept of real life physics, possible to heal a severed tendon by tying up again, not how tendons work in real life but part of the crazed logic the manga gained from Kazuo Koike's teachings to the author.

A lot of what you get from the film since the plot is without the usual level of martial arts, baring these gore effects, is the eccentricities particularly in its cast of characters to latch onto. Fan Siu-Wong is playing a cipher with an oddly schizophrenic attitude to morality, blaming another for a prisoner dying when he finds their family photo but only minutes earlier punching half his face off, and a knack for blazers in the flashback explaining his current situation when dealing with the happiness he used to have. Anyone who becomes his character's friend is the same, all of them dying in nasty ways in a way that could become a morbid drinking game. The side characters in terms of the villains are the real interest, from Cyclops, the most valuable thing of the film who has a hook hand, a glass eye he keeps breath mints in, and Mei-Sheng playing him as a bumbling yet sinister figure perfectly, or Ka-Kui as the warden, his chubby man-child nephew already memorable, but by himself in his sadistic glee of what he does or being chosen to run the prison, and all its evil shenanigans, because he's the best at martial arts, one of the most memorable lines of dialogue. It's this broadness which compensates for the simplicity of the story if you can appreciate it. For me it's more difficult in spite of these great aspects. Much of this review is based on the problem of comparing it to the original source material, not only in terms of the madness in the original but Saruwatari's art managing to make such silliness and gore actually artistically awe inspiring in how realistic and detailed it is, the grey and muted palette of the prison setting and style of the film only awakened when someone bursts a blood vessel. Still deserving of its reputation as a one-off gore kung-fu fest, but for me personally it falls behind other films like it especially from the Shaw Brothers which didn't sacrifice the martial arts and elaborate stories for the gore.

From http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-wlmdUd9qNEA/UFxr9NGODcI/