Sunday, 20 December 2015

#14: Gatchaman Crowds (2013)

Director: Kenji Nakamura
Screenplay: Kenji Sugihara, Shinsuke Onishi and Toshiya Ono
Voice Cast: Maaya Uchida (as Hajime Ichinose); Daisuke Namikawa (as Jō Hibiki); Ryota Ohsaka (as Sugune Tachibana); Aya Hirano (as Paiman); Ayumu Murase (as Rui Ninomiya); Daisuke Hosomi (as O.D); Kotori Koiwai (as Utsu-tsu); Mamoru Miyano (as Berg Katze)
Based on the Tatsunoko Productions created franchise
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Remakes and reinterpretations are common in anime. Resurrecting a classic franchise or character makes practical sense - the potential nostalgia can sell it but also a complete reinterpretation can bring an old franchise back to life for a new audience. This is only a problem for me, as it has been the case for mainstream cinema, when everything is this with no original ideas. Anime follows comics books, and characters have been resurrected in manga form too, in that it's as much to bring a franchise back to relevance or appealing to an older fan base as it is to capitalise on a brand in many of the cases I've seen. Depending on what I watch for the blog, I'll end up covering multiple versions of the same character even if they're not necessarily popular in the West - Lupin the 3rd, Sailor Moon, Cutey Honey, the Dirty Pair, Golgo 13 and an entire Japanese Justice League of heroes and anti-heroes, even the villains likely to be brought back in a fresh lick of paint for a new TV show or spin-off. Gatchaman is known in the West as Battle of the Planets, with the franchise in Japan a jewel in the crown of Tatsunoko Productions,  who've specialised in superhero characters like them alongside other genres of anime. Gatchaman Crowds is pretty radical, however, in comparison to the previous version or what you'd expect for a superhero story.

A carefree high school girl with her head in the clouds, Hajime Ichinose, is suddenly brought into secret Gatchman organisation to become the newest member. Hilariously, the series never attempts to explain why she was chosen in this season, as if the screenplay wisely decided to excise the part of storytelling which bogs it down where it has to establish the origins of a character. Some of it is missed, as I will get into later, but in cramming all the exposition of what the Gatchamen are in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode allows it to get on with the meat of the show. All that matters is that Hajime now has a special electronic notebook which is connected directly to her consciousness, able to turn her into an armoured warrior to fight aliens. Amongst this team there are three good aliens - the warmhearted O.D., the mysterious Utsutsu Miya who is melancholic and can duplicate herself amongst other abilities, and their leader Paiman, a small alien that looks like a panda - and two fellow human beings, the civil office worker Joe Hibiki and Sugane Tachibana, a fellow high school student who is continually mortified by Hajime's behaviour. When she befriends the aliens they're supposed to be killing, to the horror of almost everyone, a real threat appears in the form of the alien Berg Katze, a flamboyant shape-shifter who intends to get humanity to destroy themselves through GALAX, an elaborate community spearheaded by Rui Ninomiya which the later intends to use to make the world a better place.

Gatchman Crowds manages to be quite a bit different in the area of superhero storytelling, where the issue of ordinary society is given greater importance than the superhero tropes themselves. How this deals with technology is a significant factor; even in western superhero films I've seen, including self-referential works like Kick-Ass (2010), you don't get as extensive a viewpoint on technology like the web in this sort of universe like in this. GALAX, which through a game-like mentality encourages the normal public to help each other in crises and offers knowledge to the populous, is both unsettling in its all encompassing nature on people's lives but also, eventually, becomes conduit to bring humanity back into technology. The series shows however the complications of social media within the exaggerated context of superheroes and aliens, ultimately about the moral issues of taking order into one's own hands when society is far from perfect. Mobile phones, discussion forums, even YouTube become preverbal minefields where a hero can become a villain, and an attempt to inform the population of a threat has to struggle against text bubbles like those on Facebook from random bystanders insulting the people making the warning.

What could be seen as a conservative message, where every Japanese citizen becomes happy and helps each other for the sake of the nation, is complicated by the fact that the technology, like governments, can be extremely flawed and its common sense that prevails if one wants to improve the world. Problems are furthered by Rui Ninomiya given certain members of the public the access to "Crowds", the ability to protect their minds into the bodies of hulking bobble headed figures meant to help in emergency situations, both able to be used for virtue and destruction depending on the individual whims of users. Gatchaman Crowd in a light hearted work is yet about the dangers of ego and abusing power, and for all its bright colours, there's unsettling moments where suddenly a random knifing spree takes place, the evil alien responsible as much a metaphor for the worse in people as well as a truly evil and charismatic villain for boo.

It's a shame this particular story is only twelve episodes long. More anime series are this length now, and while this helps avoid over padding them with non-essential fluff, this particular series while it thankfully jettisons bad clichés of the superhero genre could've been fun if it had twenty four episodes. It could've done with indulging in the monster of the week episode at least once throughout its length and allowed the Gatchaman lifestyle for Hajime to been seen in more detail. At least enough to let the characters have more screen time and let the plot, where she encourages her group to leave secrecy and name themselves to the public, to have greater meaning and adding to the mellow irony of the fact her first suggestion to do this is to go to a nursery school and entertain the children with their superhero transformations. It would've been more interesting to see Utsutsu's plight as a figure whose life saps away because of her powers, as the dialogue suggests, and to see more moments of Paiman's frustrations as team leader, only shown when he decides to get drunk and chow on snacks after running away from a battle in fear previously.  

There are clichés however I'm thankfully, as mentioned, were axed and what is put in their place are some of the best aspects of the series. While she could come off as too perfect a person, a "Mary Sue" to quote fan fiction terminology, Hajime is refreshing as a protagonist with no dark past or anxieties like so many generic heroes and heroines. Especially for a female protagonist it's refreshing to have one who is written with a traumatic past. It's not jarring for her to never cry or feel anger, completely happy even when being goaded by the villain. It's as if the anime stock character of the airheaded female character, like Osaka from Azumanga Daioh (2002), whose head is in an entirely different reality was made the heroine and turns out to be more wiser than anyone else because of this. You'd want to date a girl like this if she existed as a real person, a nerd obsessed with note books and who goes to collage session which have every civil service leader amongst the group, and thankfully she's far from the useless moe stereotype of the cute girl or a magical pixie girl who's obnoxious in her chirpiness, instead someone who can still be blunt with a smile on her face even to the villain. Also wonderful if that this is the first explicit example of gender fluidity in anime that I'll cover. Amongst other interesting character details in other areas, you find out that Rui Ninomiya is actually a young man who dresses like a woman into Gothic Lolita clothing in public, this fact brought up casually a few times but never a distinct feature of her when it's the Faustian scenario between her and Berg Katze that's the real existential crisis. Gender and sexuality has already been fluctuated in some of the anime I've already covered, but it can be more explicit in these works even in a moment of comedy. One of the reasons I still am a fan of manga and anime is because of how it subverts various things continually including issues like this.

Gatchaman Crowds this year got a sequel series, and by all accounts it has turned out to be just as good as this was. In terms of the visuals and animation, the first series does stand out with a distinct personality, more pronouncedly colourful in its realistic city setting than other anime, with a sense of dynamic energy to the animation even in the use of 3D models that is infectious. Everything that it manages to sneak into a breezy tone in terms of story, all the commentary on technology, is a huge factor to enjoying the series as it does manage to have a great deal of insight in-between in its light-heartedness. The only thing I can grumble about is how I would've liked more than twelve episodes for this prequel's story, that it could've melded the tradition of the classic Gatchman with this new version with ideas a plenty in its head for commentary, making its ending no longer a sudden one but one with greater bombast. Everything that stands as it is, though is exceptionally watchable. That I immensely enjoyed what there was makes my criticism of its shortness actually a paradoxical compliment, wanting a lot more of the best things. Even if it could've lead to a drop in script and animation quality, it would've been a gamble worth taking to get this story in greater depth. Instead I'll wait impatiently for the sequel to get home theatre release in the UK. 

Saturday, 28 November 2015

#13: Roujin Z (1991)

From https://animechronicleuk.files
Director: Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Screenplay: Katsuhiro Otomo
Voice Cast: Chisa Yokoyama (as Haruko Mitsuhashi); Shinji Ogawa (as Takashi Terada); Chie Satō (as Nobuko Ohe); Kōji Tsujitani (as Mitsuru Maeda); Hikojiro Matsumura (as Kijuro Takazawa)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

I'll openly admit my love for Roujin Z. The story of student nurse Haruko and her elderly client being used as a guinea pig for a nuclear powered, intelligent and multi-purpose nursing bed is one of the least conventional plots you could have for an animated feature film, even when there're still robots and explosions involved, and that's something I can immediately adore. The mark of how imaginative and playful this anime is, as were many from this era or so, is that the title is shown in a black-and-white live action scene of a hand painting it in Japanese kanji on scroll paper with a brush. For only over seventy minutes, you get a fully formed and interesting story as Haruko with her friends and a trio of elderly computer hackers attempt to rescue her client Kijuro Takazawa from the research project, only for the bed to develop an intelligence of its own, taking on the personality of its occupant's late wife and deciding to take him to the beach regardless of the police or military trying to stop her.

A factor revisiting the film for the blog is that I now work, while in the office, for a care organisation for the elderly. Roujin Z has not dated at all in its concerns and they have a greater emotional reference for me now because of my occupation, the bed created by the Ministry of Public Welfare to deal with the increasing grey population that needs to be cared for. Japan, as my college geography lessons taught me, has suffered from low birth rates and an increasingly aging population as medicine and technology has allowed people to live longer in first world countries. Other reading points out that many Japanese women would rather have careers than marry, with gender bias still problematic especially in the work place, the amount of births as a result effected. This theme of an aging populous is an international issue as well, as the elderly live longer in countries like my own in Britain, myself working in a care function which could provide a service even up to a whole twenty four hours for one person. Neither is the idea of a bed which feeds, exercises and washes a person, and has everything from communications and games on it obsolete now. Only that the technology has advanced so much and is considerably smaller in size differs from this film's original hypothesis and the rest can be seen as an intentional broad interpretation of the dangers of this technology if mishandled.

Great sci-fi has three options to create something that stands out, all of which can come up in the anime I cover for the blog. Number 1, like Roujin Z you deal with real life and ask an uncomplicated "what-if" like how the future would deal with the elderly crisis; number 2, you make it as exaggerated and out-there as possible, like Osamu Dezaki's Space Adventure Cobra (1982), to the point the notion of datedness means nothing; or number 3 like Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6), the sci-fi tropes are there to reinterpret and bring out the most important factor, the emotions and characters, of a story. As the purveyor of number 1, Roujin Z is still relevant and the concern Haruko has of the coldness of the experimental bed feels more president in general about technology for me. It dangerous puts me close to being a luddite who yet enjoys his iPod, but my hesitance with simple small boxes which give people all their entertainment and house functions are enhanced especially by how mobile phones and the internet have effect how people interact with each other. The dangers of full dependency on single pieces of technology, especially when they're dictated by organisations, may sound paranoid but when this includes the protection and preservation of life, this takes a greater magnitude, as does the concerns of how technology can make people emotionally cold despite the paradox of it allow them to interact from afar. Especially in a care function, such as treating the elderly to the point of cleaning up bladder incontinence and potential embarrassing situations, human interaction is even more of an issue. Plus, as the Ministry of Public Welfare in this film learns when its too late, as many institutions in anime and cinema fail to realise before its too late, giving a test machine advanced biomechanical A.I. and the ability to move, in this case somehow becoming a transformer to their horror, is going to be disastrous.

And Roujin Z is fun mashing of sci-fi action and a comedy as well. The briskness of the film prevents it from becoming sluggish, an energy that practically gallops as the experimental bed escapes its pursuers and absorbs various objects into itself to get to its destination. The film is incredibly animated, with quite a few star names who worked on the project. Director Hiroyuki Kitakubo has already been on the blog for what was sadly his last directorial work, (blog entry #2) Blood: The Last Vampire (2000); someone with a clear talent, his filmography is very small but also very diverse, the work he would go to next a sex comedy series called Golden Boy (1995). Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the screenplay, and the late Satoshi Kon worked as the art designer. Beyond this the film is incredibly kinetic when it fully gets going, scenes such as the bed scaling along an aerial monorail with both invention and exceptional detail to them. That this is all done for a metaphor about the treatment of the elderly is peculiar, as a military conspiracy is involved and a spider robot like a Masamune Shirow design makes an appearance, but that in itself gives the film a heart as well in its centre. The message being even more relevant now helps exceptionally, and it never conveys it with a heavy handedness, instead the humour spreading the content evenly out. From the zest of the elderly hackers, who have utter disregard to acting their age, to the doomed chivalrous attempts by a suitor of Haruko's who keeps getting frisked by the cops to save her,  the characters in the film are all memorable and add personality to the central ideas. The humanity goes as far as to include the bed itself as a character, turned by accident into a loving figure who only wants to protect the frail old man held within it. How the film manages to make its explosions and action scenes fit around such a serene and peaceful the great success of Roujin Z.


Wednesday, 18 November 2015

#12: Lensman (1984)

Directors: Kazuyuki Hirokawa and Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Screenplay: Soji Yoshikawa
Based on the novel franchise by E.E. Smith
Voice Cast: Toshio Furukawa/Kerrigan Mahan (as Kimball Kinnison); Chikao Ohtsuka/Michael McConnohie (as Peter vanBuskirk); Katsuya Kobayashi/Gregory Snegoff (as DJ Bill); Mami Koyama/Edie Mirman (as Clarissa MacDougal); Nachi Nozawa/Steve Kramer (as Worsel); Seizo Katou/Tom Wyner (as Lord Helmuth)
Viewed in (a good Streamline) English dub

I had to cover an eighties anime. Seen as the golden age of anime, there's unfortunately a dearth of older anime in the UK that only Anime Limited and Discotek Media in the US is making amends for in a vast quantity - second hand DVDs and YouTube have had to make up for the lack of older titles for me as well as the rare release. Lensman however is a curious choice to begin the eighties on the blog however, an adaptation of a famous American sci-fi novel series that's not seen in high regard. The novels are an old statesman of sci-fi literature with a great reputation and heritage, but it's only had adaptations through anime, one this theatrical film and the other a TV series. The Lensman adaptation is about a young adolescent Kimball Kinnison becoming a Lensman by accident when a orb that imbeds itself into someone's hand transfers itself from a dying member to his after a spaceship crash on his home planet. This orb pulls him into the intergalactic organisation and embroiled in a war between the good Galactic Fleet and the evil Boskone Empire. The other aspect of this film, which is far odder, is that it's the debut of Yoshiaki Kawajiri, co-directing a film from an era before Akira (1988) that will be drastically alien to many casual anime fans, an era vastly different from the anime made after Akira, including Kawajiri's own, where you had uber-budgeted anime theatrical epics, many of which have been long out-of-print in the West.

Starting with then-cutting edge 3D animation to depict spaceships fleeing a hostile environment, the Lensman adaptation is clearly indebted to the original Star Wars trilogy. This becomes a severe crutch for Lensman to hobble along on. This is far from the longest film during the pre-Akira era, when anime theatrical films could be as long as two hours and a half like with Odin (1985) or Harmageddon (1983), but it manages the paradox of barely depicting enough detail for its simple plot and also being immensely sluggish at the same time. There's not a lot of plot following Kinnison and his friend - the giant, horned Peter vanBuskirk, the frankly useless female character Clarissa and the statuesque pterodactyl  alien Worsel - baring being perused by the Boskone Empire and ending up on one of their industrial planets where a narcotic is being mined. Somehow it doesn't take advantage of what's there already to add flourishes to deepen the characters' personalities or sci-fi intrigue more. Lensman misses a lot of opportunities and considering how long and vast the back story of the original novels are, this makes the narrative confusion of David Lynch's Dune (1984) a lot more acceptable when it still tried to cram so much into its feature length. This is baffling as well considering its screenwriter Soji Yoshikawa directed and scripted the Lupin 3rd film The Secret of Mamo (1978), and if there ever was a film that could've done with that one's strangeness it'd be Lensman.

Unfortunately like a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, Kinnison is an incredibly bland lead. Especially as the lens which makes up the film's MacGuffin is barely dealt with, a psychic contact to a whole federation which sounds similar to the Green Lantern Core's rings in DC Comics, and the lensmen themselves are barely covered, Kinnison is as bland as you can get. Even when his father's death in the first act should start an obvious character progression, signposted by him looking out a spaceship window with a J-metal song with eighties riffs playing to emphasise the growth, he's still a non-entity afterwards. The female lead is even worse, the only female character who, despite being a medic with military training, spends most of the film screaming or in vaguely dodgy situations tangled up by furry tentacles or stretched out in tendrils. Admittedly Kawajiri's female characters can by utterly objectionable in his later films, but this somehow feels worse than someone like Kagero in Ninja Scroll (1993). The film, like many sci-fi and fantasy stories, is helped by the side characters, such as vanBuskirk as the lovable giant who is entertaining in his gentle goliath personality and prayers to give up drinking or gambling when he's in mortal danger Then there's Worsel who's part of the interesting character designs for the aliens - part hand glider, part confident gunslinger - but he does unfortunately have a name which will immediately provoke sniggers from British listeners who know of Worzel Gummidge; even if they didn't, naming your Hans Solo equivalent Worsel is still going to cause Brits to giggle because it invokes that his home planet is somewhere in Yorkshire where the spaceships are tractors and everyone is drinking cider.

The best part of Lensman, as can be found even in the most disappointing of works, are the visuals and animation quality. Despite the limitations of the plot and characterisation there's still a vast creativity amongst the animators and cel painters where each planet, each farm land on an alien land, even of an eighties discotheque with skyscraper sized piston light shows are lovingly created. I've yet to stumble on a bad straight-to-video or theatrical anime for this blog, and while it's still early days, only if I cover a notorious example or scrape the bottom of the barrel will either lead to a terrible mess of doodles. From the Boskone Empire's biomechanical aesthetic - their various shapes to their cancer-like, Cronenbergian spaceships - to the settings across the universe, Lensman certainly has a lot to please the eye. Even the 3D computer effects, while dated, have an immense charm. In fact, during the final confrontation with the Boskone Empire leader where Kinnison is thrown through a series of hallucinations, there's an interesting mix of a 2D character design with three dimensions that's far from a mess.

It's just a shame how predictable and plodding Lensman is as a story. It's viewed as utterly unfaithful to the original source material, so badly that this might have affected its lack of DVD availability, and the fact the plot comes off as utter derivative and disinteresting makes the decision to have made the film as it is such a terrible idea with nearly thirty years of hindsight behind it. An anime shouldn't be stuck with a plain white meat hero fighting a generic villain, and ironically whilst the plots were still as simplistic, Kawajiri's solo work including more charismatic heroes and a series of bizarre adversaries, as if subconsciously he learnt from the mistakes here for his career. As Kawajiri's debut, this is merely a curiosity when his (usually) gorier and darker material later kept the animation quality but followed his more trademark peculiarities for better results. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

#11: Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990)

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Screenplay: Akinori Endo
Based on an Original Idea
Voice Cast: Hiroya Ishimaru (as Shunsuke Sengoku); Kaneto Shiozawa (as Merrill "Benten" Yanagawa); Tesshô Genda (as Rikiya "Goggles" Gabimaru); Emi Shinohara (as Remi Masuda); Kyousei Tsukui (as Versus); Mitsuko Horie (as Kyōko "Okyō" Jōnouchi); Norio Wakamoto (as Juzo Hasegawa)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

With this, Yoshiaki Kawajiri debuts on this blog, a director who had immense cult fame in the West when works like Ninja Scroll (1993) were released through companies like Manga Entertainment, a household name to the point he's been hired on many US-Japanese co-productions such as The Animatrix (2003) to Highlander: The Search For Vengeance (2007). Unfortunately after 2008, though he works on productions frequently, he's never been back in the director's seat and a proposed sequel to Ninja Scroll is merely a half-whispered rumour baring a 2012 teaser trailer. The sight of his most well known protagonist fighting a female assassin who fights with razor sharp origami cranes, riding a giant one, amongst other colourful faces causes anime fans like myself to pine from his absence. Quite a few of the blog entries so far have lamented the death of straight-of-video animation from decades before, and it feels like he was a casualty of it. The drastic shift in audience and marketable preferences has also more than likely caused problems - whilst there are potential exceptions in his CV like Birdy The Mighty (1996), he was obsessed with adults, usually tough and cocky men, in something very ultraviolent works which veered sometimes into the transgressive and body horror related. Violent anime and anime which breaks from the conventions of cute schoolgirls are still being made, but not as frequently, and unfortunately this means something like Cyber City Oedo 808 feels like a creation from another time period.

Cyber City Oedo is set in another dystopian city, Oedo (Tokyo), thus enforcing how much anime staff were obsessed at one point, and still are, with seeing the worse in their futures, were crime is rife and only a tougher, unpredictable choice of law enforcement is required. It isn't just an obvious metaphor now watching so many sci-fi anime like this but an entire spectrum feeding off cyberpunk or at least the notion that everything with be noir-like and blue hued in the future to match blog entry #7) Twilight of the Dark Master (1997). Riffing on Japanese history where the anti-heroes all have jitte, a weapon Edo period police had as a symbol of their position, it's been decided to reduce multiple life sentences for certain criminals if they're willing to repay for their crimes through catching other criminals. An explosive neck collar operated by their boss' lighter à la Battle Royale (2000) is the insurance policy in case any of them decide to try and con the superiors.

Split into three parts, each episode specifically follows one individual character. There's the cocky Shunsuke Sengoku - pompadour, red coat, gets years onto his sentence because he doesn't follow orders - a template character for Kawajiri that especially predates Jubei in Ninja Scroll. Rikiya "Goggles" Gabimaru - orange mohawk, slightly older, a cyber hacker - a character you don't see in lead roles in anime anymore. And Merrill "Benten" Yanagawa - originally a female character design changed to a male bishonen, with long red nails and feminine features, giant white hair, pursuant to white suits - who follows the archetype of the quiet and wise individual who also uses monofilament wire straight from the short story Johnny Mnemonic. The plots for the three episodes are very basic, very action orientated with a lot of various tones and genre tropes mashed together. The first follows an act of cyber terrorism on a space scraper, a sky scraper so high its top pierces the atmosphere into outer space, by someone presumed to be already dead. The second follows a corrupt military project involving psychic test subjects in armoured suits, as problematic an idea for police enforcement as an ED-209 would if the test of targeting Goggles succeeds or not. The finale one deals with vampires, not the last time Kawajiri mixes them with sci-fi, as he'd make Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000), and the beginning on the blog of the strange obsession anime has with vampires being from outer space or being in science fiction settings.

A lot of whether Kawajiri appeals to you or not depends if you can accept the inherent absurdity of his work even when he's deathly serious. Many of his creations adaptations, are about men fighting other men with henchmen with elaborate physical differences or weapons, from a man with a bee hive growing out of his back or the various body horror content of Wicked City (1987).  The stack has to be put up against the lead, and for Kawajiri this includes setting off a series of strange and colourful antagonists against them. Almost every Kawajiri protagonist, including all three here, have to be impaled in the gut by a villain, and many have to a moment where they overcome a task battered and almost dead. Here, during a search of a cryogenic storage area for the terminally ill in an outer orbit space station, when there's a possibility of a vampire terrorising the Earth below killing black-market biological researchers, a character cannot just fight guards here but cybernetic, laser breathing sabre tooth tigers which come out from a few of the containers. The spacescraper, who's gyroscope would have to be physically impractical to keep it in balance, is not just being hacked to get at one person, but is part of a plan involving both having hostages in an escalator, including a young female employee with a crush on Sengoku, but also activating a satellite cannon to hit the building itself if need be. Cyber City Oedo's advantage if you can accept this is that this pulp sensibility means that there's an entertaining unpredictability and creativity to the content. Kawajiri's work can be very episodic or divided by different obstacles to defeat with a simple plot to follow, so instead it's how the stories play out that's the concern with him..

In this context, this seriousness to the material alongside both an unintentional and intentional absurdity is what makes Cyber City Oedo entertaining. The characters, all three protagonists, are stoic or have a tendency to make sarcastic jokes, which doesn't come off as bland due to the exaggerated character designs and how they're all depicted. This particular entry also has the scene stealing side character of Versus, a mobile robot used in the police service to help the anti-heroes, a box on wheels that unintentionally retorts to comments with sarcasm just by pointing out the illogical comments the  humans make. The episodes like many of Kawajiri's films and other project are colourful in the side characters and minor bystanders they have, from a blonde mulleted, one white paint leg wearing female assassin to a skeleton connected to a computer still able to terrorise people.

I cannot comment on a Kawajiri production without mentioning his character designs, which are incredibly recognisable to the point a certain anime fan, if you put a screenshot of his work in front of them, may instantly recognise its his work. Even when he's not the character designer in the credits, even a production like Highlander: The Search of Vengeance takes a page from his character design style. Prominent facial features, realism in the character designs even for the most exaggerated and fantastical, a loving care for body shape and physical appearance. It's not a surprise that Takeshi Koike, the director of Redline (2009), is his protégée as the obsession over character design is also there. Koike also took the influence of immaculate animation design in general as what cannot also be argued against is that his mentor's work, including Cyber City Oedo, was also exceptionally well animated and good looking. The dystopia here is animated with such loving detail by Madhouse that one wonders if a loving obsession with futuristic turmoil is visible in such anime. This is far from the grimiest depiction, actually quite bright and poppy at points comapred to the bleakness of A.D. Police Files (1990), but but especially with the final episode you have moments of Kawajiri's baroque sensibilities, suddenly the finale turning into gothic sci-fi with a cryogenic mortuary that's elaborately sculpted and a mood to the work in general that singles him out as being unique.

Even with a grimmer film like Ninja Scroll, in terms of gore and shocking content, there is this balance between humour to seriousness that populates Kawajiri's work, but here in particularly it works immensely, helped especially as all three protagonists appear in all three episodes with merely who gets central attention changing. Hopefully Cyber City Oedo will get a reappraisal one day, as it manages to pack a lot of invention into itself even if its stories are very predictable in what happens. That's not the point of it, and instead one finds entertainment in the fact that, no, I wasn't lying about the cybernetic, laser breathing sabre tooth tigers and they were depicted in all their ridiculous glory amongst other things in this specific anime.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

#10 - Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek (2004)

Director: Shuhei Morita
Screenplay: Shiro Kuro
Based on an original idea
Cast (English/Japanese): Dan Green/Makoto Ueki (as Yaimao); Michael Sinterniklaas/Junko Takeuchi (as Hikora); Sean Schemmel/Rei Naitou (as Noshiga); Tom Wayland/Mika Ishibashi (as Tachiji); Veronica Taylor/Akiko Kobayashi (as Suku); Veronica Taylor/Masami Suzuki (as Sorincha)
Viewed in English dub version

Continuing on with the discussion of (blog entry #3) A.LI.CE (1999) and three dimensional animation in anime, there's also the subject of cel shading, a technique which offers another visual palette in itself, turning computer generated images into what looks like 2D comic book illustrations. Its more well known for video games, making itself known through Jet Set Radio (2000), but it's been used in other media and has been seen a few times in anime. Kakurenbo, in only twenty plus minutes, follows a group of children who go to an abandoned and haunted city to play Otokoyo, a game of hide or seek where one is safe if you follow the neon signs and escape the various back alleys and tightly knit streets. Those who lose the game are supposedly snatched away by demons. One boy Hikora joins this particular game to find his sister Sorincha, who went missing after a previous game of Otokoyo. What's found in the city for the players are legitimately monstrous.

In terms of the animation style, while it does show itself as being three dimensional animation on a lower budget, this is a very good example of practical and imaginative use of such a technique. Cel shading allows three dimensional animation to have a character to it, vivid in primary colours or at least the look of a cartoon with a visual dynamic to it. While a work from around the same time like Galerians: Rion (2002, which was released in the West in 2004) was already doomed to become dated, using the three dimensional animation style of A.LI.CE, Kakurenbo despite some blemishes still looks very good now through its distinct appearance. Wisely, to avoid the problems in trying to animate small but complicated details, the children all wear fox masks as part of the game of Otokoyo that are never taken off, reducing the problems trying to animated facial movements could've have. The demons are enormous or at least inhuman entities which don't need tiny, intricate movements or details to them either, reducing the struggle the production team has. The detail instead in found in the setting, a ghost town fully evoked as the characters trapped between the various corridors and areas trying to escape the monsters.

As for the film itself as a short story, it's a moody piece, where urban lights of a rundown city have a pervasive atmosphere to them and the story ends with a creepy twist. It feels like a fairy tale and especially with what happens with the children caught by the demons, you get a story that isn't adult at all but does have a suitably ghoulish premise without an ounce of blood being shed or any physical harm being fully depicted. The fact that Japanese mythology paints the film in terms of its visuals is inherently a good thing. Like any country, the horror stories made within it are going to be influenced by the culture surrounding them, and from the costumes including the fox masks to the looks of the demons, it saturates Kakurenbo immensely. You get enough to tantalise but are still fed by what exists in the very short feature. Even if most of the demons are actually giant monsters, including one ridden by two smaller twin demons, they're suitably scary for the story.

After this, director Morita made Freedom (2006-8), what is for some a sci-fi folly I'd gladly watch for the blog. It attempted to take the cel shading 3D animation here to a larger scale story, but Freedom was unfortunately stuck with people only knowing it for Katsuhiro Otomo being involved with it and the amount of product referencing for Nissin Cup Noodles throughout its frames. Morita has however helmed the television adaptation of Tokyo Ghoul in 2014, a new and very popular work whose visibility is clear when my obscure neck of the woods has volumes of the original manga on sale at WHSmiths. It's good to see that Morita went from this great start, even if it took eleven years from Kakurenbo, and might be on his way to a healthy directorial career. That it involves Tokyo Ghoul means his beginning with a horror story comes full circle with another horror story as his latest which is nice. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

#9: Another (2012)

Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Screenplay: Ryou Higaki
Based on the serial novel by Yukito Ayatsuji
Voice Actors: Atsushi Abe (as Kōichi Sakakibara); Natsumi Takamori (as Mei Misaki); Ai Nonaka (as Yukari Sakuragi); Hiroaki Hirata (as Tatsuji); Kazutomi Yamamoto (as Mochizuki); Madoka Yonezawa (as Izumi Akazawa)

Synopsis: in 1998, high school student Kōichi Sakakibara starts late at his new school. To his surprise a girl in his class, a mysterious figure with an eye patch called Mei Misaki, is completely ignored by everyone else in the class baring him, a complete non-entity even to the teacher. He learns that specific class, Class 3-3, has been cursed. Back in 1972, a student died only for the class to pretend they were still alive, their ghostly image appearing in the graduation photo. To the horror of every class 3 onward, an extra student always appears on the class list, one that is already dead, and the students and their loved ones die in violent fashions once every month for the whole year. Mei is central to a way to ward off the curse, dictated this year by the chosen student countermeasure leader Izumi Akazawa, but as Kōichi desires to learn more about the curse, and refuses to follow the rules by talking to Mei, there is more to the curse which emphasises how the students could turn on each other if their lives depended on it.

Another is part of the same horror template of live action films like Ringu (1998), folklore or urban legends usually with horrible demises for the victims affected by them. Even in the modern day, though the story is set in 1998, folklore of curses manage to survive in pop culture in such tales. Like Ringu, it's based on a novel and there's also a live action feature film version of Another making it a franchise too. The series takes its time to build up and explain what's going on, a slow burn to the point the first two episodes are very sedate. Only some underlining issues existing are fed to you as Kōichi figures out something is amiss. Not so long after the first two episodes things get gristly.

The best part of Another for three-quarters of its length are these characters in dealing with the curse. Paranoia starts to grow and to deal with it an extreme form of social out casting is used. The series never goes as far with this as it should, but with its matter-of-fact tone, what is there is immensely entertaining. The characters are clichés but this isn't a problem, as clichéd as characters in American slasher films to British period horror films. Kōichi is your typical, quite male protagonist who in this case suffered from a collapsed lung and has lived all his life without a mother, who died giving birth to him. There's the jock, a little dumb and cocky but kind at heart, the nerdy girl with glasses, and in Izumi, the countermeasure group leader with giant red haired pigtails, even the vague colour of the tsundere, a female character who hides a slowly growing affection for someone through a cold and even aggressive personality, only modified here by the fact her coldness is from concern of protecting her classmates. They exist to play the stereotypes, but like the best, you still like them all, and dread anything harmful happening to them.

Like many a male protagonist in modern day anime, Kōichi is the least interest character of them all, and for all the terrible examples and crass depictions of them in anime, I've found the female characters in most shows are the most interesting, two in particular out of everyone else who get the most screen time. The aforementioned Izumi  could've been more interesting, heading up the machinations of Class 3-3 to protect itself even through a cruel act. Sadly the series closes her story in a terrible way, but for a side character you want more about her like such a seemingly closed hearted character should radiate for a viewer. The other, who's the female protagonist and the potential love interest for Kōichi, is Mei, the complete outcast with a strange personality and a mind firmly in an entirely different reality, who hates mobile phones and speaks with an incredibly distant intonation to her voice. Living with a mother at home that's also an exhibit space for macabre, realistic dolls, there's a surprising amount of female outcasts, potential goths and miscreants the more post-2000s anime I view, and it's for the better as someone like Mei, even though she's meant to be cute in her apathy, is a lot more interesting as  a result. It's a hell of a lot more interesting than a Belldandy from Oh My Goddess! who doesn't even have a distinction of herself away from the male protagonist, only existing in context to him. A character like this is why it feels like female voice actors for me, in English or Japanese scripts, probably get more dramatic meat to chew on than their male peers.

The least interesting aspect of Another is the horror story itself. It's complicated rules of the curse are whittled down to freak deaths, jarring when half the series is about Kōichi learning of the full history of it. The origins of the curse is never brought up directly into the narrative, only a series of unfortunate accidents and freak deaths taking place with a subplot of trying to find out who's the dead extra student in the current class. Some of the deaths, like the first with an umbrella, are straight from the text book of the Final Destination films, only without the Rube Goldberg machination. They also come off as silly in the series' serious tone because many could've been prevented if the students stepped in to help their classmates rather than stand there dazed. Many further are explained with ridiculous amounts of exposition after the fact which rob their impact, and the first two deaths are worsened because the characters are placed in the foreground and given greater personalities just before they're killed. Between all this, the relationship between Kōichi and Mei, with occasional interactions with Izumi  and the others students, are far more interesting.

Then unfortunately the final two episodes happen. In the third and final act the plot gets stupid, monkeys taking over the typewriters. Another suddenly starts introducing plot twists, including a supernatural tool for the character, when there's no time left to prevent it from being a contrivance, not even a pulpy twist to rescue a character, and the slow burn of the entire series is sacrificed for a series of random, countless deaths. Not only are random background students on mass slaughtered, but even side characters we've seen in the foreground are all abruptly killed or turned insane abruptly. It becomes a mindless series of deaths, just nasty for the sake of it for many, and because of this, the problems throughout the series become worse as a result. The fact Class 3-3 still exists, though the story tries to explain it, becomes ludicrous, and playing armchair screenwriter for once, the decision to turn Another into a cheap Battle Royale (2000) scenario rather than becoming Ringu or Pulse (2001) is such a missed opportunity. Even introducing a Shinto or Buddhist priest to try to exorcise the classroom, or a paranormal expert becoming involved, even if it failed, would've been more entertaining than what happens. Worse, there are plot twists that were part of the series since the first episode, ones that were still stupid and contrived even if clues were set up from the beginning.


Sadly because of this, Another leaves a bad taste in my mouth because the ten episodes beforehand cannot work without this ending. The best part of the series, the character dynamics, are only a small part and get sacrificed for this ending. Surviving relationships are left without any real closure or continuing possibility as the series just ends immediately afterwards. Since I covered it before as blog entry #8, I cannot help but think the same mentality of The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (1990) and its plotting style could've been for the better for something like this - emphasis on the unknowable and supernatural, without over explaining the deaths that took place, a simplistic plot to every episode leaving the characters to have more dialogue about themselves instead, and a mood that actually makes the series scary rather than an increasing body count. Another isn't even scary. Instead what started off as a promising TV series, which I anticipated with hope for this Halloween season, fumbles in the finale and becomes an incredible disappointment. 


Monday, 12 October 2015

#8 - The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (1990)

Director: Naoko Omi
Screenplay: Shiira Shimazaki
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Kazuo Umezu is an intriguing horror manga author of immense acclaim in his country, one that I've not been able to get into yet as I have Junji Ito. Umezu is up for a few English translated editions of his work in the same hardbacked releases Ito has had in the UK. His work from the images viewable online are suitably gruesome and not for the squeamish, heavily stylised and exaggerated. Umezu himself is as memorable in appearance as well, a very gaunt thin elderly man in a Where's Wally red and white stripped jumper. Apparently he also lives in a house that's red and white stripes as well, adding through the creator a personality for his work as much as Ito's drawn version of himself being turned insane by spirals works so well reading Uzumaki (1998-9).

The anime is two stories based on Umezu's work. The first is of a schoolgirl who fears the new female transfer student is a vampire, waking up one morning with a small puncture wound in the centre of her neck. The second is four girls going into a supposedly haunted house. They don't hide that they're ghoulish stories, a twist in both with tones as if you could tell them to another personally around a campfire for a good chill. There's not a lot on the bones of the anime in terms of greater meanings, but the stories are appropriately macabre.

Visually, the anime looks very unique from others from this era, transforming Umezu's illustration style into moving figures. The female cast who are central to each story manage to have even bigger eyes than the stereotypical anime heroine, and striking use of black lines and shadows is prominent for moments of horror, particularly for character's horrified reactions. The music, starting off with slightly cheesy synth, is also memorable. The synth itself gets creepy in its tininess as it goes along, but especially in the second story you can pick up some clever music cue choices for creating tension, from atonal jazz noise for a scene of terror where the haunted house's original owner makes themselves known, to an eerie reinterpretation of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky using what the music director might've chosen as the most sinister sounding bells possible. Even for this utterly obscure straight-to-video anime, which I and many can only find online in a VHS rip with fan added subtitles, there's ingenuity in the production nonetheless.

The stories themselves run with the body horror and general grossness that follows on from (blog entry #7) Twilight of the Dark Master (1997), not of the school of Ringu (1998). The first story eventually becomes overt body horror with an added twist of an unknown internal evil, a giant teeth mouth, spiders crawling on flesh, and a somewhat startling appearance and use  of a tentacle like tongue I didn't remember last time viewing this anime, encouraging the animators to draw the most gross distortions of the human body possible. The second story is more ridiculous in the amount of blood split, including a bloody teddy bear, but seeing a limb pop off like if one pulled a leg off a Barbie doll, especially with the character designs, is creepy in itself.

Naturally Umezu's own work is as appropriately disgusting looking at un-translated panels, but if there's one flaw with this adaptation, it's that while even when he's utterly vile in some of the images he draws, the panels can also be beautiful in a perverse way at the same time, like with Junji Ito and other manga authors who develop personalities to their horror writing and the drawings. This is not like the infamous anime adaptation Midori (1992) which managed to transfer an entire aesthetic based on the early years of Showa Era Japan as much as the original manga creator's style into cels, but at least Umezu may have appreciated the faithfulness to his work shown here. Even the strange minute long short between the stories turning the characters in the first story, including the monster, into chibi cartoon figures doesn't feel outside the tone but keeping within the grim glee of the material.

Sadly there hasn't been many other adaptations into anime of Umezu's work, barring a couple from the late seventies and eighties. The utter obscurity of this particular title somewhat emphasises this. It's a shame as, while there have been live action adaptations, this anime sets up a Tales of the Crypt tone that could've gone further. It even has a mascot who is a skinny goth-like ghoul bookending the anime, functioning in the same position as the Crypt Keeper but with a quieter, unsettling manner. An in-joke of the second story characters watching "The Curse of Kazuo Umezu" during their movie night, food wrapping littering the floor when the lights are turned back on, emphasises how this could've been a fun straight-to-video anthology series if it had legs. What exists in itself in terms of quality is a curiosity only, but considering the lack of horror anime in comparison to other genres likes romance or sci-fi, it still has virtue to it and would've been a suitably watchable series if more episodes were ever to have existed.


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

#7: Twilight of the Dark Master (1997)

Director: Akiyuki Simbo
Screenplay: Tatsuhiko Urahata
Based on a manga by Saki Okuse
Voice Actors: Toshihiko Seki (as Shijo Tsunami); Emi Shinohara (as Tachibana Shizuka); Hiroya Ishimaru (as Tenku); Akira Kamiya (as Huang Long); Urara Takano (as Chen Long)
Viewed in Japanese with English subtitles

The month is October, and Halloween is on the horizon, so its apt to cover horror or supernatural themed anime. What's surprising is that in comparison to manga and live action cinema in Japan, there's not as much in anime in the genre as you'd presume there to be. There's still a bit to dig through, but not a lot, and only some of it is known well and less than that has high regards to it. Even with the issues of censorship on television placed aside, as supernatural horror could be done without gore or adult content, there's not a lot in comparison to other genres. This means the existing horror anime is an eclectic bunch from various decades and formats.

The first starting off this month is an early entry by director Akiyuki Simbo, who's had an interesting career trajectory since this straight-to-video OVA, his later work very well regarded and popular such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011-2013), certainly the kind of work that'll be covered in the future. Twilight of the Dark Master is from an entirely different era than today, a short less than fifty minutes long, a snapshot left open with only tantalising details to digest. Set within a futuristic metropolis, there's no qualms as in other anime of mixing genres, mixing dystopian sci-fi with demons and magic not that far a stretch for the medium. The stereotypically debonair and bidanshi male hero Shijo Tsunami is the protagonist, a white haired magical being who hunts down monsters whenever they appear, blowing them up with ease with his supernatural powers. Alongside his more human buddy Tenku, they are requested by a traumatised woman named Tachibana Shizuka to locate her fiancée for her, a man who transformed into a demon causing her to lose an arm and suffering further mutilation, wanting to put his out of his mystery with Tsunami and Tenku's help. The search leads to sinister activities around a sex club and pharmaceutical company owned by the same organisation, making illegal steroids that turn people into monsters and have the fiancée locked up in the club's secret rooms for nefarious purposes.

The result is a nightmare of gory, sex filled plotting in a grimy setting where there's no daylight, only night-time atmosphere and bright lights, a place a skyscraper can be cut in half with magical powers but no one seems to care about the possible destruction and large body count that is caused by it. What appeals about these pre-Millennial OVAs is that even terrible ones show an unpredictability and style to them. Speaking of this in the context of the Halloween season, they managed due to whatever trends were taking precedent at the time to blend genres into dark, moody pieces. Moments are so blatantly lurid but in a serious way that it's quite shocking to see some of the content in this, even if it's far from the annuals of sleaziest and bloodiest anime ever made, the sincerity of say, the Chinese brother and sister combo on the villain's side with their incestuous, sadistic personalities more pronounced when it's clear the anime is doing it more deliberately and to purposely get a jolt from the viewers. The areas of body horror and transgression in Japanese storytelling have always been an art form in itself, a league of its own where even the most tasteless examples are still stupefying inventive in how they distort the human body or mix mythology, pop culture and plain nonsensical ideas together into images.

The bloodier, sexually explicit anime made for video showed this immensely, this example willing to throw up images briefly onscreen that distort human anatomy into various startling ways. From the melding of flesh and machinery, Tachibana Shizuka gaining a metal arm and steel plates on her mid torso since the traumatic incident with her fiancée, to a brief moment of two sets and legs and arms caressing someone like they were almost a phallic figurine, there are the sorts of visceral images and ideas here that are distinct to Japanese pop culture, that which you don't seen in other countries' takes on these genres. There's a uniqueness to the level of distortion and manipulation, of symmetry against lack of it, the notions of beauty and ugliness, sexuality to violence, man against beast or demons, that are only found in Japanese movies, animation, comic books and literature.

What's also interesting, as seen with Twilight of the Dark Master, is that for every horrifying one in terms of their politics, they're a lot more (perversely) palatable in depicting transgression than a lot of the anime past the Millennium I've seen. Even when there's stuff that's just titillation, a surprising amount of sexuality and nudity in this anime than I remember, it still feels more considered and beyond purely fan service even when the plot is slight.

A problem now, especially with sex comedies that try to have serious tonal shifts or don't plot their scenes out well, is that there's a shocking amount of moments I've encountered in more modern anime that are not transgressive but just uncomfortable and tasteless, wherever they include badly presented content or just make ill-advised decision prioritised by titillation the audience. That a lot of it is in the treatment of female characters makes it worse, and while this might sound insane to read, at least for how shocking and disgusting  Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend (1989) is, it was as much a work of shock value as well as an elaborate narrative. There's something far worse even then Overfiend in moments of innocuous and dumb shows like High School DxD (2012), (entry #6 of the blog), where they go into transgressive content briefly but in context of abrupt tonal shifts and in the context of shows where they feel badly out of place. Something like Twilight of the Dark Master, even if it's still a lurid, esoteric sci-fi fantasy, feels like it's using the moments of gore and sex to more thoughtful reasons rather than merely planting it repeatedly through scene after scene.

That the short anime takes itself seriously helps. The atmosphere you find here has been lost in a lot of anime now as well. That its hand drawn animation is as much part of it, the great moody anime of now of a different type of style. Here there's a tone to the story which saves the short anime from its derivative aspects, the sight of a cyber metropolis skyscrapers looming above the streets potent, imaging and seeing the grotty urban streets below and the demons lurking there, saturating the scenes like decoration. The visuals for the anime help, exceptional anime and memorable character designs, an atmospheric score by Keishi Urata evocative and adding to the tone.

Brief moments of arcane imagery stand out against bio-horror imagery of machines and medical tubes, moments of Cronenbergian imagery with a Japanese twist here, such as what takes place in the sex club, not a single bared breast seen but enough to see to shock a viewer, naked flesh covered in living technology, of semi-transparent multicoloured claws and tendrils wrapping around people, as a soundtrack of pained orgasms fill the viewers' ears. That this is back in an era where OVAs had a lot of adult characters, rather than now when you seem to trip over high school set anime, adds to this, feeling as if on a different perspective in its content. For the lack of an overreaching plot, little time to cover a great deal, Twilight of the Dark Master has an ominous tone even when set in bright rooms, a mood palatable in the animated frames that makes up for the plot's lack of content. The mix of the horrible and beautiful stands out far more than the utterly hockey bits, making it an anime that I cannot help but find enjoyable despite the flaws.