Saturday, 26 September 2015

#6: High School DxD (2012)

Director: Tetsuya Yanagisawa
Screenplay: Takao Yoshioka
Based on light novels by Ichiei Ishibumi
Voice Actors: Yōko Hikasa (as Rias Gremory); Yuuki Kaji (as Issei Hyōdō); Ayana Taketatsu (as Koneko Tōjō); Azumi Asakura (as Asia Argento); Shizuka Itou (as Akeno Himejima); Kenji Nojima (as Yūto Kiba)
Viewed in Japanese with English subtitles

Update 26th March 2016: Originally this was a link to the review for Videotape Swapshop but unfortunately as of the start of 2016 the site no longer exists. This only effects this blog in that the following now, when you click this modified post, is the full review left as it was originally. Additional footnotes have been added with new reflections.

High School DxD if it was a live action exploitation film from the seventies would be one about demonic schoolgirls that would be promoted as being too illicit for the faint of heart. The only difference is that they would've been played by actors in their thirties than drawn characters. That the series was banned in New Zealand does add an infamy, but it was also passed uncut and suitable for fifteen year olds to buy at a counter on DVD in the United Kingdom too1. For all the nudity, the lurid commercial break stills of female characters contorting in various states of undress and sleaze its managed only a fifteen certificate, which shows a surprising moment of progressiveness from the British censors. No lynch mobs have appeared, though I dread the mother or father who stumbles in on their fifteen year old watching this, as it makes some of the sleazier Italian movies of the seventies, with higher age ratings, look tame in comparison. High School DxD rightly is available to buy as it was intended to be, whether it's good for you or offensive, though when one of the bonus mini-episodes has undo noodles come to life and molest the female cast like tentacles, I have to wonder what the hell was in the water cooler at the BBFC when it was decided "nah, an eighteen certificate would be too harsh."

As in many an anime, the lead is a hapless male school student called Issei Hyodo. Somehow anime can make it sound logical, even just to itself, that he can be affable and ultimately a wonderfully kind hearted person but also a pervert who hides with his friends in the women's changing room all the time. His luck seemingly changes when a shy girl asks him to be her boyfriend...then reveals she's an evil fallen angel after him because he is blessed, like many an anime protagonist, with a special ability called a Sacred Gear and kills him. What could be the shorted show possible is lengthened drastically when a female demoness and fellow school student of his, the red haired and young head of the demon family called Rias Gremory, resurrects him as a demon to be taken under her leathery wings as a beloved underling. With him as he learns the ropes are her vice president Akeno Himejima, a sadistic thunder maiden who share's Rias' ridiculous Russ Meyer inspired character proportions2; Koneko Toujou, a diminutive female tank who will gladly knock his head off for being a pervert; and Yuto Kiba, the only other male of Riass group who together gain pacts with humans and convene together. Later on in the first main story of the series a female European named Asia Argento is introduced who can heal people and is a very shy, affable girl. Yes, she's named after Dario Argento's youngest daughter and star of Land of the Dead (2005), though I can't say if it's a reference or a freak coincidence.

The series is split into two halves - the first with Argento and the evil fallen angels who plan to manipulate her, the second half with the head of another demon family who wants to take Rias as his wife forcibly. The real point of the series is for its titillation, more of a sex comedy which lunges into drama and fantasy action very abruptly at points. Sacrificing a great story potential doesn't help. It's not original but you can make something from it as with any plot. However the incongruous mix of the comedy and fantasy doesn't work when it should've stayed only as a fantasy comedy. Neither does it help that it splashes in mythological ideas it has no real interest in taking further unless it's a joke, like the fact demons can't read Bibles without getting a horrible headache, the rest underserved of its potential in favour of arousing the viewers. You have demons, fallen angels, wars between them and the normal angels, familiars, pacts with human and a various stew of ideas that never get any lip service. There are two more series from this, but here little is used in twelve episodes. It really becomes a pain when the series especially pulls out a really esoteric reference once in a while that raises eyebrows - it's a slight spoiler for the ending, but Issei's Sacred Gear, which is the conventional anime trope of something which gives someone unlimited power and turns his hand into a red dragon claw, turns out to be Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon of Welsh mythology on their nation's flag, a reference that just abruptly appears in the final episode and comes out of nowhere in context of everything else. It does get pushed later into something else as the franchise by Ichiei Ishibumi grew out from his light novels, but the anime series never runs with this or many of the ideas it comes up with.

As for the titillation, there is a lot of it and a LOT of animated nudity, going further than other shows which merely tease the viewer to the point of desensitisation. Shredded clothes. Lots of low camera angles. Cotton eating slime in a scene that references Pokemon. Cat girls welding chainsaws. Shrine maidens and various fetishised costumes. Suggestive groans. Jiggle physics a videogame would be proud of. Lots of shower scenes to the point there is one in Rias' office she or anyone else can step into whenever they like. The only fan service in terms of men is Yuto Kiba being a handsome guy and a butch comedy character who dresses as a magical girl. If this was a year or so ago I'd be ashamed for liking some of the stuff in High School DxD. Now I feel kink is a good thing for anyone and my problems with this series in this area is a lot more complicated. To sound crass, a few of the surface issues, especially why it was banned in New Zealand, would've been resolved if this series was set at a university, especially as this is an exaggerated version of a school setting where, barring the uniforms, many of the characters are drawn like they are in their early twenties. In the best of worlds, this would just encourage fifteen year old Brits, if they saw it, to develop a thing for red heads and Goths.3

The real problems in terms of the portrayal of this content - barring the few tinges of lolicon, unintentional or not, that are just creepy regardless of context for me - is with the tone and oversaturation of it. Immediately it has to be pointed out, like many of these anime shows, there's no actual sex between characters. Barring in mind cultural differences with Japan, Issei for all his thoughts about sex turns into a deer in the headlights when someone actually propositions to him, and there is a convoluted if very dubious concept as with other modern sex comedy anime that virginity is prided upon yet still allows the viewer to perv up the young women, a concept as problematic in the West but sticks to some of this animation the worst. Even when you accept the cultural differences, there's something already wrong with a show so willing to throw carefully drawn naked breasts at your face and be tawdry about it, yet finds the idea that one of its ridiculously dressed and proportioned female characters might be serious in her sexual desires or might want to kiss Issei tasteless, the later only happen in the last episode.

Also there's an uncomfortable amount of humiliation and aggressiveness. It doesn't feel like something from BDSM or roleplay where everyone is playing out a fantasy, or transgression for the point of shocking the viewer with intention, but bad tonal shifts, inappropriate moments of titillation and, speaking of transgression, a lopsided version of it based on a gender bias. When the first episode has Argento molested in a sexualised way at the same time as a serious scene is taking place around the moment, it's scuzzy as one sees in many exploitation films and is so badly put together it's more of a bad taste in the mouth. Even as someone who admits having the Hanzo the Razor trilogy (1972-4) and the UK cut of Legend of the Overfiend (1989) in his DVD collection, I've never been comfortable with this type of material even as I defend the idea of transgression in art,  especially with the bugbear of poor plotting and mishandling of female characters. 4

Ironically it's the female characters who are the interesting thing about the series in terms of redeeming value. It's what sells the DVDs in the first place. It's what someone, if they aren't put off by the series, might want to cosplay as. It's them behind most of the stuff that I found funny and entertaining in the show. But you are stuck with characters that feel like they were written by twelve year olds afraid of girls in their class for male otaku who are afraid of women. This ultimately is what drags the series down when most of the sex humour eventually revolves around this secretly and the drama isn't to par to save everything. The titillation immediately from the first episode, while some joy in the perversity is to be found, falters when you realise this, the need for a grown up or a woman to be involved writing a lewd sex comedy desperately needed.  

Thankfully it could've been worse. It could've been about a naive childlike girl who'd decapitate herself trying to use a toothbrush in her uselessness that promotes a incestuous-paedophilic ideal that the concept of "moe" dangerously veers to5.  It's probably more progressive and more watchable if your female lead is a confident head of a family who welds great power in her hands and is so relaxed with her body that she will sleep next to the male protagonist naked in his bed without any shame. But when the writing even for a comedic character writes her merely as a fetish object rather than an erotised archetype who has their dimensions and personality detailed, any hope for that progression or better entertainment than you get dies flat on its face. Eventually the story leads to Rias, a collected and powerful demon, being saved like a damsel in distress by the same guy who learns the secret technique of causing women's clothes to explode and for them to presumably die in shame. Thus the series enforces how stone dead its potential might've been that wasn't stained by some of the dubious ideals it holds, still able to have offended the Kiwis but might've actually been something one would've found sexy, funny, imaginative and actually good.  High School DxD could've been much worse but there's so much still wrong with it as well.

1 The curious leniency the British film classifiers have on anime like this, only giving 18 certificates to very extreme depictions of violence, sex or sexual violence, is surprising even for a liberal guy like myself. The fact that this has lead to some questionable decisions, like rating a single episode of Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) 18 rated, while the rest is acceptable for twelve year olds, because of restrained references to child abuse and bondage, especially in contrast to High School DxD's lurid depictions, makes it even stranger.

2 There are many anime and manga that the late Russ Meyer would've approved of, making one wonder if anyone slipped him any examples before his passing in 2004...

3 Most of the problem, barring the portrayals of women in some anime, is entirely to do with anime's obsession with schoolgirls. This isn't just a problem with Japanese pop culture, as the famous Britney Spears' video Hit Me Baby One More Time can attest to, but anime isn't the same as casting late twenty year olds to play people attending high school. Frankly with some of these character designs, the proportions are so over the top it's impossible to imagine them as teenagers, but it's an area of art that's brought about controversy because of how murky it is as a subject.

4 The screenwriter was Takao Yoshioka, whose also done work for the Ikki Tousen franchise which is also known for depicting sex with some dubious aspects and, ironically, had one of its series banned in New Zealand thus pulling the plug on the franchise continuing there. He also wrote (entry #21) Elfen Lied (2004), a series I'll defend even for some of the same strange titillation, but with that case there was such a serious and dark narrative at play that it negated most of it, the narrative reigning it in. With comedy and work that's more for the sake of said fan service rather than a rich story - he also wrote for the infamous Queen's Blade series - he has very bad tendencies in depicting sexuality despite his good virtues that will put people off.

5 To salvage this mess of a sentence, it's better that at least the female characters in this are meant to be independent and strong willed rather than the innocent waif that "moe", a popular term in anime, usually promotes that couldn't survive without a big brother figure to protect her and sub-textually romance her, especially as one learns of the many pornography H-games on the subject from Japan. Unfortunately High School DxD doesn't go beyond merely the taste of this preferable attitude to female characters in actually giving them strong wills to match the eye popping proportions, leading to one of the biggest regrets with quite a bit of anime as a fan - the lack of erotic or sensual anime that one wouldn't be embarrassed about because of gender politics regardless of how kinky it was.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Bonus #1: Batman Beyond - Return of the Joker (2000)

Director: Curt Geda
Screenplay: Paul Dini, Paul Dini, Glen Murakami and Bruce W. Timm
Based on the comic character by Bob Kane
Voice Actors: Will Friedle (Terry McGinnis), Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Angie Harmon (Commissioner Barbara Gordon), Dean Stockwell (Tim Drake)
Viewed in English language

Openly, I have no intention to cover a great deal of Western animated works, including comic book adaptations, even as bonus reviews unless one was an open co-production with Japan or if there is a clear connection or influence worth me learning of as much as for the viewer. It's worth bringing up this particular DC Comic license because, out of pure coincidence, I discovered that its production team included Japanese staff, from the art director to storyboard creators, who've worked in numerous, well known anime productions. To not call most animation nowadays co-production seems pointless the more I think about it after this straight-to-video work as, while its technically an American work only, the craft needed to create animated films, TV shows etc. has led to the workload being shared out between studios from various other countries as well even if the final work is meant for a single audience originally. An episode of  The Simpsons is made in a South Korean studio and this particular case had people from American and Japanese animation working together

It also enforces my own neglect of the entire staff that works on these productions beyond the director, writers and musicians, of those when animation was hand drawn had to paint the cels once ago. I do believe in the auteur theory but being an anime fan enforces the obvious of how much a final work is creation in a group and how every individual contributes to a production, especially in animation when you relay on many hands to complete a single movement of a character. Instead I view auteurism as a fluid concept, with the analogy of a director being the captain of a ship, where the final decision is usually made by them unless superiors influence the final production. Everyone on this metaphorical ship, even the lowliest cabin boy/girl, is vital to actually succeed in the distance required to travel. I dedicate this paragraph, with this in mind, to everyone who worked on this production, to not ignore them as someone who usually watches the end credits with as much interest as the programme beforehand. I looked at the names of those on this staff who worked in anime productions and particularly the names Makoto Shiraishi and Akira Shimizu, the later over the decade past having become a director helming full series or an episode or so like for High School DxD (2012). From the storyboard designers to the synth recordist, individuals from this production started all the way back in 1979 with Hayao Miyazaki's first feature The Castle of Cagliostro. They have worked on Akira (1988)to Studio Ghibli films, even for entry #5 for this blog The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), these people's work directly influencing the films that I've enjoyed and written of on this newborn blog. Not neglecting all the work of the entire staff either, I tip my hat off to them all.

This film has importance for me as well as I grew up with Batman: The Animated Series (1992-5), am acclaimed and Emmy winning animated adaptation that I have immensely nostalgia of. It was celebrated for its production and storywriting, and its of immense important in the Batman canon for Mark Hamill's vocal interpretation of the Joker and creating Harley Quinn, a character so beloved in the series she was absorbed into the original comics and became a fan loved villain. I have hope the series, if I return to it, will still have virtues or be excellent as I've seen The Mask of the Phantasm (1993) within the last few years, a theatrical spin-off feature that shared the series' heavy influence of film noir and pulp storytelling, in aesthetics and plot, and was written as much for adults in its melancholy moodiness as it was for children. The series has interest in being covered on here, as an exception to the rule at the top of the review, as animators from Japanese anime worked on episodes, and one particular team loved it and similar pop culture so much it their experience led to it being a primary influence in terms of character design and plotting for The Big O (1999-2003), an anime series so much more popular in the West its success led to Cartoon Network bankrolling a second series after a cliffhanger left viewers wanting more.

Batman Beyond (1999-2001) was a series I did see episodes of, but its a strange beast to consider if I ever get back into watching these animated series again. On paper, it's an incredibly controversal idea for the Batman formula, a futuristic update where Bruce Wayne is now an old man and a new Batman in the form of a street punk called Terry McGinnis is under his wing to protect Gotham, no longer the urban, noirish metropolis it once was but Blade Runner (1982) after a primary colour paintjob. None of the original rogue's gallery of villains appeared in the series unless their offspring were to be involved or they were heads in a jar a la Futurama. This film does bring back the Joker however, Batman's arch nemesis and the most iconic of the villains, appearing to terrorise Gotham once again despite Bruce Wayne claiming to McGinnis that he died decades earlier. I can appreciate the film, by itself without context of the series, for the production quality. It's nice to see in fluid, highly detailed animation a work that is creatively depicted even if an obvious setting, painstakingly detailed in terms of every building and skyscraper in the background. It's interesting to cover a Western production too as, in contrast to most anime, American animation from my experience like here is more streamlined in terms of designs, with one or two distant colours for characters and bold but simplistic designs, an emphasis on quick action scenes that are executed well rather than the limited movement and more detailed designed of some anime. The plot for this film, bringing in references to other characters from the original series and the comics in general, has potential in how notably dark is gets. Unfortunately the Columbine High School massacre had taken place as it was being readied for release, leading to drastic censorship of the few moments of bloodshed and the more harsher content including references to death. I saw the uncut version, which was finally released only a few years afterwards, and even though it's not adult the slightest in content, it's surprising to see where it goes. Mark Hamill's The Joker, admitting I'm going from childhood memories only here, was more cartoonish alongside Harley Quinn in comparison to darker interpretations, but seeing a subplot here of them kidnapping one of the Robins to brainwash is surprising. It does prove, emphasising as much like its Eastern cousin, that American animation isn't just for children and can do this without becoming incompetent in execution.

Brutally however, Return of the Joker warns me about revisiting the Batman Beyond series as it falls flat immensely in other areas. Despite the quality on display - including the voice acting - the film doesn't stand up well. Batman for starters, despite the craft of the sci-fi setting, feels at odds with said setting. To merely give the character a floating Batmobile does not connect the tissue of both pieces well. The extended flashback dealing with the Joker's apparent death returns back to the world of the original animated series and there is a vast contrast in mood lacking in the futuristic setting. It's not only because the flashback contains the most compelling and disturbing content either, but because even as the realistic Christopher Nolan adaptations proved, Batman is a figure for dank, urban environments rather than a sci-fi cosmopolis unless changes are made to make the two sides work together.

Even though I've suffered through worst made anime, seeing this film emphasises why I created a blog called 1000 Anime rather than 1000 Animation. There is a problem with the Western animation I've seen as an adult where it has to drag itself through having to make the stories journeys of discover through leaden dialogue and generic plotline. Even Pixar films suffer from the idea that one has to explain even to kids how to believe in oneself but without the sense of how to. Here, for example, you have a terrible subplot where McGinnis stops being Batman because a vague, convoluted doubt he may or may not have exists because Bruce Wayne doesn't want him to take on the most sadistic villain he had to fight in the old days. The viewer has to suffer through a crisis of doubt with no real concern to it of drastically effecting to story at all as McGinnis is dragged back into the caped mantel immediately after in another scene. In anime, even if there is a crisis of doubt, many usually lead to a literal roadblock in the way that needs to be trained to be better than, a plot device that changes the story's next act drastically, or a literal psychological or world effecting scenario. Even exceptionally dumb anime manages to get this right just from a clear mentality of characters in the storytelling having to lace their own bootstraps up or be dragged along by an irate acquaintance. Yes, I may end up thinking of this if I ever come across an anime which makes the same mistake, maybe eating my own words, but in anime, a crisis of doubt usually leads to how Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6) depicted it, characters dragging themselves out of actual chemical depression and trauma, and the world ending, rather than a whim.

There's small pleasures for me to have with the film if anything. The references to figures from the franchise, including one which has importance to this plot's dramatic core. Dean Stockwell making an appearance in a major role. Henry Rollins in a small cameo, and Melissa Joan Hart of Sabrina The Teenage Witch as the twin duo villainesses whose heritage is a funny wink to the audience. Frank Welker, who has voiced probably every animal or beast person in an animated work you loved as a child, playing a strange hyena boy and the Batdog who is used against him, effectively fighting himself vocally. Small details that are sweet to have but sadly contained in a very generic work scored to bad, cheesy metal guitars and electronics. The plot even becomes the James Bond films Diamonds Are Forever (1971) rather than a Batman story, with the two women who beat up Batman and the satellite weapon, a comparison that is even more surreal to recognise having watched both by accidental coincidence the same night. My hesitance, baring the recognition of wanting to explore various country's animation and to not be a Weeaboo biased against Western animation inherently, is that even bad anime appeals to me more in terms of storytelling and style. Even the disasters and squirm inducing moments of anime is more watchable than when American animation sinks like a lead submarine. This film was covered really to appreciate the in-between animators and storyboard creators I neglected until now, rather than the final product.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

#5: Sword of the Stranger (2007)


Director: Masahiro Andō
Screenplay: Fumihito Takayama
Based on an Original Premise
Voice Actors: Tomoya Nagase (Nameless); Yuuri Chinen (Kotaro); Kōichi Yamadera (Rarou); Akio Ōtsuka (Shogen Itadori); Atsushi Li (Master Byakuran)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

There are numerous period stories in anime. Samurai are as popular in animation as they are live action cinema. Straight ahead stories. Action. Drama. Comedy. Generals of ancient wars depicted as cute girls. Even Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) remade as a futuristic tale. Sword of the Stranger is an underrated action drama where a nameless ronin, Nameless, encounters a young boy Kotaro and his dog, developing a cautious relationship that becomes protective when Nameless soon realises Kotaro is being pursued by others. A group of Chinese travellers, known as the Ming group, want to capture the boy to sacrifice for an immortality ritual, a contingent who use powerful pain killing drugs and have members like Rarou, a blond and blue eyed foreign warrior, that can cleave through an entire raiding party even when severely injured. There is also a Japanese contingent housing the Ming group who eventually find the Chinese suspect, desiring to get involved when they discover what they are up to, leaving Nameless to protect Kotaro and deal with a war time past that haunts his dreams and leaves his sword tied up to never draw the blade out.

It's a brutal anime. Very visceral and gore where no one is safe - men, women, even horses. What's different from an ultraviolent anime at its schlockiest from the early nineties is that, applying to the film as a whole, time is managed perfectly and every character is given time to breath and have concerns outside the main plot.  Even the Ming group, technically the villains, have moments of doubt and pause to think even if the film can brutally cut short characters' lives within an instant. For a film much about the bloody sword combat, there is a surprising amount of humanity in depicting the characters as it does, a masterstroke that helps elevate the film from the danger of being a generic chambara story. The artistic quality of the film in terms of design and its muted look helps as well, giving Sword of the Stranger a calm tone even though it has a foot occasionally in the more exaggerated samurai stories by having major or minor characters who, even if they cannot fly or have bee hives growing out of their back, have their own signature weapons or a quirk for the few brief minutes they appear onscreen.

This willingness to have time in the film's short length devoted to minor characters is refreshing; helped by the simplicity of the narrative, you can devote additional time to suddenly cut to minor details, such as a minor villager character talking to another after his importance to the plot is done with, closing the parts of every character with respect rather than abruptly pulling them off screen. Even if the deaths can be sudden and most aren't dwelt on at all, especially in the finale where opposing sides and Nameless cross paths, it doesn't feel like a glib decimation of the character ranks but the harshness of battle taking place, with enough having been made of even a bow woman or a minor soldier for you as the viewer to take up the missing shock hardened ronin and warriors don't have time to think about.

The fight scenes are the most important part of the film though in the end, and if they didn't work, the film would've been handicapped badly. Though the film altogether is methodically paced, these scenes are numerous and exhilarating. They skirt the border between realism and a hyper exaggerated fiction, where there is nothing outlandish and the magic talked of by the Ming group doesn't consist of people being able to fly, but it's not an issue to have a character running across roofs and an unstable wooden structure as fast as he can. Anime can have fight scenes that are realistic or the completely ridiculous, but in the case of the most memorable examples they all build up their characters' personalities even in their gait and how they sling fists or swords as much as their super moves. Sword of the Stranger fits comfortably amongst live action brethren like the Lone Wolf and Cub series (1972-4) and other samurai films I've seen in how the pauses and stillness before a sword is drawn and after when a participant falls down dead are as important as the clash itself. Like the American western there is usually a ritual to the combat and in terms of characterisation, something which is important to cinema let alone as much as for this blog's future entries, the samurai genre is as interesting for me as the western as it both a) deals with morality plays and have so many entries that various genres, plots and moods have been dissected in them, and b) the fight scenes we love in these films and in Sword of the Stranger all have distinction between each other during the narrative length. The first encounter between Rarou and Nameless randomly on a bridge, tense and set alongside the blissful unawareness of a fisherman just under the bridge, to the violent climax all stand out differently from each other even if the fight scenes all have a sword or bladed weapons being brandished.

Samurai films in particular too, though there can be exceptions, have had less issues dealing with the white hat/black hat definitions that have been westerns throughout the decades, morality in general a lot more grey here even if Nameless is a good man. The willingness to show the villains in a more complex light is different from other samurai films I've seen, but regardless of historical accuracy or not, an ambiguity without becoming sophomoric nihilism pervades many of the chambara tales and does here as well. Heroes have to be ruthless in films like this to Lone Wolf and Cub, and Nameless certainly belongs to the group of anime protagonists who have dark pasts, a cliché that works here because, quite sensibly, he's shown to be a noble man with a moral code through good writing.

Ninja Scroll (1993) this is not, not only in the lack of the fantastical but also that the villains aren't inherently monstrous bad guys despite wanting to ritually sacrifice a young boy. It makes my lack of knowledge of Japanese history embarrassing in that, seeing a depiction of the country's past in this action yarn, like many of the samurai films, it would be great to know how much accuracy there is. The samurai films, like the westerns, not only tell interesting moral stories even in a rip roaring tale but a depiction of worlds straddled between chaos and order, mythological ideals that are universal of law, survival and honour dealt with in these films. Even in a film like Hanzo The Razor: Sword of Justice (1972), an exploitation movie, you can have these issues brought up directly or in the background. I wouldn't be surprised even if clichés which litter Sword of the Stranger are partly based on things taught in Japanese classrooms but its self defeating, having enjoyed this anime sleeper immensely, that I've been too lazy and not read up on my period Japanese history for context.


Friday, 4 September 2015

#4: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Screenplay: Satoko Okudera
Based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Voice Actors: Riisa Naka (Makoto Konno); Mitsutaka Itakura (Kousuke Tsuda); Takuya Ishida (Chiaki Mamiya); Ayami Kakiuchi (Yuri Hayakawa); Mitsuki Tanimura (Kaho Fujitani)
Viewed in Japanese with English subtitles

Mamoru Hosoda is a very popular director I've managed to neglected. Baring this film, I've not seen anything else, something I plan to rectify as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, revisiting it, was great. I was cold to it originally but that's changed drastically as time has passed. Based on the novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui, who also wrote the novel the late Satoshi Kon adapted into Paprika (2006), the story follows a schoolgirl named Makoto Konno who finds herself able to travel back in time by leaping. Using it merely for petty reasons, like extend a karaoke session beyond its usual length or avoid an awkward situation, she finds as in any time travel story consequences to her actions and also emotional ones, a tomboy whose thoughtful male friend Kousuke Tsuda is ignoring the romantic interest of a female junior, and her other male friend Chiaki Mamiya showing clear feelings for her she is uncomfortable with.

The sci-fi plot is merely to emphasis the drama, that of Makoto realising her affections for another person and, while a cliché, of maturing as a person, when she spends most of the film trying to hide her emotions and thinking she can change everything with time leaping so she can play baseball with her friends all the time. It's not that different from other anime but the bar in terms of quality depicting this story is significantly higher than many. Moments, for the better, have the heightened absurd comedy of manners, but it's very naturalistic in a bright and optimistic way, mostly set in the early summer day with the feeling of playfulness imbued in the look of the environments and character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto of Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6).

From Madhouse, it's not surprising the qualities there, and while the budget and time of a feature film helps, the work shown for what is a quiet story helps immensely. Body language is noticeable adding the personalities of the characters, when characters can be usually stood still in other anime doing exaggerated movements or only moving their mouths, and while I could be in danger of making a crass generalisation, how well depicted Makoto is as a protagonist is both a testament to her voice actor Riisa Naka and Hosoda's directorial work but the fact the script was written by a woman more than likely helps avoid the dire stereotypes of schoolgirls in other works. Even if she is close to the cliché of running to school late with toast in her mouth at the beginning, she is a perfect anchor who becomes more complicated as a the movie goes on. It's a small, personal drama that only spans a day or so, give or take the amount of time reversal that takes place, but when it's done this well in both content and presentation, it stands out significantly.

As school life is probably the greatest obsession for anime, you will encounter a lot of stories about high scholars which meld various genres together into hybrids. The Girl Who Leap Through Time, whilst a drama first, is very much the same, a montage going back to primitive man kicking off Makoto's brush with time manipulation and various trips to a space where lines of time code wrap around a white void like rings firmly reminding you that this is far from your conventional school drama. It does carve a niche for itself in the time travel sub genre through how subdued it is barring these moments, which is the best part of the film. Makoto is much more interested in going back in time to eat a pudding before her little sister does, and the real dangers of time travel is not paradoxes but her friends befalling the same fate that she starts the film with involving a faulty bicycle brake and the wounded hearts created when she finds you cannot manipulate people for a happy ending. The film is so subdued that when she raises this to her aunt Kazuko Yoshiyama, who is  the original protagonist from the source novel, she shrugs it off to Makoto and tells her it's common for all schoolgirls around her age to time leap. The result of this is that the characters are more personable than in other anime, severe tonal shifts from comedy to drama in other works effortlessly put together here and the moments of melodrama at its saddest moments having more power to them.

[Spoiler Warning]

Strangely when the science fiction element has to be explained - Chiaki revealed to be a time traveller from the future and a gadget that looks like a walnut being responsible for Makoto being able to time leap - I originally reacted badly to the twist and felt disappointed in the film. Despite the fact that it's intrinsic to the plot, the sci-fi for three thirds of its narrative is in the background making the plot twist a tonal shift, suddenly becoming esoteric when he and Makoto have an extended dialogue scene in a street where everyone else is stuck in time. Now it's far from an issue for me especially as it leads back to the drama. Unlike my younger self, I can accept overt science fiction suddenly poking its head into a romantic drama because so much anime, as well as manga, has a plasticity to genres allowed them to cross pollinate for what the creators feel is appropriate. It intertwines here in this school set story fully and ultimately leads to a last goodbye on a hill next to the river at dusk, the romantic ending you'd want for a drama.

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It stands out more for me now in how quiet and sweet the film is when many anime tend to be over heightened. I love my wacky or downright bizarre animated programming from Japan, but these more serene works when done right are gems to encounter. That this is also a science fiction story at the same time and can make the juxtaposition work adds to the quality. Altogether it causes me to ask why I've put off Mamoru Hosoda's work for all this time.