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.