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.