Friday, 30 December 2016

#36. Casshern Sins (2008-9)


Director: Shigeyasu Yamauchi
Screenplay: Akatsuki Yamatoya, Natsuko Takahashi, Reiko Yoshida, Takashi Yamada, Tsutomu Kamishiro and Yasuko Kobayashi
Based on the property from Tatsunoko
Voice Cast: Tohru Furuya (as Casshern); Akiko Yajima (as Luna); Cho (as Ohji); Kenji Utsumi (as Braikingboss); Mami Koyama (as Leda); Nami Miyahara (as Lyuze); Toshiyuki Morikawa (as Dio); Yuko Minaguchi (as Ringo); Yuto Nakano (as Dune)

As can be attested to with Western pop culture characters, the longer a franchise lasts, until it becomes an institution, the likelihood is that it'll be reinvented and have multiple variations on the same basic premise over the decades. This is why Batman is both Adam West campiness and Christopher Nolan's gritty realism at the same time. Casshan is a figure which has developed a long lasting existence alongside other famous creations like him from Tatsunoko such as Gatchaman. Ironically Gatchaman years later would have as much of a drastic transformation for a new generation, thought significantly more light hearted, in Gatchaman Crowds (2013), the same to be found here after Casshan, now Casshern in this 2008-9 adaptation, has gone through various forms. Originating as an android superhero who fights robots, he's gone from children's TV, a more adult straight-to-video anime, a divisive as hell live action adaptation, and this melancholic and frankly bleak eulogy about death.


Casshern, a hero in previous versions, is an amnesic wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland he is entirely responsible for, having brought about a "Ruin", a decay which afflicts robots with rusting to death eventually, that has infected the whole world after killing Luna, a saintly messiah figure of eternal life whose name still rings out in the ruined world. Utterly immune from the Ruin himself, and able to heal any wounds inflicted on him, Casshern has to be pushed to recognise his own guilt by Lyuze, a robot woman who is out for revenge against him for her older sister's death, until he decides to go about to help what remains of the world when it's rumoured Luna is somehow still alive. Followed by Friender, a robot dog once the canine friend of the original franchise and now a fellow wanderer, and Ringo and Ohji, a plucky young girl and an older, cynical father figure who Casshern constantly bumps into, Casshern must deal with his responsibilities and the fact that robots, good and bad, believe they will gain immortality if they devour him and that there's the prescence of Leda and Dio to worry about, two androids who look very similar to Casshern himself who have intentions of ruling over the landscape themselves.

Particularly grim material, by the end unrepentantly dark in its theme of accepting death. It's exemplified by a distinct art style where, even if the character designs are outlandish and exaggerated from figures to hairstyles, their appearances contrasts the bleached out wasteland environments fully, the later a seventies or eighties hued nightmare of decaying cityscapes and ruins falling to dust than more modern takes on the genre. The "cartoonish" nature of the characters doesn't soften the blow but makes it worse, seeing countless one-off characters, even if they're robots, accepting death as they slowly rust and fall apart, the rare human being as likely to die and fade away with only flayed hoped left between flesh and metal.


However Casshern Sins suffers from significant problems, two different ones as the twenty four episode series is split into two distinct halves. The first half makes one of the biggest mistakes you find in anime TV series of being episodic without being compelling. In practice it makes sense, Casshern the character our eyepiece to how the world is as it dies, from a robot who desires to paint a ruined city to make it beautiful again, or a woman attempting to build a bell with what little resources there are around her, but like a lot of episode anime, the result are mere paragraphs of ideas not fully formed and not as told as well as they can be, Satoshi Kon's Paranoia Agent (2004) and Masaaki Yuasa's Kaiba (2008) examples of how one-off characters can leave lasting impressions if the scripts for individual episodes avoid clichés and take risks. This problem if confounded by the fact that,  while distinct and exceptional in visual style, everything having a blistered haze of sand and rush including the screen itself, the show does limit its fluidity and tone, which mixes drama with action scenes, by having a lot of static and closed-in moments of characters merely talking, problematic here despite it being common in anime in general when themes of accepting death are repeated far too many times without new depths to it. The music is also poor, never a big fan of anime J-pop and J-rock barring a few great exceptions and here evidence of how it a lot of modern examples don't even have the cheesy fun of their forefathers and mothers to appeal to me; an episode, underdeveloped, about a female singer brining hope to the survivors by performing a concert is marred by a bland, Stars in Their Eyes-like soppy ballad that climaxes it which sadly becomes the reoccurring theme for later moments about hope.


When it reaches the second half, Casshern Sins stays with a continuing narrative where the protagonists come to terms with their lot but the resulting attempts at profundity do feel cliché and confused. It doesn't help that the last anime I covered on the blog was Haibane Renmei (2002), a far more profound and level headed series which explicitly dealt with death and grieving, but Casshern Sins has to struggle with a popular superhero figure - Casshern still a white clad Power Rangers-like figure in appearance, a nemsis in the show always named ' Braikingboss' in full in dialogue, a robot dog - and using it properly to deal with very serious subject matter, something it doesn't succeed with in this particular case as, baring the tone and look, it doesn't take the risk far enough. The sole moment when a better show briefly appears, offering what could've been, is only in episode eighteen, where the most interesting character Lyuze has an entire episode devoted to her having all her issues - revenge for her sister at Casshern combating against her growing romance for him, slowly succumbing to the Ruin herself - meshing together into a psychodramatic episode long dream, the inner child combating against her older self, full-on and quite mesmerising dream logic, and a surprisingly adult moment for the show where she indiscriminately, in a graffiti covered urban street, goes to have sex with a random man who talks to her only to decapitate him mid-coitus when she realising what she's doing. In this one episode, Casshern Sins offers what the premise should've been, a beloved cartoon superhero of yore being introduced into a bold new direction with actual risk in the storytelling involved.

The final result however is not this. Leda and Dio, who present a fascinating dynamic of Leda being both Dio's Lady Macbeth but a figure with a personal tragedy, and Dio more noble then the villain he's first painted at only wanting to beat Casshern, get a flubbed ending when more is necessary. The final episode even manages to confuse its own message, starting off on the right foot with tragedy, with liked characters passing away, only for the reaction to it and how a specific figure finally acts through hurting others is illogical to think about, ultimately leading to a vague open ending that's not particularly interesting. What is a brave idea, like with Gatchaman Crowds, of adaptation a staple figure into such a drastically different work sadly fails because the material isn't as strong as it should be.


Monday, 28 November 2016

#35: Haibane Renmei (2002)


Director: Tomokazu Tokoro
Screenplay: Yoshitoshi ABe
Based on the dōjinshi manga by Yoshitoshi ABe
Voice Cast: Junko Noda (as Reki); Ryou Hirohashi (as Rakka); Akiko Yajima (as Kuu); Aya Hisakawa (as Kuramori); Chihiro Suzuki (as Hyouko); Eri Miyajima (as Kana); Fumiko Orikasa (as Hikari); Kazusa Murai (as Nemu)


Haibane Renmei is incredible. Openly in the first sentences I'll confess it's an exceptional thirteen episode series, a incredibly fantastical premise but one which tackles exceptionally an adult subject, namely death and the afterlife. After the first scene of the series where she's falling from the sky, our female protagonist is literally reborn as an angel, without memories of her past but aware of this fact, violently growing wings from her back and being presented a freshly cooked halo that permanently hovers over head. Rechristened Rakka, after her dream, she has become a Haibane living amongst a whole home of female Haibane, and male and female children, in an abandoned old mill that's being provided to them as a home. The Haibane - the caring older sister figure for Rakka called Reki, the dozy Nemu who's the oldest of the Haibane, the cocky tomboy Kana, the boyish younger Kuu, the nerdy and kind Hikari - are clearly the dead, living in a form of afterlife that is peaceful but requires them to follow the rules of a council that looks after them, living in harmony with a town of mortals behind a wall neither group can leave from, the kindness and donations of the town keeping the Haibane in comfortable life.

The greatest virtue of Haibane Renmei is that, as thirteen episodes isn't a lot of time for a large scale story and is ill-advised for epics unless a sequel is possible, it's world is deep enough to have gone on longer but there're only two small character based plots in the centre of this series, bookending each other, the first being Rakka adapting to her new life, the later dealing with the emotional strife of the "Day of Flight", where a Haibane leaves gracefully from existence to (clearly) a higher plain of existence, leaving emotional turmoil if their remaining friends aren't able to cope with their departure. This is worse for a person like Reki who, starting off as the edgier, cigarette smoking big sister devoted to Rekka, is revealed to have deep psychological issues about her existence as a Haibani since she was hatched, coming to terms with the possibility of her own "Day of Flight" and how it may never happen to her if she cannot come to turns with her own baggage. As a result, concentrating on this small internal drama both allows the world to grow naturally whilst portraying a story with enough emotional depth to have an immense impact on the viewer.


The quietness of the show is understated to an extreme. While it cut quicker than I thought it would to an immensely downbeat drama soon into itself, the world of the Haibane is never presented as sinister or leading to the cliché of a morally dubious force being secrelty behind it, instead a timeless reality which has motorised scooters and a second hand clothing ship but feels like travelling to a rural town or a seaside community which has a sense of being closed, everyone knowing each other or at least with the rules put in place for the mortals and Haibane to interact a sense of public responsibility. Even the masked men who dictate the Haibanes' lives, whilst exceptionally restrictive in their rules, are ultimately out to help the Haibane live happily and being spiritually fulfilled, thankfully avoiding the cliché of them being villains for the protagonist to rebel against.

Instead of the clichés of fantasy, i.e. crow barring unnecessary action into a fairytale, the conflict is entirely personal drama, how Rakka has to adapt to her new life with questions but also the emotions of those amongst struggle with the baggage of lives they can no longer remember. Technically the show can be added to the "Slice of Life" anime and manga sub-genre which is exactly as it sounds, the ordinary lives of the Haibane who, whilst treated by the mortals in a way that could accidentally come off as patronising, as in one scene which leads to Rakka snapping in the midst of immense emotional pain, are just like everyone else in their community baring their unique social structure, working at the libraries or the clock makers and paying for their goods with notebook pages in place of regular money. Anything more than this is cryptic, the most blatant a book Nemu tries to complete as a gift for a colleague going on pregnancy leave which is explicitly the Christian mythology of how God created the world, thanks to Rakka adding how He rested at the end.


The religious content is so un-highlighted its ultimately more powerful for the subtle hints to it, imagining purgatory as actually a pleasant and wonderful place ifone has no emotions anxieties from the previous life, with friendship and idyllic countryside around them, but the travel to either heaven or reincarnation through the Day of Flight causing as much pain for the Haibane left behind as the death of a loved one would. Explicitly Reki is cursed with being sin bound, black wings when she birthed from her egg, caused by a sin that isn't necessarily a transgression but depending on your views as a viewer the result of how the person died, like suicide, or how they left their mortal life with a grave error committed. (Such as Rakka, also sin bound, realising she rejected someone in her previous life there for her, believing she was entirely alone, only to take a couple of episodes on a small journey of symbolic existentialism to cleanse herself of this error). Unable to learn why she is sin bound, and unable to remember her whole dream in the egg, trying to paint it to existence constantly, Reki's agony is played out as a literal dark night of the soul, Rakka trying to help but the emotions devastating in the final episode, literalising the agony in physical form for the pair, before closure is felt. As a result, Haibane Renmei becomes an exceptional take on grief and acceptance on a spiritual level but ironically at a more realistic level than a lot of anime melodrama, which is more fantastic than this despite Haibane Renmei having its central character possessing wings and halos.

It terms of the style and structure of the show, its helped by the original creator Yoshitoshi ABe having a pronounced role of the adaptations of his original work, the show a mellow and quietly told story with a light touch in terms of aesthetic, naturally timeless in terms of setting and colour palette. The music as well, particularly when it gets closer to the end and emotional devastation being restrained by characters, is impeccable from Kō Ōtani, electronic and folk influence felt throughout. Altogether it's now surprisingly how much of a sleeper hit Haibane Renmei was, still enjoyed and admired today, as within only a small baker's dozen of episodes it manages to tackle its theme with immense grace and subtlety, hints at a great fantastical tone which are greater because it's used to tackle realistic issues. 


Friday, 21 October 2016

#34: Vampire Princess Miyu (1997-8)

Director: Toshiki Hirano
Screenplay: Chiaki J. Konaka, Mitsuhiro Yamada, Sadayuki Murai, Tamio Hayashi, Toshiki Hirano, Yasutomo Yamada, Yuji Hayami and Yutaka Hirata
Based on the manga by Narumi Kakinouchi and Toshiki Hirano
Voice Cast: Miki Nagasawa (as Miyu); Asako Shirakura (as Chisato Inoue); Chiharu Tezuka (as Yukari Kashima); Kokoro Shindou (as Hisae Aoki); Megumi Ogata (as Matsukaze/Reiha); Mika Kanai (as Shiina); Shinichiro Miki (as Larva)

There are sadly cases where, after the original anticipation is strong during the first few episodes, there's a crushing sense of disappointment. Vampire Princess Miyu is fascinating knowing that its really a personal project for director Toshiki Hirano, based on a manga co-created with his wife Narumi Kakinouchi which he brought to the screen twice, originall as a four part straight-to-video series in 1988-9, and it certainly has a fascinating premise, bolstered by my liking of other Hirano works (even Apocalypse Zero (1996) but that's another discussion entirely). Shinma (i.e. demons and various monsters that can take on human forms) plague the world but there is a Guardian selected to always deal with them, not necessarily to protect the mortal human beings killed or tricked by the shinma but to merely send the demons back to the darkness from where they came. The Guardian, a young and solemn vampire girl named Miyu, enters a town posing as a transfer student at the highschool to do her job, joined in her cause by a Western shinma named Larva who switches sides after his defeat by her, and Shiina, a demonic bunny rabbit with a giant, distorted eye that allows her the gift of foresight and the ability to see past illusions. At the school Miyu befriends Chisato, an affable classmate, and her own friends Yukari and Hisae, only with the clear issue at hand, over episodic monster of the week stories where Miyu faces a different shinma, of whether Miyu's friends will find out what her true identity is.  

The episodic nature at first is not inherently a problem. The first few episodes create the equivalent of a horror themed, gothic magical girl show where Miyu, able to conjure fire to burn the shinma away, must discover the demons in the midst of committing foul actions and then dispose of them, such as a figure responsible in one of the first episodes for women disappearing on a late night subway train. The generally melancholic tone gives the show a great moodiness, even in the end theme in having Miyu as a tragic figure stuck in permanent immortality and desiring, when her task is done disposing of shinma, for Larva to end her life. Especially with Kenji Kawai's music, there's a darkness to the material compounded by the fact that rarely does anything happy happen, the characters introduced for one episode stories after the next either dying or having their pain taken away by Miyu draining their blood, left in a blank living state. Were it not for the fact Miyu doesn't really care for the mortals, only showing sympathy for one Chinese female conjurer chasing a vampire in Miyu's territory, baring her three friends and especially Chisato, it would be an utterly misanthropic show at its heart.

As a monster of the week show for the most part it tackles subjects such as a man finding a mermaid locked up in a secret aquarium or a cat being directly responsible for jealously, antagonism between couples and eventually joint murder and suicides in an apartment block, a dark morality play at times especially in the episodes where Miyu only bookends the stories or doesn't appear until their endings. Briefly the show flirts with a more complex morality with the shinma, those Miyu starts to develop sympathy for and/or promises to spare as they show kindness. An example of this is an episode about a female shinma who sincerely loves a mortal man. The complications of the shinma is emphasised by the other interesting figure of the series in Reiha, a younger female shinma who is a Yuki-onna, wearing a kimono and with a talking doll as a sidekick, possessing ice and snow based abilities, whose antagonism and willingness to even kill shinma Miyu has given mercy to causes growing friction with the Guardian. Episodes like this or Miyu having to face a doppelganger, including having to play act as a ghost to scare the local taxi services and protect herself after this event, or the sole episode written by a favourite anime screenwriter of mine, Chiaki J. Konaka, about a man obsessed with a humanoid fairy in his greenhouse, do stand out as being rewarding.

The problems however arise in how twenty one out of twenty six episodes are episodic stories and almost half of them are underdeveloped or just awful. The first issue goes back to how it feels like a magical girl show, almost every episode having the shinma finally reveal themselves, with text on screen in freeze frame telling the viewer their name, only to soon after be burnt to a crisp by Miyu. Especially as many of the stories are more appropriate for a slower, more psychological or visceral take of horror, these shifts in the end to fantasy action jar badly against what comes before in the episodes and also gets predictable fast. Baring the final five episodes, only a two parter about Larva changes the pace, where Western shinma attempt to bring him back to their land, but this eventually turns out the same way as everything else with no sense of progression or a change in tone for the action.

The rinse-wash-repeat mentality starts to get worse as the stories start to get bad or lazy. An episode about a demon corrupting a girl into a pop star he can control with magical red shoes takes the biscuit in terms of contrivances with having the girl introduced as a member of the classroom interacting with Miyu and her friends, a contrivance worse when she has only a few references to after throughout the rest of the series. The nadir of this, which would've been hilarious in another series, is a story about a man who loves cats who encounters a female shinma who grows demonic flowers in her garden with the souls of dead felines, something that I couldn't have made up if I tried. The flatness of these tales are compounded by the fact that, whilst it drip feds potentially interesting characters and reoccurring plotlines, they eventually are wasted. Reiha's climatic fight with Miyu isn't the conclusion of their relationship and the episode itself is lacking, whilst the schoolgirl friends are complete non-entities for the most part without an emotional bond to them. For every fascinating episode, the one with the mermaid or one about a female creator of life like dolls who ends up in a triangle with her female maid and a life sized doll she loves, so many are a waste and they outnumber the interesting ones until even the good ones start to show flaws in their script or the fact that, as a hand drawn TV animation, it lacks an appropriately macabre or imaginative aesthetic for it throughout most of the programming.

[Major End Spoilers - 
Skip this paragraph is you intend to watch the series without knowledge]

The show then reaches its final five episodes and things start to completely collapse despite the fact that, on paper, what takes place would've made this a great series if it was actually set up properly. It finally tries for deeper characterisation and drama that takes place over multiple episodes, but because it's used up the twenty one episodes before, its forced to transcript the plotting in such a short amount of time and with no connection to the events of before barring the merest of suggestions. In a better structure, this finale would've been a great gut punch, and its sudden jump to a darker and esoteric tone - Miyu's back story set against a carnival in the past that evokes Shūji Terayama of all things, strange images of giant eggs sat in seats in a classrooms, Chisato being revealed to be the strongest shinma, meant to defeat Miyu, who kills her friends Yukari and Hisae - would've been wonderful and tragic, but here because of how abruptly included it is it's an utter catastrophe to sit through.  

As interesting as it is to see Miyu's back story by way of a carnival of shinma protectors, a slow paced episode also explaining Reiha's hatred of her because her magician father's final words were about the Guardian, it's useless to switch to a more arty and interesting tone knowing this episode should've happened much earlier in the series to build from, especially as its only by the end of the show true antagonists are shown in a group of "birds", suddenly introduced with no sense of threat to them. The third to final episode has Chisato's brother introduced as an evil shinma, only to be easily vanquished with the potential drama wasted, and then by the last two episodes it finally introduces what should've been the ace in its sleeve for giving the viewer heartbreak, that the sweet and likable Chisato is the final villain who, as mentioned, kills her friends when she's awoken. Sadly, when the friends are one-dimensional and Chisato's turn is abrupt, going as far as even proclaim she wanted to become her older brother's bride and never age in as drastic and inappropriate a personality 180 degree as you could get, this is squandered. That's not even mentioning the Machiavellian figure behind it is the luck charm salesman from one of the first episodes, only shown again for the final two episodes turning into a birdman and evoking the worst type of reveal for a killer from a bad slasher film than great drama. The final shot of the show is legitimately sad and haunting, Miyu forced to take Chisato's severed head to her supernatural dimension so she can live with her forever, but the utter lack of time for the material is dreadful and tarnishes the sudden spike in artistry and pathos.

[Major plot spoilers finished.]

And as a result of not setting up a story over twenty one episodes, and then attempting to in the final five and clumsily, not building up characters beforehand in titbits and no doing what fellow horror anime show Requiem From The Darkness (2003) did and make the central characters important in each episodic story,  the result beat me down until I felt numb. So much that when it finally tries to have greater character depth and a sad tragic ending its utterly absurd rather than rewarding. I still intend to see the original 1988 OVA, as it is said to have a different tone and the central character of Miyu is interesting, but the viewing of the 1997 television series was an incredible letdown. Considering as well how this is clearly a personal project for its creator, I feel legitimately sad realising how increasingly bored and hostile I was to the episodes as I got further through it.


Monday, 17 October 2016

#33: Midori (1992)

Director: Hiroshi Harada
Screenplay: Hiroshi Harada
Based on the manga Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show (1984) by Suehiro Maruo
Voice Cast: Minako Naka (as Midori); Norihiko Morishita (as Wonder Masanitsu (voice); Keinosuke Okamoto (as Koijirô Arashi); Kazuyoshi Hayashi (as Akaza); Yoshifumi Nomura (as Muchisute)

Synopsis: Midori is a teenage girl living in Japan in the 1920s, who comes home one day after selling flowers only to find her mother has died when she returns home. Completely alone in the world, she takes the advice of a hat wearing older man who regularly talks to her to join his business, only to be horrified that she has been brought into a travelling carnival freak show. Subjected to constant torment, Midori's salvation may lay in a dwarf magician, pulling larger crowds to the show when he's hired, who has fallen madly in love with her.

The background of Midori is exceptionally important in terms of how the final film, difficult for some to still see, ended up as it did. The Midori figure - which can be better learnt about from a expert in THIS ARTICLE that introduced me to this anime - originates from a paper play from the twenties, part of a style of storytelling in Japan where pictures were used. Legendary manga author Suehiro Maruo, who would innovate the ero-guro genre in comics, transformed the character into his most well known work Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show; sadly I am yet to read the book, as its been out of print in the west for decades, but it's an important work still, a recent 2016 live action adaptation an emphasis on its importance to still be adapted.

The most notorious adaptation however is a creation of one man, dissatisfied animator Hiroshi Harada who left an industry he felt crushed his creativity in the late seventies and became an experimental, underground animator whose Midori was entirely funded by his own savings, made over five years with Maruo's blessing and with additional help, avant-garde musician J. A. Seazer creating the score and people from theatre clubs to S&M clubs helping along the way. The final result of this is a fragment, censored and only allowed to be screened in Japan through his specific screening rules, that it's the centre of an elaborate carnival setting. This background could easily overshadow a lesser animation were it not for the fact that Midori, whilst frankly a mess in places, is absolutely compelling too.

The first half is where the infamy of Midori is found, at its most gruesome and horrifying as Midori, who finds her mother dead being eaten by rats, finds herself amongst the carnival employees - an older woman who works with snakes, a boy acrobat who dresses and acts like a girl, a heavy bandaged man with no arms, a strongman etc - and the trauma she goes through at the beginning. The childhood innocent of fairy tales, attempting to survive the worst tendencies in people, is dumped in the midst of incredible taboos and transgression. Rape, being forced to briefly be the carnival geek who bites the heads of chickens and snakes, and general insults amongst the ways as she is broken down. There's also, a warning even though its animated, the sight of puppies Midori is looking after being graphically killed with fully detailed dog intestines and brain matter. I can fully understand anyone, from the first half of Midori, viewing it as misogynistic and vile but it's also a matter of how its structured that makes it the weakest part of the short film.

From the beginning Midori is clearly an incredible artistic creation that one person may have literally bled to finish. Like Belladonna of Sadness (1973), it uses a lot of still images with minimal movement, saving the fluid animation for certain points which stand out more. The artistry is incredible from Hiroshi Harada - a professional animator before he abandoned it, this is exceptionally well made, detailed in backdrops and characters, highly colourful at points. It's in fact, if you compare it to images from the original manga, scarily accurate to Maruo's art style onscreen, making the first half more gross and disturbing. The first half however feels like a truncated collage of events from the original manga as well, likely where the censorship took place in how abruptly some of the scene transitions and scene edits feel, causing a barrage of atrocities to be felt at the same time that will more than likely put people off but also feel less coordinated in tone.

Midori is a flat figure, which makes the series of disturbing images and scenes more shocking, but a huge factor to ero-guro working is a pace, allowing the images to linger and be felt carefully, something which the first half fails in. It may have the most transgressive content that is marked within the genre - deformity, sexual perversions like eyeball licking, sexual violence and more - but, whether you find such stories morally acceptable or not, they need to be carefully paced and considered in their use of transgressions, and they need to contain a sense of purposely targeting the viewer with intent beyond merely shock value, or it becomes a mess like the beginning of this.

The second half where Wonder Masanitsu, the dwarf magician who knows western magic and can use illusion to put himself into a glass bottle, is introduced is when Midori drastically changes for the better in presentation. Most of the short length of the film is devoted to this plot, offering a snapshot of a fascinating story where the carnival folk are impoverished and underpaid by their accountant, jealous of Masanitsu being able to pack in the crowds as his love for Midori, whilst possessive, is sincere and loving of her. Their romance even leads to some incredibly sweet moments which, in the midst of the horrible images shown between, do have a greater emotional punch to them, from an almost psychedelic take on their courtship, their heads on dragonflies in one shot for the most abstract moment within it, to him briefly letting Midori live out if her mother and father were still in her life. The story goes as far as include back story on Western magic being introduced into Japan, whether historically real or not, which offers brief moments of additional flesh to the material.

It's in the second half as well that the best aspect of Midori sticks out, its surreal and experimental nature producing unconventional flourishes. It immediately can be heard from the narration in the beginning of the film, over gothic Japanese art, which is very poetic and abstract, but continues further in the general tone. The art style emphasises it but the presentation in general especially as it paces itself more carefully creates a living drawing where every hand painted figure on screen stands out. The more phantasmagoric moments of the film, in the first and second half, emphasis this. Midori's nightmare of irrational behaviour and her limbs contorting in random directions. Quicksand with ants. Masanitsu finally snapping at his audience and mutating their bodies in pure hallucination, the centre piece of creepy images in the entire film as drawn bodies transform and explode. J. A. Seazer's music, while some of is ridiculous in terms of soft synth music, is also a major assistance in adding grandeur to the film; he would later manage to pull anime fans into his sonic headspace when he got to score music for Kunihiko Ikuhara's legendary TV series Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)


Friday, 9 September 2016

#32. Black Rock Shooter (2012)

Director: Shinobu Yoshioka
Screenplay: Mari Okada
Voice Cast: Kana Hanazawa (as Mato Kuroi); Kana Asumi (as Yū Kōtari); Miyuki Sawashiro (as Yomi Takanashi); Eri Kitamura (as Kagari Izuriha); Mamiko Noto (as Saya Irino); Manami Numakura (as Arata Kohata)

Synopsis: At junior highschool, Mato Kuroi meets a quiet girl in her class called Yomi Takanashi, a bond developed between them undercut by Yomi's relationship with Kagari Izuriha, a housebound friend of Yomi's who has an unhealthy attachment to her alongside control through emotional manipulation. This problematic triangle opens out to include Yū Kōtari, Mato's best friend, Arata Kohata, the tomboy head of the basketball team, and Saya Irino, the guidance councillor for the students, all connected to another world where a mirror of Mato's called Black Rock Shooter fights other girls like her with superhuman abilities.

Black Rock Shooter is a difficult series to gauge, a work with immense ambition but also one that can be argued tries to bite on too much in terms of only having eight actual episodes being available at hand to tell a story, especially one that melds genres for a very emotionally deep plot. There's also the issue whether, based on a multi-media creation that went through videogames and manga already before this series came out, this spin-off could pull off something emotionally potent or is going to collapse into a half-hearted attempt on its subject matter. The Sword of Damocles hangs over this series and it's called Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011), both of them about the angst of young teenage girls being filtered into fantastical figures with potentially fatal consequences for those involved. Despite all the tie-ins and cute merchandising, Magica is an incredibly dark story which takes the magical girl trope, girls able to transform into magic welding heroines to fight monsters, and makes it a Faustian pact with real death and razor lined plot twists that tear the heart out of a viewer's chest. Black Rock Shooter, in its first episodes, is an odd two sided mirror.

As the drama of Mato's life unfolds, her emotional strife is shown through a heightened mix of videogame action and Gothic surrealism where fantastical feminine figures fire hundreds of clips of ammo at each other in apocalyptic fairytale wasteland, all of which is coordinated by Kill La Kill director Hiroyuki Imaishi. It's closer, at first, to Zack Synder's infamous live action film Sucker Punch (2011), where the emotions of its lead at specific times suddenly surge into fantasy action mini-sodes where pop culture tropes - school girl outfits, steampunk zombies, dragons - are all thrown together. The difference is that with Black Rock Shooter, there's an even more jarring change in that the real life scenes are played as melodrama set in a high school and that the world with Black Rock Shooter filters through imagery from that life, not only in the girls mirrored by doppelgangers, (horns, black trench coats, giant robot fists etc.), but also details like doll house imagery to macaroons being reinvented as giant explosive ammunition for a one girl tank carrier.

[Spoiler Warning. Skip if you don't want to know plot details]

As the series progresses, this mirroring starts to connect more. The truth is that Saya, the guidance councillor, starts to become sinister as she purposes pushes female students into becoming more despondent and traumatised, the effect being their mirror selves become more monstrous and powerful in the other world. This continues in that, in reality, she is part of an unorthodox emotional treatment where when these other versions are killed the traumas literally die in the girls in real life, a form of amnesia surrounding anything that triggers the emotions for them but able to cope without any emotional pain thereon. It's never explained how the other world actually came to be, which is for the benefit of avoiding the show tripping over itself in convoluted exposition it didn't need, but the streamlined nature of the sole eight episodes means that this is definitely a premise which could've easily stretched out to a more longer story. Whether it'd actually work or not is up to debate, but at least with what's here there's an interesting attempt at depicting how traumas work - jealously, the sense of being unwanted like for Yomi, heartbreak like for Arata, Mato herself realising she runs away from any personal pain of her own rather than for others etc. - made more poignant with the common motif of a childhood book with a very sober ending about a bird which collects the colours of emotion only to become blackened by them and die. The decision to depict this through CG  aided action scenes is an odd choice here as the juxtaposition is one you have to suspend disbelief with even if its expanded upon, a show like Magica having more of a chance with thirteen episodes to weave these types of genre combinations more snugly together.

[Spoiler End]

What's odd about the action related scenes is that, while tied up in a perfect bow at the end in terms of its plot, it's a chamber piece with only six characters of importance, five of them including the protagonist Mato young teenage girls, Saya the sole adult and also female. Even though it has other characters, and one sub-plot about unrequited love for a boy, it's a fascinating story to examine as its literally a character piece about five girls having to adjust to their own emotions as they become more adult. These types of subjects are common in anime and manga, blended into other genres, but this type of drama is not always this melodramatic as well. It's also interesting that a lot of these types of plot - about frayed friendships, traumas, running away from personal anxieties - are usually surrounding female characters only, one of the only distinct examples of a male going through such severe emotional currents being Shinji through the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise. This is important here as, with a female screenwriter in Mari Okada able to bring more sincere depth to this type of drama about teenage girls, there is an unfortunate danger of cliché thick through Black Rock Shooter which under serves the great concept of such an internal drama having such a bombastic and frankly absurd outer coating. Sadly the show by its end used emotional shorthand for its last episode, which mars what good it builds up beforehand, when it could've taken more risks with its premise, like Magica or a series like Kunihiko Ikuhara's Mawaru Penguindrum (2011), in using its more "out-there" imagery and genre blending for depicting the emotions of its characters.

This show does take its emotional current further into the hyper-emotion which differs it from the clichés, helping it a lot more - such as Kagari turning into a character from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) when she threatens to Yomi to throw herself down a flight of stairs - but particularly with the ending, where only eight episodes to work with causes it to have to work hard to tie up the conclusion, there's moments where it falls a little bit below expectations because of the aforementioned emotional shorthand, ideas of believing in oneself and others that is something you really expect Western animation to fall foul of when Japan anime tends to have a more layered attitude to such a concept even for a happy ending. It makes sense in anime and manga to deal with issues of adolescent angst, clear there's a reason why its constantly depicted in terms of reflecting real life emotions the creators likely had but maximalised to a greater level, but Black Rock Shooter does balance precariously between the serious and the hollow in its drama because of its ending, spoiling it a little. For everything that works, such as Saya's kind hearted adult who offers cups of coffee to everyone turning more creepy as she keeps appearing, its ending feels like a cop out when it was working up to something more rewarding.

Artistically this is an exceptional show, which helps soften the clichés further with some imagination behind how the drama is depicted. The other world is suitably freakish but in a beautiful, part Gothic Lolita but with sci-fi and post-apocalyptic aesthetics mixed in the best sort of way, anime and manga having a great knack for their own hybrids of aesthetic and pop culture style to make evocative imagery. From giant red irises eyes occasionally opening in the sky like a god looking down on the land to the near monochrome environment of rock chasms and mountains with mixes of bold colour in-between, the use of metaphors for the real world while obvious in their depictions helps add a greater weight to the content. By being so blatantly metaphorical, the disconnect between the mirroring plots is less out-of-place but entices the viewer to watch on to see how they work together. Musically, while its J-pop, the score is appropriate melancholic, and in a great little detail that shows how more taken care of the show is, the show occasionally plays establishing vocals and notes in the pre-credit openings that immediately jumps into the song for the opening credits like a prelude, adding a sense of grandeur to the procedures.

Whether this all culminates into a great TV series however is up to debate, taking in a lot of clichés alongside great aspects to get to its finale.  The ending is a large part of why the show does feel flawed, and if it had more time to be more detailed, or an alternative ending was written, a lot of the problems in the show would've been covered up. I still find a great deal to love in Black Rock Shooter, its masala mix of horned, trench coat or black metal armoured Goth Lolita costumes fighting each other and high school drama a brave attempt at something original. It doesn't take as many risks as it should and the problems are clearly visible but it's a an admirable attempt regardless.  

Friday, 12 August 2016

#31: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Screenplay: Yoshiaki Kawajiri (and Brian Irving)
Based on the light novel Demon Deathchase by Hideyuki Kikuchi
Voice Cast: Andy Philpot (as D); Mike McShane (as D's Left Hand); John Rafter Lee (as Meier Link); Wendee Lee (as Charlotte Elbourne); Pamela Adlon (as Leila); Matt McKenzie (as Borgoff)
Viewed with English Dub

Synopsis: In the far future, the world is left in a post-apocalyptic state where vampires and other creatures of the night exist within the land. D, a half vampire and half human dhampir, is one of the best and most feared hunters of vampires, sent after the Baron Meier Link when he is said to have abducted the mortal woman Charlotte Elbourne. With another group called the Marcus Brothers, led by Borgoff, sent after the Count as competition, the result will become violent and morally complex with both the mutants hired to protect Meier Link extremely dangerous and the real nature of his relationship with Charlotte having real love behind it.

Many view Bloodlust as the superior take on Vampire Hunter D. I'd argue that if the 1985 anime adaptation represents its era - the bright coloured but phantasmagoric content of the era - than Bloodlust is the full blown gothic symphony in terms of aesthetic and presentation. Created as a Japanese-American co-production, the franchise gladly entrenched itself with Western influences which allows this version to work incredibly. Like the first adaptation, one of the best aspects of the world is how it combines numerous genres - gothic horror, sci-fi-, the western - into one seamless form which can cherry pick from them all in plot and visual palette.

Bloodlust more than the original takes advantage of this further, helped by the fact that the film is helmed by Kawajiri; known for making films like Ninja Scroll (1993) with simplistic plots but exceptional production quality, he also has the gift of having so many ideas that he attempts to cram into each work that the material around the plots is always compelling. It can be easily argued Bloodlust is one of his best films as, while the earlier work that made his name is notorious for its extreme content, this fully embraces the world's template for his most outlandish and imaginative ideas but is also haunting in how its depicted. While gory and violent it lashes onto the chance to be as elegant as possible. It's an anime which can have its cake and eat it, starting like a classic Universal horror movie with a phantom carriage traversing cobble streets from a Victorian city only to quickly become a sci-fi western hybrid when D is introduced, gunslingers with rifles on the beams of a gothic ruin when the dhampir takes on a bounty where, if Charlotte is turned into a vampire, he is asked to kill her.

The high quality of the feature film is matched by how imaginative it is. The realistic character designs that are a trademark of Kawajiri's productions, the emphasis on the characters looking like real people even when they're superhuman or distorted, allows the tone to get away with the more fantastical content. The world itself is already one of the truly strange and unexpected in terms of what the source material has, such as D's talking left hand, a parasitic entity with a face on his palm that, here, is a comedic sidekick who whinges or mocks D as they move along, taken further than in the original 1985 adaptation as a cranky but lovable entity. Kawajiri, known for his taste in the bizarre especially for villainous henchmen and writing the screenplay, is allowed to bring in henchmen with supernatural powers through the world's conceit of mutants also existing, from a demon clown with shadow abilities similar to a minion from Ninja Scroll to a wolfman who, in his full lycanthrope transformation, has a giant wolf's head with sharp teeth grow from his chest. With Bloodlust the world feels so detailed and fleshed out that the result has a visceral beauty to it; while the 1985 anime was a spectacle of morbid colourfulness, with splatter and nudity, this is closer to a symbolist's wet dream, one filtered through gorgeous animation and a score by Marco D'Ambrosio that fittingly crosses genres, classical orchestra mixed with soul stirring choral chants and brief moments of science fiction electronic hums.

The other significant reason Bloodlust is amongst Kawajiri's best work is that, for a man infamous for gore and simplistic action plots, this film attempted a greater emotional scope for him because of the source novel's plot and actually succeeded even if there's moments of sincerely naivety to it. The world of Bloodlust itself is depicted, after hundreds of years of the apocalypse reshaping the land, as both a threatening but also awe inspiring place, the usual signs of the wasteland found but also western frontier towns and magical places existing, from an immense garden where a key dramatic scene plays out or the desert landscape where giant, flying mantas - the aquatic creatures mixed with the worms from the Dune novels - flying out from under the sand on mass into the air. The high level of artistic production allows it to be a menacing but also colourful world that does add an emotional effect already. The other is in the plot itself, Kawajiri as the screenwriter stepping out of his comfort zone. The main plot is between D and Leila, a female member of the Marcus Brothers who develops a mutual bond with him, but the really interesting aspect is Meier Link and Charlotte, how they are actually in love with each other and how much of a conflict is involved with the bounty hunters after them when they realise this. Even when the real antagonist is introduced near the end, a full on vamp feeding into the characters' subconscious and a costume off a catwalk, the result is still gothic melodrama delightfully found in the midst of an action horror film. That Bloodlust is as dynamic in style as it is, where rocket ships like look like church spires with actual stain glass windows on their sides, adds to this emotion with morbid beauty.

Of course, there's the one conundrum that, if this is an American co-production where the English dub came first, does this technically count as an anime for this blog? Yes for me in the sense that, based on a work legendary in its homeland, this feels like a connection of two different countries to create an epic regardless of which country is was designed to be released in first, paradoxically entrenched in gothic influences from the West but undeniably a Japanese anime in style and tone. The only real disappointment with Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is that, barring some other high profile American-Japanese co-productions (The Animatrix (2003) and Production I.G's animated sequence for Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), these type of productions dwindled immensely by the late 2000s. Especially for Kawajiri his later co-productions with the US became compromised creatively, Highlander: The Search of Vengeance (2007) having the potential to be great but merely a deeply flaw, and at times silly, curiosity. Thankfully there is a significant attempt from two American companies, Unified Pictures and Digital Frontier, to bring back Vampire Hunter D as a television series, giving this world another tale if they succeed. One of the most interesting things about Vampire Hunter D is that, not only have the light novels that originated it created a franchise that's lasted, but the franchise at least in the animated versions developed a following the US, Bloodlust likely to be one of the best ways to introduce a person new to anime to the medium in how it does everything right. While I still hold the 1985 version as a good anime itself, I realise its limitations, whilst Bloodlust is a high recommend and one of the best horror based anime of its kind, a magnum opus even if it's only ninety or so minutes that still stands strong in quality. 


Monday, 25 July 2016

#30: Salaryman Kintaro (2001)

Director: Tomoharu Katsumata
Screenplay: Chikako Kobayashi and Sukehiro Tomita
Based on a manga by Hiroshi Motomiya
Voice Cast: Taisei Miyamoto (as Yajima Kintaro); Atsuko Tanaka (as Suenaga Misuzu); Masako Katsuki (as Sakurai Kyoko); Ryoka Yuzuki (as Suenaga Mimi); Katsuhisa Houki (as Kaminaga Hiroshi); Kiyoshi Kawakubo (as Tomokazu Morinosuke)

Synopsis: The Yamato Construction Company business hires a new salary man named Yajima Kintaro. To the horror of the staff and upper management, the man known as Kintaro hired by the company's elderly owner is the former leader of a giant motorcycle gang who doesn't act like other salary man - he's liable t talk back at those who he feels are unhonourable even in senior positions and likely to get into fights if need be. Yet this behaviour also starts to become a well of inspiration from those around him, rebellion and the desire to become better employees taking place; even romantic longing from women is to found alongside the allies in fellow employees, seniors and even yakuza. The widowed father of a young son, Kintaro is noble, brave and gladly goes out of his way to help those in need, his reckless powder keg personality likely to scrape against corrupt management and those who do backstage dealings in the world of Japanese construction industry.

Salaryman Kintaro is amongst the oddest anime I've covered in terms of actually being able to see it. It's very normal even by the stereotypes of anime, a melodramatic drama set in contemporary Japan about the least expected salaryman possible wanting an ordinary working life. Having seen it it's the the kind of anime that rarely gets released in the United Kingdom and feels like what anime actually is for Japanese viewers who aren't obsessive otaku - mainstream programming like an anime soap opera, not likely to be viewed at two in the morning like shows that get popular amongst Western anime fans are. Inexplicable all twenty episodes were released in the UK by the late DVD company Arts Magic in the early days of DVD alongside obscurer Takashi Miike films, who would direct a live action film based on Salaryman Kintaro, allowing me to see the absurdly sincere, coincidence heavy tale of a Mary Sue figure set around the world of the Japanese construction industry.

Based on a manga that was also adapted into live action television later, Salaryman Kintaro is a pure masculine fantasy of what the perfect salary man should be rather than necessarily the reality of the Japanese workplace. This immediately brings out a charm in the show even if it feels like a retroactive throwback to older gender politics where men were men, Kintaro the opposite of someone who has to bow to others and is grinded down by his work, the nostalgic notion for other characters of when they were younger and more passionate before the work broke them common in the dialogue. A former punk who saves a company manager and asks to be hired as a thank you, Kintaro represents to an extreme the perfect male who will rescue toddlers from a burning nursery and stand out to corrupt upper management, so perfect in his humanity that his only flaws are his recklessness and habit of trying to fist fight people to defend goodness.

Soap opera is the operative word as the world of Salaryman Kintaro from the outside, if you cannot engage with its sincerely, can be ridiculous. Almost every person that encounters Kintaro eventually becomes his ally. Members of his former motorbike gang, from yakuza to a member who after a significant event decided he wanted to become a transgender woman, spot him out in the crowd and those who meet him either fall in love with him if they're women, such as a rich widowed heiress who becomes one of his main guides, or if they're male develop crushes like his fellow office workers do. Characters at points even bemoan how Kintaro is able to weave himself into people's lives with such complexity, letting the series have some sense of knowingness to its absurdities. The levels of how many lives Kintaro gets involved with get to the point of bizarre coincidences, such as a woman he helps when she is molested on a train turning out to be the fiancée of a yakuza working with a senior underworld chief who looks to Kintaro with admiration, or Kintaro saving the son of someone who is on the side of a corrupt company. How convoluted these descriptions sound is enough to show how elaborate the ties are between Kintaro, the magnet for everything else, and everyone around him to the point of the hyper fantastical.

The fact that it's all set around the Japanese construction industry does add an oddness to the show's tone; for every real concern such as striking workers at a underground tunnel project, or fantastical ones such as the amount of times Kintaro has to dodge moving vehicles including a train, it's all set around white collar business at its most mundane. Even when employees attempt to oust their corrupt boss by hacking into the finances, that early plot event is dealt with through whether people are sitting or standing up in a senior staff meeting with elaborate speeches to cover the fact. While the show heightens the world of the construction industry with fighting, yakuza being hired to take out Kintaro and others being threatened, the mundanity of the world is not that far away. Adding to this is that it's an ordinary looking show, probably the most rudimentary anime in visual look I've reviewed on the site, not bad technically like at least one I've covered so far but matter of fact where one should expect a lot of speed lines and coloured backgrounds to show a character being shocked for dramatic reasons. That it's clearly hand drawn is a nice aspect but with its simple, bright colours its neither an elaborate feast for the eyes, depicting the ordinary world and concerned that the visuals prop up the drama.

If there's any virtue to the series it's that it has a charisma because of its clichés. There's probably too many characters causing way too many plot threads to exist. The show also has an odd tonal attitude - for the most part it would be suitable for children to see baring the moments of actual female nudity and sexual references, scenes surprisingly upfront in lieu of the pleasant tone. Then, beyond the innuendo, there's moments that are exceptionally grim for a show like this to tackle like rape in a couple of episodes. It also gets surprisingly dark at points especially as it gets to the end which is as much why I've kept the old box set for so long. Some of the attempts are utterly absurd, such as when Kintaro helps the woman molested on the train find her perpetrator, with a prolonged bicycle pursuit and crying of manly tears in forgiveness, but others are more interesting. Despite Kintaro being the perfect, reckless hero eventually he can't just punch people out to win. This could come off as a conservative cop-out, as the ending may feel abrupt at only twenty episodes, but the idea that eventually Kintaro is revealed to be too reckless and needs to learn more subtle ways of becoming a better person does stand out with interest, suddenly such a mundane oddity developing some complexity. It could be seen as the reality, that such a salaryman could never exist even outside of Japan in business, too reckless and too good for a working man position, but on this viewing it proved to be interesting. There's also the fact that for all its absurdities I eventually caved in again and liked the show as I have before. Ultimately the reason the show retains anything of worth if that, altogether, there's a personality that I can't help but like in spite of its more chintzy aspects.