Sunday, 31 January 2016

#17: You're Under Arrest! - The Motion Picture (1999)

Director: Junji Nishimura
Screenplay: Masashi Sogo and Seiji Soga
Based on the original manga by Kōsuke Fujishima
Voice Cast: Akiko Hiramatsu (as Miyuki Kobayakawa); Sakiko Tamagawa (as Natsumi Tsujimoto); Bin Shimada (as Ken Nakajima); Etsuko Kozakura (as Yoriko Nikaido); Ikuya Sawaki (as Inspector Tokuno); Issei Masamune (as Chief)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

The You're Under Arrest! franchise encapsulates how a Japanese franchise is just as much, if not more, dictated by its success with its home audiences as it does Western fans. Its known in the West but it was through how well it did in its home country that, after the original 1986 to 1992 manga, there have been since 2008 four television series, one live action TV drama, straight-to-video stories and this feature films based on the antics of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department at the fictional Bokuto Police Precinct station. Since the manga its followed two female traffic cops. Natsumi Tsujimoto, a brash and hard-headed woman who appears at work many times with a hangover and, turning the franchise into a fantastical one, has superhuman strength with her trademark being able, without causing any permanent harm to herself barring possible shoe leather costs, to open the door of a moving vehicle she is in and, through placing her feet on the tarmac below, being able to steer/stop said vehicle as a result. Her partner Miyuki Kobayakawa is more coolheaded and collected, though her various interests including cars, computers, booby traps and firearms, both real ones and fake ones to which the later plays a major plot point for this feature film. Alongside their motley crew of colleagues and superiors, they have to tackle anything from speeding to the subject of this film, a terrorist group who start by causing traffic light malfunctions to threatening to blow up bridges, intending to actually invade the police station when knowledge is brought up of a police training scenario on disc so good that it could actually be repurposed to commit international crime.

I've seen three different pieces of the franchise including this film and I find plenty of potential in You're Under Arrest! as an entertaining franchise, something as innocuous as traffic cops a potentially fun idea. The light comedic action tone allowed, over the three entries I saw, for the stories to juggle between the film's more serious moments, as if its abruptly going to turn into Mamoru Oshii's Patlabor 2 (1993) in political subtext, to a sex comedy. The issue with the franchise however is that, while thankfully this feature film was good, the first two I saw were terrible, the length of the franchise and its presumed popularity bringing in a danger that, as long as the characters act like they are expected to, any level of quality can be accepted. This is a pulp franchise, where the characters over the three pieces I saw don't change psychologically and the plots are easy to predict in their outcomes, but this isn't an issue when that can still being imaginative and fun. The real problem is when lack of good work or storytelling is involved due to complacency. My first viewing was a series of 1999 TV mini-specials, little episodes put together on DVD which prioritised the humour more, most of it bland and suffering from the early transition from hand drawn to digitally assisted animation with atrocious 3D modelling and digitally assisted camera pans within scenes. The second was You're Under Arrest: No Mercy! (2002), where in a bizarre decision to spice up the franchise the lead heroines were inexplicably transferred to the LAPD in the US; it is exactly like the parody of spin-offs in The Simpsons episode The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase (1997), the one within it specifically about Principal Skinner and Chief Wiggum inexplicably being detectives in New Orleans, only with Miyuki drooling over American muscle cars, the characters in skimpy bikinis on the beach, and being just as silly for only thirty minutes.

I came into this with trepidation, especially as the director of this made the mini-specials, the light and frothy nature of the franchise only over three parts already a double edged sword for me as a newcomer, where alongside being thrown into stories with the characters already established the quality could vary greatly. Thankfully, not only can you build up personalities for the characters for yourself from their quirks, but this motion feature is a bar higher in terms of quality in every way. The film's lightweight but it's still a huge leap above many anime outside the franchise for just getting a lot right. It helps, as a theatrical feature, that for a simple eighty plus minute film the animation is a high standard, making director Junji Nishimura's involvement with the mini-specials baffling but not taking away how pre-digital drawn animation had a beautiful look to it especially at this good quality. The other factor of why the film works is a personal one but one that is universal for any reader who becomes fond of an anime franchise despite the chance of entries being bad, that the characters especially the two leads of You're Under Arrest! are memorable, despite being archetypes, to the point you want to see them in more (preferably good) stories. This encapsulates a virtue of anime and manga that has been emphasised by manga writer Kazuo Koike - the writer of the original sources of Lone Wolf and Cub, Crying Freeman, Lady Snowblood and someone whose do well with this advice looking from those creations - that characters are the most important part of a story. Even less than great anime such as (blog entry #6) High School DxD (2012) have shown that no matter how lacking and dubious the stories are the characters can still be memorable, even if it's just through their designs and their charisma, to the point of wanting them to be used in better material. Even though they are simple clichés, from the police superior who is serious sometimes but would start crying if shot in the knee to the cute nerdy girl in glasses, these characters are likeable in the film, the two leads in particular managing by their own quirks to make them memorable anime protagonists that can carry a story along.

The seriousness of this entry in complete contrast to the other two I've seen was a surprise, but it thankfully isn't deathly serious which could've been mortally fatal as this isn't Patlabor II with a real depth but merely a story meant to offer thrills. Comedic characters in other parts have more seriousness here, and adds a lot to the entertainment, but the humour prevents this from becoming a slog if it failed to be a deep political drama. In fact there's a charm from how naive and light the franchise is especially when trying this serious story, where even if a bridge is blow up and the police station is threatened no one is actually killed, and the police never go as far as maiming any criminal to stop them. For one scene, the planned celebration decoration for a character for when they returned in the country proves to be a great improvised trap against an armoured grunt or two with full automatic rifle, surprisingly effective in lieu of what happens. The fact the franchise bends physics with vehicles and the strength Natsumi has means that the action scenes in these films have a movie realism that's impossible to dismiss, both the kind of spectacle of an American action film, if more sedate in tone, but also capable of ridiculous moments that can get away with what happen. There's as much a humour in witnessing a character get a perfect shot in hitting a boat from another boat with a tire as admiring how the moment itself is depicted from behind the flying tire's point of view as if flies over the body of water underneath it.

The breeziness which could be argued to make this a minor anime actually is its advantage as well, preventing the film from slogging at all in its feature length. Unlike the other two You're Under Arrest! anime I saw, this is paced well and never tedious, never weighed down with any shonky comedy or plot. That the others were short pieces is really damning of them as they didn't hold the consistency this much longer work has, and it's as much the drama being there, where a side character may have knowledge of the person causing the crime, that helps support the film by giving it a dramatic weight alongside the humour and thrills. This also makes this a great starting off point for the franchise, if you can find it, as you can quickly get the personalities of the characters because of their pulp story nature and have a well made story, in terms of animation and plotting, to begin with to introduce them. This is the template for one would hope for from You're Under Arrest!, especially for myself, even in terms of a television series within the franchise.


Friday, 22 January 2016

#16: Galerians: Rion (2002)

Director: Masahiko Maesawa
Screenplay: Chinfa Kan
Based on the 1999 Playstation videogame
Voice Cast: Akira Ishida (as Rion); Shiho Kikuchi (as Lilia); Akira Ishida (as Cain); Kenichi Suzumura (as Rainheart); Ryoko Kinomiya (as Dorothy); Takehito Koyasu (as Birdman); Yuka Imai (as Rita)
Viewed in Japanese with English subtitles

I remember a review about the original videogame. Not the most spectacular way to start a review, but back then when I used to play videogames a lot I paradoxically read more about them than actually play them. To my knowledge, and I might be sandbagged by fans of the game for saying this, it disappeared into obscurity alongside its anime adaptation, three episodes released straight-to-video and then released in the West in a truncated movie version, the later the first of many times anime's obsession with ESP in their stories will appear on the blog. Even without covering Akira (1988) or the Gundam franchise, anime (and manga for that matter) was obsessed with psychics. Probably the appeal of a teenage protagonist discovering their uniqueness helped make the trope enticing, alongside the notion of it being a good metaphor for the change a teenage goes through to become an adult. Whatever the case it also was an excuse for characters to throw objects at each other without having to lift them with their hands.

In a dystopian city, a young teenage boy named Rion Steiner wakes up in a hospital that has been converted into a secret laboratory. A psychic, the voice of a mysterious girl in his head wakes him up, setting him off to find her, combating anyone in his way and discovering the existence of the super computer Dorothy who runs the city, learning very soon after into his new life that he is a part of a key to destroy her as other psychics are sent to dispose of him. This leads to Rion setting people alight, having to inject himself with an alarmingly diverse amount of various coloured tubes, to avoid "short circuiting" himself and to induce it to amplify his power, and in general crushing any obstacle in his way. This isn't an original plot but as other entries on this blog have shown, originality is less an issue when execution can still create a masterpiece or something entertaining. I cannot stake a claim for Galerians: Rion in this however. It's as lightweight as you can get, particularly in this case where the short length of the film version means that it lacks the detail for any of its plot points to register an emotional reaction. Anime has succeeded with shorter lengths than seventy minutes or so in entertainment but this also commits the cardinal sin of not at least making what I've described excited.

The really interesting part about Galerians: Rion is that it's another, if one of the last, early anime which were done with three dimensional character designs and locations. As with (entry #3) (1999) it was doomed to obsoletion pretty quickly because of advancing technology and how basic it was in look; even if it's a high standard with the resources it has, Galerians: Rion does show its limits even in context of its original release in its crudely simplistic locations and characters' psychic ability to float being depicted by way of not having the weight function turned on in the animation software. Released originally after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), it was doomed next to the cutting edge, mega budget film that itself failed anyway at the box office, making Galerians: Rion's chances on video for success smaller. Released in the UK in 2005 with a new nu-metal soundtrack - Slipknot and Deftones stuck with bands like Sevendust I'd like to forget - it was further out-of-date. After 2004, in a move that is still considered ill-advised, the director of the fun anime Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 (1988), Shinji Aramaki, decided to devote himself entirely to 3D animated works with his first Appleseed adaptation, still more advanced in appearance, whilst in 2005 was the far more success Final Fantasy: Advent Children that was also advanced in look and style with the technology. Seeing the primitives of this 3D anime is fascinating, rather than the uncanny valley of modern CGI you get instead the unreality of it, plus the factor that people like whenever they revisit the Money For Nothing video from Dire Straits. But there's still an issue about the plots and style of these works as a viewer which, unless you like to gorge of bad filmmaking, is difficult to shrug off. The reason why I like Malice@Doll (2001) from this pre-Appleseed lot is because its story is fascinating and it has a style to it that fights against the limitations, more so knowing now that like using pastels on a pencil drawing 2D hand drawn animation was used for detailed touches on the 3D character models and locations.

There is stuff that appeals to me in this anime's dated lot - many corridors set in rundown buildings and septic white labs which have a claustrophobia knowing the animators were actually limited in what they could add - but you're ultimately left with an incredibly average viewing experience with a plot put together Frankenstein-like from other, better sources. When you realise you could get more fun outside of an old Playstation videogame, for irony, for this sort of less than perfect but charming 3D animation but more entertainment, something like this is doomed. It's quite faithful to the original videogame in terms of the plot, but in anime the plot points from a super computer ruling mankind to the villains being innocents forced into being monsters has been done better in other material.The general flatness of Galerians: Rion effectively kills it's momentum from the beginning, starting off with a main male protagonist who's as blank as the scenery at points, with no threats that can viably kill him. Only his drug habit for many ESP boosting chemicals, to the point of a seller of all the drugs available to mankind makes a joke on it, seems to stand out the most even if his back-story is a tragedy of his parents dying. He's important to protecting humanity to a computer with a God complex but its the various red and blue chemical he pumps through his neck that add character, and the less about the girl he finds in her blankness the better.

Ultimately like all its problems could've been overcome, even if made the exact same way, if there was a lot more personality in the content, something which the former film manages with the comedy of a spunky female android who goes through various body changes, the kind of thing you needed desperately here. Even if there were flaws in the scripts and technical qualities charisma helps greatly alongside some inspiration. Dorothy's lair inside a giant skyscraper appears way too late in the film, when it could've helped greatly, with its body horror aesthetic of birthing tubes shaped like literal wombs and Dorothy taking on the appearance of a human figure with giant, almost dreadlocked hair. Aside from this it's really only the psychic minions, her "children", who make up for the lack of personality from the heroes. The lanky, cackling Birdman and his tubby little brother who has a sociopathic and novel use of a clock, to the female member named Rita who looks like a character from a fighting game - red hair, busty figure, white tank top with suspenders and knee high boots which frankly, to be crass, could also qualify as her "fuck-me boots" in their length and style as she throws anything from tables to spoons at Rion with her telekinesis. While you couldn't sympathise with them when their tragic back stories are revelled, because little time is given to them, you can at least find them far more memorable than either male and female protagonist who you're supposed to be rooting for.

That there's none of the esoteric material you can get in these anime involving psychic powers or any supernatural/super/magical abilities is even more disappoint for me as a junky for anime's braver stabs at the unconventional and philosophical. Even if they could leave you utterly baffled with what is going on - when minds meld or people enter forth dimensions, usually with an elaborate monologue like in Akira - it's both more inventive and a lot more entertaining than with what happens in Galerians: Rion even if the preferred choice of ending risks pretentious. This does have villains in a white void confessing that they were turned into monsters due to drugs and experimentation, but in general these attempts at emotional content are non-existent without the time to set it up or anything exciting to make it all stack up. Despite my love for this kind of dated animation, after the initial viewing this does become flimsy in its quality once you beyond the original pleasures and I can't recommend it even as a curiosity piece like 

Now if it had been more like this, if you forgive the use of a gif,
Galerians: Rion might've been more interesting 


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

#15: Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011)

Director: Akiyuki Shinbo
Screenplay: Gen Urobuchi
Voice Cast: Aoi Yūki (as Madoka Kaname); Chiwa Saito (as Homura Akemi); Emiri Katō (as Kyubey); Ai Nonaka (as Kyōko Sakura); Eri Kitamura (as Sayaka Miki); Kaori Mizuhashi as Mami Tomoe and Tatsuya Kaname)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Spoiler Warning: The paragraph explicitly dealing with major plot twists with be signposted so it can be avoided.

Madoka was an emotional rollercoaster, so to try to write about the twelve episode series is going to be difficult. It could be summed up as a deconstruction of the Magical Girl subgenre which Sailor Moon is the famous example of, where a teenage girl develops magical powers and an alternative identity to fight magical enemies, but that would be like saying Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6) is merely a deconstruction of the giant robot genre only. The same theme that appears in anime for decade now appears here, hope even in the worst of circumstances, even in a world that is unremittingly bleak, but what's different here is that it's through a novel, extreme concept of the magical girl stereotype character being created through a Faustian pact. Like Evangelion bringing severe emotional weight to its content, the same is found here when two fourteen year old girls, Madoka and her friend Sayaka, encounter a cute cat-like creature who says he can give them any single wish if they become magical girls and fight witches, horrible deformities of people's souls who encourage others to commit suicide and feed off this type of death.

On paper, while the suicide aspect is dark, immediately brings to mind merely a slightly more adult and serious version of Sailor Moon, at least what people think Sailor Moon is, alongside the promotional art very deceiving to me of what I was ultimately going to get. Alongside Madoka and Sayaka are Mami, a slightly older girl who takes them under her wing before they even consider becoming magical girls, Homura, an unnervingly quiet transfer student who warms Madoka continually not to become a magical girl, and Kyōko, a misanthrophic magical girl who comes later into the show who only cares for the prizes slain witches leave rather than saving lives, the only thing she cares for being the vast quantities of food she is continually munching on. I liked the first two episodes, which have a lightness to them despite the dark subject material, from the humour of Madoka's classroom teacher to scenes of her family life, her mother a huge emotional crux she continually goes to for advice throughout the series. From episode three however, when a significant tragedy happens, what I jokingly viewed as one of the most depressing anime I've seen in a while builds from this shocking and unexpected death into a drama taken to the level of cosmic implications, taking the blatant metaphor in the story of a magical girl being a teenage girl becoming an adult and, letting the complications of emotional growth and awareness that all teenagers go through, be filtered through this dark fantasy from the perspective of Madoka. As she keeps hesitating in becoming a magical girl, she bears witness to the psychological trauma that takes place for everyone else, the magical girls and the witches not what they appear as the cute cat-mascot, Kyubey, turns out to be an alien with no concept of emotions whose purpose being the magical girls is literally described by him as cattle during an ethical argument with her. The series' message is very obvious and seen many times before, sacrifice and perseverance, but why the series does succeed is that, alongside its memorable visual style, is that it completely subverts the magical girl sub-genre and also allows unsettling implications to be written into the drama, where even the act of hope for one character can literally poison their soul and eventually turn them into a monster.

Magica is, openly from me, an incredibly powerful and beautiful made series, some of plotting abrupt but the bar is significantly high in terms of scope, gut impact and what quality is there. Here in particular the importance of a great voice performance really stood out. Even if I have to rely on English subtitles, unable to speak Japanese, every central performance (all done by actresses) stands out, making sure that it doesn't just become a misery fest of crying sequences and death but with sympathetic characters you care for. Even if the show sells itself on its lush character designs, bold and colour coded character designs by Ume Aoki which are memorable, a central figure like Madoka isn't just a cute pink haired teenager put in existential hell, but through the script and performances is utterly sympathetic even if the character is one in a long line of female characters who want to help everyone and will do everything to help others, a character type that could go badly wrong and become trite if it wasn't for the quality shows like this has. The visuals are also a huge factor to the show, sumptuous but helping subvert the tropes of the magical girl. Realistic city environments are contrasted by an inspired idea of the witches, far from monsters with a conventional aesthetic, being based on innocent symbolism. Their worlds within the main characters' world, called labyrinths, can be orchestral halls or full of food, whilst the witches can be drawn with crayon or cartoonish, big eyed creatures. From a circus theme to even the bottom half a giant schoolgirl who fires panties at people, they are whimsical and potentially silly monster designs from more light hearted shows given a severity when you witness the shock in the early episodes and what they represent, innocent symbols turned into the worst of humanity, made more unsettling when the cause of how the witches are created is revealed. The show uses a lot of digital layering and experiments with various animated styles, both making something as innocuous as a cotton ball with a moustache creepy but also helping with the fantastical nature of the show. While it cannot match the symbolic and surreal qualities of another show also from this year, Kunihiko Ikuhara's Mawaru Penguindrum, they both show that, whilst I miss the style hand drawn animation gave anime, that when it's at its best computer assisted animation after the 2000s, especially now, is capable of a new fantastical quality especially when the aesthetic is as bold as both of them. Like Penguindrum, Madoka shows the best quality of this new aesthetic style in that, alongside the voice acting, it allows a good script to be fleshed out with visual stimulus adding emotional importance. I could still joke about it being the meanest anime I've seen in a while, but it's not pointlessly cruel killing off characters for the sake of it, nor absurd to the point of being stupid, instead every plight felt to be poignant as much because of the production quality.

[Spoiler Warning: Skip ahead to after the next bracket if you don't want the series spoilt]

The style of the series, especially when it commits to its cosmic interpretation of its message, is ultimately rewarding after all the agony you suffer as a viewer if you can emotionally connect to it. Strangely the series ends the same way Serial Experiments Lain (1998) in some form, Madoka when all her friends baring Homura becoming witches or dead deciding to become an omniscient deity reverse this pain and save everyone else. The willingness to take risks, like killing off a central character you immediately love in episode three or the show's ending, which still is bleak as monsters still exist but means Madoka protects all magical girls from the fates they could suffer originally, is the sort of thing I love the most in anime. Its heightened and utterly melodramatic, a style close to the ridiculous that few western animated works is willing to attempt, something which appeals to me more than being safe and grounded emotionally without the fear of a beloved character dying or becoming a monster themselves.

[Spoiler Warning Ended. Read after this bracket to avoid spoiling the story]

In a lot of ways the series isn't really a magical girl show thought. There are action scenes, and they are of importance, but most of the story over twelve episodes is concentrated on the drama itself, most of the characters soon into the show immediately dealing with the implications of being a magical girl than stumbling upon it to their horror after time fighting witches for a few episodes. It suggests a speculative "what-if", the show perfect as it is, from someone like me as an anime fan who does like a good twenty four episode show. The series is brisk in its plotting, causing me to wonder what it would've been like to have a monster-of-the week episode or two, some more comedy or more time to spread a story that takes a month chronologically into a slower pace. Episodes for Evangelion which could've been seen as filler early on proved to add important characterisation to its cast, making what happened later on more meaningful, and while Madoka works perfectly as it is, double the episode length if done well would've still worked, more time with Madoka, Mami, Homoru, Sayaka and Kyōko as the central cast would've had just as much power as the economic plotting in the series as it stand does. The only real issue with what has been done with the series for real is that, rather than additional episodes, there are now spin-offs that capitalised on its success. Like another popular franchise Full Metal Alchemist (2003), this is a potentially troublesome issue as the story for it and Madoka were final, meaning any continuation ultimately undoes the ending people liked originally. After two compilation films of the original series, this new story Rebellion (2013) was released in Japanese cinema, causing controversy for Western fans both for undoing the series' ending and a controversial plot twist using a beloved character. Rebellion looks visually fascinating in screenshots, but again the stuff that's upset peoples makes me hesitant to view, something I have to deal with when I eventually cover it on the blog.