Saturday, 26 March 2016

#21: Elfen Lied (2004)

Director: Mamoru Kanbe
Screenplay: Takao Yoshioka
Based on a manga by Lynn Okamoto
Voice Cast: Chihiro Suzuki (as Kouta); Sanae Kobayashi (as Lucy / Nyuu); Emiko Hagiwara (as Mayu); Hiroaki Hirata (as Professor Kakuzawa Yu); Mamiko Noto (as Yuka); Maria Yamamoto (as Kanae); Yuki Matsuoka (as Nana)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Out of all the anime I admire greatly, Elfen Lied is the most compellingly flawed. Out of its thirteen television episodes, and an additional one released straight-to-video later, its virtues are as much amplified by its strange production decisions as they exist in spite of them. It's a series that regardless of its weird tonal shifts manages to tap into a nihilistic teenage angst that is sincerely dark, rather than the cliché of the moody teenage angst other anime fail with. It's as appropriately ugly and messy as the emotions one feels as a young adult as much because of its strange decisions as well as the plot, tapping into something more visceral as a result. The series is still available today whilst other more famous ones have been out of print, both for its infamy through its gore but clearly because it touched viewers emotionally. Particularly, what was once clearly made for Japanese male otaku became more twisted and emotionally razored as its developed a fan base, which you can see just from looking on Deviant Art showing this hit something personal despite its erratic qualities.

In an alternative modern Japan, young girls are being born as Diclonius - genetic mutants with natural pink hair, natural pink/red eyes, two small horns growing out of their heads and vectors, usually four invisible arms alongside their own, the result of a enlarged pineal gland, which can both move objects but can also slice through any objects including flesh and bond with ease. Diclonius are seen as a threat to humanity, killed at birth or locked up to be experimented on by a secret government organisation, who can only reproduce by infecting males with the touch of their vectors and are viewed as an evolutionary stage meant to replace mankind, mostly sociopathic and even capable of murdering their parents from the age of being  a toddler in the eyes of those trying to stop them. One of the most dangerous, the "Queen Bee" who can reproduce normally and may be the origins of the Diclonius, is Lucy, a young woman who escapes confinement in the first episode in a gruesome manner. A sniper manages to hit her in the head before she flees, the trauma causing Lucy to become dormant and a new personality to take over, a child like savant completely unable to look after herself found on the beach by cousins Kouta and Yuka. Dubbed Nyuu, from the only word she can say at first, she is taken in at Kouta's new home, a former restaurant, leading to her meeting various people, and opening up many traumas and anxieties of all those involved as Lucy is still within her sub-consciousness. Kouta's amnesia especially of the death of his little sister and father, Yuka's unrequited love for him, and Lucy's conflict as a Diclonius and as traumatised young woman, all the while the scientists who had her captive use anything from psychotic soldier to her own kind to find her.

Elfen Lied is laced, intoxicated, with very exaggerated melodrama. Everything is fraught with emotions unsaid, building up as new characters converge at the home and bring their own baggage - a young runaway called Mayu and Nana, a Diclonius sent after Lucy who is mutilated by her and had to blindly stumble into the world naively as a member of this mutation who is alien to the destructive desires of her kind and only cares to be enjoy life. This emotions, where there is an average of one scene of crying in each episode at points, are exaggerated further by the extremes of the content, warning you as a viewer what to expect when the first ten minutes of the first episode is a barrage of dismemberments and gore as Lucy escapes a government lab. This is capped by a clear message of intent as a clumsy young female secretary, cute in her habit of tripping over her feet and a likely protagonist for another anime, has her head popped off by invisible hands like a coke bottle lid in one of many moments where stereotypes of cuteness and sweetness get mangled in the series. It's amazing, based on the age ratings set in stone in Britain, that Elfen Lied has always been acceptable for fifteen year olds to see and buy. Not only is there extreme levels of gore, harkening back to the infamous examples of gory anime from the nineties, and a lot of nudity but there are some incredibly dark themes brought up throughout the narrative. Some of it could only be acceptable to depict visually animated, the Diclonius viewed as monsters yet, despite Lucy happily killing people depending on her mood, the scientists more than capable of torturing and experimenting on them even when they're children.

While its heavy handed in places, one of the most interesting creative decisions for the anime is that, even if someone like Lucy is sociopathic and murders innocent people, human beings barring sympathetic characters are actually worse than the Diclonius; the officials use their polite digression and view that they'll save mankind to hide acts of violence in the name of scientific study, like firing giant steel balls at a chained up Diclonius, adults commit sexual child abuse and even children will harm a small animal to torment a peer. An obvious idea, but alongside the possible humanity still left in Lucy as the Nyuu side blurs with her own, the idea that it may be for the better if mankind was violently replaced by Diclonius rears its head frequently even if there are human characters capable of only kindness like Mayu. This in itself probably explains the popularity of this series as I brought up in the first paragraph - adolescence angst taken on a wider scale, nihilism and hope confused with exaggeration an important part of that depiction. Alongside Lucy's back-story, there is a theme of trauma as its clear many of the Diclonius are the result of neglect, emotional and physical abuse or isolation from birth, the monsters firmly created by their apparent victims treating them like freaks. That most of the Diclonius are female and the scientists mostly male, even if it was unintentional, cannot help but bring up a theme of misogyny, as I cannot help find it blend into a theme of nature versus civilisation from the horns the Diclonius have, evoking pagan gods and vengeful natural spirits. The series, while light in tone in spots with comedy, is unbelievable grim at points as a result, comparable to (entry #15) Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) only with a bipolar tone and a cavalcade of decapitated heads and ketchup gore.

The bipolar nature of Elfen Lied is as much an added personality to the show's tone as much as it is a distraction. It suffers from a problem like many anime of it being completed when the original manga had yet to be finished, but contrary to how I first saw it, it's not as jarring in how it ends, still having a smaller and sufficient emotional one that does work as a close even if there's a lot of loose ends left. The cutting between events in the middle of scenes back-and-forth is an interesting editing style which does cause a varying emotional reaction, clearly deliberate in places even though it does lead to one moment where day and night apparently switch between each other. Character behaviour, adding to the hyper melodramatic tone, flips within the same scene, though it is possible to imagine its closer to a theatrical acting performance cycling between emotions than the leisured tones of other stories. Some continuity errors stick out and the decision in the last episode to recycle parts of Lucy's childhood back-story does come off as cheap padding.

The area where the series both has its best and worst aspects is in the work of screenwriter and series composer Takao Yoshioka. He does an admirable job with the story but significantly,  his work includes (entry #6) High School DxD (2012) and the Ikki Tousen series alongside other works with heavy amounts of fan service, not pop culture references but "fan service" in terms of nudity and sexuality, and this series shows his other work's trademarks including as a detriment. Some of it is appropriately unsettling, discretion or the act of purposely creeping out the viewer taking place as the Diclonius are treated less than experimental lab rats. Some however is pure titillation and, like with other anime with underage characters, its discomforting especially when there's a difference between tackling the awkward passions the characters would have around each other, even as a comedy moment, and just being tasteless. Particularly with Nyuu, a child savant who is yet a grown young woman, some of this is inexplicable when she starts to be able to interact with more than one word and starts behaving in odd ways along this way. Some of it works as fittingly weird - an act of dry humping, which she is perfectly with as Kouta is frozen stiff mortified during it, reminds one of a scene Lars von Trier could've added to The Idiots (1998), but having her gropes Yuka at one point for a joke is just dumb. Thankfully this isn't High School DxD but the traits Takao Yoshioka likely emphasised in that series can be found in brief flashes here. A dream involving "naked crucifixion" with sentient yen money possessing limbs and waving burning torches is as mad as a box of frogs and was probably written by one of the amphibian occupants within said box. Cumbersome attempts at humour usually in the sex comedy vibe, while some of it works, are probably the biggest potential hindrance to viewers even above the misanthropy and gore. It's both absolutely distracting and yet, depending on one's reactions, fittingly bizarre for such manic material, the whole barrel of hormones soaked into a story fitting for its young adult and teenage cast, even ones with pink hair and horns, alongside the trauma and depression, as appropriately in poor taste as it is good taste rather than sabotaging the entirety of the series.


In defence of Elfen Lied's tone, it knows when to be serious. As much of this is in the presentation as well as the script, and just from the opening credits one is brought into a series, despite its haphazard nature, this is going to do its best to be earnest and thoughtful. While it may seem sacrilegious, recreating the paintings of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt with the characters - The Kiss (1907-8), Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) etc. - is incredibly effecting and appropriate, all the paintings referenced from Klimt's famous Golden Period which were very sensual, erotic but in cases melancholic. The titular "Elfen Lied" is a German poem, a music box version playing an important part as a plot point. Visually the series proper is the standard of digitally assisted, brightly coloured animation of the early 2000s, bolstered by its story and gruesomeness, thankfully as far away from digitally assisted camera pans and CGI vehicles as possible. Musically the series is helped immensely; baring a mandatory cutesy pop song on the end credit and surprising use of drum 'n' bass, most of the score is also coral like the opening theme and ethereal, adding greatly to the show's tone. In general, while it can be a haphazard thirteen episodes - the bonus episode trying to add more to Lucy's back-story using a subplot from the manga but jarring against her emotional trajectory at the point its set, thus making it useless - but what had kept me going back to Elfen Lied, and more than happy to defend it here, is this concoction of emotions that still feels rawer than a lot of anime, as messy as the themes its depicting and causing one to feel as messed up by the end of it as the characters themselves. It's an anime that does punch you in the gut and I access its mistakes as part of its personality, making it far more meaningful as a result.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

#20: Final Fantasy - The Spirits Within (2001)

Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Screenplay: Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar
Inspired by the videogame series produced by Square Enix
Voice Cast: Ming-Na Wen (as Doctor Aki Ross); Alec Baldwin (as Captain Gray Edwards); Ving Rhames (as Ryan); Steve Buscemi (as Neil); Peri Gilpin (as Jane); Donald Sutherland (as Dr. Sid); James Woods (as General Hein)
Viewed with English Dub

Over the last twenty reviews there's been an inexplicable build-up towards a review of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a spin-off adaptation of the legendary RPG videogame franchise. A US-Japan co-production, it would be the only feature film made by Square Enix's film department Square Pictures before the box office failure of this film collapsed them,  only to be heard again one last time to contribute to The Animatrix (2003), an anthology tribute to The Matrix's clear anime influences. The first anime film which used three dimensional character designs and landscapes was (entry #3) A.LI.CE (1999), a brave experiment but less than the sun of its parts, whilst many films and straight-to-video works that would come after it of the same ilk would become doomed  by the hype that surrounded this big blockbuster. The likes of A.LI.CE, Malice@Doll (2001)  and (entry #16) Galerians: Rion (2002) would become immediately obsolete in comparison to this film and its than state-of-the-art and realistic character designs and budget. The hype, that I remember still to this day growing up when this film was supposed to mean something, was huge, the scope of it meant to revolutionise this type of filmmaking. Like many of hyped blockbuster before it actually gets released, the future is reaped with irony. What might've been a warning sign that this hype might've been a bit silly, if I was an adult back then, was that like anime heroines and fictitious female characters from games like Lara Croft, there was already a cheesecake shot of Professor Aki Ross, who in the film is a meek and sombre woman who is more interested in gathering plants and animals to save the Earth, in a bikini before there was proof that she'd be remembered as an iconic character. There were plans for the character design to be a reoccurring actress in more animated films like one of Osamu Tezuka's favourite roll call of characters who'd appear in multiple roles in different manga of his.

Then it failed at the box office. With fifteen years of hindsight, it was an admirable and important push for realism and scope that shouldn't be ignored. The idea that it would lead to actors being replaced with computer generated people however is utterly comical and ironically, based around the destruction of humanity by ghost-like aliens who can literally pull the life-essence from people, the last surviving humans living in closed-off cities, it was like many videogames used to promote new graphics first than plot that's dated greatly as technology improved. Now it's as dated as a work like A.LI.CE; whilst it's still technically superior than many anime that use three-dimensional designs, its shown its age compared to how this computer animation would greatly improve over the decade in large budget cinema, and without a distinct look that wouldn't have aged it shows cracks in the sheen. You can see how few actual characters and environments there are, even a massively expensive and bold project like this limited by the practicalities of the technology, able to make realistic looking characters but not able to be ridiculously expansive in the mythology of its world. Baring the main cast, you mostly have soldiers who wear the same masks or faceless civilians, whilst locations are wasteland, an empty wasteland city and corridors only. Exactly like Galerians: Rion but on a significantly bigger budget, to fill in more detail would've cost prohibitive and more time consuming than it already would've been.

The area which hasn't aged, and is the main draw now, is the non-human entities which populate the film; non-human characters are less problematic in animation, and not surprisingly for a work based on Final Fantasy, they're inventive from malformed humanoid grunts, flying snake dragons and strange monolithic entities with tendrils and spiders' legs straight from HP Lovecraft fan art. The bright idea to make the aliens orange and the life-force of Earth blue, the later to be collected by the heroes as a final way to end the alien threat, also helps in preventing the grey and golden brown post-apocalyptic environments from becoming drab, adding some aesthetic distinction to the proceedings. Particularly now when, for the hard work on them, the human cast shown the limits of the time badly now, these designs make up for the beginnings of trying to create realistic human beings onscreen. A lot of lavish care was put on the female lead Aki with her freckled, meek look but the rest of the cast particularly the males are as generic as you can get in this day and age. The worst offender, for example, being the main villain General Hein with permanently sinister brow line, frozen in maliciousness in his desire to use his giant space laser on the aliens by any means necessary and signposted as bad from the facial deformity before you recognise James Wood is voicing him.

As for the plot, this is where the film was ultimately doomed. One could immediately go to the mythology and blame it as esoteric gobbledegook - that the heroes, including the heroine and soldiers lead by an old flame, need to tap into the life-force of Gaea, Earth as a living entity, found in anything from plants to soldiers' bio-battery packs, to protect themselves from what are actual alien ghosts with no consciousness of their violence, restless and destructive - but that's the interesting part of the film that's barely dealt with. These parts are the clear influence of this being a part-Japanese production as this is the type of storytelling you find in many anime - like the failed, but admirable, attempt to make Hein and his scowling frown a more complicated character, with a moral reason behind his malice, these are admirable attempts at bringing greyness and a more interesting depth even for an action sci-fi film. The problem I'd squarely blame on the US side of the co-production, adapting the film for a Western audience. As much as a film from Japan could be just as terrible as one from the US if the script is poor, the problem exactly is an irksome tendency prevalent in American cinema, one still plaguing current blockbusters, where there's a common and over repeated through line for the plot, the repetition of the hero's journey plot with the same character archetypes and, worse, a stagnated and marketed version of the phrase "believing in yourself" rather than letting the viewers think this for themselves. When I now spot these habits, I have a Pavlovian reaction suspecting a film's going to immediately collapse in quality even after the first ten minutes.

The interesting ideas that the film had eventually become complicit in its failure, making the obsession with Gaea theory and life force padding on the rotten structure. The characters are so generic and provided with such bad dialogue that, considering the calibre of some of the voice actors for the English dub, it becomes worse. Steve Buscemi has made a name for himself, as well as being a great character actor, for being the comedic sidekick too, the one here without any decent jokes. Ving Rhames is stuck in the background, James Wood is the aforementioned villain only defined for most of his screen time by a menacing brow, and inexplicably its Alec Baldwin who's the romantic love interest, as bland as white bread military captain Aki loves, when he should have literal brass balls in his hand as he does in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Slight desperation can even be found in the tough female solder (clearly copying Pvt. Vasquez from Aliens (1986) without the charisma or anything to differentiate that archetype from this version. Probably the worst thing is that, given a leading voice role for something she immediately wanted to make, Ming-Na Wen as Aki Ross, in a curious career that includes The Joy Luck Club (1993) to playing Chung-Li in Street Fighter (1994) to Mulan (1998) and voice acting, is stuck with a film around her that lets down the chance to get centre stage.

I had hoped to write about a folly, possibly one with virtues to redeem it or at least memorable as a box office bomb and in context of all the other three dimensional anime that faded into obscurity because of it. What I've ended up with however is a casebook example of the many flaws with English language plot writing for mainstream films.  This is not like a Battlefield Earth (2000) in collapsing spectacularly, or in context of anime a compelling example of ambition crashing and burning at the box office like Odin: Photon Space Starlight (1985), but a bland, lifeless movie that has thankfully disappeared into obscurity baring its innovation in CGI. I sadly couldn't come to this as a fan of the original games, haven't never played a whole of one, but as a videogame adaptation, as tentative a one as possible, this is the sort of thing that'd crush a fan's heart if they went to see it on its original cinema release. In general it would've been a worse sensation for a devoted fan as, with the exception of Final Fantasy: Advent Children (2005), which was a direct sequel to one of the most loved games of the series, the anime adaptations of Final Fantasy have been infamous for their lack of quality. The Spirits Within would probably be the most painful to sit through, with those other adaptations all possible to cover depending on their accessibility to me, due to the expectation and budget behind it, collapsing like many videogame adaptations have. It ends with a shot of a valley with a dreary, Lord of the Rings-light ballad, one that finishes it appropriately with a deathly wheezing.