Sunday, 24 April 2016

#24: Yuki Terai - Secrets (2000)

Based on a original premise
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Yuki Terai - Secrets is an obscure compilation DVD, as obscure as you can get and probably for the better as in all honestly there's no real value to the set of shorts baring another curiosity in terms of early computer animated anime, another one covered for the blog but with an added factor that this is a portfolio for a fictitious female idol entirely created on a computer. This belongs to a series called Virtually Real that, in the weird early existence of DVD from 2000 and the first few years of that decade, was released in the UK alongside many a weird obscurity; in fact, from the trailers on the DTS sound enhanced disc, there are two more of these devoted to their own idols out there and can still be found on Amazon. Yuki Terai herself is a permanently seventeen year old girl who is brought to life by actresses in VR costumes and animators, able to star as multiple characters and show off many talents over the shorts contained in the disc. She is the titular figure of Comet the Thief, stealing a priceless guitar and fighting the owner over it in a fist fight, then a singer in a jazz club in Fly Away Home. She is trapped on a spaceship infected by a virus in Lazy Gui, the damsel whose love for an American is contrasted by being a spy in World War II in teaser Project BB-11. She sings, does her own action scenes, stars in a comedy with a cute robotic dog in Das/Chin or is terrorised by her own reflections in The Mirror.

Like the other proto-3D animated anime I've covered on the blog, this is another case of time being unkind to the material. A lot of it is clearly meant to demonstrate the graphical capabilities of the animators creating Terai, particularly an individual named Kenichi Kutsugi, a videogame visual effects and CGI cut scene designer, who overlooks this work altogether; unfortunately due to this emphasis, rather than plot or anything away from predictable stories, it lessens any chance for anything great to stand out now the animation is obsolete. Worse, this was released in the UK in 2002, after (entry #20) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), making it look dated even back when it was first released. Comet the Thief, the first on the DVD menu, is a perfect warning of its lacklustre look, the fight scene in the middle between Terai and a male crime boss resulting in stilted character movements against basic backgrounds. It's detail in hindsight to viewing all these works - from this to (entry #3) A.Li.Ce (1999) - that is the ultimate crippling flaw of all the ones I've covered, the reason I have to flog a dead horse in these reviews of praising one called Malice@Doll (2001), an anime I need to review on the blog at one point,  for doing something different by melding 2D animated details on 3D models. This detail also has to be a personality too, which is why  The Spirits Within was bland even though the animation was innovative in its day on an extremely high budget. Particularly with Yuki Terai - Secrets I cannot help but compare it to old videogames, why once high calibre games which pushed graphics have mostly been forgotten but people still go back to old 2D Megadrive and SNES games, although from context its clear the compilation wasn't even the highest quality possible of its kind.

Most of this compilation is pretty bland, less than five minutes long a piece, which cannot get out of the mind set of test demos or plain old music videos in the case of Fly Away Home and especially My Dearest You, which is a clear music video with the model of Yuki Terai against what appears to be a lava lamp for a background. Whether it's the jazz club of Fly Away Home or the interior of a WWII battleship, there's little aesthetic style to these models or even a mood. Even in Lazy Gui when Terai is threatened by a virus that gets into the security system, cuts off her oxygen and even turns off the gravity, the short is mainly set in one corridor with a computer figure with no emotional draw or a quirk to make it stand out. Something like Dos/Chan only stands out because of the cute dog, with an iPhone for a face, which doesn't determine quality by itself. This is worse for a short like A Life, about Terai as a suicidal young woman, lacking any emotional connection especially as it ends with her shooting herself. The exception, which could've been utterly rewarding if polished and worked on by itself in terms of its visuals, maybe even animated in 2D rather than 3D, is The Mirror where there is a creative and bold story at hand about Terai being haunted by her mirror reflections. It's not a great short, but it manages to have a dreamlike tone where her doubles crawl from any reflective surface - mirrors, windows - they can and she can fell into a puddle of water into another reality. It goes as far as having countless duplicates pin her in the corner of a subway car, jumping out of it only to be hit by another train passing by and being absorbed into its reflective front window. The only real flaw with it is that, with a final rooftop battle between her and a double with a neon sign involved and a cheesy pop sign on the end credits, it does get a bit silly at the end, needing a drastic rewrite if it ever got remade.

Within all these shorts, Yuki Terai is a figure we're meant to emotionally engage with, created by Kenichi Kutsugi for a manga of his in 1997 and having a string of appearances by the time of this DVD. This is part of a long line of virtual idols that particularly exist in Japanese pop culture, the likes of Vocaloid, a voice synthesiser, can make possible, able to sustain a popular audience but contrasting with real female idols. It reminds me of Sharon Appleof Macross Plus (1994), a virtual pop idol who however could only exist, in that anime's plot, because a former idol has to implant her personality into its software. The virtual idol, especially when you get into the issue of virtual film actors th, is still stuck with being a figure that needs human life put into it to actually have a personality. The idea of actors being replaced by CGI ones, taken to its biggest extreme in the Ari Folman film The Congress (2013), has been brought up occasionally and was the case with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within where the female protagonist, a mere 3D character design barring her voice actress, was meant to become a star in her own right who went on to other films in numerous roles. That never took place and it's an immensely failed idea as, not only was the "uncanny valley" as much a problem for a mega budget film like that let alone this compilation, but also there's the issue that these 3D figures can be completely bland and usually end up with tedious personalities as a result of their character designs and/or the narrative they're in.

Terai here is just a model of a seventeen year old as depicted by a male otaku, beyond a pretty face the kind of bland figure that'd sink a conventional anime TV series through her lack of personality. The character is meant, be it to the point of being exceptionally creepy or narrowly avoiding it, to personify a cuteness meant to attract male viewers; amongst the two other Virtually Real DVDs, one is of a stereotypical pin up with gravity defying breasts who in one of the scenes in her DVD's trailer is wearing only sexy underwear and body tattoos fighting zombies with katanas, thus showing that a fetishisation is as much part of the series as any other reason. Terai's lack of personality is also defined by her bland character design, which is ironic as she's clearly the only figure that has been giving some care of her design baring the robot dog. Like other 3D anime I've covered for the blog, the male side cast such as in Comet The Thief is comically rudimentary, like basic templates from a 3Ds Max programme, the obsession with bald heads probably better than the American soldier of Project BB-11's plastic blond hair. She herself is as much part of the problem with the whole compilation, neither protected by kitsch as early eighties and nineties CGI has been nor belonging in quality roles hiding behind a dated shell. Only the recognition of the animators pushing this animation really stands out for me, admiring their work despite the time that has passed, but for an anime of any sort it needs to actually engage beyond the technical details behind it. 


Friday, 15 April 2016

#23: Dead Leaves (2004)

Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Screenplay: Takeichi Honda
Voice Cast: Kappei Yamaguchi (as Retro); Takako Honda (as Pandy); Yuko Mizutani (as Galactica); 666 (as Mitsuo Iwata); 777 (as Kiyoyuki Yanada); Chinko (as Nobuo Tobita)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

In lieu of the unfortunate passing of Videotape Swapshop, I've decided to replace the absence of the tie-ins I planned for that site with linking this blog to my origin Cinema of the Abstract. This'll make a lot of sense with the more stranger and unconventional anime I'll end up covering, Dead Leaves a pretty great example of this type of anime with its maniac bullet heavy action. A link to the review can be found HERE

Thursday, 7 April 2016

#22: Gyo - Tokyo Fish Attack (2012)

Director: Takayuki Hirao
Screenplay: Akihiro Yoshida, Takayuki Hirao
Based on a manga by Junji Ito
Voice Cast: Mirai Kataoka (as Kaori); Ami Taniguchi (as Erika); Hideki Abe (as Shirakawa); Hiroshi Okazaki (as Professor Koyanagi); Masami Saeki (as Aki); Takuma Negishi (as Tadashi)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

This is the second anime based on the work of a legendary horror manga author I've covered. The first was (entry #8) The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (1990) which is based on the work of the titular man who is as known for his obsession with red and white stripes as he is chilling readers' blood. In Umezu's case I've unfortunately yet to read his work as of this review's date of publishing, but the author of Gyo, Junji Ito, is someone I've been pleasantly (or is that unpleasantly?) introduced to thanks to the recent reprinting of his work from Viz Media within the last year or so. Ito is a unique voice, both with his trademark drawing style and his storytelling; the fact that, early into publishing his work again, Viz have even released his autobiographical story about raising cats means that, if his work does well, we will hopefully get the likes of his uber popular Tomie stories in the future1.

A bold characteristic of his horror stories is that, while he does use various tones to his story ideas, he does tap a great deal into cosmic horror, the same type of horror of mankind being in the dark with the scope of the universe that was cemented by the tales of HP Lovecraft. Uzumaki (1998-9), his most well known story including its 2000 live action adaptation for film by Higunchinsky, is entirely Lovecraftian; even though its premise is uniquely strange to Ito, about spirals terrorising a small town to the point they transform both flesh and reality for all those trapped within the local area, the story especially with what wasn't filmed in the live action movie evoked entirely the psycho-mythological horrors of a Lovecraft work like At The Mountains of Madness (1931). The monsters and beings that terrorise the living in Ito's work, from what I've been able to access with the new Viz Media releases, usually exist outside the rational minds of human beings even if they are ghosts, the kind of irrational terrors that Lovecraft specialised in. Gyo evokes both Lovecraft's Dagon (1919) and the nautical horrors of William Hope Hodgson and while its premise is ridiculous on the surface - dead fish with mechanical legs, thus proving there's something worse than Jaws when a shark can walk on land - the result is creepy, legitimately disgusting in its obsession with decay and putrid rotting. With both the manga and the animated film there's an appropriately apocalyptic tone where the fish march out of Okinawa and eventually take over Tokyo, Japan and likely the world.

The adaptation is not as good as the manga, but it succeeds (pun not intended) on its own legs despite some flaws by managing to perfectly capture the story's central idea. The film succeeds in creating an end of the world scenario that admits how absurd it is but is still gross inducing horror, the fish monsters the result of a gas (and bacteria within it) that if it infects a host - aquatic, animal, human - turns them into a bloated gas bag, the machinery on them a gas powered entity which combines to create horrific bio-mechanical creations to overwhelm modern Japanese motorways and streets. A pinch of salt has to be taken that a premise like this which involves bodily gases as a main plot point could evoke giggles or merely gross people out without the inducing of horror, but horror is as much a genre to deal with that which is considered inappropriate to discuss in ordinary conversation - disease and illness even if it contains aspects that may be unintentionally funny, like farting, are still potentially distressing. Revulsion is still a powerful emotion to induce especially as the body is still seen as taboo in certain bodily functions to this day, so the disgust the story induces is appropriately required as the horror of death. The rotting of a living person from man to schoolgirl, when its revealed later in the plot, leads to the bacteria turning their skin almost frog green as gas comes out of every orifice, still distressing when witnessed animated, more so when the human body meets machinery, tubes going into places they dare not go and the mix of black humour, disgust and sight of things one feel shouldn't be depicted out of politeness makes this a potent cocktail2. In a slight spoiler that you can skip to the end of the paragraph about if need be, the mechanical legs as well are revealed to have been a creation of the Japanese military in World War II to harness the gas as a biological weapon, the premise upturning the habit of Japanese horror and sci-fi reflecting their monsters through the American involvement in the war with a creation the fault of the Japanese themselves on the future generation. As well, this is a tale of nature eventually overruling mankind, something as absurd as fish land inspired the more you think about it; one, if you see the dead eyes of fish heads on food stores, there is something unsettling about the appearance of fish in terms of their appearance especially as something we kill in thousands and eat; two, the absrudity of the idea, while in danger of not being scary to some, is more original than another vampire or zombie as, while the resulting fish are technically undead zombies themselves, they reflect the idea of anything being dangerous, especially as like zombies they are dangerous on mass; and finally three, back to Hodgson and sailor's tales of yore, the ocean is a place which holds danger for human beings, not only covering most of the Earth but a place with legends of giant octopus, (one such creature appearing in the anime), white whales which destroy ships, and real life creatures that are poisonous or accidentally confused humans for seals and rip pieces out of them.

The film changes plot points. A major one is switching the protagonist's gender to being the girlfriend who is concerned for her boyfriend in Tokyo during the attacks rather than the male hero, the characters from the original story Kaori and Tadashi switching places with Kaori the one we follow rather than the other way around. This is a change which may actually be the one virtue the anime has over the original manga as, while it's still a great book, the idea that Kaori, who is originally a damsel who is drastically different in personality and is part of  a plot point that becomes a plight for Tadashi, is changed into a passive heroine here is a nice little change which alters a great damn deal of the tone as a result.

Other changes are mostly in the characters created for the film and their characterisation. The main heroine is surrounded by two female friends who get a slice of the screen time. One is the stereotype of the nerdy, shy girl but she at least gets to be involved with one of the manga's more memorable images. The other is unfortunately the stereotype of the glamorous young woman who sleeps around, one whose only possible reason for existing as she does in the anime is so that the depiction of a sex act with three people (discretely shown) that would usually only be seen in live action porn can be written in; she as a depiction is the one real blot in the adaptation which stings as, while he uses stereotypes, Ito even when he has sexually explicit moments or female characters as monsters was always more tasteful even in the tasteless, preferring either the truly alien, likable characters, sympathetic monsters or those with his trademark madness projected from their wild bulging eyes.

Thankfully the choice of a female protagonist is treated with the respect it deserves as a radical change, where even thought she shows signs of the events happening around her hurting her, including breaking down and crying like a child when stopped by military personal from reaching a place, she's able to eventually accept the fate of what is likely the end of humanity around her. It also means that, when in the manga originally it's the boyfriend who had to deal with a longer plot line involving her being drastically changed physically that he has to cope with, the shorter take here with her having to deal with it really changes the way the story goes. It may come off as crass to say this, but considering the stereotypes of girlfriends that can be found in horror in any language of being a mere damsel, simply changing the gender of the person we follow, not even taking account the effect depicting them as gay or bisexual, can alter the span of a story if, following a heterosexual woman, the one in peril she has to find is her boyfriend. Followed here by a male photographer wanting to learn the truth of the outbreak, a new side is shown that nicely mirrors what Ito does in the manga where its Kaori having to feel the grief of what happens rather than the boyfriend having to feel grief for what happens to Kaori.

In terms of adapting the manga in general Gyo does have to truncate the plot and bring the story up-to-date from 1999 to the 2010s, the internet and YouTube (implicitly described) playing a great sub textual part in how it both informs the public but proves to be useless against the natural threat. The film manages to create an appropriately destroyed, abandoned cityscape where the streets are only populated by monstrosities, filling this with a fully fleshed-out narrative which manages to cover a great deal in only seventy minutes or so, quite a feat which the anime has to be applauded for despite its flaws in some of the priorities in storytelling. It even manages to include the circus segment of the original manga - a strange tangent where, in the middle of the end of the world, people have taken infected members of the public and turned them into an attraction in a circus of decay - without feeling like its missed the important plot points it has to deal with to make sense. The result of this economic storytelling as well is that, fitting the work its adapting, it develops its own idiosyncratic quirks that would make Ito proud, all the while avoiding what happened with the live action Uzumaki film, which was longer in length, in having to abruptly end with no real climax that used still shots of events it sadly didn't depict.

Technically the only issue to be found with Gyo is that, using 3D animation for the aquatic monstrosities at times, the glaring difference between 3D models and 2D animation can be spotted, a common issue still with many anime, only with sharks with mechanical legs sticking out like a sore thumb. Altogether it's an impressive production in terms of trying to adapt a source that could've immediately become too absurd in motion, not only succeeding in adding the menace that is in Ito's work alongside clear absurdity but also making itself stand out as having its own personality alongside the original source. Sadly its likely to be neglected with the otherwise superior original comic, but as adaptations go particularly in the barren area of horror anime, its commendable as an example which feels suitably unique rather than lacking in comparison to manga.

1 As of this review being published, we might be getting Tomie by Christmas in a deluxe set, pleasing me greatly. As for any of the live action adaptations made in Japan, if I could see any they might appear on the site even if they have no connection to anime.

2 This is a common trait of Japanese horror manga I've cherry picked that I've grown to admire even if at times I worry I'm becoming desensitised to material that would cause others to puke. Currently, the day this footnote was created, I am going through the first omnibus volume of Franken Fran (2006-12) by Katsuhisa Kigitsu, a work that deliberately steps over the line in terms of good taste from the beginning with grossly depicted body horror in the panels. As much as I fret that this type of material is too gross at points, too transgressive to the point of merely being offensive and crass, like with Ito I also realise the discomfort their imagery cause if probably more morally appropriate for horror storytelling and also more important in getting gut reactions out of people and forcing them, through the usually great illustration of Japanese manga, to look at their own sack of bones and flesh they call their own body with greater thought.