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)