Sunday, 29 January 2017

#39. King of Thorn (2009)


Director: Kazuyoshi Katayama
Screenplay: Hiroshi Yamaguchi and Kazuyoshi Katayama
Based on a manga by Yūji Iwahara
Voice Cast: Kana Hanazawa (as Kasumi Ishiki); Akiko Yajima (as Timothy Laisenbach); Ayako Kawasumi (as Laura Owen); Eri Sendai (as Shizuku Ishiki); Kenji Nomura (as Ron Portman); Kousei Hirota (as Alexandro Pecchino); Sayaka Ohara (as Katherine Turner); Shinichiro Miki (as Peter Stevens); Toshiyuki Morikawa (as Marco Owen); Tsutomu Isobe (as Ivan Coral Vega)

King of Thorn's premise suggested a post-apocalyptic horror narrative when I first heard of it. In an alternative time line, the world is inflicted by the Medusa virus, an incurable disease which when it infects a person eventually turns them to stone, prompting a medical company during the crisis to reveal a secret project to cryogenically freeze a lottery selection of over a hundred people. The test subjects are awoken time later only for a few of them to survive, for when they wake up it's to horrifying monsters living in the facility, isolated on its own island in Scotland, and giant thorns covering everything inside and outside. The remaining individuals - including one half of a pair of female Japanese twins Kasumi Ishiki, a criminal Marco Owens, a female nurse Katherine Turner, an African-American Ron Portman and a young boy Timothy Laisenbach amongst others - are forced to flee and try to survive the monsters rampaging around the facility's many rooms and underground passages, fearing both the Medusa virus still infecting them and the secrets that reveal that not all is what it seems. As a result of this though, what I thought was going to be a post-apocalyptic story isn't that but something else melding sci-fi, horror and fantasy, a gamble but one that could've succeed exceptionally well in terms of creating its own idiosyncratic personality.


The reality of what the premise is and how it plays out, with direct allusions to Sleeping Beauty to a conspiracy narrative, eventually undermines the film. What happens is that the plot becomes more convoluted as numerous plot twists are introduced right up to the end. An advanced computer named A.L.I.C.E. that is meant to look after the cryogenic subjects. The Medusa Virus. The shadiness and experiments from the medical company itself that has lead to imagination literally becoming real and leading to their facility being covered in giant thorns like the castle in the centre of Sleeping Beauty, told the viewer in narration ongoing as an allusion. That's not even getting to the central characters, their own stories and reveals about their characters thrown at the viewer, the most important plot thread here for the entire film that of Kasumi's, the central character, one of two female twins, whose psychological strife and a mystery surrounding her sister Shizuku becomes the central mystery. However this leads to many of them not getting any character detail for them like Ron or Timothy baring the clichés they meant to start out as. (And even a character with some noticeably grim background detail like Katherine being undercut by prioritising other events even with her onscreen, causing one to realise a lot of downsizing of the original manga's length may have been involved). It becomes difficult to filter through as having to juggle emotional back story and its various plot strands becomes a chore rather than naturally fleshed out.


This becomes more disappointing as King of Thorns officially counts as a horror anime, that surprisingly rare breed that I wished existed more often. It's various horrifying monstrosities suggest dark fantasy crossed with sci-fi horror - blind T-Rex like creatures with xenomorph jaws, killer bats, a monstrous entity at the bottom of an elevator shaft that swallows anything that falls down to it - but they're merely background objects throughout to trim down the cast and downsized in threat next to the science fiction story the film eventfully becomes. The genre mixing could've easily been compelling, even in terms of how the premise aesthetically mixes both high-tech science laboratories with a Scottish castle with underground sewers and spiral staircases, the sense of melding different tropes found even in the odd but eventually obvious clue of how the young boy Timothy views the monsters, even when people have died, like videogame monsters to an almost clairvoyant-like level. Because of the emphasis on countless plot stands however it never feels fully fleshed out be it as horror, fairytale, viral horror, anything, when even the Medusa Virus never gets a proper conclusion or meaning to it baring an abruptly revealed but never explained revelation of its origins. Worse, it becomes part of a convoluted plot strange only found in anime where it can be a plot Macguffin to allow other fantastical incidents to happen.  Even the most dramatically compelling with Kasumi - an uncomfortable relationship with her sister despite Shizuku loving her, the interesting denouement plot twist set out with a perspective fragmenting structure - is compromised by how ultimately clichéd it is.

Animation wise, while high budgeted, it also suffers from an ill-advised decision to mix three dimensional and two dimensional animation including for the character models for more action intense scenes. As a result, it leads to characters switching mid-scene from crisply drawn figures to a noticeable three dimensions placed on 2D backgrounds, subtle differences in how their facial features and form is altered for a few moments that is an awkward and brutally visible detail. Altogether what could've been an interesting film is one that doesn't find a clear tone for itself, one in King of Thorns which is completely remarkable after the umpteenth plot twist.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

#38: Your Name (2016)


Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenplay: Makoto Shinkai
Based on a Novel by Makoto Shinkai
Voice Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki (as Taki Tachibana), Mone Kamishiraishi (as Mitsuha Miyamizu); Masami Nagasawa (as Miki Okudera); Etsuko Ichihara (as Hitoha Miyamizu); Ryo Narita (as Katsuhiko Teshigawara); Aoi Yūki (as Sayaka Natori)

It's a wonderful feeling how successful Your Name has been, an incredible hit in Japan that's also growing in box office in countries like South Korea and even the US. Knowing Makoto Shinkai was once making waves with a short film he made as an outsider of the anime industry by his own, Voices of a Distant Star (2002), and gained a career as a result of that short's own success and his hard work adds to that wonderful feeling. And brilliantly, a decade on starting with a sci-fi story about time travel and giant robots which was actually about human relationships and communication across an impossible distance, Your Name is tackling the same subject in fantasy and folklore trappings about a young boy and girl communicating over their own vast distance separate from each other, instead Shinkai using this much larger budgeted, longer canvas to flesh out the subject matter further.

It has to be stressed that Your Name is a very mainstream feel-good movie,in which, after a meteor shower, a young high school girl Mitsuha, living in a rural town as the daughter of the late shrine priestess, finds herself randomly switching bodies some days with an urban schoolboy Taki living in Tokyo before the morning after returning to their original places. As they start to exchange notes to each other during the changes, of how not to behave in the other's body and offering diary snippets of what they've done in that time, a relationship at a distance begins. At first Your Name takes on a surprising amount of the tone of television anime in its speediness and snap in pace only brought to a monstrously higher budget with great animation, an opening credit sequence closer to a TV series in its montage of flashy animation and pop rock by Noda Yojiro, the humour juggling near slapstick and light sexual comedy between Mitsuha's thought bubbles or how neither she and Taki are prepared, even after multiple times, to find themselves in the body of someone of the opposite sex let alone in an entirely different environment between urban Tokyo and a rural mountain town. After a while Your Name, to its credit, does start to get more weight to it beyond this light humour.

For starters, it's clear Makoto Shinkai, writing a script based on a novel he wrote himself, has an incredible ear for personalities that feel realistic and an interest in humdrum life that's drastically different from the imaginary, exaggerated fantasy of high school that prevails in a lot of anime stereotypes, a naturalist not only in his realistic character designs and the painstaking detail in all the environments, but how even in a fantasy story with light comedy is grounded with realism that feels more sincere than in other stories, such as Mitsuha's father being disconnected from his shrine heritage after his wife's death playing an incredible part in the friction between father and daughter, or even how the effect of a boy inside a girl's body, and a girl inside a male's body, isn't just played for cheap humour but includes subtle personality changes alongside bouts of inadvertent amnesia and drastic behavioural changes. The contrast between the small town in the county that's difficult to find by train without knowing it's name, and has very little in terms of activity there for the youths baring the yearly cultural festival, and the urban metropolis of Tokyo, with Taki doing part time work in an Italian restaurant and its crowded trains, provides a visible interest between the Japan of tradition and lore against Japanese modernity, never stressed or made clear in a portentous way but a sub current the divide playing the two central characters away from each other takes advantage of. The explicitness of the folklore of Mitsuha's community plays out behind the body swapping is significant too, where the traditional form of sake made from chewed up rice and alcohol kuchikamizake is an important plot point, and a certain time in twilight at dusk allows people from different realities to stand and talk to each other.

The best thing Your Name does is to suddenly plough through the expected comedy for this premise in a giant montage, when it would be savoured over time in other films, and turn into a much more serious story, taking a tragic plot twist involving the initial comet and purposely play with time and reality in a tone that's between a pulp weird tale and romantic drama. It's a little flaw that Taki is the real protagonist, when Mitsuha's own life is fascinating and the side characters around her like her younger sister and the conspiracy obsessed Katsuhiko are the most fun to follow, but thankfully neither side is more important than the other in terms of emphasis, the duo allowed through the metaphysical distortions in the plot able to be on screen in various forms, including as each other, in very unconventional ways. It's still a populist, mainstream film in terms of the ending, but Shinkai has a foot firmly in the metaphysical and folklore which brings a better sense of the fantastical, allowing it to dodge countless clichés that would've made the ending resolution a chore, and a better sense of the drama where the real emotional concern is whether Mitsuha and Taki will ever have any form of romance that's consummated to each other even if just through saying a few words. The growing romantic angle resonates more when the film plays with tropes like destiny and the Japanese notion of the red string of fate against their more prickly, humorous interactions beforehand.

The quality of the production is also vital for it to work as, whilst the music by Noda Yojiro and his band Radwimps is frankly too saccharine for me, it's an incredible visual achievement where the background details - the colours of the sky at morning or night, clouds - are incredibly detailed and colourful, having a sensual impact to the material as well as a dramatic weight, the story especially when it's in Mitsuha's town and its mountain setting having an important emphasise on the local gods which play an important role in her life and the plot. In fact Your Name goes one further, with a scene in motion that may have tipped it's hat to the late anime director Osamu Dezaki's "postcard memories", still images that suddenly intercut into scenes with incredible detail, with witnessing Mitsuha's life from her birth to the present in watercolour that's breathtaking and nearly psychedelic.

Plus, and the factor you sadly don't get in a lot of mainstream cinema, the story is full of life and humour which adds to its emotion, from the running gag of Mitsuha's younger sister being freaked out every time Taki possesses her body and acts in strange ways, or the sweet and emotionally adult subplot about an older female colleague at Taki's Italian restaurant job who Mitsuha helps draw him close to. The later in particular, while not radical as a film on the subject, does give some complexity to how Your Name deals with the gender portrayals, quite brilliantly beyond the obvious jokes, found especially in how this female colleague, university student Miki, find herself bonding with Taki when he's showing more empathy because of Mitsuha being the person behind the eyes. Even though I've barely seen anything by Shinkai, with a large gap between The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) to Your Name in my viewing, it's amazing how that even when it's scored to light fluffy J-rock and a mainstream box office smash, he's decided to expand on the same obsessions he had from his first ever work on a much higher budget, still within the confines of genre storytelling, and expand upon his concerns about human interaction and distance in a larger scale without feeling he's compromised at all. 


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

#37: Samurai X: The Motion Picture (1997)


Aka. Rurouni Kenshin: Requiem for the Ishin Patriots
Director: Hatsuki Tsuji
Screenplay: Yukiyoshi Ohashi
Based on the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki
Voice Cast: Mayo Suzukaze (as Kenshin Himura), Miina Tominaga (as Yahiko Myôjin); Miki Fujitani (as Kaoru Kamiya); Takehito Koyasu (as Sadashirô Kajiki); Yuji Ueda (as Sanosuke Sagara); Akihisa Soukuchi (as Ken Ikeuchi); Harî Kaneko (as Aritomo Yamagata)

With any long lasting, exceptionally popular franchise, there's the issue for people who've yet to jump ship onto the franchise when it's gone through many spin-offs, feature length stories, sequels and prequels of where one starts. Naturally most would immediately go to the first piece, the one which gained the popularity in the first place, although there's a problem as can be attested to Rurouni Kenshin where, if not everything is released or in this case has been long out of print in the UK, one is forced into a corner. It's nice to find Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal (1999) second hand, said to be the most rewarding and artistically satisfying of the entire franchise, but having a DVD with only the last two episodes out of four is an utter pain in the arse.1 Rurouni Kenshin, about the titular samurai Kenshin Himura during the early Meiji era with red hair, red clothes and a distinct x mark scared on his cheek, has had a lot of media built from the character, live action films the most recent and easily available examples, so there's another issue as well that, with so many continuations with the character, whether all the spin-off media is actually any good and worth keeping on one's DVD shelf is an issue. As much as one wishes every sequel for a franchise was great, be it books to moving pictures, there's a constant example of bad or utterly pointless tangents which ultimately aren't worth the time in having seen, marring the series as someone's first experience with the beloved character is such a bad or dull story, more so not worth spending ridiculous amounts on the special edition releases with various bits of tinsel and gloss on them.


Samurai X the Motion Picture
follows the franchise mid-way into its existence as a one-off story, already establishing main characters to follow - Kenshin himself, Sagara Sanosuke a martial arts fighter and general lovable lunkhead, Kamiya Kaoru the sole female member and the more diplomatic, and Myōjin Yahiko a young boy established as being an orphan in a few lines of dialogue in the film - but setting them against a feature length long story that can be work by itself in spite of the background you'd need to get the most out of it. On one hand it's an advantage for myself as it means this being my first experience of the franchise isn't marred with being lost by context fans would already know of but meaning, without any risk and all narrative consequences taking place to characters only existing in this film, a story like this is fraught with merely doing the bare essentials.
It's interesting to see another period chambara anime in such a long while on the blog - not since entry #5 Sword of the Stranger (2007) - where in this case Western influence is modernising the nation of Japan that's survived civil war but conflicts are still taking place. The narrative is entirely about the lingering wounds of this and backlash against the western presence, a figure Takimi Shigure (Kazuhiko Inoue) secretly plotting to take drastic action, not knowing of how double crossing is involved or how Kenshin has a significant part in his motives. That and the woman who loves him as well, Toki (Yuko Miyamura), having emotional conflict as she bonds with Kenshin and his friends with a Sword of Damocles hung over her love for Takimi.


The problem is entirely about the story being perfunctory. Not wanting to drastically effect the main characters, long form pulp storytelling is fraught with having to either keep coming up with more imaginative stories or keeping the wheels spinning to a dull repetition, an issue which becomes more problematic with the tie-ins for long standard series like feature films which should be more dynamic considering how important a film or a special should be in ideal. It's possible to have one's cake and eat it, especially as this particular story has enough to run with story wise in terms of politics and a character drama between two figures never featured again that can go in any dramatic conclusion, but it feels like mediocre samurai cinema, one which feels shockingly flat too in terms of an animated work one would hope had more flair to it. Part of its cardinal sin is that a lot of its plot is signposted and sanitised, that Kenshin will not use the sharp end of his blade at all and harm anyone, or that there's no dynamic conflict to test his good virtue and show its best, merely what can damningly be argued to be an average episode length story stretched for over ninety minutes. Neither does it help that the most rewarding moment, a pre-credit prologue, when Kenshin was still a cold blooded hired warrior, of a night time fight is constantly repeated over and over again as flashback padding that it loses its impact eventually.


Without any tension for the main characters -  Myōjin flirting with joining the anti-Western rebels but with the script cheating so he doesn't get permanently affected by this decision - nor any real dynamic to the new characters for this film, Takimi reduced to clichés of honour and Toki as a worse cliché of the meek woman who only cries and has no affect on the story around her, no amount of sad music or crying, of manly tears as much as Toki's, can help as neither the corrupt member of the Western military helps add spice or the many things you have here that you find in other anime before it done better. Affectively it's the worse way to get into Rurouni Kenshin, as someone who had never seen any part of the franchise before it, and if I do continue on with entries of it, if they're available, I hope this was one of the unfortunately cases of a pointless cash-in.

1Thankfully Trust, while second hand, looks easy to pick up online, so even if the video quality's aged badly there might be a review in the future one day.