Tuesday, 27 June 2017

#44: Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero (2002)

From https://myanimelist.cdn-dena.com/

Director: Shinji Ishihira
Screenplay: Sakichi Sato
Based on the manga Ichi the Killer (1998-2001) by Hideo Yamamoto
Voice Cast: Chihiro Suzuki (as Ichi); Sayaka Ohara (as Midori); Shinpachi Tsuji (as Jijii); Takashi Miike (as Kakihara); Atsushi Imaruoka (as Nobuo); Daisuke Sakaguchi (as Hirose); Ema Kogure (as Jiro); Eri Saito (as Mother)

Synopsis: A prequel to the Ichi the Killer narrative, following the origins of the titular figure, a sadistic assassin who cries as he kills and yet paradoxically enjoys inflicting pain on others in an extreme fashion. This short animation shows both how as a high school student constant bullying and a series of events placed him in prison for murder, and how after he's released a mysterious benefactor turn him into the cry-baby sociopath of the Ichi the Killer story.

Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero is a fascinating extra for Takashi Miike's infamous 2001 adaptation of the Hideo Yamamoto manga. However the word "extra" is apt. It even feels at odds with the film its meant to be an addition of in spite of the presence of the same screenwriter Sakichi Sato between them. Miike's film is a much more complex, subversive creation, which shows horrifying and taboo material only to twist a knife into the viewer's stomach for viewing it. Episode Zero instead of this feels like one of the final throwbacks to the idea of anime, especially in the West in the nineties, being adult and transgressive. Violent and adult anime is still being made, but particularly with the straight-to-video market (OVA) there was a lot of this nasty (and sometimes utterly cheap) anime in the late eighties and nineties before it ebbed out with this being one of the last gasps.

And Episode Zero is grotty, explicitly depicting material. That Ichi's parents, through consensual S&M sex the room next to their oldest son, are part of the cause of the confusion he has between sex and violence. How it depicts Ichi beginning to torture and kill small animals in school to relieve his inferiority from bullying, including the school rabbit which leads to him being blackmailed by another student. Clichés mixing with pertinent topics on Japanese culture, especially the issue of bullying and the stress school students and teenagers go through which appears in a lot of Japanese films, but without enough time forty minutes (six or so for end credits) to fully work. It's also an entire rewrite of the far more interesting back story for the Ichi character that you get in the live action film, a far more vague figure whose only past detail, about a trauma at high school, is fake and his handler (played by director Shinya Tsukamoto) being a much more interesting figure than the version found in the animated version. The cameo by the character Kakihara, voiced by Takashi Miike in what counts as merely grunts and a few words, isn't that interesting either when you have Tadanobu Asano as a fully fleshed out character in the feature film.

From https://assets.mubi.com/images/film/58024/image-w856.jpg?1445938925

The tone for Episode Zero, whilst with potential to be a deliberately provocative story like the live action film, does merely become scuzzy to the point I actually felt guilt viewing this, questioning having actually sat through the film. It's brazen in what it explicitly details but can come off as pointlessly offensive, particularly when you get to female martial artist, Midori, who takes an interest in Ichi only to be shown to be turned on by violence and eggs him on in a motel room to beat her up to erotic climax, barely stumbling on top of a knife's edge in terms of avoiding being crass and dubious. It's strange considering that the screenwriter was able to take similarly problematic ideas in the live action version and make such subjects more nuisance and provocative, the same found in a later Miike work Gozu (2003). As much the issue, alongside the tiny length, comes from the production itself feeling low budget, cheap and nasty in a way that's befitting the early processors but from a weird transition period of the early first few years of the 2000s, where the switch from hand drawn to computer assisted animation was awkward.

Even when placed next to another problematic anime from the yesteryear like Violence Jack (1986-1990), as notoriously cheap as some of them were gruesome, Episode Zero is dank in appearance even to those controversial works in character design and style. The exception is the music by Yui Takase which is the one thing of legitimate positive to take away from Episode Zero, memorable and helping to bandage up the glaring issues a little, an unnerving and edgy soundtrack to match the nastiness onscreen, including a peculiar hip hop song on the end credits where the rapped lyrics are heard under dialogue clips from the anime in a ramshackle way. (Sadly his only other credit on Anime News Network is Samurai XXX (2004), samurai themed hentai porn). Value to Episode Zero will vary drastically; for myself, it's curiosity, but as someone who'll defend the Miike film as an intelligent, transgressive cult movie, this pales in complete comparison and doesn't look good next to it. 

From https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-3aBMwrwEfy8/WSF-OhEG2aI/AAAAAAAAxww/7

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

#43: The Flying Luna Clipper (1987)

From https://www.msx.org/sites/default/files/news/2017

Director: Ikko Ono
Viewed in English Language with Japanese Subtitles

Synopsis: Having acquired a rare boat plane from the early 20th century, a Martin M-130, and renovated it to flyable again, a company offers a luxurious holiday trip in the Hawaiian Pacific for those who are the "deepest dreamers". Made with the graphical capabilities of a MSX game console, this film follows the flight patrons through a compilation of lessons and strange experimental shorts within its near hour length.

While this blog is meant to cover Japanese anime, it's be a crime to ignore the other areas of animation(1) that come from Japan alongside anime. The Flying Luna Clipper's existence, as a near hour long film made in glorious 8-bit game console graphics, wouldn't have even been known outside of obscurity in Japan if a blogger by the name of Matt Hawkins hadn't had found a second hand laserdisc copy. The result's a fascinating curiosity; the MSX is one of many Japanese video consoles from an early period of video gaming that would've only been known in its homeland, where the Metal Gear franchise began in fact, used here as an example of creative individuals experimenting with video game consoles beyond merely playable games to outright artistic experiments, be they interactive or not.

From https://i.ytimg.com/vi/6uD6pfH4q1s/hqdefault.jpg

Sadly, like many before and after, these experiments tend to end up doomed to obscurity or beloved cult works that are hampered by archival preservation yet to be publically provided to videogames, especially those which required idiosyncratic controls or require actually being re-released again rather than tracking down second hand, rare copies or online uploads of. It's a shame here as this is a proto-vaporwave head trip to experience, where the 8-bitera of illustration and character design created a colourful, Tropicana world of snowmen wandering around sunny Honolulu and palm trees at dusk. In spite of the limited animation, there's a lush charm from the incredible (and painstaking) detail, an old arcade game in its bright lights and sincerity. Adding to its strangeness and its warm hearted sense of accessibility is that it was likely made to appeal to Western viewers as its dialogue is mostly in English, moments of odd pronunciations in the voice acting against more solid performances which yet come from the mouths of moving portraits of cartoonish oddness. A black bird business tycoon, an air hostess whose a bespectacled banana, Polynesian bananas in coconut bras and grass skirts, a green haired chimp or living singing Hawaiian volcanoes =part of a more sexualised version of a Fantasia (1940) musical number.

From http://68.media.tumblr.com/9d5cdcc78b0362fc3059812988af41ac/

Japanese pop surrealism, the type of bubblegum surrealism not just found in videogames but in all their media, is absolutely charming. Unless you're viewing the spectrum which follows the traditions of the original movement in being transgressive, there's no sense of the more eccentric side of it of being merely commercial product, instead of cornucopia of full of cute anthropomorphic animals, talking plants, bright colours and spectacle, something I grew up with having a port of the scrolling shooter parody Parodius (1995) for the Sega Satan and hazy memories of episodes of Samurai Pizza Cats (1990-1). For all the darker, illicit areas of Japanese horror and dark fantasy which cross into the unreal and the mind bending, there's this opposite even when its occasionally morbid and full of sexual innuendo that's cute, silly and playful. The Flying Luna Clipper becomes a literal series of dreams for both the passengers of the ship and the viewer them self, the director of the animation literally one of the co-pilots of the clipper as it travels across the pacific ocean and even into outer space briefly. Barring one unfortunate image of a blackface character, on a TV in the background of a single scene, it's a surrealism that's a playful escapade.

From https://www.msx.org/sites/default/files/news/

Alongside a lesson on the Holose taught by a seahorse with a Germanic accent, to music numbers, you also have material that could be shorts by themselves, one of the most memorable likely an older project by the director in 1986 which is live action, a playful music video of babies falling over, waterfalls and diving women that's charming as its strange, feeling the most dated of the whole work but not a detraction to its value. The whole film in general makes an argument, now becoming known again in a post-vaporwave world, for a period of late eighties and early to mid nineties pop culture as escapes for audiences that shouldn't inherently be dismissed outright for that reason, a lot of anime to videogames even in commercial industries that emphasised escape, dreamscapes and the purely fantastical. Far from cynical, The Flying Luna Clipper feels sincerely fun, more so as its brazenly (proudly) weird even next to a lot of actual anime, its end playing as a series of dreams as the closet to an actual protagonist swears the clipper has been a giant pelican for all this time in the tourist trip.

From http://68.media.tumblr.com/7fcd20cdd7e96eec6fabbbf2d048ac01/

It's sadly a work that, unless a drastic re-evaluation takes place and enough people keep bringing it up in online topic, will be only known in a YouTube presentation, eternal gratitude to the man who pull the film again out of subterranean cultural memory but with an unknown time period of how long the upload will exist. Whilst from a period just before my birth let along childhood, it revisiting it for this review is why it was fitting to have moved away from videogames by the end of the PlayStation 2 to my permanent love for cinema instead. Less brightness and unexpected weirdness, the joys of childhood playing videogames scored by the soundtrack of Daytona USA (1993) and set in fantastical elaborate worlds, replaced by more "realistic" turgid aesthetics and a restriction in how games are meant to present themselves. I occasionally flick over reviews and clips online of new games, and alongside the cost and space required for new consoles, most of the actual games now are uninteresting for me to return to the medium. In spite of the apparent maturity of the medium in terms of storytelling, which I have to admire, as an outsider I'm put off by the mirrored sense of the bloated, store brand tone that also exists in mainstream cinema having infected the industry as well. In spite of its strangeness, there's a greater knowing sense of playfulness here in The Flying Luna Clipper I'd gladly recommend people explore if just as an antidote of this issue.

(1) The last time something different from the mould was covered was number #24 Yuki Terai - Secrets (2000), a compilation of shorts and music videos for an entirely fictional female star which you can read the review of HERE

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

#42. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva (2009)

From http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/professor-layton/images/8/8d/

Director: Masakazu Hashimoto
Screenplay: Aya Matsui
Based on the videogame franchise Professor Layton from Level-5.
Voice Cast: Yo Oizumi (as Professor Layton); Maki Horikita (as Luke Triton); Fumiko Orikasa (as Melina Whistler); Nana Mizuki (as Janice Quatlane); Atsuro Watabe (as Jean de Scole); Houchu Ohtsuka (as Inspector Clamp Growski); Iemasa Kayumi (as Oslo Vislar); Saki Aibu (as Remi Altava); Sumire Morohoshi (as Nina)

I have no previous experience with the Professor Layton franchise baring a passing knowledge of a videogames. I gave up videogames at the start of my twenties, or at least at the time of the Playstation 2, due to the ludicrous costs of the game themselves let alone the consoles, so I've stuck to films for nearly ten years and have missed at least a two generations of gaming consoles. But I have to admit that, separate from them entirely, there's some success in that this film spin-off does intrigue a layman like me with its universe. Imagine a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's profound influence only instead of Sherlock Holmes, it's a new type of period English detective called Professor Layton, archaeologist by day and one of the greatest solvers of puzzles who's assisted by a young boy called Luke Triton, "apprentice number one" learning to become as good as his mentor. The influence of Holmes is found even right down to the film being bookmarked by the pair recounting a previous mystery they investigated, an opera singer called Janice Quatlan who brings them into a mystery about an ancient civilisation called Ambroisa and an elixir for eternal life being offer to the winner of a contest based on intelligence.

I like the world that's depicted in particular. A whimsical depiction of London stuck in a nebulous past that never existed, not the modern day but mixing cultural periods without any sense of modern 20th century technology being visible. It's steampunk neither in this one story, which makes an interesting change of pace, closer to actual Sherlock Holmes stories but with a greater expansion into the purely fantastical with its fantastic tone. It also has a very welcome sense of cartoonish exaggeration where opera houses turn into cruise ships that look like giant crowns, and a black castle later in the narrative looks like it was built from Lego. The world particularly stands out with its character designs, a mix between dolls and Looney Tunes, facial features of all shapes and sizes., heads larger than the bodies, and each character, even minor ones, standing out in silhouette with their own distinct physical depictions. It allows a sense of humour to this adventure just in the exaggeration and means that a film which has a very sedate, pleasant tone still has energy to it as everything bounces or distorts with cartoon physics. Amongst such highlights is the henchman of the possible villain, forcing people to go through puzzles and riddles until only one can have immortality, that kind of look like William Finley's titular character from Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to the Scotland Yard detective and comic foil Inspector Clamp Grosky, who has a giant grey pompadour and a barrel chest covered in so much chest hair you could fill a cushion with it. Adding to the mood too is the score; it's been a long time since I've heard an xylophone in a soundtrack, but the vibrancy of Tomohito Nishiura and Tsuneyoshi Saito's music helps immensely add to its adventurous tone.

The only thing that comes off as a disappointment is that, as one would expect for a feature film in such a big franchise, it doesn't really have any sense of greater dramatic weight for the central characters and entirely depends on those only found in this narrative to be greatly affected by any plot events that happens. This is an issue with pulp storytelling, where the protagonists are never effected by events of stories and normalcy resolves itself, which varies on each story. Sherlock Holmes stories could get away with this because they don't end with a giant robot rampaging across a woodland like The Eternal Diva does, this Professor Layton film just in the ending somewhat undermined by the action scenes that take place near the end feeling like a quick resolve. It also does seem to descend into probably what the games are in how it becomes a series of riddles for Layton in the middle of the narrative to solve, not necessarily interesting without more drama to it or being able to solve them oneself with a game controller. This is a shame as the film takes a risk in it does tackling death explicitly as a family film, the narrative about a figure having to accept the loss of a loved one that's incredibly painful after denying this led to destructive behaviour. Japanese cinema will talk of this subject differently than Western ones for family audiences, but since I haven't seen an anime here that wasn't for adults only, it was a surprise to see. The only shame is that, when it does wrap up with some great emotional content to it, a sweetness even in the end credit epilogue, there's still more that could've been done to make the film stand out as something even more triumphant beyond being a videogame tie-in. It's one of the best, especially in anime, I've seen, but I only wish that The Eternal Diva had been more ambitious alongside its initial virtues.

From https://image.tmdb.org/t/p/original/