Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Midori-ko

Zipangufest's Beyond Anime segment consisted of three short films: all animated, none 'beyond' anything - except belief, in a couple of cases.

Encounters is a shoddy little adventure that looks like it's been shot and edited in a child's bedroom, by a child, in the space of a couple of hours. Featuring Action Men figures in the key roles, it's clearly supposed to be a self-consciously ramshackle, hilariously ironic re-run of any lame anime you care to mention. But since the sole joke is the fact that everything is done with jerky toys, it gets old after about a minute. Unfortunately, it goes on for a further 29.

Next up, The Great Rabbit. Despite its 7 minute running time, this short managed the impressive feat of outstaying its welcome. Simultaneously dismal and baffling.

Thank goodness then for the Svankmajer-esque Midori-ko, the longest of the 3 films, which uses some excellent hand-drawn animation (relatively static, but stylish) to tell the story of a young girl who discovers an extraterrestrial seed pod. The pod hatches what appears to be an alien vegetable but she detects a face on it and it later grows appendages. Analyzed through her handy USB cat scanner, it does appear to be vegetable in composition and everyone who encounters the strange plant-being wants to eat it. This appalls Midori - until she accidentally licks it herself and discovers how delicious it is...

Whether the film is pro- or anti-Vegetarian is quite hard to tell, but it doesn't really matter - some surprisingly grotesque, visceral imagery compliments a weird and wonderful story. Kind of like finding Miyazaki's demented cousin locked in a cupboard under the stairs.

緑子
Dir. Keita Kurosaka, 2010 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

To Sleep So As To Dream

It was a rare treat to watch this obscure 80s print under the high vaulted ceiling of London's Cinema Museum as part of this year's Zipangufest. In truth, it's a slight and whimsical piece of work, but sitting there surrounded by movie memorabilia, watching a flickering 16mm projection (complete with mid-film reel change!) made it seem quite special.

The format was apposite: To Sleep So As To Dream is an homage both to the Japanese silent cinema of the 20s and also 50s Film Noir. It centres around an aging actress who hires a hard-boiled (egg-eating) detective and his eager sidekick to find her missing daughter, Bellflower. Since they have nothing better to do, Uotsuka and Kobayashi embark on a gentle mystery tour in search of the elusive Bellflower - who is apparently trapped within an old silent samurai film without ending.

I'm sure it's partly down to my lack of knowledge of Japanese silent cinema (many references no doubt missed), but it's easy to see why To Sleep So As To Dream has been consigned to the celluloid wilderness. It has a very small potential audience and given any other setting I would probably have lost patience with it myself, but Saturday afternoon at the Cinema Museum turned out to be the perfect backdrop for this sleepy nostalgia trip.

夢みるように眠りたい
Dir. Kaizo Hayashi, 1986

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Portrait of Hell

Not quite as bizarre as it looks from the cover (and I must confess, as bizarre as I was hoping), Portrait of Hell is a slightly twisted morality tale that takes the form of a ghost story.

Lord Hosokawa, a vainglorious feudal overlord desires renowned Korean court painter Yoshihide to create an earthly paradise on the walls of his Buddhist temple. Yoshihide however, only seems capable of painting ugliness - he paints only what his mind's eye sees and all it sees is depravity and death.

Incensed by Yoshihide's stubborn refusal to bend to his will, Hosokawa decides that if he can't have heaven, he will have the perfect hell. He kidnaps Yoshihide's daughter Yoshika and uses her as bait to lure Yoshihide into his final deadly act of creation. 

Despite being relatively slow-paced, Portrait of Hell never drags - its world is a captivating one. The film has the look and feel of a stage play, perhaps because it was shot entirely in the studio rather than on location - but strangely, that works to its advantage. The decidedly ropey special effects are easily forgiven in light of the film's plus points: the lavish costumes and sets, the beguiling, languidly surreal atmosphere and most importantly, an unusual story populated with some memorable characters.

地獄変
Dir. Shiro Toyoda, 1969

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Tony Takitani

Lonely man marries woman, woman is addicted to buying clothes, woman dies, man is lonely again.

If ever there was a short story that didn't require padding out into a feature-length film, this is it. The original, by novelist Haruki Murakami, was written for the New Yorker and takes up barely 13 pages of a PDF file.

Ichikawa's adaptation is beautifully, albeit self-consciously, shot, but his translation from little story to big screen is literal-minded at best - it's like the illustrated children's edition. Murakami's trademark lightness of touch is nowhere to be found. For the duration of the film, the flat dialogue is flatly and linearly narrated; characters breaking out of their one-dimensional stasis every so often to chime in and finish off the narrator's sentences. A technique that would have been irritating once, but used ad infinitum is elevated to the rank of teeth-grindingly insufferable.

This truly is the proverbial cure for insomnia: a mind-numbingly prosaic depiction of the life of graphic artist Tony and his oniomaniacal wife that says less about the nature of loneliness than it does about the nature of tedium. Tony Takitani clearly wants to be seen as a film of quiet beauty and profundity - you can almost see it straining to measure up - but it falls well, well short. Superficial in every way.

トニー滝谷
Dir. Jun Ichikawa, 2004

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Summer Wars

Summer Wars is packaged with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in a Blu Ray double feature - both are directed by Mamoru Hosoda and animated by the venerable Madhouse studio.

The end result: exquisitely animated bollocks; Ghost in the Shell Super Lite; War Games meets Karate Kid meets Pokemon.

Where The Girl Who Leapt Through Time's time travelling high jinks are just about on the right side of daft, Summer Wars plants its standard firmly in the plausibility-raping techno-nonsense camp. Plot-wise, it's got a lot in common with the old 80s flick War Games, where some kid hacks into a super network and inadvertently triggers the countdown to armageddon. In this case, our unassuming hero, Kenji, lets a rogue AI program (coincidentally written by his friend's uncle) onto the network by providing the answer to a maths problem he is texted on his mobile phone. Yup, it's about as secure as an Icelandic bank vault.

Summer Wars is obviously intended to satirize the social networking phenomenon - a doomsday scenario where it's allowed to go too far, seeping into reality to the point where virtual and real worlds become indistinguishable. Hosoda envisions a world called Oz, which is like the ultimate expansion of the Second Life paradigm, where literally everyone has an avatar capable of doing absolutely anything imaginable - controllable, unbelievably, with a mere PS2 keyboard. Everyone from high school kids to the state military have an Oz account and they use it to control every aspect of their lives in the outside world - meetings, bank transactions, nuclear missile launches. Kenji and his pals have to save the world by taking Oz back from the AI behemoth running riot inside through a combination of extreme server power and a young girl's card-playing savvy. I can't even begin to do justice the amount of technological hokum Summer Wars spews out; think The Net and multiply it by 10.

Fortunately though, the animation is spectacular. The design of Oz itself takes its cues from the work of artist Takashi Murakami, with dynamic, splintering mega-beasts and gorgeous whimsy on an eye-watering scale. Outside of Oz, the real world is rendered in a fluid, naturalistic style that's up there with Ghibli in terms of technical bravura. Now if only they could find a script-writer to match the talent of the art department...

サマーウォーズ
Dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2009

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Now this may be controversial, but I don't really like Tetsuo.

Thumping industrial soundtrack aside, it comes off like a pretentious, under-developed student film. It's full of frenetic, yet hackneyed Surrealism which seems designed to batter the viewer into submission in the hope they won't notice what a crock it is. Or how much it's lifted, visually, if not conceptually, from the likes of Eraserhead, Videodrome and The Fly.

Minimal narrative coherence, vomit-inducing camera work and disjointed, meaninglessly sadistic action sequences filmed in grainy black and white stock make for an unpleasant viewing experience. The constant sensory barrage means that despite having a relatively short run time at 70 minutes, it still seems too long. With spartan dialogue and nothing in the way of character development, it's hard to feel empathy with anyone involved or to overcome a grinding sense of indifference.

I had thought 964 Pinnochio would prove to be a pale imitation of Tetsuo; turns out it's about on the same level - albeit slightly longer and, just possibly, slightly better.

鉄男
Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Dead Or Alive 2

I can think of few other directors who would go so far out of their way to make as contrary a sequel as Dead Or Alive 2. It's a mark of Miike's rebelliousness and his distaste for the diminishing creative returns of the franchise model that the second film in the DOA trilogy bears almost no resemblance to the original. It's also a mark of his continual need to push the film-making envelope, defying audience expectation in the process.

DOA 2 stars the same two leads as DOA, Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi, but they don't reprise their roles from that film (how could they?!). Instead, they play a pair of hit men, working independtly of one another, who end up targeting the same mark. Sawada beats Okamoto to the kill, but Okamoto decides to take his clients' money anyway and run. They both flee to the same small island, where it transpires they grew up together; childhood friends. The second act of the movie sees a reawakening of their friendship and leads to the formation of a plan - to work together and put their ill-gotten gains to good use, reinvesting hit money in foreign aid. Nothing is ever quite so black and white with Miike though - redemption for his characters comes at a heavy cost.


Although it doesn't quite deliver the compulsive viewing of its predecessor, DOA 2 is nevertheless an intriguing movie. By turns humourous, contemplative and surprisingly poignant, it's full of unexpected scenes, like the childrens' play Sawada and Okamoto decide to stage. The intrusion of adult themes into the play echo what is arguably the main theme of DOA 2 - loss of innocence, or rather, the gradual dissolution of childhood; the indefinable transition from what we were into what we become. This is framed throughout by the question "where are you?"; addressed, perhaps, to the viewer's inner child. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of Kitano Takeshi's style; extreme violence counterpointing a quiet reflection on the human condition; on friendship, memory and shared experience.


犯罪者 2
Dir. Takashi Miike, 2000

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Another anime based on older source material; in this case, Yasutaka Tsutui's 1967 novel of the same name.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an undeniably charming piece of animation, with a deceptively simplistic visual style. Deceptive because your first impression is of how clean and uncluttered it feels, almost minimalistic, but then you gradually become aware of subtle layers of detail, which never compete for your eye's attention but are there if you allow your gaze to drift around the frame.

The plot, concerning a high school girl, Makoto, who discovers the ability to leap backwards through time, is quirkily entertaining, if slight. It's got a kind of 80s feel to it - the sort of movie you could easily imagine getting made back then, when literally everyone was leaping around time in Air Jordans and drainpipe jeans - sort of like Quantum Leap meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Temporal back flips and metaphysical wizardry aside, it does basically boil down to a teen romance played out across time, space, death and reality (to lift a phrase). But that's no bad thing - even though it verges on schmaltzy when I might have preferred it to verge on edgy, and suffers from the same gaping plot holes that beleaguer any film concerning time travel, it's still a thoroughly entertaining watch.

From the point of view of someone who appreciates great artwork in anime, the story is a distant second to the enchantment of the hand-drawn animation; a triumph of understatement.

時をかける少女

Dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2006

Monday, 10 October 2011

Metropolis

Metropolis is based on Osamu Tezuka's unfinished manga from 1949, itself inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film of the same name. The central theme of both manga and anime is the hubris of Man and his inevitable downfall, symbolised by the fall of the Tower of Babel, as it is in Lang's film.

There are also character analogues - Duke Red could be John Fredersen, Dr. Loughton echoes Rotwang, the mad professor, and Tima, created at the behest of Metropolis's ruler, the robot Maria. Beyond this though, any similarities in plot are superficial at best; Rintaro's Metropolis is about a militarized Ziggurat, Duke Red's own Babylonian tower, through which he plans to consolidate his power base. The Ziggurat is designed to be the ultimate weapon, realized by its integration with Tima - a robotic super-human; the tower's 'brain'. This is where the hand of screenwriter and Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo really shows itself: Tima, only human in outward appearance, carries within her a potential for transformation that is far more destructive and all-encompassing than her creators could have imagined.

Despite being relatively multi-faceted, however, the story is hardly original, riffing on eveything from Tezuka's original Metropolis, Akira, Ghost in the Shell... through to Ghostbusters even (the old Gozerian paradigm). Behind this furious hotchpotch of narrative elements, the film is scored by a strangely ill-fitting Swing Jazz soundtrack (which morphs alarmingly at one point into what can only be described as Jazz Trance). But then there's the visuals - and what visuals they are. A combination of beautifully modelled CGI and hand-drawn cell animation, that reach an apex of immaculate, fluid detail in the destruction of Duke Red's tower; the symbolic liberation of Metropolis. It's a credit to Rintaro that he perceives digital animation as merely another tool in his armoury and does not, as other directors have done, abandon his artistic principles for technology fetishism.

One for the eyes this; send your brain on vacation.

メトロポリス
Dir. Rintaro, 2001

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Night & Fog in Japan

An unsteady zoom shot finds us at the centre of a wedding reception. The opening scene, and the focal point of the action throughout the film, is a peculiarly joyless union of two former student activists, Nozawa and Reiko. Instead of being a celebratory occasion, it turns into a moral inquisition as various wedding guests and associates come forward to tell their story. In so doing, they gradually poison the atmosphere with accusations of political and personal infidelity.

Oshima's contempt for the ineffectiveness, as well as the hypocritical, bourgeois tendencies of the leftist Zengakuren movement is plain to see. As the history of Nozawa's faction unfolds, revealed through a series of flashbacks, their collective will is shown to be fatally undermined by internal power struggles. The demonstration against the US-Japan AMPO Treaty, a key battleground in the Zengakuren struggle, is lost. Characters like Nakayama, the group's vainglorious and didactic leader, are more interested in feathering their own nests than putting into practice the Marxist ideology they espouse.

In some ways, this austere, serious film about the generation gap (symbolized by Reiko, Nozawa and their professor at the bridal table) and the failure of matrimony and fraternity to bridge that gap, could be viewed as a triumph for Oshima; it was daring for its time, not just politically but also in a filmic sense - the expressionistic use of shots and overt theatricality are bold choices. But they are also bad choices, to my mind. The unrelenting dryness of the subject matter, the dark lighting, spatial constraints and humourlessness of everyone involved induces a grim ennui (it took me 4 separate attempts to get through it!). Likewise, the staginess of the production doesn't lend itself naturally to film. The AMPO demonstration, for instance, is given a symbolic treatment - pitching the set into darkness and spotlighting key protagonists in static postures of insurrection, like paintings of war in a dark, silent gallery. Your imagination is supposed to fill in the blanks. It's the kind of thing that works well on stage, but transplanted to the screen, just seems lifeless and self-consciously stylized.

In truth, this is a film that has become stratified in time. Taken out of the context of its very specific historical locus, stripped of its political relevance, it serves only to document a darkly remembered undercurrent of Japanese post-war history. On a narrative and dramatic level, it simply fails to engage.

日本の夜と霧
Dir. Nagisha Oshima, 1960