Wednesday, 19 September 2012


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.

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.

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.

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.

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...

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.

Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989