Friday, 6 April 2018

#53: Sword for Truth (1990)


Director: Osamu Dezaki
Screenplay: Takeshi Narumi
Based on the novels by Takeshi Narumi
Voice Cast: Eric Flynn as Shuranosuke Sakaki; Alan Blyton as Kagairo; Bill Roberts as Dogen; Frank Rozelaar-Green as Marouji; Garrick Hagen as Daizen Imura; Julia Brahms as Princess Mayu; Sarah Wateridge as Oren
Viewed in English Dubbing

Synopsis: In period era Japan, the purple clad swordsman Shuranosuke Sakaki is assigned to rescue the princess of the Nakura from the Seki ninja in exchanged for a priceless sword. Things are not as simple as this especially when various monstrous and supernatural warriors get in his way.

Whilst Manga Entertainment is still the largest anime distributor in the United Kingdom, who now release the new Pokemon films and Dragonball series, I cannot help miss their old lurid side. To the point they have lost their personality nowadays. It was an awkward transition back in the late 2000s, the moment the company who released violent anime like Ninja Scroll (1993) and Urotsukidôji: The Legend of the Overfiend (1989) stepped away from their reputation when they released family friendly material like Professor Layton tie-. Yes, even in the VHS days Manga Entertainment did release great work, like Akira (1988) to Macross Plus (1994), but they were notorious for their trashy releases. For being the company who coined "beer and curry" anime, expecting young men to watch anime on Friday nights like straight-to-video Steven Segal flicks. That they relied on the OVA and theatrical market, TV series an alien term for them barring less than esteemed series like Tokko (2006) and Virus Buster Serge (1997). And I confess that, now Anime Limited exists and other companies take up the small British market, I miss this lurid side of Manga Entertainment even if I only got into it in the DVD era. Back in the early 2000s when I was getting into anime, the now defunct ADV Pictures was the other primary source for the medium, Manga Entertainment were still releasing their old catalogue titles onto DVD, including the less than spectacular evidence of their past like Sword for Truth. As much of this is nostalgia but there was at least a personality at hand too.


The irony is that its director Osamu Dezaki, up to his death, is one of anime's most well regarded craftsmen. A working director who yet, over his prolific career, had auteurist flourishes and was responsible for incredibly well made and beautiful projects. Paired with character designer and animator Akio Sugino, he did a lot of magic as well. Their pairing on Sword for Truth, after Dezaki's stint making American animation in the late eighties, was not one of those magic moments. It was released in the West a long while after its initial Japanese release as well. When the aforementioned Ninja Scroll became a very popular hit for Manga Entertainment  in both the United States and the UK, naturally there were attempts to capitalise on its success. ADV tried to openly promote Ninja Resurrection (1997) as a sequel by also having a protagonist named Jubei, probably less likely to anger fans than the fact of it, over the two episodes, having no ending whatsoever. Manga Entertainment itself released Sword for Truth, made in 1990, many years later.

The anime, based on the novels of Takeshi Narumi and with said author scripting the plot, has all the fantastical absurdities of the others but is more openly explicitly in its use of real Japanese history, none of which is taught in the West unless one openly studies it, and neither is explained in this anime. Set in the Tokugawa era, the villains for starters are meant to be Christians, mostly hidden in the English dub. A plot point which has a bad taste in the mouth as, depicted in Masahiro Shinoda's 1971 film Silence and Martin Scorsese's own attempt on the same material also called Silence (2016), the history of how Christianity was outlawed in Japan is not one to be proud of. This era is depicted in a lot of chambara pulp stories, like Lone Wolf and Cub, but is rarely depicted as such. It also raises questions who the big bad you only see in the last act is and never contributes anything else to the actual material. A hairless mountain of a man who worships at a burning cross whilst naked writhing women orgasm around him, it's as if the Pope was an evil warlock on steroids and best not to try and explain.


The history, as is common in a lot of pulp samurai tales, is background content that you do not fully need to understand. Or that would be the case were it not for how many names are badly pronounced, Manga Entertainment's dubs varying wildly in the mid-nineties, and that story still scatters in historical context and maps through its narrator, enough for a Japanese viewer to possible get in nods to, virtually nonsensical without context to Western viewers without the context. Infamously the English dub confuses things further in one scene, thus sabotaging the entire structure in places. In one of the more infamous scenes, whilst the narrator gravely talks about how opium was used to brainwash members of an assassin's cult, explicit animated lesbian sex is taking place onscreen where one of the participants is being brainwashed. That the English dubbing script confused them for the kidnapped princess causes a huge plot hole when these female ninja attack the villainous ninja at one point. If the very stern male voiceover explaining how opium was used to indoctorate assassins over a sex scene wasn't "tasteful" already, this mistake and its effect is the exclamation mark.


It's not a high point in Osamu Dezaki's career in the slightest. Even Golgo 13: The Professional (1983), whilst based on a manga with problematic gender depictions and a luridness to violence and sex, at least had incredible style and a nihilism that had effect on the silly material. Sword for Truth is a chambara Golgo 13, in which our anti-hero is a stoic warrior who wins every fight and has sex with a lot of women. Not well made, not helped by the significant budget limitations and few of Dezaki's artistic flourishes. It is the perfect definition of a guilty pleasure and if anything softens its tastelessness and huge problems, it's the complete lack of story context and general strangeness. These characters exist in a lot of Japanese pulp stores, but this one has the quirk of dressing in lovingly purple clothing and having, like Ninja Scroll, to fight various freakish ninjas (harpoon throwing frog men, old ghost men who skip on top paper lanterns, even a giant tiger). Where the first women he has sex with is a female pickpocket who inexplicably has a demon eating babies tattooed onto the whole of her back. Material so over the top that, because its told with such stoicism, it's ridiculous. Even the English dub helps with this, as the princess asks whether he can ever love her on a battlefield. Or when an assassin asks a target whether he has a family before suplexing him to death.

Also at under fifty minutes, there is no ending. The kidnapping plot is resolved, but it barely scrapes into this world. Especially when there is a cameo by what clearly is a character from the source material, an assassin with the potential for an afro who kills his targets with martial arts rather than weapons. The Christian Big Boss if presented as an oversexed version of Sauron, but never contributes anything to the actual material. This is testament to an issue with OVAs that, whilst missed, the straight-to-video anime industry for every great release was also notorious (especially by the nineties) of work that never had actual endings to them or were just made to encourage people to read the original manga to get the endings.


Is there any worth to Sword for Truth then? Actually yes, in the sense that, in reference to a discussion with a friend on Letterboxd that came from musicians but could also apply to cinema and anime, any great artist who never has an egregiously bad period in their career is playing it too safe. Thankfully Dezaki would go on to adapting Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack into anime throughout the nineties, given us the incredible 1996 theatrical movie that redeems for this completely. A one-off, getting back from the American animation industry can be shrugged off especially as the material is still entertaining and so bad, its compelling. Barring the music, which is actually good, this is the mad trashy side to anime which thankfully isn't the norm nowadays but whose unpredictable energy could be stolen back and applied to better written and animated productions. It is not as if we've escaped from this type of material either - and I'd argue some anime now is more insidiously worse for their gender politics and ideas especially when you get to the underbelly of Moe. If anything, as dumb as a brick and the English dub has howlers as Manga Entertainment's dubs could be infamous for, is a side of the company that should still be celebrated even if laughing at it at the same time. Manga Entertainment helped finance Ghost in the Shell (1995), so their reputation was never fully trash merchants either at the period. In fact - whilst this is possible fed on watching the old Manga Entertainment trailers scored to Mad Capsules Market too many times - the company even in the early DVD era when Sword for Truth was released at least still had a distinguishable personality unlike in the 2010s.


Sunday, 25 March 2018

#52: Eternal Family (1997)


Director: Kōji Morimoto
Screenplay: Kōji Morimoto and Dai Satou
Cast: Masashi Hirose, Yūko Mizutani, Wasabi Mizuta, Kappei Yamaguchi, Ako Mayama, Tie Kumashiro and Ken'ichi Ogata
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: In the future, a group of miscreants are brainwashed into believing they are a family, the footage of them living in an enclosed living environment sold off as reality television. They become popular - Ben, the patriarch of the family who is in on the production itself, eldest daughter and pyromaniac Akiko, baby Michael, obsessed with scissors, violent eldest son Sasuke, mother A-ko, family dog Tamasaburo, and youngest daughter Sae, who speaks through a hand puppet. Unfortunately due to a mistake when the toilet gets blocked, they manage to escape into the real world again and the producers are forced to get them back.

Built from 30 second segments, which make up twenty nine minutes, Eternal Family is an odd proposition for anime marketing nowadays in terms of ever re-releasing it in the West, due to its small length. Yet an area of anime that is neglected, and in dire need of more attention even if it is by MP4 downloads, are experimental anime. Or, in the case of Eternal Family, that which is still pop experimentation but allowing their creators and animators to play and create material that is unconventional from most anime productions. Sometimes these pieces were part of anthologies. And in the last few years the premiers for the annual Japan Animator Expo have been made more easily available online for people to see, allowing new talent and veterans to experiment. Sometimes however these one-offs are released by themselves.


Studio 4°C
have carved a path for themselves in experimentation and in helping directors like Masaaki Yuasa begin their careers, making a lot of these types of short animation and idiosyncratic productions whilst paying for the bills through working on videogames, music videos and co-productions like the 2011 version of ThunderCats. The man behind Eternal Family, and other projects like Noiseman Sound Insect (1997), is Studio 4°C's co-founder Kōji Morimoto. His most well known work is likely his short for The Animatrix (2003) called Beyond. His most well regarded is his segment for Memories (1995) called Magnetic Rose, the most acclaimed of the three parts, written by the late Satoshi Kon, about a deep space salvage ship who end up trapped on a vessel which infects their memories. His work beyond this, entirely all short form work, is that of someone who likes to make distinct, idiosyncratic experiments which incredible animation. Someone given the keys to make shorts like Eternal Family in the nineties and taking advantage of that fact.

The final result is a combination of great animation, a vibrant and energetic work entirely filtered through very intentionally silly humour. One that should be taken serious in terms of its vibrant animation and colourful aesthetic, a dystopian cityscape of slums and giant electronic billboards with peculiar details, like the employees of the reality television show being dressed like St. Francisco de Xavier or quasi-rabbit costumes. The content itself is entirely ridiculous. You notice the father of this fake family has a sex doll constantly with him, the camera which films the TV show, already showing the tone's tongue in cheek. There is eventually the running gag that his fictitious wife has constipation which is thankfully just ridiculous rather than turning into bad toilet humour. But then the family dog is revealed to be able to balloon in size and throw a bark powerful enough to take out a Dragonball character and you are fully aware this belongs in the camp of surreal comedy anime is very known for. Since animation allows exaggeration and flights of fancy, Eternal Family like many can be as absurd as possible but with the difference that, due to the animation quality, the absurdity comes from the kinetic movement and style rather than gags common in the medium like sweat drops.

In regards to its structure, it was clearly released in segments and the full version does not try to hide this. There is something disarming about the first half all ending on the same flushing toilet shot, but it also evokes the bizarre Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon shorts I grew up with in the nineties. Similar to those experiments in scattergun satire and gross gags, this could have fitted in perfectly if it did not have the few moments of adult humour (or details like Akiko's pyromania, a subplot which is fleshed out with her obsession with a man once in her life connected to setting things on fire). The result is not necessarily high art in story content, but it is compelling as an energetic and fun production which never becomes tiresome. It also manages in such a short amount of time to have a plot with emotional content and progression to it, topping itself in more bizarre content, such as a chicken the family save from eating potentially having connections to an Illuminati group of fellow poultry. As an experiment, particularly in the early days of Studio 4°C it, it sets out and succeeds in its intentions.


Thursday, 18 January 2018

Bonus #6: Crying Freeman (1995)


Director: Christophe Gans
Screenplay: Christophe Gans, Thierry Cazals and Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami
Cast: Mark Dacascos as Yo Hinomura/Crying Freeman,  Julie Condra as Emu O'Hara, Tchéky Karyo as Detective Netah, Byron Mann as Koh, Masaya Kato as Ryuji "The Blade" Hanada, Yoko Shimada as Kimie Hanada, Rae Dawn Chong as Detective Forge, Mako as Shido Shimazaki

Synopsis: Emu O'Hara (Julie Condra) awaits her death after accidentally witnessing the work of the Crying Freeman (Mark Dacascos), an assassin for the ancient Chinese society known as the Sons of the Dragons. However love blossoms between the two as the Crying Freeman, real name Yo Hinomura, is a brainwashed pawn regaining his humanity. As a result they find themselves in the midst of Japanese yakuza, corrupt cops and the Sons of the Dragons not reacting well to his insubordination.

After covering the animated adaptation of Kazuo Koike's manga [No. 46 on the blog], it seems fitting to also cover the first version of this story I ever saw, one in a small pocket of film adaptations of manga and anime in the nineties when both were slowly becoming popular in the West. Only a handful actually exist, not just speculation like casting Geena Davis as Sailor Moon, and they vary drastically in quality and in terms of their tone next to the source material, as anyone who has watched the Fist of the North Star adaptation from 1995 with Gary Daniels can attest to. Brian Yuzna, famous for producing and directing cult horror films, is behind a couple of these adaptations that actually saw light. One was the not-so successful take on The Guyver  in 1991 [Bonus #3 on the blog] that required a sequel without his involvement to work with more success with the premise. Another is Crying Freeman, a co-production between Japan, the United States and Canada which is strange knowing its source material. Very strange frankly.

If this was the only version you saw as I once was in the camp of, you'd presume the source material was a serious action like many a manga, one very compromised by trying to shove too much narrative into less than two hours. Its co-creator Kazuo Koike however, despite a legendary career that led to Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, is a storytelling of an extreme kind, something you don't learn of from the live action adaptations unless you've managed to see the infamous Hanzo the Razor trilogy. The anime version, which covers the whole narrative over six episodes, shows how utterly silly and bizarre Koike's story was. The live action film turned out to be an adaptation of what was only the prologue, in spite of trying to tie the narrative up in the end. This itself, especially as it's a serious action film, leads to a strange emotional reaction for me returning to the picture.

Between the live action film and the anime, I have to choose the anime even if it's complete trash. Though it is rough - in tone, its attitude to sex and violence, and sometimes in animation quality - the straight-to-video animated version tells the entire story. Even if it falls off the cliff immediately after the first episode, it's a compelling trajectory downwards, where even its more indefensible moments do not affect how utterly compelling the experience altogether is. For the live action film it's the exact same issue I have with the 1991 live action version of Masahiko Takajo and Tetsuya Saruwatari's manga Riki-Oh, apt as Saruwatari was a student of Koike's. Both live action versions are faithful to their source material, but only cover what is effectively the prologue. Riki-Oh especially has lost its power for me, which would amaze people as it's still an infamous Hong Kong film today were it not for the fact I have read the manga, which goes further on and goes beyond mere insanity to madness that exists in its own logic. Crying Freeman is helped by the fact it takes a different tone to the material, at least in how a viewer intentionally reacts to it. The problems are entirely to do with the narrative being slight, which if you didn't know its source is still anti-climatic by the ending and barely covering a lot in the characters etc. If you know the source even just from the anime, you then learn why as its the prologue that sets up a larger story.

It's not a great film in the long run because of this. It barely covers the main character Yo Hinomura  and how he early on in the story takes over the organisation that brainwashed him, Emu at his side and the pair in a narrative that spans multiple plots. Emu's romance to him is weak, with the added issue that Julie Condra is not that great, the character even in Koike's tendencies for problematic gender portrayals still shows her eventually gaining a demonically possessed sword in the anime. The Sons of the Dragons, renamed for the film, aren't talked of greatly as needed for dramatic closure, especially as they still have an unexplained supernatural edge to them, their leader being a hundred plus year old witch and involving an ancient tattoo of a dragon marked on the Crying Freeman with mythological details to it. There are characters like Rae Dawn Chong's Detective Forge who are undercut by her casting and the fact that, in the anime, the Crying Freeman tale is a serialised pulp story which takes place over multiple plots with characters who only appear in one tale than leave. Those that stay don't really appear in the film, a shame especially knowing the existence of Bai Ya Shan in the anime, a giantess of a woman voiced by female professional wrestler Dump Matsumoto who would've been fun to have included in the film if practical.

Where the film is of interest is in its director Christophe Gans. He belongs to the school of directors paying tribute to older genre films and characters, without the sarcasm and irony that seeped into more modern adaptation. He is someone who has always taken his material serious; from his own genre hybrid Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) to his 2006 adaptation of Silent Hill, his fan base wishes he made more films and even the list of characters he wanted to adapt to screen but couldn't (Fantômas, Space Adventure Cobra) reads as someone very different from even a Quentin Tarantino in attitude. He's also someone who officially got into filmmaking through Brian Yuzna. His first work after making shorts is sadly in the disappointing Lovecraft anthology Necronomicon (1993), but Crying Freeman even if it's a very cheesy mid-nineties action film shows where he got his fan base from onwards.If anything it has a personality that's admirable even if the results are a failure, how sincere it takes its source material an admirable attempt. This in particular is important as, if the film was significantly better, there are aspects that were already in the film we got which would've made it great in another context.  

That it feels like an international co-production and embraces that fact with various languages spoken; it even does Canada a service of filming there but not just to represent other countries, scenes explicitly set in Vancouver. That I loved the music by Patrick O'Hearn immmensely, of its time but moody and compelling. The style of the film in production design is stylish as was the case even with the worst of the nineties adaptations of pop culture. And Mark Dacascos was a great choice to lead the film, who in a list of actors who should've had bigger careers is that most depressing for me. Someone who is striking onscreen, an accomplished martial artist in films like Drive (1997), yet never having a big break. (Not helped by how some of the films he was in the mid nineties were not released in the US (Crying Freeman), were cut down for release (Drive) or were like The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) where his small role would be barely thought about in the infamy of that film's production history). If anything, whilst the film does not succeed in the slightest, there was at least an admirable attempt at creating an interesting film with the 1995 Crying Freeman adaptation. Whilst the results do not fully come together, like a lot of these early attempts at adapting other media in the nineties, they possess a sense of character that you can even dispute exist equally in the more financially successful ones of a few decades later, films which are more focused but have significantly less personality then their predecessors.


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

#51: The Humanoid (1986)


Director: Shin'ichi Masaki
Screenplay: Koichi Mizuide
Voice Cast: Kazuki Yao as Eric; Yoshiko Sakakibara as Antoinette; Yumiko Shibata as Sheri; Eiji Maruyama as Libero; Hidekatsu Shibata as Dr. Watson; Hikari Akiyama as Ignasia; Kazuyuki Sogabe as Governor Proud
Viewed in Caffeinated English


Synopsis: On a distant planet, the ironically named Governor Proud desires to use a forbidden spaceship to take his people and their princess back to their home on the other side of space. Even with the various warnings of the spaceship's destructiveness, he still goes ahead with this plan and requires two keys, one which will involve two Earthling pilots and a female android named Antoinette.

How do you create an anime as generic and un-dramatic as The Humanoid? Well, first you bear in mind the Japanese economy at the time of its production was riding high. In the eighties, in the midst of their economic upturn before violent economic depression downwards, excess also meant a lot of money was available in the animation industry, not just the super theatrical productions like Odin: Photon Sailor Starlight (1985) but also the amount of straight-to-video productions created when the market came to be and needed product. Also bear in mind that even after this into the modern day there's still stuff inexplicably being produced, but that a work like The Humanoid gained infamy because it was released in the West and developed an anti-cult. In the case The Humanoid, part of the many licenses US distributor Central Park Media released. These licenses would linger even into the early DVD age where I can have an ILC release with the original English dub available in the UK, thus ensuring another series of viewers witnessing its infamy before it gets lost to nostalgic blog posts.


At forty or so minutes you manage to see when there's a lot of time to fill and not enough at the same time with a generic sci-fi story like The Humanoid, as rudimentary as you can get with its simplistic tale. Its opening text crawl, likely added for the English release, imitates Star Wars but is completely superfluous to a story where the villain's name gives away what happens, when he fancies piloting a spaceship a former governor keeps warning him against only for the expected to happen. The heroes are stock types, one the stereotypical anime male protagonist with a love interest, the other memorable both for Burt Reynolds quality facial hair and his coffee fixation. The one character who gets anything remotely close to detail is Antoinette, a female android clearly inspired by the work of artist Hajime Sorayama, whose work on sexualised female robots even made its way onto an Aerosmith album cover. Her story, that she is a synthetic creation who eventually learns the human emotion of love, is agonised over through the anime. Not only is her story in truth cut short by the length of the anime, only having time to learn of love through the younger hero and his love interest splashing each other in the sea at one point, but even when it's played out with her heroic sacrifice in the ending there's a monologue at the end that stresses a very simplistic and obvious concept with great concern.

How it is The Humanoid is still entertaining with this in mind is just as complicated. Nostalgia for an era of anime I wasn't even born within let alone able to appreciate. Where even the rudimentary animation and colour palette of this, as low budget as you can get, is still aesthetically pleasing even if it's an embarrassment for hand drawn animation. How television anime, stretched over hours of episodes, is so much more painful to stand through than a single forty or so minute animation, which unless its unbearable is tolerable in any extreme. How this eighties kitsch - from the animation to the music - is significantly more pleasing than the pure dirty nastiness of more infamous anime from this era, and is especially more tolerable than later post-digital anime as bad as this, which don't have necessarily the same notoriety both for their lack of availability or not hitting the right notes to stand out. Paradoxically for one of the blandest anime I've ever seen, that's actually a virtue in how The Humanoid manages to actually succeed in doing this. I haven't even gotten to the coffee obsession either. From the original Japanese script or added in the English dub, it's the most well known trait of the series in how the cast are obsessed even as aliens to Earth coffee. Not since Devin Townsend's Ziltoid character as outer space been defined by coffee, so much so the English dub sneaks in a reference to an old American advertisement at the end. Only an anti-tea sentiment would emphasis this quirk, the sort of thing that alongside the complete ineffectual anti-virtues of The Humanoid made is harmless. Not defendable, just watchable. Not in the least bit the "bad" anime you need to go out and see, but a reminder that anime once which this cheap sci-fi malarkey.


Monday, 4 December 2017

#50. Golgo 13: The Professional (1983)


Director: Osamu Dezaki
Screenplay: Hideyoshi Nagasaka and Shūkei Nagasaka
Based on the manga by Takao Saito
Voice Cast: Tetsuro Sagawa as Duke Togo/Golgo 13; Gorō Naya as Leonard Dawson; Kousei Tomita as Bob Bragan; Kumiko Takizawa as Rita; Reiko Mutoh as Laura Dawson; Toshiko Fujita as Cindy
Viewed in Japanese with Dub-titles

Synopsis: Golgo 13, codename for Duke Togo, is a mysterious hit man with his own moral code and an inhuman ability to complete every assassination mission he is paid for. When someone manages to acquire an ungodly number of resources to hunt him down and starts to pick off his contacts however, the legendary figure is backed into a corner.

The story of Golgo 13 is fascinating even from a surface knowledge of his origins. His creator Takao Saito worked on James Bond manga for the three years before he created the character in 1968, and thus it's impossible to imagine that he didn't take the concept of a figure who is a perfect killer and womaniser and adapt Duke Togo from this. However in contrast to the debonair British character capable of being exceptionally absurd in certain films as he is serious, Golgo 13 is a far more nihilistic and grimy figure befitting Japan's strong history of dark, mean crime thrillers. Even in this film, which has more outlandish aspects, this is an alien film in tone from the James Bond films made this year when the official one Octopussy fought with the unofficial one Never Say Never Again, both of which make the material in The Professional that feels like a stereotypical manga for men seem more serious in comparison.


The character at this point, with stories still being published five decades on in comic book form, is a metaphysical entity rather than a human being. Practically an emotionless automaton who kills, sleeps with women, kills and so forth in repeat. In the first of only three animated adaptations - this in the eighties, a forty minute OVA also by Osamu Dezaki in the 90s and a TV series in 2008-9 - this is not necessarily a problem is you imagine not a character in the same state of pulp heroism as James Bond but a representative figure for bleak morality plays. Even if it was to still be pulp as its more exploitative end, knowing that Golgo 13 as a character has been thrown even into stories with real life politics and existing figures of the real world emphasises this, and the Angel of Death persona he effectively is in this theatrical film does allow for interesting potential. A figure to surround by characters in their own specific stories who Golgo 13, perfect and capable of impossible feats like shooting through bullet proof glass in one scene of this theatrical feature, merely intervenes with when he's got a paid contract he'll execute exactly.

The Professional compared to modern anime is absurd. There's still a lot in modern anime in depictions of sexuality and violence which still raises an eyebrow, but certainly you don't get a film like Golgo 13 a lot at all now. Beautifully animated but set in dank urban environments or idyllic environments where violence, gun battles or explosions destroy their serenity. The portrait of women is no way near as bad as other example of this macho Japanese pulp in any medium, but female characters are naked a lot and take a back seat for this story. Blood is shed and the storytelling is in the context of the kind originally for salary men to escape from their ordinary lives, still so in the modern day only now with the emphasis in a lot of anime on cute schoolgirls for male otaku to imagine as their little step sisters. Frankly though, even whilst this isn't PC in the modern day, you can make an argument there's so much worse than The Professional just in anime. Even if I have to warn of certain content, like a rape scene which will be immediate trigger warnings for some readers, such moments are no way near as explicit and frequent as some infamous and problematic examples in other anime. It can be argued James Bond has always been worse in gender politics and its chevalier attitude to violence. Golgo 13 here, even if streaked in absurd cartoonish moments, follows the bluntness that its inherited from Japanese crime and noir stories, from those made by Nikkatsu studios in the sixties to later, more grounded yakuza stories and thrillers. Actually for all its absurdity, compared to the Roger Moore era of Bond taking place as this film was released, even the snake-like mercenary named Snake, who can writhe on walls on his back and belly, is less ridiculous. Even the unfortunate English dub dialogue about a female tech wanting Togo to pull her trigger lovingly doesn't undermine Golgo 13's edge.


Helping is that, for its simplicity, The Professional actually has a plot in the end that's surprisingly  moral. How, after his son is assassinated by Golgo 13, a powerful American oil baron gladly uses his power to try to take out the assassin. It's absurd as he gets the FBI, US military and CIA to help him, an evil version so corrupt its revealed he got them to assassinate JFK, but ironically the story does become about his downfall over bloody-minded revenge. Whilst lurid, he traumatises his surviving daughter-in-law, using her as sexual currency for the Snake assassin in scenes which are played as horrifying, brainwashes his granddaughter as an assassin and will gladly kill many on his side and others to get Golgo 13, which is revealed to be more complicated than it appears in his intent. As much as this is still a film which wades in with violence and sex, a machismo looked down on for some, it's interesting how those films that are still remembered like this actually have more complex moralities even if they're within exaggerated form. This is not like some of the more dubious examples in Japanese pulp storytelling in anime or manga, like the live action adaptations of Hanzo the Razor which is sumptuous to look at but disturbing in premise. This adaptation of Golgo 13 even if of its era is still actually defendable in how it emphasises a moral plot even in all its over-the-top bombast and excess. Even considering its very simplistic plot structure - a string of separate missions for Duke Togo before he deals with the actual villain of the film - it's interesting after so many viewings how actually more well put together the story is, even for something meant as pulp first and isn't trying intentionally to be profound.

What helps as well as this isn't a rudimentary animated production either. Its theatrical anime from the eighties, so a lot of hard work and budget is behind it, and its helmed by one of the best working anime directors of his era. Osamu Dezaki, who at his best before his death in 2011, was not only incredible as a craftsman but brazenly experimental. The postcard memory, a trick of stopping scenes for highly detailed still images, is one of his popular trademarks, but between Golgo 13 and his adaptation of Space Adventure Cobra in 1982 is probably some of his most out there and openly surreal productions I've seen of his work so far. His work here is dynamic, a flair with how scenes are presented and even going as far as bringing the kind of techniques more associated with live action cinema such as splitting the screen into smaller images. When he's staying within the more traditionally realistic aesthetic of this film, he alongside the production team uses colour and absences of it to a striking advantage, as can be seen within the sequence where even bullet proof glass is not a problem for the anti-hero, the vast neon and elaborate environment of the city sequence incredibly elaborate in detailed before you get to the style putting the sequence together.


The film is also willing to become overtly abstract too. The mourning of a watchmaker who worked with Togo is presented, with Golgo 13 and the man's body in a chair, not with the background or floor of the latter's work area shown but with all background between the character models being replaced with clock faces. Space can become distorted and even x-ray of a bullet entering a skull can suddenly happen for effect. It helps connect the gritty realism with its more overtly cartoonish aspects, the kind of story where Golgo 13 fights anyone from hook handed military goons to Gold and Silver, two former military mercenaries and sociopaths who dress in suits of the respected colours. It also however, taken even further with the pure aesthetic bliss of Space Adventure Cobra's depiction of outer space, emphasis a certain magic to be found in this type of anime, a creative streak in Dezaki's work that embraced the inherently flights of fantasy animation allows. This even goes as far as one of the more infamous aspects of The Professional in which, to depict a series of helicopters firing on Golgo 13 in a sequence, the production used what was state of the art computer animation at the time. Being early 1980s, this animation is so obsolete to current day work it's unfair to laugh at the green shapes floating pass representations of buildings. But, alongside my love for the weird energy of obsolete animation, it emphasised the desire to play and create within the film, beyond just telling a pulp tale to also using it as a way to stretch and manipulate animation for innovation. The opening credit sequence, also using computer animation but also live action with prop skeletons and a handgun, emphasises this creativity a lot better but also how The Professional is also tinged with the bizarre, the opening credits scene (once removed from releases) pretty unconventional and strange for what should be a conventional, lurid action anime.

And it's that which helps Golgo 13: The Professional stand up against charges of just being distasteful, dated anime from the ye old days. Compared to what would be made in the late eighties and early to mid nineties, it's actually less violence and sexually explicit. (Dezaki would sadly drop the ball in production quality with the admittedly humorous epic known as Sword for Truth (1990)). Compared to other anime the likes of Manga Entertainment also released from that later era like Violence Jack (1986-1990) or Mad Bull 34 (1990-2), the latter by all accounts directed by his brother Satoshi Dezaki, Osamu Dezaki's work is a cut above even if it's still tinged in an attitude you rarely get now, not just gross  or dumb as those later works are whether your opinion on them. The best way, actually, to think of The Professional is to compare it to the live action film Dirty Harry (1971), Don Siegel's best known film with Clint Eastwood which is un-PC in the modern day but, for a macho crime thriller, has a bit more complexity in its morals even if also black-and-white and nihilistic on the surface, both works a testament to exceptional production and technical value contributing a greater sense of class and nuance to the material. It's still saddled with a silly English dub, but considering the on-going popularity of the manga, I have to look at Golgo 13 here as being a lot more interesting than its offspring, the more bleaker and edgier work when others later (at least in anime) waded in misogyny, gore and sex without its inherently "off" and more rewarding idea, that its central pulp figure is a blank anti-hero to cheer on but one who stands by as the grim and filth is around him. One who isn't meant to be sympathetic, and is far less a problematic figure than others created in ultra-violent anime inspired by him, one they can still create so much material around as the world around him is shown as chaos he can simply overcome with the preciseness of a sniper's bullet. 


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Bonus #5: Uzumaki (2000)


Director: Higuchinsky
Screenplay: Kengo Kaji, Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo
Based on a manga by Junji Ito
Cast: Eriko Hatsune as Kirie Goshima; Fhi Fan as Shuichi Saito; Hinako Saeki as Kyoko Sekino; Eun-Kyung Shin as Chie Marayama; Keiko Takahashi as Yukie Saito; Ren Ôsugi as Toshio Saito

Synopsis: In the small town of Kurouzu, things are becoming weirder around Kirie Goshima (Eriko Hatsune). Her childhood friend and crush Shuichi Saito (Fhi Fan) is becoming isolated and morbid, his own father (Ren Ôsugi) becoming obsessed to a disturbing level by spirals. Shuichi himself believes the town itself it cursed by the spirals, something Kirie is quick to react to with bafflement until the first death, a student falling down a spiral staircase at school, acts as a catalyst to bizarre and horrifying things. Where Shuichi's father twists down into an awful path, bodily and even follicle mutation is taking place amongst the populist and the wind's moving in spiralling gusts ominously. 

Junji Ito is a legendary figure in horror manga1. His work is also one, whilst adapted to cinema a lot, that would also be difficult to get right. Practicality in adapting their cosmic and horrifying content, with their surreal panels of bodily and physical mutation, it's going to be nigh on impossible to do some of them accurately unless animated or if  you had the kind of budgets an adaptation of his work would never get. Tomie (1987-2000) has had a lot of films, nine in fact, and that's probably because barring an anti-heroine who regenerates even from death, and can split into duplicates if chopped up into pieces, it's as much a work about the pettiness and worst in human desire as it is the physical horror. Gyo (2001-2), about undead nautical creatures like fish on robotic legs invading the land, had to be adapted into animation in 2012 but that film, which drastically altered characterisation by following a female lead instead of a male one, also showed another potential issue with Ito that, whilst he has main characters, they are bystanders to their worlds and the horrors, undercutting a safety net for viewers to experience the horrors he depicts but also jarring against the desire for narratives film productions usually want for adaptations. Uzumaki (1998-9) would be the toughest of the entire lot, his most well known work and also one whose growing level of spectacle and weirdness could only be possible with a large budget, and is also affected by the fact that until the halfway mark it's a series of separate segments which just have to have the same protagonists involved.


And yet Higuchinsky, a Ukrainian born Japanese music video director, took the challenge as his debut feature no less. And while it's not to its level, I'm willing to comparing the result to how experimental filmmaker and commercials director Nobuhiko Obayashi threw every technique he knew at his debut House (1977) and concocted a one-off experience. Likewise Higuchinsky throws everything he can at Uzumaki just in the first ten minutes before anything sinister fully happens. Unconventional camera shots. An obsession with sickly green lighting. Characters speaking directly to the camera for conversations with other characters. Higuchinsky manages from then on, in spite of the issues the adaptation has eventually, to actually turn this adaptation into something entirely of his own. The one glaring issue which does undercut what feels like an entirely unique film is that Uzumaki abruptly ends. With its segments in chapters - using film celluloid textures for added effect to place this all in its own hazy, hallucinated dream - the last of them is just a series of still shots of the gruesome body horror that takes place later in the manga. The problem was clearly that, due to the large scale of the events that take place in the original manga, including the town itself completely changing in form let alone anyone in it, there was no possibility on this film's particular budget in depicting it even in CGI. Unless Higuchinsky and the screenwriters, in their one major flaw, actually took advantage of this issue or rewrote the ending, than Uzumaki would've been a much more successful creation. It does technically have an ending, but it's the one thing that jars badly. When I first saw the film years ago without reading the manga, I found it an issue, and now having fallen in love with said manga it's still a shame.


What Higuchinsky succeeds in, having also to truncate chapters out of the original or blend them into others, is an atmosphere completely different from the source. He has scenes play with a slower, growing sense of dread that turns Uzumaki less outright weird horror but a bizarre supernatural story which grows and grows into that strange body horror as it goes along. (Not to mention, especially with certain uses of CGI, managing to evoke the Black Hole Sun music video by Soundgarden of all things). It's here, with a drastically different pace, that you also see how genius the original source material is. Whilst so much of his work can seen absurd, including the elaborate facial expressions of horror the characters have, he takes weird ideas which however touch upon primal fears. The symbol of the spiral is not that absurd as a force of evil as the notion of a symbol, even words, illicit abomination emotional or physical reactions is found in horror and even myth. Symbols were used as signifiers for greater meanings and with a spiral there's so many unnerving connotations you can think with them. Usually viewed going into the centre rather than outwards, a vortex or a black hole that's synonymous with dizziness and disorientation that one is pulled into. Seeing spirals in everything - how tap water goes down the drain, food, snail shells, springs etc. - was just ripe material for Ito to work with, emphasising this fact with a hilarious (and fake) writer's commentary imagining himself as a deranged manga creator researching the true nature of the spiral as reference material for Uzumaki, playing the genesis as a little weird horror story like the others he's written in the past and emphasising how even the simplest of things like a mere symbol is potentially frightening.


This gives Higuchinsky a lot to work with in terms the material he does use - the spin of a pottery wheel, the way of a character obsessed with wanting Kirie to date him springs out to scare her like a Jack in the Box, the snails which some classmates start to mutate into - which he takes advantage of. He also has the advantage of what you can do differently in cinema compared to the page and various details you don't get in illustration, such as those who begin to become snails speaking slower as well as having wet, dripping slime dripping off them. Even when some sequences are just non sequiturs - like the entire chapter from the manga about a girl's hair becoming living curls reduced to an odd image - it all has a delirious effect of interest. The director has no qualms either, after the slow mood is breathed in for some scenes, in showing gore and gruesome effects like Ito does. He retains Ito's power of suddenly showing the freakish but done in entirely his own style. If it's sad that Uzumaki the film sadly needed more of an actual ending, that doesn't detract from the eccentric imagination that had been shown from before. The result of which is definitely memorable and is one of those rare feats, in spite of that major flaw, where a director manages to take a source material from a very idiosyncratic and unique creator, and produce an adaptation only they could've made. Something that has to be applauded even if Higuchinsky's career after has sadly never punctured the West as it should've done after this.


(1) Finally having his work easy to acquire in English as well in the 2010s has been a vital way of bringing more attention to Ito. Mainly the work of Viz Media but even smaller companies are releasing stuff like his biopic manga about raising cats with his wife, with material still planned to be released in  Christmas 2017. This availability and how eclectic its been beyond his major work builds up a reputation for him and shows how distinct he is as a creator in general.

Friday, 6 October 2017

#49. Ghost Hunt (2006)


Director: Rei Mano
Screenplay: Reiko Yoshida and Rika Nakase
Based on the light novel series by Fuyumi Ono
Voice Cast: Kaori Nazuka as Mai Taniyama; Yuuki Tai as Kazuya "Naru" Shibuya; Ken Narita as Koujo Lin; Kenji Hamada as Hōshō Takigawa; Kousuke Okano as Osamu Yasuhara; Masami Suzuki as Ayako Matsuzaki; Nobuhiko Okamoto as John Brown; Rie Kugimiya as Masako Hara
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Synopsis: When she accidentally damages a specialist piece of technology used by a pair of paranormal investigators at her school, sixteen year old schoolgirl Mai is dragged in to help said investigators Kazuya "Naru" and his bodyguard Lin to repay the costs. Their group, first investigating her school, swells up to include an Australian Catholic priest named John Brown, a self professed Shinto shrine priestess Ayako Matsuzaki, a Buddhist monk Hōshō Takigawa and a popular TV medium around Mai's aged named Masako Hara. Mai will eventually become a full fledged member, with latent talents she didn't know she had, as this team stays in this new form to investigate sinister supernatural cases over multiple narrative storylines.

Ghost Hunt was pure catnip. In spite of being pretty conventional in plotting and tone, I confess it's impossible for me to give an un-bias review of this twenty six episode show because I was completely entertained by it. A show which surprising manages to both be fluffy, fun paranormal horror yet delves into surprisingly grisly material the further it goes along. The creation of Fuyumi Ono1, which had a manga adaptation by Shiho Inada which influenced the animated adaptation, it gladly embraces stereotypes of anime and stock tropes, managing with them to stay breezy and intriguing as it goes along. Structured with one template - the team investigate a place, are violently threatened or injured or possessed, and eventually uncover the mystery - a lot of the series is about its characters' personalities and how they both gel together emotionally and reoccurring jokes about them teasing each other. With a lead heroine in Mai whose the traditional high spirited schoolgirl but is easy to irritate, everyone in the paranormal group follows a stereotype. John the affable priest. Ayako the proud, confident woman who, despite being apparently in her early twenties, has jokes about her being "old". Hōshō, the cool and trendy Buddhist priest who you discover has left his sect in favour of joining the ordinary world. Masako the quiet, modest girl who always wear a kimono, and of course Naru, the mysterious and very young head of the organisation whose salty, almost emo personality makes him more attractive. It could've been tedious to sit through these stereotypes from other anime you've seen, but the combination works.


The first reason is actually part of Ghost Hunt's most distinct and interesting personal touches, that in this world these drastically different theological and belief groups can co-operate fully. Christianity, Shintoism, Chinese mysticism in Lin, paranormal science - all of which works together without any conflict and complete cooperation between the members. It's a nice, positive message that never gets brought up explicitly, and poses a really significant issue with the supernatural in this world as it means that a Catholic or a Buddhist exorcism both work as well and depends on what's appropriate to the specific incident, suggesting some complex theological issues where all belief systems exist at the same time. Instead it's about the characters themselves who get along but have various pieces of their background drip fed to the viewer alongside certain emotional issues, such as both Mai and Masako being both infatuated with Naru and about more blunt to each other about this. That this works, without becoming generic, is the second factor in the series' favour.


The tone is so affable at times its amazing especially with how the series piles on the darkness more and more as the narrative arches, usually three or four episodes, build up. For all the humour its tackling pretty gristly subject matter from the first few episodes on, with only one story openly light and humorous entirely, a one episode tale where a ghost is splashing couples with water in a park out of spite. Even the Christmas story, two episodes long and immediately after, is bleak and involves an orphanage. But it's still within the tone of just being sinister with just some threat. Of cursed schools and possessed dolls.  Then it continues to escalate with the potential of a school's worth of students being sacrificed to ward off a monstrously large hex over an entire academy. But that doesn't top when it gets to The Bloodstained Labyrinth and The Cursed House stories, the last of the series, where things get even more darker for what would be pulp horror for teenagers. Where there's blood sacrifices and characters introduced for those stories will be picked off and killed. It's actually for the series' virtue that, even when it still has the humour and sense of excitement that's from the beginning, that it just pushes up the intensity of the material instead for a sense of escalation. The only real issue for Ghost Hunt is that, whilst it has an ending, it could've easily gone on. Whether it would've succeeded is to debate, especially if it tried to bring in actual dramatic stakes for the central characters, but this is again another series where one is left for more.


All the episodes are conventional television anime. Pretty okay, not as elegant in character design as the manga, but it's a series that lives up to being pure pulp. Ghost Hunt really likes to use the "To Be Continued" screen to wrench tension a lot, ending episodes with characters in peril so much for a cheap but effective shock. It's not the pinnacle of horror but I like Ghost Hunt nonetheless. It's visibly fascinated in the subject in all the religious and spiritual topics it takes tangents to explain in detail. How, whilst the heroes are pulp invisible, their stories start from creepy haunted house stories to mass murder and a whole family, one by one, being possessed with homicidal tendencies whilst never ditching the humour even in the bleakest of points. Right from an opening credit track that evokes a Theremin noise amongst its ethereal orchestral music, Ghost Hunt is openly popcorn anime with blood instead of butter on top of it I happened to enjoy.


(1) Fuyumi Ono by herself is a prolific fantasy and horror writer, also known for another adapted to anime called The Twelve Kingdoms (1992-present). Her husband Yukito Ayatsuji is one of the founders of Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan, and whose most well known novel in English would be Another (2009), a horror tale that was adapted both into  live action and a 2012 anime adaptation [covered HERE as Entry #9]. Thus making a married couple who would be fascinating to get together to talk about their work collectively.