Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

aka Innocence / Kôkaku Kidôtai Inosensu

2017 #44
Mamoru Oshii | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Nine years after he made the highly influential sci-fi action/philosophy mash-up anime Ghost in the Shell, writer-director Mamoru Oshii returned to that world to tell an original story (the first film having been an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga) that once again butts action up against philosophising, though with diminishing returns.

Set a couple of years on from the original movie, it follows the first film’s sidekick, Batou (originally voiced by Akio Ôtsuka, and in the English version by the dub’s co-writer and director, Richard Epcar), as he investigates a series of murder-suicides committed by sex robots. It’s just the tip of an iceberg that leads to… some kind of conspiracy.

At the time of its release Innocence gained a lot of praise, as is plastered all over the DVD and Blu-ray covers (at least over here), with some hailing it as a more artistically accomplished film than its predecessor. With time I think that reaction has cooled considerably, and rightfully so. If there’s one criticism to be levelled at the first movie it’s that it sometimes stops dead for characters to have a thoughtful discussion about the existential quandaries that underpins their cyborg existence. Innocence ramps this up to the nth degree, with even more such chats that go on even longer, liberally peppered with quotations from other sources, an idea Oshii cribbed from Jean-Luc Godard. It feels like it.

Ain't she a doll?

While the first film clearly pondered what it means to be human, and where the line might be between an artificial creation and sentience, I can’t really recall what Innocence was driving at. Possibly several things. Possibly too many things. A lengthy sequence in the middle where our heroes find themselves repeating the same events over and over with slight variations is probably meant to be About something, but it just left me thinking of cheap referential jokes (“Locus Solus, I’ve come to bargain!”)

There are action scenes too, some of which are decent and some of which are hysterically overblown. There’s nothing that approaches being as iconic as any of the original’s multiple memorable set pieces. Where the first film broke new ground by combining traditional cel animation with computer-generated 3D, in a way that still holds up today, Innocence takes it too far, and looks dated because of it. The characters are always 2D, but often placed in CG environments, which are now 13 years old and feel it. It’s weird to think this is a film that was once hailed for its visual majesty, because a lot of it feels quite drab now. At times there’s an awful lot of brown.

Computer-generated brown

On its original release Innocence was called simply that, the Ghost in the Shell 2 prefix added to help sell it in international markets. Oshii’s view was that the film stood on its own and wasn’t your standard “Hollywood-style” sequel. I disagree. For one thing, the film makes many references to the events of the first movie, meaning a working knowledge is required to understand what’s going on at times. For another… well, with technical advancements that aren’t necessarily beneficial, grander but less memorable action sequences, and less coherent thematic underpinnings, it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t have the monopoly on sequel-y sequels.

3 out of 5

The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is released in the UK today and the US tomorrow.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

Ninja Scroll (1993)

aka Jūbē Ninpūchō

2017 #3
Yoshiaki Kawajiri | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / English | 18

Ninja Scroll

One of the films credited with helping to popularise anime in the West in the wake of Akira (reportedly it has had a greater and more enduring impact in the US than in Japan), Ninja Scroll is a fast-paced fantastical action flick full of gratuitous swordplay, gratuitous gore, and gratuitous nudity.

The story begins with Jubei Kibagami, a roaming ninja-for-hire, who becomes embroiled in stopping the machinations of the Shogun of the Dark after he rescues Kagero (a female ninja whose team were slaughtered by the Shogun of the Dark’s minions, the Eight Devils of Kimon), an event witnessed by Dakuan, a government spy who has been sent to investigate and stop the evil Shogun.

Try not to worry about that too much, though: Ninja Scroll moves like the clappers through a plot that is at once incredibly simple and ludicrously over-complicated. On the one hand it’s an action-driven adventure, as our trio of heroes battle their way through the Eight Devils one by one. On the other, it’s got all sorts of backstory stuff about who the Devils’ leader is and how he’s connected to something Jubei did years earlier and what any of this has to do with Kagero’s clan and… so on.

Samurai snack

Similarly, the pace has its pros and its cons. It certainly keeps things lively, with new monstrous Devils turning up regularly, bringing bursts of exciting action with them; but it makes things bewildering at times, with a flurry of characters and exposition introduced throughout the first half-hour or so. Once it settles down, there’s actually some quite nice character stuff involving Jubei and Kagero, and to an extent Dakuan, who remains a tricksy and unreliable ‘hero’.

That’s not what the film is best known for, though, probably because it’s hidden after a big chunk of the other stuff: ultra-violence and a sex obsession. As to the former, men are literally ripped limb from limb, or cut in half, or quarters, with blood regularly spraying everywhere. Depending on your viewing preferences, it’s either incredibly extreme or we’ve seen the same kinda stuff more regularly since. I wasn’t as shocked as some reviews warned I would be, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The same goes for the sex and nudity, which embraces everything from the villains bickering about who’s sleeping with who (if they’re devils then half of them are horny ones) to Kagero being sexually assaulted by a rock monster. In the audio commentary recorded for the 20th anniversary, the writer, director, and animation director debate whether some of that content was unnecessary. One of them (it’s hard to tell which from the subtitles) asserts that there were always gratuitous sex scenes in the B-actioners that partly inspired the film, so it goes toward creating the right atmosphere. I guess individual tastes will vary — I mean, it’s not as if Kagero’s assault is presented as a good thing, but it is still presented. Or it is nowadays: on the film’s first release the BBFC cut that part out. Times certainly have changed.

Kick-ass Kagero

For all that Ninja Scroll feels kinda antiquated in this carefree presentation of repellant acts, it has stood the test of time in other ways. For the faults in what happens to her early on, Kagero emerges as a competent and assured female hero (for the most part). The animation is frequently great, with some painterly compositions inspired by traditional Japanese art, as well as dramatic action sequences. I watched the English dub, which is what it is (I’ve heard better; I’ve heard much worse), but on the aforementioned commentary track they regularly sing the praises of the Japanese voice cast, so maybe the subtitled version was the way to go.

Watching Ninja Scroll is a bit of a conflicting experience nowadays. Its story is both numbingly simple (“introduce villain, fight villain, defeat villain, repeat x8”) and insanely complicated; its sometimes balanced gender politics are offset by some gratuitous and distasteful content; its characters are initially archetypal and generally unlikable, but warm up in both regards as the film progresses. A bit like my opinion of it: I wasn’t entirely sure after my first viewing, but as I watched it back with the commentary I re-appreciated an awful lot of it. Maybe it’s a grower, then.

4 out of 5

Ninja Scroll is on Syfy UK tonight at 11:10pm.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

aka Hotaru no haka

2016 #67
Isao Takahata | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Grave of the FirefliesOne of the most praised animated films of all time, this Studio Ghibli feature tackles grim subject matter: it’s the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, a pair of Japanese children who are orphaned and eventually left to fend for themselves in the closing months of World War 2. It begins with Seita dying of starvation and joining the spirit of his dead sister, so you know it’s not going to end well. A Disney movie this is not.

It’s kind of hard to avoid the praise Grave of the Fireflies has attracted, which is why it ended up on my Blindspot list this year. It’s the third highest-rated animation on IMDb (behind Spirited Away and The Lion King), which also places it in the top 25% of the Top 250, not to mention various other “best animated” and “great movie” lists. I mention all this because I fear the weight of expectation somewhat hampered the film for me. It’s by no means a bad film, but, despite the subject matter, it didn’t touch me to the same degree as, say, My Neighbour Totoro (which, coincidentally, it was initially released with).

So where did it go wrong for me? Perhaps my biggest issue was with Seita and the choices he made. I guess part of the point is that he is still a child and so unable to adequately care for himself and Setsuko, but I don’t get why he resorts to stealing, looting, and allowing them to starve when, as it eventually turns out, they still have 3,000 yen in the bank — enough to buy plenty of hearty food when it comes down to it. Why didn’t he turn to that money much sooner? Why did it take a doctor telling him his sister was malnourished and refusing to help before he thought, “you know what, I could always use that money we have saved up in the bank to feed us so I don’t have to steal and nonetheless be short of food”? When he does eventually withdraw that cash and buy some decent supplies, it’s a very literal case of doing too little too late.

Another thing is that the film is often cited as a powerful anti-war movie, because it depicts the ravaging effects on innocents. However, director Isao Takahata insists it isn’t, saying it’s about “the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society”. I’m inclined to believe him, because, from what we actually see on screen, these two kids are the only ones to be so badly affected! Okay, we do see people have died, and we’re told that food is running out… but there’s a gaggle of kids who seem to be having a fun day out when they stumble across the siblings’ makeshift shelter; or, right at the end, people who merrily arrive home and pop their music on. The film doesn’t try to claim that only these two kids suffered, but — aside from a few other destitutes at the start, and the bodies we see after the first bombing (later bombings don’t make any casualties explicit) — we don’t really see anyone else suffering. I’m not arguing that Takahata is saying no one else suffered, nor that these observations make it pro-war (I mean, any children dying, even if others are surviving, is not a good thing), but I didn’t get an anti-war message that was as powerful or as overwhelming as other viewers seem to have.

I’m an advocate of animation as a form (which must sound like a ridiculous position to have to take in some countries, but in the West “quality animation” begins and ends with Disney musicals and Pixar’s kid-friendly comedy adventures), but I think the fact this particular story is being told with moving drawings is detrimental. I’ve seen online reviews that say it makes the film more bearable because it creates a kind of disconnect from the real world — and, really, this story shouldn’t be “bearable”. That’s not to say you can’t feel an emotional connection to animated characters, but, as a medium, animation regularly deals in fantastical subjects, so with material this gruelling it does make it seem less real.

Despite these issues, Grave of the Fireflies does still pack a punch, but I wasn’t as bowled over as I’d expected to be.

4 out of 5

Grave of the Fireflies was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #36

It’s found its voice…
now it needs a body.

Original Title: Kôkaku Kidôtai
Also Known As: Mobile Armored Riot Police: Ghost in the Shell (Japan)

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 83 minutes
BBFC: 15

Original Release: 18th November 1995 (Japan)
UK Release: 8th December 1995
First Seen: DVD, 2000

Stars
Atsuko Tanaka (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate)
Akio Ôtsuka (Black Jack, Paprika)
Kôichi Yamadera (Ninja Scroll, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie)
Yutaka Nakano (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)
Tamio Ôki (Journey to Agartha, Wolf Children)

Director
Mamoru Oshii (Patlabor: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)

Screenwriter
Kazunori Itō (Patlabor: The Movie, .hack//SIGN)

Based on
The Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai, literally Mobile Armoured Riot Police), a manga by Masamune Shirow.

The Story
Japan, 2029: Public Security officer Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team are assigned to track down and capture a dangerous hacker known as the Puppet Master, but they soon find themselves embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy…

Our Hero
In a future world where humans can undergo varying degrees of cyberisation, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a “full-body prosthesis augmented-cybernetic human” — only her brain is organic. Her body is a generic mass production model, so she can blend in while being a kick-ass law enforcement officer.

Our Villain
The Puppet Master, a cyber criminal who hacks into people’s brains and gives them false memories. But is there something even worse going on behind the hacker?

Best Supporting Character
Kusanagi’s second-in-command Batou is stoic to the point of brusqueness — apparently quite a different characterisation to his portrayal in other Ghost in the Shell media.

Memorable Quote
“If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: overspecialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” — Major Kusanagi

Memorable Scene
Pursuing the Puppet Master, Kusanagi comes face to face with a six-legged tank. After a blazing gun battle, she tries to physically rip it open, her cybernetic body straining to breaking point — and beyond…

Technical Wizardry
Ghost in the Shell was groundbreaking in its skilful combination of traditional 2D animation with CGI additions. It used a process called “digitally generated animation” (DGA), which combined cel animation with computer graphics to create lens effects that simulated depth, motion, and unusual lightning techniques, as well as mixing in 3D CGI and digital audio.

Letting the Side Down
In 2008, Oshii revisited the film to create Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which regraded the colour, replaced some of the original animation with new CGI, omitted several scenes, and featured a remixed and re-recorded soundtrack. (More details here.) As is almost always the case when directors fiddle with their creations decades later, it wasn’t well received by fans.

Next time…
As befalls many a popular anime franchise, Ghost in the Shell has spawned a raft of sequels and reboots. The only direct sequel, Innocence, was released in 2004. TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex ran for two seasons between 2002 and 2005, with the first run compiled into movie The Laughing Man and the second into Individual Eleven, all of which were followed by a final film, Solid State Society. Another reboot came in 2013 with direct-to-video series Ghost in the Shell: Arise, which so far totals five episodes and, last year, continuation film Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. (Only four episodes have so far been released in the West, but the movie — which continues the story from the fifth episode — came out on Monday in the UK. Just to make things more complicated.) A live-action American remake is currently shooting for release in March 2017 — you’ve probably heard about it.

Awards
5 Annie Awards nominations (Animated Feature, Directing, Producing, Writing, Production Design)

What the Critics Said
“When Akira first blasted out of Japan back in 1991 it looked like the Western concept of widescreen animation would be changed forever. […] Unfortunately, it was not to be. Sure, on video, the Manga scene has gone from strength to strength, but as far as theatrical releases are concerned, nothing has really come along to match Akira’s sheer retina-scalding magnificence. Until now. […] From its baddie-eviscerating opening sequence through innumerable car chases, shoot outs and tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchanges, this is exactly the kind of film that James Cameron would make if they ever let him through the Disney front gates.” — Clark Collis, Empire

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“both the film and Oshii have fallen into a kind of disrepute among the anime community. The common line on GITS is that it’s wordy, masturbatory, and pretentious with nothing going on intellectually and that the (plainly inferior but more easily accessible) GITS: SAC is a better alternative. I wanted to write this article to respond to that notion. GITS is a highly thoughtful film and worthy of comparison to virtually any scifi feature you could name. ” — tamerlane, too long for twitlonger

Verdict

Ghost in the Shell was the first anime I consciously saw, which maybe helps it earn a place here. It’s an initially accessible movie that’s also very complicated — there are pulse-pounding action scenes and a thriller storyline to keep things exciting, but also a lot of deep philosophical discussions, touching on themes of gender and identity. I think for some viewers the latter are a negative, while for others they’re the entire point. (I imagine the forthcoming Hollywood remake will either ditch or seriously curtail them, but you never know.) The combination makes for a stimulating (in multiple senses) sci-fi actioner.

Next… who ya gonna call? #37 !

Evangelion: 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo. (2012/2013)

aka Evangelion shin gekijôban: Kyū / Evangelion New Theatrical Edition: Q

2016 #42
Hideaki Anno, Masayuki, Mahiro Maeda & Kazuya Tsurumaki | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / English | 15

Evangelion 3.33 You Can (Not) RedoWell now, hasn’t this been a long time coming? Just over two years since its western disc release was first announced, just over three years since it debuted in Japanese cinemas, and just over four-and-a-half years since the previous instalment’s English-language release, those of us in the UK who don’t attend anime conventions (where it’s had a few screenings in that time) are finally able to see the penultimate part of creator Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy. As to whether it’s worth the wait… well, your mileage will vary.

The “rebuild” movies started out with a literal interpretation of that moniker: the first movie is a faithful (though condensed and sometimes slightly rearranged) retelling of the series’ early episodes, even using the original art from the show. The second movie deviated much further: familiar characters were introduced in completely different ways, wholly original characters appeared, and some subplots became more prominent. It culminated in a climax that was a drastic departure from the series, and now this third movie forges into entirely new territory — so new that I’m not going to give any kind of plot summary, for the sake of readers avoiding any spoilers. Good luck to you if so: not only do most reviews divulge the first major divergence, but so does the film’s own blurb.

Maybe that’s for the best — I’ve read more than one review bemoaning the confusion at the opening of the film, which stems from not knowing that thing I’m not telling you that the blurb does tell you. It’s surely deliberate, though: hero Shinji is in a similarly confused position, and we’re clearly being aligned with him in this strange new situation. Besides, for me this was the most engaging and exciting segment of the movie. As well as a couple of thrilling action scenes, it juggles character relationships in interesting ways, establishing a new status quo unlike that we’ve seen before in the franchise. It culminates in a fantastic stand-off between former allies — indeed, former friends. How times change.

Sad ShinjiChange, and the embracing or rejection of it, is surely one of the major themes of Evangelion. This is more explicitly debated as 3.33 moves into its middle section, where we get an extended dose of Shinji’s traditional insecurities. Hey, it wouldn’t be Evangelion without Shinji having a self-pitying whinge, right? Fortunately there’s more going on than that, but this is a section light on action and heavy on the series’ more thoughtful elements. There are answers to some of the mysteries, but it again wouldn’t be Evangelion if it all made easy sense. At the same time, Shinji bonds with new Eva pilot Kaworu. A controversial character, apparently, and not just because of the homosexual overtones (which some reviewers claim to miss, presumably because they’re blind), but the scenes where they harmonise by playing piano together are quite fantastically animated.

Indeed, whatever else you can say about 3.33, it looks glorious. The choice of a 2.35:1 aspect ratio for the first time helps emphasise the story’s epic qualities, but that’s incidental to the fantastic images conjured up by the animators. Various techniques are hurled at the screen — there’s a lot of CGI as well as traditional hand-drawn art, and they even used motion-captured stuntmen for one scene — but it marries perfectly, allowing camera angles and moves that are incredibly filmic and more dynamic than you normally find in 2D animation. The makers of the Rebuild have always talked about wanting to create innovative, memorable imagery, and they’ve once again succeeded here.

Pia-pia-piano3.33 divides quite neatly into three half-hour sections. I guess that should be expected, as the whole tetralogy has been based in traditional Japanese ideas of narrative/musical structure, hence the films’ Japanese titles incorporating the names for the three movements: jo, ha, and kyū (序破急), which roughly equate to “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”. As discussed, the first is fantastic, some of the best material in the entire series, in my estimation. Also as discussed, the second is a lot slower, but has its plus points too. The third… ah, the third. Here we get some more action, which will please anyone who thrills to Eva combat, but it is also utterly mind-boggling. I’ve been reading up on a few fan sites since watching, and I’m still not absolutely sure what was going on or what it signified. You won’t find any enlightenment in the disc’s special features, which present a long list of extras at first glance, but turn out to be 19 repetitive trailers, TV spots, and promo reels. Yes, nineteen.

After all that, it ends on a rather low-key cliffhanger, making it feel like one of those two-part finales that Hollywood YA adaptations are so fond of at the moment (cf. Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, etc). In some respects that’s actually true: it was originally said that films 3 and 4 would be half-length movies released together. Obviously that plan disappeared a long time ago. Still, it does make you wonder if that confusing third act will play better when paired up with the tetralogy’s concluding instalment. In the meantime, it’s hard to call 3.33 a completely effectual film in its own right. It quite successfully introduces us to an entirely new era for Evangelion, and teases that various groups’ plans are entering their final stages, but a possibly-indecipherable climax and a “we’ll just have to pause here”-level “to be continued” leave you wanting the next part more than feeling that was a fulfilling, finite experience.

Double plugSo when will that conclusion come? Well, a few years ago Anno ‘joked’ that the finale might be released “four to six years” after 3.33. As we’re already almost at four years with no sign of a release date, I guess it wasn’t so much of a ‘joke’ after all. An English-friendly DVD/Blu-ray will inevitably take an additional couple of years, too. So an indefinite, but undoubtedly lengthy, wait begins…

4 out of 5

Evangelion: 3.33 is out today on DVD, Blu-ray, and dual format Collector’s Edition.

It was Evangelion Day on Monday and I missed it but here are some reposts

Monday 22nd June 2015 reportedly marked the day on which the first episode of anime masterpiece Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place, and I completely missed that until Wednesday.

To belatedly mark it, however, this weekend I’m going to re-post my reviews of the four Evangelion films that have so far made their way to British discs (the fifth, Evangelion 3.33, is long-awaited thanks to a whole kerfuffle over the subtitle translation. Last I heard, we can expect it in early 2016).

Today: the two films that recapped/re-concluded the original series back in the ’90s, here covered in two short reviews from 2007.

Tomorrow: the first half of the Rebuild of Evangelion project, a reconfiguration / restoration / remake of the TV series as a tetralogy of films. (See the exciting placeholder images, which will excitingly turn into real links tomorrow, below.)

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion

Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone.

Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance.

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014)

2015 #59
Kenichi Shimizu | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers ConfidentialAnime take on Marvel properties. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow teams up with vigilante Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, to investigate a threat to global security.

A clichéd, heavy-handed screenplay and stilted line delivery tell a rote story through talky exposition scenes and uninspired action sequences, with little joy to be found in the design or animation either. Some bigger-name Avengers turn up for the climax, but they’re a motley crew of random choices (Captain Marvel?), most of whom don’t even get any dialogue.

Marvel may own the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC remain the clear frontrunner in animation.

2 out of 5

Avengers Confidential featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

2014 #18
Takashi Yamazaki | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Space Battleship YamatoA live-action adaptation of the popular, influential and long-lasting anime franchise, known in the US as Star Blazers (here’s a very good history of the series and its significance courtesy of Manga UK). Set in a future where Earth has been ravaged by alien assault, a nearly-defeated humanity learns of a device that might turn the tide of the war, but it’s located on the other side of the galaxy. The World War II battleship Yamato is retrofitted with spacefaring tech and its crew set off on a last-ditch mission to save mankind.

You can see how that setup is designed to fuel a lengthy series — it’s as much about the journey as the destination. Fortunately, the makers of this version haven’t gone all-out-Hollywood and attempted to launch a trilogy: without meaning to spoil the ending, the entire story is contained herein. It does occasionally feel like it’s been culled from a longer and more detailed narrative, not least in the abundance of central characters, but that’s not too detrimental. One distinct advantage (both of having a long-running predecessor and not aiming for sequels) is that nothing’s held back for future use — including characters. Not everyone makes it out alive, adding a genuine sense of peril that’s missing from most action-adventure movies. As someone not familiar with any previous version of the story, I can attest that this adaptation remains not only understandable, but very entertaining.

Some of the character arcs are a little on the predictable side — the maverick who comes to accept responsibility, etc — but there’s plentiful well-realised action to keep things rattling along. Some will moan about the CGI (as a space-based movie, there’s rather a lot of it) because it’s not mega-budget slick. Taking aim at criticsBut this isn’t a mega-budget production (Manga UK’s review refers to the “colossal ¥2.2 billion budget”, but that converts as only $24 million), so such criticism is misplaced. And it doesn’t even look that bad. Besides, if you only watch films for flashy CG spectacle, you shouldn’t be trying to venture outside Hollywood’s summer tentpoles anyway.

With a solid premise, engaging storyline, exciting action, likeable characters, and the bonus of telling an epic story in a single movie rather than forcing it to sprawl off (possibly-never-produced-)sequels, Space Battleship Yamato has an awful lot going for it. While a couple of niggles with its length and some amateurish-round-the-edges moments hold me back from giving it full marks, I greatly enjoyed it, and I think more broad-minded fans of action-adventure sci-fi will too.

4 out of 5

Akira (1988)

2013 #61a
Katsuhiro Otomo | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 15 / R

AkiraFor many Westerners of a certain generation, Akira was their first (conscious) exposure to anime. Not so me: a step or two down, Ghost in the Shell was my first (ignoring the odd glimpse of Pokémon or what have you) — it was one of my earliest DVD acquisitions, before we even had a DVD player, when I had to watch discs on my computer, where GitS’s menu just showed up as a black screen and I had to click around randomly to find ‘play’. Ah, memories.

Anyway, I came to Akira slightly later, and I confess I didn’t much care for it. I thought it looked great, especially the bike chases, but I lost track of the plot pretty quickly and found the ending a bit much — a bit too bizarre and kinda sickening. So I haven’t revisited the film for something like a decade, but always felt I should. I bought Manga’s Blu-ray release a few years ago, but it was the mention of this year being the film’s 25th anniversary that led me to finally pop it in.

Firstly, I watched it in Japanese this time, which is why it qualifies for coverage here (not that I need a reason to review a re-view these days, but that’s a different point of order). I had a quick listen to the English dub before viewing and it sounds a bit clunky with typically poor voice performances, so I went with the subbed version, where it’s pretty impossible to tell whether the acting’s any good or not (or at least, I always find it so. I go back and forth whether to watch anime dubbed or subbed, but that’s a discussion for another time). Having to read subtitles all the time does intrude on appreciating the visuals at points, but it’s workable.

Akira stillThe visuals remain something to be savoured; they’re probably the film’s strongest point, in my opinion. Akira was an expensive production and it pays off on screen. It’s not just the bike chases that I appreciated either, while an extra decade of experience made the ending a bit less freakish! The other strong point is the audio. The BD’s booklet goes on about “hypersonic” sound. I’ve no idea if that worked on my system, but it sounded fantastic regardless.

I don’t think the plot was as hard to follow as I previously felt (possibly thanks to an idea about where it was going), though the exact happenings at the climax are still unclear.

I liked Akira a good deal more this time round. Theoretically the only differences were HD, which is pretty but doesn’t fundamentally alter one’s opinion of a film’s content, and the Japanese soundtrack, which wasn’t my problem in the first place. The other big change, of course, is not in the film but in me — perhaps I’m just better positioned to appreciate it now. It’s not at the point where I’d number it among my personal favourites, but I now see some of what others get out of it.

4 out of 5