Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

aka Jin-Rô

2018 #212
Hiroyuki Okiura | 102 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15 / R

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Jin-Roh has enough cool costumes and bursts of ultra-violence to cut together a trailer that looks like a kinda-typical anime action-fest, but that’s really hiding a thoughtful, complicated (oh so complicated) drama about an unlikely romance and military conspiracies.

If that sounds like a bizarre mix… well, it is. Jin-Roh is a film that likes to pull tricks on its audience (maybe those action-packed trailers were deliberate rather than marketers just doing their best to sell the thing!), and one of the tricks it plays is to constantly wrongfoot you about what kind of movie it’s meant to be. First it’s a kind of action thriller about terrorists vs. police; then it’s a subtle romance between two damaged individuals; then it’s a conspiracy thriller, and also an espionage drama; and finally it’s some kind of allegorical tragedy. As it moves through those various phases, the characters — and, by extension, us — are subjected to crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses. Good luck keeping up…

Set in an alternate history where Germany occupied Japan after World War 2 (I’m not sure that’s made clear enough in the film, but hey-ho — maybe it’s obvious to Japanese viewers), the film picks things up a couple of decades later, with Japan free from occupation but having to fight antagonistic forces from within. With many guerrilla cells having combined to form terrorist group The Sect, the security services consequently created Kerberos, a controversial police paramilitary unit, to combat them. When Kerberos corporal Kazuki Fuse fails to shoot a bomb-carrying girl and she blows herself up, he’s punished by being sent back to basic training. At the same, he meets the girl’s sister and begins to form a bond with her. Meanwhile, his failure has thrown the future of Kerberos into doubt, setting political machinations whirring every which way.

Little Red Riding Hood... and the Big Bad Wolf?

I’ll admit, I got pretty lost with all the various factions, who was plotting what and when and why, and which side everyone was supposed to be on. Perhaps I was lulled into not paying enough attention because, as I noted above, the film appears to be a tender, understated examination of the relationship between two scarred individuals struggling to cope with the same recent tragedy from different sides, before it abruptly takes a hard turn into an intricate conspiracy thriller. Reading a plot description afterwards, I managed to get my head around it, though it didn’t resolve one quandary I felt at the end of the film itself: that it’s hard to know who we’re meant to be rooting for. Did the good guys win? Did the bad guys win? Were there actually any good guys — was anyone right? Personally, I’m fine with a film where there are no heroes, where everyone’s a bad guy and one of those bad guys wins; my problem is that I was left feeling unclear about whether that was the case or not.

Mixed feelings, then. It’s a well-made film (even watching on a crummy window-boxed DVD), but all those whiplash-inducing turns and confusion-producing twists left me somewhat reeling and bewildered.

3 out of 5

The Korean live-action remake, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, is available on Netflix from today.

(As is Daredevil season 3, Making a Murderer season 2, a brand-new Derren Brown special, and over half-a-dozen other series and films I’ve not heard of — why dump so much on one day, Netflix?!)

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Seoul Station (2016)

aka Seoulyeok

2018 #184
Yeon Sang-ho | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Seoul Station

Before he made zombie masterpiece Train to Busan, director Yeon Sang-ho was an animation director with several features to his name. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, to accompany his aforementioned live-action debut, he also helmed this animated prequel.

Apparently set one day before the events of Busan (there’s no obvious indication on screen of how the films’ timelines line up), Seoul Station depicts events as the zombie outbreak expands at the titular transportation hub. Through this we follow Hye-sun (Shim Eun-kyung), a young runaway struggling to make ends meet living with her good-for-nothing boyfriend, Ki-woong (Lee Joon). Hye-sun’s father, Suk-gyu (Ryu Seung-ryong), has finally tracked her down, but arrives just after his daughter and Ki-woong have an argument and she runs off — and then the zombie thing happens. As Hye-sun struggles to escape the undead hordes, Ki-woong and Suk-gyu team up to search for her.

Like Train to Busan, then, Seoul Station revolves around a struggling father-daughter relationship — though this one’s of a very different sort. That’s apparent from the off, but to say too much more would be a last-act spoiler. Suffice to say, it all comes to a very dark, grim ending, with none of the redemption or hopefulness of the main film. It also continues the live-actioner’s theme of other humans being the real villains, with the actions of selfish cowards being as much a threat to survival as the flesh-eating monsters. It feels like Yeon is being critical of Korean culture, taking potshots at the treatment of the homeless, the uselessness of the police, and more. Most of that stuff plays universally, mind, but the film hardly connects with it in a meaningful way. For example, we see one homeless guy struggle to get help for his injured and dying brother, as person after person either refuses help or begrudgingly does the least they can. “They should do more,” the film implies. But if they had, what would change? In this scenario, nothing — the guy’s been infected by zombie-disease; they’d all wind up undead too and it would spread faster.

Police brutality

Half-assed social commentary aside, there are some really neat, original ideas in here, like a scene where Hye-sun must hold her never as she precariously tightrope-walks across the empty shell of a building, while behind her the mindless zombies throw themselves off the building onto the structure, their lack of dexterity leading most of them to plummet straight through it… but not all of them. Plus, as alluded above, there’s at least one solid twist. On the down side, it’s a bit slow — it takes 20 minutes for the zombie outbreak to start, for no particularly good reason; and though it mostly picks up after that, it occasionally loses focus again. The animation is of variable quality, too: some of it is very good, but at other times it feels kind of floaty, and there’s a very bizarre motion-blur effect applied to character movement.

Unlike Train to Busan, Seoul Station can’t quite coalesce its good ideas into anything more meaningful than a zombie thriller. Plus, the ultimate grimness of the finale feels almost mean-spirited and cruel rather than pointed. It’s not a bad zombie flick by any means, but there’s an even better movie waiting to be refined out of its best ideas, and so it’s not as transcendentally great as its live-action forebear.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Seoul Station is on Film4 tonight at 11:15pm.

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018)

aka Gojira: Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi

2018 #156
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | PG

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle

The 31st official Godzilla film from Japan’s Toho studio is the second part of their anime trilogy. Released theatrically in Japan, it’s a Netflix exclusive in the rest of the world — which is probably for the best, because it means we don’t have to pay money specifically for this shite.

Picking up where the previous film left off, City of the Edge of Battle is set on Earth 20,000 years in the future, where a 300-metre-tall Godzilla (the largest ever, fact fans) rules the planet. I could go into the rest of the backstory, but we’ll be here for a paragraph or two — you can either watch the first film or, better yet, save yourself a couple of hours and just don’t bother with any of it. But anyway: in this instalment, the party that have landed on Earth to defeat Godzilla discover a tribe of humans (or, possibly, just a human-like species) who have somehow survived Godzilla’s reign. They in turn lead them to the remains of Mechagodzilla, a failed project by alien chums to help defeat Godzilla. Left alone for 20 millennia, the mech’s “nanometal” has grown into an entire city, which they now hope to use to defeat Godzilla.

There are some neat sci-fi ideas in this trilogy — aside from the Battlestar Galactica-esque stuff I talked about last time, there’s some interesting notions about how the planet might’ve changed and evolved over 20,000 years without us, and a city that’s grown itself has potential — but promising concepts alone are not enough to overcome the clunky dialogue, dull visuals, unmemorable characters, turgid philosophising, and sauntering plot. And if you’re here for the eponymous big guy, once again he doesn’t even get involved until over an hour in, just in time for the final big action sequence. That’s so badly done, it requires constant narration from the human command centre to explain what’s supposed to be going on. It would make as much sense as an audio drama as it does as a film.

Look, Godzilla is in this film! (Eventually.)

Another way this second film suffers is that many actions are built on motivations that were established and explained in the first film, but which aren’t restated here — and they were easy to miss in the first one anyway, because it was overloaded with exposition and jargon. It should be no surprise that this sequel is no better in that regard, justifying my decision to watch it in English this time. It did seem weird to switch language part way through a trilogy, but it’s not like any of the characters were memorable enough that I associated their voices with them, so why not? Well, I always feel I should watch anime in its original Japanese, for purism’s sake, but English is just easier — especially when the amount of made-up jargon flying around made the first film something of a chore to read.

I didn’t really enjoy the first film, but generously gave it 3 stars on the basis that it wasn’t completely terrible and had some ideas with potential. This sequel squanders most of that. I still like the mythology they’ve loaded into this universe — the conflicting ideologies of the different species on the spaceship; the situation on Earth when they return (the human-like tribe; the self-built city-with-a-brain) — but it’s all bungled in the execution, coming out as gloop that is, at best, barely intelligible, and, at worst, flat out boring. And if there wasn’t already more than enough backstory, mystery, and potential conflict to be going on with (which there was), City on the Edge of Battle throws a ton more into the mix. But hey, maybe the third film will actually generate some excitement if it has to rush to wrap all that up?

2 out of 5

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle is available on Netflix now. The final film is scheduled for release in Japan in November, and worldwide in early 2019.

Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo (1978)

aka The Mystery of Mamo / Rupan Sansei / Rupan Sansei: Rupan tai Kurōn

2018 #112
Sôji Yoshikawa | 102 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo

Best known to Western audiences thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s feature debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin the 3rd is more than just one film in the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s illustrious career — it’s a popular and long-running franchise in Japan, with almost innumerable iterations: starting life as a manga which has run on and off since 1967, it has so far been adapted into six TV series, seven animated films, 26 feature-length TV specials, two live-action movies, and sundry other bits and bobs. Despite all that, this is one of only three Lupin III productions that has been available in the UK since the DVD era (the others being the fourth TV series, titled The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Cagliostro, natch), though that increases by one today with the Blu-ray release of the latest complete TV series, Lupin the 3rd: Part IV.

The Secret of Mamo (more commonly known in English as The Mystery of Mamo, or in Japan as Lupin vs. the Clone) was the first big-screen outing for Lupin III. It was produced while the second TV series was being broadcast, with the intention of making a film that was more similar to the original manga, something Japanese censorship standards prevented the TV series from being. So, the tone is kids’ comedic adventure, but there’s nudity, moderately graphic violence, and a scene of sexy torture. Well, it’s not that graphic really… though it depends on your position on these things, I guess. Anyway, I’m certainly surprised the Americans let it pass as a PG-13, just because of the nudity. She may be a cartoon, but it’s not subtle.

Car chase!

Anyhow, the plot sees master thief Lupin III, along with his regular sidekicks Jigen and Goemon, pilfering the Philosopher’s Stone (I guess Americans would need to call it the Sorcerers Stone) at the request of his on-off love interest Fujiko Mine, who actually wants it for the mysterious Mamo. His nefarious schemes draw Lupin and co into a web that sees them pursued not only by Mamo’s forces, but also the Americans, and Lupin’s regular nemesis, Interpol Inspector Zenigata.

One of the major inspirations behind Lupin the 3rd’s creation was James Bond, and so, appropriately enough, this is a globetrotting adventure that takes in Transylvania, Egypt, France, Spain, the Caribbean, and Colombia. Similarly, it also showcases some great action scenes, particularly an extended car chase through Paris and then the mountains. Unlike Bond, there’s a definite cartoonishness to many of the antics, and the third act takes a turn into outright science-fiction that gets a bit crazy. It’s also not entirely similar to The Castle of Cagliostro, therefore, showing how much Miyazaki brought his own tone and style to that film.

That said, I thought the lead characters’ relationships felt clearer from the start here than they did in Cagliostro, which very much felt like a sequel or spin-off where you were meant to know who everyone was (as I noted in my review). It could just be I’m a little more familiar with them all now, but perhaps the film was indeed made to be more newcomer-friendly — it was the first movie, after all; though it is spun off from a TV series… Well, it’s quite neatly done, nonetheless — this isn’t “Lupin III Begins” with them all meeting for the first time, nor is there a viewer-surrogate being introduced to them all, but it handles how and when each character arrives into the narrative in such a way that it’s kept fairly clear how they relate to one another. It’s subtly done, so, as I say, it could be serendipitous or my own improved awareness.

The mysterious Mamo

It’s also perhaps worthy of note that the film is available with four different English dubs. The 2013 US DVD from Discotek Media includes them all, so lucky you if you have that. Everywhere online will tell you that Manga UK’s 2008 DVD includes the dub Manga produced in 1996, which seems logical, but, being the inquisitive soul that I am, I read up on it myself, and I’m 99% certain it’s actually the 2003 Geneon dub. According to Wikipedia, the Geneon dub “took a liberal approach with translating the Japanese dialogue,” so I compared the dub to the subtitles included for the Japanese audio, and they were totally different. You can see why anime fans hate it when discs only include “dubtitles”. Maybe I should’ve watched it in its original language…

Anyway, the film itself is a very fun adventure, with an entertaining anarchism as well as exciting action and mostly amusing humour. Ever since I watched Cagliostro I’ve been meaning to watch some more Lupin the 3rd because I always hoped I’d enjoy it, and so far I’m being proven right. At least I’ve got the two Blu-ray-released TV series to tuck into next, but I’d like to see more of the extensive back catalogue make it to the UK. I guess that probably depends on how the Part IV release sells…

4 out of 5

Lupin the 3rd: Part IV is released on Blu-ray in the UK today by All the Anime.

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

aka Gojira: Kaijū Wakusei / Godzilla: Monster Planet

2018 #13
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

Two of Japan’s most successful cultural exports meet for the first time here as the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, gets the anime treatment. Originally conceived as a TV series, the box office success of Shin Godzilla prompted studio Toho to restructure the project as a trilogy of movies and release them theatrically (in Japan, anyway — the rest of the world gets them via Netflix). Part 2 is due later in 2018 and Part 3 in early 2019.

The standard plot of a Godzilla movie, as I understand it, is a giant monster (aka kaiju) turns up, stomps all over some cities, then we find a way to destroy it; or, if it’s one of the ones where Godzilla is a good guy, he fights it and, presumably, wins. Planet of the Monsters uses its animated form to do something new with the concept. The opening credits montage informs us that, in the final years of the 20th century, kaiju suddenly sprung up all over the planet and mankind were unable to defeat them. Fortunately some aliens rocked up and offered to help by evacuating what was left of humanity. Twenty years later this mission to the stars is proving a failure, with minimal chance of finding a habitable planet and the survivors decimated by diminishing supplies. The best course of action is deemed to be a return to Earth — it’s estimated thousands of years will have passed there (thanks to relativity) and the hope is the monsters will have died; and if not, hotshot young captain Haruo Sakai has come up with a new plan to defeat Godzilla once and for all.

Good God

If that reads like a lot of setup, it’s because Planet of the Monsters contains a lot of setup. It takes about half the movie before they’re back on Earth and… well, technically this is a spoiler, but if you’re intending to watch the movie it might help you manage expectations: Godzilla doesn’t properly show up until the final half-hour. This has led some reviewers to accuse the movie of being slow and light on what we came to see, i.e. giant monster action. They have something of a point. However, contrary to most opinions I’ve read, I actually enjoyed the early space-bound stages of the movie better.

It feels like the makers had a ton of interesting ideas about the politics and social situation aboard the evacuation ship, especially with multiple races and some kind of alien religion involved too, but there’s no time to really explore or develop those facets. Maybe they planned to get into that in the series. Either way, I find it funny that others have criticised that part for being slow and talky while I felt it had to race past a lot of potentially-interesting stuff to keep the plot moving. I guess I just ought to go watch Battlestar Galactica again, because it’s broadly similar territory.

Back to Earth

But, as I said before, there’s a rub: this setup provokes interest as a Galactica-style sci-fi, but as a Godzilla movie? There’s far too little of the big guy. And when he does turn up for the big climactic action sequence, that was the bit I found kinda dull. There’s a lot of whizzing around on hoverbike-things and blowing up forests and whatnot — plenty of sound and fury, but signifying what? And then… well, still avoiding spoilers, but there’s a twist in the final few minutes that renders this whole film prologue. Perhaps that should leave us hopeful for the next two? Perhaps this is all effective world-building for where things will go in the sequels? Conversely, it could be revealed as unnecessary background info once all the monster smashing starts. Only time (and the next two films) will tell…

3 out of 5

Your Name. (2016)

aka Kimi no na wa.

2017 #168
Makoto Shinkai | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12 / PG

Your Name

If you’ve not heard about Your Name then… well, where have you been for the past year? It was a colossal hit in its native Japan during the back end of 2016, spending 12 weeks at #1 to become the fourth highest-grossing film of all time there (behind only Spirited Away, Titanic, and Frozen). It’s also the only anime not made by Studio Ghibli to gross over ¥10 billion at the Japanese box office. Critical acclaim has followed as it’s been released around the rest of the world too, hailing writer-director Makoto Shinkai as the new Miyazaki. It’s hard to imagine higher praise for an animator. The film reached UK cinemas last November, but then took a whole year to hit DVD and Blu-ray (I guess thanks to Japanese studios’ usual restrictive licensing agreements), and as of this week is available to stream for Amazon Prime members. So when I finally sat down to watch it this week it had a bit of weight on its shoulders — at this point it runs the risk of being a victim of its own hype.

The film introduces us to Mitsuha, a teenage girl in a sleepy country town — more a village, really (it doesn’t even have a cafe!) — who wishes for a more exciting life in the big city. Her friends tell her she was acting weird the day before, but she can’t remember any of it. Then she wakes up in the body of Taki, a teenage boy living in Tokyo. Assuming it’s a dream — a very long, very realistic dream — she stumbles through his life for a day. To cut to the obvious, Mitsuha and Taki soon realise they’re actually swapping bodies, apparently at random but for a whole day each time. (The literal translation of the film’s Japanese title is What is your name, which kinda makes more sense.) They find ways to deal with it, but a big explanation for why it’s happening is looming…

That feeling when you wake up and realise a boy's been inside you... er, as it were

That comes in the form of a hefty twist about halfway through the movie. I’ve read some very different reactions to that development and what follows it — criticism of it for shifting the film into something generic after a more original first half; praise for it elevating the film into something more original after the generic first half. I guess your mileage will vary. For me, it kind of glossed over some of the body-swap stuff to get to a place where there was still time to deal with what happens next. Conversely, there are plenty of intersex body-swap movies — how much do we need to go over that again? But there are generic elements to the second half too.

That said, the way it uses Japanese folklore to bring all the threads together is a bit different, at least for us Westerners. I don’t know if it’s based on genuine beliefs or if it’s a mythology imagined for the film, but it conveys some effective and affecting ideas. It builds to an emotional climax and, ultimately, a perfectly satisfying ending. Well, unless… At times you feel there were perhaps other, more unusual directions the film could have explored. Fair enough, that clearly wasn’t the story Shinkai wanted to tell; but some viewers may think those less well-trodden paths would’ve made for a better movie. Of course, that would’ve neutered its appeal to others; but then Mark Kermode compared it to Romeo and Juliet in terms of how it might appeal to teenagers, and that certainly doesn’t have a happy ending…

Taki reaching for Mitsuha's boobs, probably. He loves feeling her boobs.

I’m not just talking about the finale, though. For example: while in Taki’s body, Mitsuha displays his “feminine side”, which leads to a date with a girl he’s had a crush on for ages. On the day of the date, Taki is in his own body, which leaves Mitsuha upset because she’d wanted to go on the date. Surely you can see how this is possibly building in a direction where Mitsuha realises something about herself; something she might not have noticed living in a very traditional little town. But that’s not where Your Name is going — and, as I said, fair enough — but it’s not a bad idea for a movie (is it?)

Nonetheless, at times the story is quite complicated, with overlapping dialogue, or a density of information conveyed in images, on-screen text, and dialogue simultaneously. I mention this because watching the English dub might make for a more manageable experience, at least on first viewing. (That said, there’s one gag which only works in Japanese, and the subtitles work at a rate of knots to explain the joke while it’s happening. I watched the English dubbed version of the scene afterwards and it kind of fudges the gag away, because there’s no way to translate it into English.) That said, other bits of the story are just straight up jumbly, but trust that there’s a reason for that — you may get confused about who’s in whose body when, but the film makes enough sense in the end.

Pretty pictures

One thing I have no problem praising unequivocally is the imagery. The film is visually ravishing; the animation thoroughly gorgeous. Its use of colour and light is beautiful; the detail in the art and its movement is almost photo-real, without the uncanny valley effect you often get from rotoscoping. Shinkai also seems to have a live-action-esque feel for shots and editing, particularly in his use of montage, which lends a very filmic feel. At other times it benefits from animation’s freedom to be less literal, particularly in one sequence apparently created with pencils and chalk.

I do think the hype around Your Name ended up as a problem for me. I was expecting to be blown away by its amazingness, the expectation of which got in the way of just appreciating the film for what it is. That said, I definitely liked it a lot. Despite using some building blocks familiar from other movies, it mixes them together with some fresh perspectives to create a film that is thoroughly romantic, in multiple senses of the word.

4 out of 5

As I mentioned, Your Name is now available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, in both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Blade Runner 2022-2048

You’ve probably heard that three short films have been released as part of the promotion for forthcoming sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049. More than just trailers, these shorts go some way to bridging the 30-year gap between 2049 and the original Blade Runner. They were released out of sequence over the past couple of months, but here they’re reviewed in chronological order.

Blade Runner: Black Out 2022
(2017)

2017 #130a
Shinichirô Watanabe | 16 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English

Black Out 2022

The first short is an anime directed by Shinichirô Watanabe, best known for Cowboy Bebop and, I guess, helming two of the Animatrix shorts. Set a couple of years after Blade Runner, it tells the story of some Replicant rights activists and their successful attack on LA, which will lead to a ban on Replicant production.

As a story it is, of course, background detail — presumably not essential enough to be included in 2049 proper, but filling in the backstory for fans. It’s the kind of thing you could read about in just a line but is more exciting dramatised. That said, with such a short running time there’s no space to grow attached to characters, so the ultimate effect on the viewer isn’t so different to just reading about the events depicted.

As a short animation, however, it’s a quality production. Animation allows it to do things a live-action short couldn’t — you’d need a blockbuster CGI budget to pull this off for real. It’s a good marriage of form and intent: in the context of a prequel short, it’d be pointless to do an anime of people sat in a room talking. It has a bit of needlessly fiddly story structure at the start (including one of my pet peeves: “two weeks earlier”), but mostly it puts its short running time to decent use. There are a couple of striking, effective images, alongside various nods to the original film — visually, a lot of tributes are paid. Plus, look for cameos by Edward James Olmos’ Gaff and Dave Bautista’s character from 2049.

It may be worth noting that it’s nothing like Cowboy Bebop, either. No surprise — Bebop‘s tone hardly fits the grim world of Blade Runner. If you wanted an anime comparison, it’s more like a Ghost in the Shell short — again, not so surprising given the source similarities.

Despite my complaints about its structure and ultimate purpose, this is probably the best of the three shorts.

4 out of 5

Watch Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 on YouTube here.

2036: Nexus Dawn
(2017)

2017 #130a
Luke Scott | 7 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English

2036: Nexus Dawn

2049 director Denis Villeneuve introduces each of the three shorts, explaining how he tapped filmmakers he respected to create these little tales. This one is by, to use Villeneuve’s word, his friend Luke Scott — director of Morgan and (most pertinently of all, I suspect) Ridley Scott’s son. We’re in live-action now, as entrepreneur Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) meets with some committee to convince them to re-legalise Replicant production.

It might seem odd, given their very different production styles, but this works well as a pair with 2022. It’s all in the story: the anime is about the final straw that banned Replicants; Nexus Dawn is about how they were brought back. Despite their short form, these films aren’t telling side stories, but revealing major points in Blade Runner‘s future history. There are also several direct references to the black out which further ties the shorts together. It might not be wholly clear in the anime itself, but that event was clearly world-changing. Perhaps that’s why 2022 was initially released last, to pay off the teasing references which feature in both live-action shorts.

For those seeking a tease for 2049, we get an indication of what Jared Leto’s performance will be like. I imagine those who find him inherently annoying will see nothing to challenge their preconception. For the rest of us, he’s okay. He suits the possibly-mad genius role, and thankfully keeps it understated. There’s also a supporting cast of names bigger you’d expect from just a prequel short (Doctor Strange‘s Benedict Wong, Peaky Blinders‘ Ned Dennehy), which I’m not sure adds a huge amount but perhaps indicates the esteem of the Blade Runner name.

Technically, the short itself is well shot — in both content and form, it could conceivably be a deleted scene from the main film. That’s both a blessing and a curse, I guess.

3 out of 5

Watch 2036: Nexus Dawn on YouTube here.

2048: Nowhere to Run
(2017)

2017 #130a
Luke Scott | 6 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English

2048: Nowhere to Run

The final short, again helmed by Scott the Younger, is set just the year before the new film. It introduces us to Dave Bautista’s character, a kindly but down-on-his-luck kinda guy who one day finds himself in a violent altercation that will clearly change his life.

Even more than Nexus Dawn, this feels like a deleted scene — I won’t be at all surprised if this leads directly into the events of 2049. As it’s not dramatising a turning point in history, it feels the most trailer-like of the three shorts. It’s still a little background narrative that’s (presumably) not to he found in the film proper, but it seems to be teasing where 2049 will begin rather than filling in important backstory blanks. Plus, an opening montage of clips from 2049 includes another reference to the black out, again suggesting that the anime is actually the most significant and worthwhile of the three shorts.

Bautista continues to be a surprisingly charismatic actor — even with very little to do here, and keeping it low-key, you warm to him. Perhaps that’s the point of this short: for us to like Sapper, and understand what he’s capable of and why, before his appearance in 2049. Perhaps it’ll even be deserving of a higher rating after seeing Villeneuve’s film. As a film, the side-street setting is probably not that much more logistically complex than Nexus Dawn‘s single room (aside from all the extras involved), but Scott makes it feel more expansive.

At first blush Nowhere to Run feels like the least essential of the three prequels, but we’ll see if that changes with hindsight after viewing 2049.

3 out of 5

Watch 2048: Nowhere to Run on YouTube here.

As a final thought, I’ll note that on Letterboxd I rated all three shorts 3.5 out of 5, and on IMDb gave them the equivalent 7 out of 10. Obviously I’ve separated them slightly here, with the anime getting 4 and the other two getting 3s, which would suggest an even finer gradation of marking (that I then rounded up/down). I don’t know if that’s really the case, but I think the reason why I settled on these differing scores is that the two live-action shorts feel like deleted scenes, while the anime feels like it’s expanding on something that would otherwise just be backstory. In other words, it depicts the most significant event in its own right.

Anyway, perhaps these scores will change after seeing 2049. Whether they do or don’t, all three shorts are essential viewing for fans, but probably inessential for the casual viewer — after all, if they really mattered, they’d be in the film.

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas tomorrow.

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.

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.