Saturday, January 29, 2011

Live Action Manga Blues [What Won't Be Covered]

Perhaps before charging headlong into my exploration of the dearth of memorable live action manga/anime output that has come out of Japan in recent years, perhaps it is best to just go ahead and let folks in on exactly what I won't be covering. As long as japanese cinema & tv has been around, the comics world has been a somewhat common well to often be mined by the big studios. And since comics in Japan meant a lot more than merely superheroes, there has been a fascinating wealth of mentionable movie versions. Some good, some not-so-good. The point is, that aside from the animation industry's love of animating popular manga titles, and having a certain edge over the live action community, this has been a long accepted staple of popular movies.

Some of which have significant fan followings regardless of the limits that low budget live action often provide. And a lot of this naturally lies with the choice of content.

We won't be talking about some of the earliest adaptations like the 1962 attempt at bringing Tetsuwan Atomu to life, nor will we go into the ever popular
Lone Wolf And Cub , or the scuzzy fantastic of the Sasori films. The latter as much as I've enjoyed them in the past, is a fitting title that works in those films as there is a historical grounding that allows us to better accept the stories. Where my interest lies in finding the enjoyment in bringing the wild, unrestrained nature of manga to life in this more fluid medium. So perhaps now one can see where this is all going to go...

There's a language in live action film that can get lost when dealing with the often hyperbolic nature of japanese comics, a medium that sprouts beyond mere concepts such as panels, and seems to leap from the page as if the paper itself can't contain the visuals. And now considering the bizarre & vibrant directions manga took come the 1970s, the film community must have salivated at the idea of taking on some works before considering the iconographic necessities of said works. Whether the film be yet another fun tokusatsu spin on a famous title, or even a gritty, violent celebration of one perennial badass or another , the films of the 60s - 90s covered the gamut of film interpretations whether or not the source material begs to be made live.

Some examples?

Try HAUSU director, Nobuhiko Obayashi when he took his loopy sensibilities to tell a bizarrely international co-ed version of Kazuo Umezzu's legendary horror epic, The Drifting Classroom(Hyoori Kyooshitsu). A landmark of awkward.

(So, if your head hasn't completely exploded, let's move on.)

Also near this time, comes the ever puzzling initial version of Takahashi's
seinen favorite, Maison Ikkoku.

-Now one may be thinking that Ikkoku doesn't follow my train of thought. In an odd way, it is one of those rare instances where despite the world of the manga, there's something about it going live action that somehow feels false. A strange inversion of reality takes place, which can be argued will become an issue with later films.

The treatment of manga in live form is such an insurmountably difficult achievement to pull off, which is why it is that we have seen so many fall by the wayside with the occasional moment, or laugh. And more likely than not, this is either due to technical limitations, or as in many adaptations made here in the US, a lack of understanding what connected readers to the original work in the first place. So many elements come into that manner of play that can be lost on film. (calling nearly every single video game adaptation to date) And so, we'll be looking more into adaptations made in a time where CG and special effects have eliminated one part of the limits, thereby leaving the one remaining question to the bulk of these films, "why do they still not work?"

We will be checking out several "big scale" productions that have surfaced within and after the anime boom of the late 90s-2000s in hopes of finding out what happened.

And, as tempting as the notion may be..We will be avoiding Rapeman.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Live Action Manga Blues [The Dilemma Of Playing With Iconographics - An Intro]

I suppose this was only a matter of time.

A few Twitter chats have taken place over the last few weeks that have brought a particular phenomenon to attention here at the labs, and now I'm hoping to better illustrate my concerns with how Japan treats its modern myths. Once was a time where like so many before me, Japanese cinema was sort of a bold alternative to domestic released bland, and a much regarded jolt of energy when regarding trash cinema. These days however, it has been pretty tough to rekindle such a flame. And I'm sure it isn't merely me. Something is genuinely missing, especially since the manga and anime worlds have long had their day in the international spotlight. And in a time where stateside films like The Dark Knight, and others have reached world class status, it only feels so much more tragic when looking at concepts that perhaps could prove expansive in a three dimensional universe.

Or is it just too iconographic a line to grasp?

Really have been considering taking a crack at this since adaptations of drawn projects have run such the gamut over the years, and can be considered a mastered form in the west. Can the same be said regarding our Japanese counterparts? A part of me would love to think so. But to be honest, more than several years of manga/anime adaptations have proven to be a challenge to properties with often provocative themes, and a film industry eager for a "hit". And even when the mentioned property can be considered light in nature, it rarely seems to be the most successful transition. Could it really be an issue of disconnect between the originating creators, and the film production brass? Endless compromise? Or could it just all be attributed to bad luck?

So what I hope to shed light on in the coming weeks is a series of posts dedicated to live action manga & perhaps find some diamonds in that particular rough.

We'll start with a look at some of the last decades biggest adaptations from violent seinen favorites like Ichi The Killer (Koroshiya Ichi), to even lighthearted shoujo fare like Lovely Complex. Either way, this is guaranteed to be an interesting exploration.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mother (2009) Movie Review

It almost never fails to happen. One takes in a number of recent works by some of the industry's most overpaid to create some of the most lackluster works highlighting as quality, only to take shots at a viewer's pride and intelligence. Sometimes it's so much that the feeling of love one has for film \slowly comes into question. And no sooner into this almost spirit-breaking streak does this malaise experience a break. A light amidst darkness that reminds one of the promise of film, of the power such a medium can hold upon a viewer. The ability to enrapture and beguile in ways not unlike great music, poetry, painting, sculpture, etc. Sometimes all it takes is an unerring spirit, a vision, and sincerity to make a genre work shine amidst the pack. Which is why this reviewer feels more than overdue for a neuro-exam for not catching Bong Joon-ho's 2009 mystery piece, Mother sooner.

Going back to the territory of small town life in rural South Korea, Bong Joon-ho's film seems to be taking the public view of life he so beautifully captured in his 2003 breakthrough, Memories Of Murder, and weaves a tale that not only surpasses this film, but completes a vision of life that while familiar, is alien enough to encourage the most ardent filmgoer to dream harder when looking for material of this ilk, and thereby raising the bar for atmosphere, coupled with masterful storytelling.

A nameless widow & quiet small town herb-seller (Kim Hye-ja in a deeply affecting performance)is sucked into a world of danger after her mentally challenged son (the equally astonishing Won Bin) is accused of the murder of a teenage girl. Driven by seemingly harried/indifferent(okay,try incompetent) police, and even less concerned legal assistance, the mother begins her own investigation into proving the innocence of her son. And what unfolds is something that takes the best elements of a Miss Marple tale caught in a rapidly growing tire fire, while the ghost of Hitchcock doles out the gasoline. It is a uniquely spellbinding experience that works, simply due to all cylinders being well cleaned and prepared to race.

The script penned by Joon-ho & Park Eun-kyo not only has an ear for what makes a strong spin on the detective tale, but also of the lives of each character, making the tapestry of intrigue & deception so much more delicious. Especially when considering a small town so used to conviction based on hearsay. The world of our central character is inhabiting can only bolster her resolve, making each revelation seismic in potency. And this would not have worked without the ultimate ingredient, which is the array of performances on display Kim Hye-ja has been a mainstay of Korean television for decades, and shines in a startling shift in tone to her usual portrayals. It is clear that this character means so much to Joon-ho, and she drives the film with irresistible sensitivity, and power. We're in the pit, and sinking deeper with her, feeling the need to be vindicated along with her as the story unfolds, regardless of where the mystery deepens, which is often in some disturbingly unexpected ways. Which also leads to the impressive performance of Won Bin as the accused, his Do-joon is both worthy of irritation as well as sympathy, making it the perfect destabilizing factor as his memories of the night in question are foggy at best. It is in this relationship that Mother truly goes for broke as the world ever seems set against them.

Also worthy of note is Joon-ho's careful use of the entire visual palette, further expanding the seemingly desolate world he explored previously in an 80s period piece. This time around, the backgrounds are every bit a larger part of the film's emotional base, which gives South Korean small town life an at-times disparaging beauty that must remain seen in full scope to be appreciated. From landscapes of dilapidated homes, to busy downtown scenes, it is truly a wonder to drink it all in. And for a film that seemingly doesn't require digital effects, the need was likely there, but it isn't in any way noticeable. The collaboration here with cinematographer, Hong Kyeong-pyo must be noted as another star in the film as the town itself becomes a most important character.

And while it would do a disservice to dispel any further plot information, it must be stated that what occurs in the second hour can be compared to anything major to happen to the mystery/suspense genre as Joon-ho seems to have mastered the craft in only a few films. As his previous family in peril/political satire-cum kaijyu-tribute The Host(2005) can attest, he is a filmmaker of extreme sensitivity to family devotion, and difficult plot twits. And these powers are in complete control here as the revelations begin to amass towards an emotionally pulverizing climax on par with the greats. It is no exaggeration that Mr. Joon-ho is in fact a world-class filmmaker at the height of his abilities with Mother, and the cinema loving community should welcome him with ever greater embrace with this haunting jewel of a piece.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Visit To The Carnival Part Three: Starlight Angel & CLOUD

So strange, that seconds after the stirring poetics of PRESENCE, that we are taken into something more "fittingly anime", as we are now in the fluffy wonders exhibited by Hiroyuki Kitazume's STARLIGHT ANGEL. Set in a robot-themed Disneyworld, complete with mecha exhibits, rides, and parades(!), ANGEL tells the music videolike tale of a young girl's love lost and gained. Told with all the vibrance, and saccharine optimism befitting of a Yuu Hayami, or Yoko Oginome video, it is at once cute, colorful, and completely forgettable. Which isn't to say that this musical venture into nearly transparent pop light show is a complete loss since it does feature an impressive amount of visual flare, and an amazing monster mecha creation near the finale(albeit for no clear reason, other than to have an antagonist of some sort). It is a sugary sweet respite from the more somber, artistically inclined seriousness of the previous entry.

Looking at it now, this installment is a clear-cut vision of Bubble Japan's great wish for a future complete with cute girls(whom I swear, our lead character is a dead ringer precursor to just about every modern "moe" archetype- Yui Hirasawa, anyone?), cute machines, pretty boys, and enough technological nostalgia and wistful longing to fill a warehouse full of tourism brochures. STARLIGHT ANGEL may be terribly light on ideas, but is a stark reminder of the promise of Japan during this pivotal time period. The feeling is so much so that it is hard to imagine how this would even play to a roomful of modern anime enthusiasts. Culture shock indeed.

It is as if there were no real limits to what could be done with not merely anime, that technical innovation was the key, and no economic downturn was in sight. Which makes this one all the more strangely tragic as I watch it again. Even so, this is a lighter entry in the film, and a fascinating footnote piece.

Which then leads us into the one piece concocted by someone not particularly known as part of the same community, but a notable one nonetheless. More a part of a larger component of a modern art exhibit than a standard anime production, CLOUD is the beautiful journey of man, and his relationship with technology as witnessed by an ever changing world. Panels, sometimes cut off into sections of the screen display the long walk of what looks to be a robotic child across various backgrounds. Lushly illustrated and animated, the piece is both soothing, and poetic to a fault. Featuring haunting music by Isaku Fujita, the sound is reminiscent of ambient masters Harold Budd & Brian Eno. And the often colorless artwork granted such details as how the wind affects the robot child's clothing as he walks is sublime in ways animation can only best achieve in this manner. Also worthy of note is the child's design that resembles a combination of both Tezuka's Atomu and Gerhardt, perhaps using Tezuka's iconographics to illustrate Japan's ascension from isolationist island, to a part of a larger, more volatile planet.

It is a startling mood piece that while is zero on the narrative front, is a singular achievement akin to the best avant garde works. It says so much with so little, making it a personal favorite in any medium.

Stay Tuned For Next Time: A Strange Tale of Meiji Machines: Episode of the Red Haired Man's Invasion (AKA A Tale Of Two Robots) & Chicken Man & Red Neck(aka NIGHTMARE)!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Visit To The Carnival Part Two: DEPRIVE & PRESENCE

And so we're back and venturing a little further into the 1987 anime anthology, ROBOT CARNIVAL, and have spent a little time on the project itself as well as the inital short with Franken's Gear. And now is the part where the omnibus element truly begins in earnest, as we take a hard left from wordless/artsy/comical, to just plain perplexing with DEPRIVE.

As much a demo reel for an abandoned tv anime project as it is a tribute to thirty years of manga-inspired motion and color, Hidetoshi Ohmori's entry is a short, jumbled mess vaguely telling the story of a robot invasion, the abduction of an innocent girl, and her machine lover who sets out to rescue her from the alien mechanoid hordes. This is about as simple as anime gets, and as such, it is (at least to me) the most forgettable entry in the entire collection. Even as the pulsating 80s synth rock does its best to arise us from the stupor of inert storytelling, and seemingly random imagery, all we truly get here is a snapshot of where the medium was at this particular time. Awash in pulp sensibilities, and vibrant color, there is little sense to the whole affair. And even for the type of anthology we are here to watch, the animation quality is only upper par television, lower grade OAV work. There are some mildly intriguing designs throughout the short, but perhaps only do so by reminding this writer of shows he could be watching. With this in mind, DEPRIVE does have some goofy charm underneath all that macho-glam facade.

Which leads us headlong into a short so strong, it can stand on its own without a robot-themed omnibus presentation, Yasuomi Umetsu's PRESENCE.

Set in an alternate, not quite steampunk, not quite post-Victorian England, PRESENCE is the tale of a lone inventor who seems to have quite a bit of freedom to create being married to an aggressive businesswoman. And yet in his workshop lies his biggest project, and a most troubling secret.

To even attempt to give Umetsu's entry an oversimplified description would do it a great disservice since there are so many wonders at work in it. From the powerful world building at play, to the obviously overlabored hand drawn animation that still stuns to this day, this is an animation lover's paradise aside from being a powerful meditation of vice and unrequited love. Running at nearly fifteen minutes, and being one of the only vignettes to contain actual dialogue, this is a prime example of the anime medium at the height of its power. It is also the most telling type of project that not only reflects two ends of Japan's full-fledged vision for an artistic foothold in the world market, as well as a premonition of social issues that were already taking shape in a society bereft of an industrial revolution.

The inventor's greatest creation, is among one of the film's most indelible curiosities. Designed like a porcelain doll, adorned with robes more akin to a Japanese idol's closet post-detonation, she also longs for a closeness that her creator seems to have a deep aversion to. Her image alone works both as a celebration of the art form's evolution, while her actual role is something akin to an early obit for it. From her iconic stare (an Umetsu trademark, also seen in later favorites such as 1998's Kaito, and later, MEZZO FORTE, the former which can still be considered an essential OVA, despite it's over-the-top nature), to the lush animation around her, she is an utterly striking example of how much time and money had been given to young animation artists at the time, and also stands as a bold totem for hand-drawn animation in the latter days of the method. Looking at it now, this is both thrilling, and a terribly sad reminder of what once was.

Even as the final moments of PRESENCE pass, one is left with more than merely simple awe at the presentation, but also with a strange sense that Umetsu and possibly crew were eerily ahead of the curve. The themes of a surrogate, artificial form of endeavor, and the panic that ensues when it attempts to reclaim the love given to it via procurement are strangely prescient in the collector/Akiba-kei/isolationist mindset that must have only been simmering around the mid 80s. To see the doll make movements toward humanity, while the human resists makes for a startlingly honest moment in anime at a time that was still quite in love with Hollywood-esque escapism.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Visit To The Carnival Part One:

And so this last weekend came to a bit of a head when the roomie up and asked to watch something she hadn't seen from my collection. Even though I know she had caught scenes and images from it in the past, it only felt right that on a cool, stormy night that we break out the warm tea, the heater set to medium high, and pop a classic anime omnibus into the player.

And this time, it is 1987's ROBOT CARNIVAL that exploded upon her eyes.

A true artifact of a very different era, Kazufumi Nomura Studio A.P.P.P. went all-out to present a Japanese equivalent to Disney's Fantasia with this one, enlisting the talents of some of the medium's heaviest hitters, and fashioned out one of "Bubble Japan's" singular anime events. All while utilizing a core theme, the use of machines often as stars/co-stars of each short piece, the anthology film weaves a tapestry of techno-wonder, fear, and possible concern for the future of a nation enamored with its newfound place in the world.

Oh, sure we've seen large scale art projects like this make it out in the form of Meikyû Monogatari (Neo-Tokyo)(1989), MEMORIES (1995), and even more recently with the Genius Party projects. But we have yet to experience a project quite on this scale, and with so much budget to burn. And featuring a nearly fully electronic musical scoe by the likes of Miyazaki fave, Jo Hisaishi, as well as Isaku Fujita, and Masahisa Takeishi. We are talking a lavish production for its time, and without the constraints of contemporary industry desperation. We are talking anime unhinged, and totally free. There are simply too many moments from each segment that evoke multiple thoughts that it only felt right to do more than merely review, but to give impressions on each segment. Make noise on which shorts I still treasure, as well as scratch my had at the ones that never quite worked for me.

So if you're looking for a more focused overview of ROBOT CARNIVAL, please partake of Justin Sevakis' classic Buried Treasure writeup! What I'll be doing here is something closer to a commentary on feelings old and new that surfaced after this latest viewing.

Firstly, let me go ahead and start by skipping the brilliantly comic bookend piece created by the legendary Katsuhiro Otomo & famed Key Animator, Atsuko Fukushima. We'll go ahead and share words regarding this increasingly relevant entry at the end of this special as I hope to get some more appropriate words saved for it. While still an integral part of a still impressive whole, it really does deserve its own special section of the shelf.

So for now, let's venture into the initial short of this odyssey of sight and sound by looking at elusive animation demigod, Koji Morimoto's Franken's Gear. Morimoto is a name that can be more famous had he taken the safer route ala many of his contemporaries (Oshii, Otomo, Kitakubo,etc.), but remained somewhat a phantom figure in anime circles. Fans may remember certain iconic shots and sequences in popular works such as AKIRA, some of Sharon Apple's dazzling animation in Macross Plus, but most recent fans may remember his stunning work in the Animatrix short, BEYOND. More comfortable with visuals, and implication, Morimoto delivers one of the more middle of the road efforts with this wordless tale of a wacky elder scientist, and his attempt to create mechanical "life".

Almost minimal in a silent era manner, the short takes place in what seems to be a hidden castle as a violent storm brews just outside. This setup allows Morimoto and staff to create this stark world of darks and lights. A shadowplay of sorts with lightning allowing stark casts of light to creats shapes around the rickety, and almost collapsing laboratory is created, giving the whole piece a strange sense of life. With the architecture and equipment constantly being affected by the winds outside, the animation is spared no expense as nearly the entire frame is in some form of forced motion. And as the scientist lowers himself into the dark bowels of the lab, and sees that his creation seems to be rising, it is both evocative of a certain Universal monster's birth, and yet with this volatile background that shifts and weaves, making it a feast for the eyes to see just what isn't moving.

It is only here that the bloatedness of the piece reveals itself, and we are given less to follow storywise. At its base, this is a quick gag, exposing the futility of man's inability to better understand their creations. (something that can be applied to children as well as machines) And as a one-joke premise, there really isn't much to talk about. And seeing as how we are looking at pure animation rather than narrative, all we're left with is the experience which while is fun to watch, isn't terribly compelling to start the film off with. And again, being a fan of Morimoto's works, this comes off as less a signature work, but rather an interesting curio piece for those interested in anime history.

Stay tuned for next time as we leap headlong into DEPRIVE & Yasuomi Umetsu's PRESENCE.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The State Of The Kaijyu & An Invitation To A Carnival...

Just when it began to feel a little too quiet around here....

Enough with the podcast links and onto something resembling an update here. Well it has been a pretty rough and tumble series of weeks as exhibited by the dearth of new posts on these pages. What with work, illness (still pending btw), and a newly acquired schedule, things were more than a little distant for sometime. Which is why as of this week, things will be a little busier. That's right, we'll be giving you quite a bit of material that I had been hoping to share since the latter weeks of 2010. From more film & tv verbiage, to local events, and Japanese media silly to perhaps even newer forms of bloggy-do. I'm happy to finally be able to stretch, and have an opportunity to present more thoughts on media past & present, and will do my darndest to give it a unique enough spin to keep pals coming back.

As the new schedule dictates, I'm going to do my part to be back in the three to five posts per week habit. And along with everything else going on, this feels like a safe cache of numbers to work with.

So in the spirit of new rhythm, here's this week's Karaoke Crush- [Hey, she was going to be a part of this eventually!]

And perhaps this can put us in the mindset of the upcoming series of posts I have in store this week.

Not sure why I've been in such the mood to explore some of my dusty old vids, but I guess it was only a matter of time when I gave a reliable favorite some discussion on the for now, I leave with you all with a plain, simple, no-nonsense hint.

A Near Sixteen-Year Afternath

Apologizing in advance, folks. This had to happen.

Possibly the very reason Combo Attack ever happened has finally surfaced, as we finally have gone ahead and created what is easily the LONGEST show we have on record. It is also one of the most informative,and revealing episodes yet as we explore our own vaults, remembering collective first viewings of Studio Gainax's notorious money printing license-cum rage against the machine, Shin Seiki Evangelion!

Join the gang we they plumb the depths of the phenomenon, and see if the show lives up to its reputation beyond the merchandising, as well as presence on Pizza boxes, and kohii cans everywhere. From creative intent, to failure, to utter triumph, the Combo Attack team & special guest, Michael Huang (of Anime Diet! fame)deliver an impressive 2-hour discussion that offers tons of material to consider, as well as a boatload of the fun one comes to expect from this particular troop of myth junkies.

Click Here For Show Link!