Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Riddle Of Detroit Steel

Been doing a lot of catching up with podcasts on the way to, and during work as of late. Finally caught my first dose of the stunning Projection Booth. And boy, did I pick a perfect first peek by choosing...what else? Their epic-length ode to one of my personal favorites, Paul Verhoeven's Robocop! A little side note regarding the film; looking back at it now at 24 years of age, I can truly say that the surprisingly mainstream success of the film was unique for me as this was the first major R-rated film I caught the most times in a theater post-ALIENS. And thinking back to the very first time I caught it, it was with my father, who was as eager to catch it as I was after hearing good word regarding it, and the ads definitely helped. And that first viewing felt akin to perhaps the first time I felt I was experiencing a more adult-geared genre film with the same telepathically shared glee as my dad sitting next to me. It was more than a cool movie, it was a bonding experience. I saw Robocop (count-em) six more times in the theater during the summer of 1987, and loved the film more with each viewing. But that first time with a parent nearby just reveling it the film's madness as the galvanized crowd went wild..Now that's a genre movie memory for the personal books.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Entry Wounds : A (1998) - Review

Call it something of a morbid fascination, or just an overture toward greater understanding. But a large part of my own personal love and interest in Japanese film, has been in regards toward better grasping the more hidden, cultural context lying beneath the actions inherent. No amount of mythical monsters could compare to the simmering, often troubling undercurrents often exhibited in sometimes the most fantastic of scenarios. But when a documentary not only sheds a sobering light on one of the most infamous chapters in recent Japanese history, but also provokes a watershed of even more distressing questions, word must be made about it, even on the pages of an innocuous pop culture blog such as this.

And in light of my recent re-take on the fictitious, yet more artificially brutal Kichiku Dai Enkai, it is far more important to give Tatsuya Mori's shot-on-video revelation, A (1998), some well-intentioned words.

In the months after the Kasumigaseki sarin gas attacks that terrified the nation, testimonials of multiple members of the notorious religious order, Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) are being heard in court, and are being broadcast all over the world. And as the bizarre drama involving this shockingly influential group (Even having scientists, and foreigners from US & even Russia among their ranks) continues to unfold, a large number of members-including PR spokesperson, Hiroshi Araki, remain virtually holed up in the group's main HQ in Kameido. Surviving on strictly protein-based diets, near-disheveled living conditions, and surrounded by images and even music featuring the group's now in-custody leader, Shoko Asahara, Araki and his fellow members attempt to stave off the growing hordes of media amassing outside, clamoring for a chance to allow the group to speak for themselves as more and more allegations of the group's activities that stemmed far beyond the gas attacks that killed 12, and led to nearly 4000 injuries. And yet, no news services were remotely able to get a closer look at the lives, and perspectives of the sect than Mori, who through sheer force of will, and a truly objective eye, offers a quietly chilling two-hours plus peek into one of the modern world's first looks at Japan's long festering gap in its post-war societal armor.

Mori's presence throughout the film is virtually invisible, as he and his crew merely settle themselves well into the lives of the Kameido members, and spend a great amount of time alongside Araki, who at the offset comes off as a bit of a country bumpkin with a sincere belief in his people, who's religion functions as something of a hybrid of several eastern belief systems, albeit with a something of an apocalyptic bent. As something of a post-human philosophy, Araki with several of his closest cohorts continue to speak praises of their lifestyle, and moreso regarding The Master (Asahara) whom we never see aside from photos often plastered all over the HQ walls. It is his presence felt throughout the film that is one of the A's most unnerving triumphs. About the only time that Mori finds  himself on camera is when he is by chance forced into a filmmaker's moral quandary after witnessing  Araki and associate being harrassed by local police, ending in a potentially faked injury on the part of one of the officers, and even Araki's associate who was knocked to the concrete. Mori's video lends the film an unexpected punch when he is put on the spot to make a moral decision despite his initial wishes to remain a fly on the wall. His ultimate actions regarding this are not only understandable from a human perspective, but indicative that what we are witnessing is far beyond anything the news media could have ever gained from dealing with the Aum.

The fact that the film spans roughly two years with Mori and company witnessing events from the inside, offers us far more than the sensationalistic, which one can easily assume regarding the subject matter. Even as Mori continues to question the choices Araki and followers are making regarding their support for the sect, even as the walls seem to be tumbling down around them, he never seems to be going for the easy, shallow response. In many ways, his questions often take on a humanistic approach. It is only when members begin to make statements that beg rational questions, does Mori take a more personal stance, which in turn gathers some of the film's meatiest material. Even as some of the doc tends to drag in places, it is these sudden bursts of rationality that bring to light the reasons for many of the members being where they are, not only in the group, but in their lives. Bringing to light something that is easily A's biggest stealth bomb. Even as locals attempt to encourage Araki to reintegrate into the society he, and the others have vowed to shun, it reveals a greater unseen disconnect occurring under the nation's often peaceful veneer. Conversely, we are also witness to Araki's reception to all that is occurring around him from derision to sympathy, leading to something of a complete personal arc by the film's end. And again, it is with Mori's decision to never allow his film to prosthelytize any moral standing that it all builds to a potent finale that while complete in its own right, led to a much larger scale exploration of the Japanese social strata via A2 several years later.

Bringing this all back to my own interests in the more fantastic corners of Japanese show, shining a light upon early recession-era ennui, and post-traditional malaise which has continued to erupt in numerous social issues from the proliferation of NEETs, the growing elderly population, and an overall increasing sense of resignation. Despite all the things I love about Japan, I find that in the worst of times, great and telling arts are borne from the most unexpected places. And even as the Japanese mainstream claws on toward the general blandification of culture, there are often bursts of primal creation that come from such trying feelings. But there are times when allegory & merely entertaining the notions isn't enough, and A is a great example of tackling these concerns head-on, even if noone realized the sheer temerity of the Aum events as they were unfolding. Sometimes all one requires is to be there in the room with the storm in full effect. And few films are as immediate in retrospect as A..

Friday, August 26, 2011

Feel the storm? It's coming..

Much of the east coast is prepping for the worst in regards to an immense all-out water& wind-based assault, all the while many of us on the west are contending with late blooming temperature creep. And all the while, matters here at the base are nearing something of a turning point in the lifetime of the Kaijyu on the web. With work schedule being the way it has been, alongside an extended technological quagmire, it was as if the usual stomping on these pages were becoming little more than a stunted crawl. I'm just here to report that while there will definitely be more to come, it'll be on a front a little larger than previously shared. Starting sometime next month, a new project will seek to better expand upon news and views often shared here, as well as via Variable Zero, Anime Diet, and even Combo Attack. All done with the hopes of presenting content in a much more wildly diverse, and hopefully fun manner. What it is, I cannot reveal just yet. But Just know that the stifling quiet of the last few months is going to come to an abrupt end very soon!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Co-Productions Attack!: Latitude Zero (1969)


One of the core ideas behind the creation of The Wandering Kaijyu has been the exploration of pop culture's seemingly endlessly subterranean fascination with one of my childhood obsessions, the Japanese tokusatsu fantasy realm. Something that many readers may have approached these pages, only to be disappointed that I have only scratched the surface of this topic. So perhaps it's best to come out here, and admit that while I love the stuff, there's a great gulf of material that I have either never had the time to explore, or ability to obtain it. Also, knowing that the internet has an already solid army of authorities on the worlds of Japanese genre film, it only felt natural that this blog be something more of a celebration of multiple obsessions, hopefully in the name of all-inclusiveness in a sphere that at times seems destined to sequester films/comics/artists of this ilk into their own designated cubbies.

So when Japanese studios occasionally delve into working alongside their western counterparts, I like to take a little time to chart the history of this often uneven, weird relationship. Sadly, when these projects take place, the end result is more often than not a tonally compromised work complete with awkward performances by at-times former Hollywood luminaries looking for a paycheck, or even some primed for some kind of international recognition. Some that come to mind include several Kinji Fukasaku films The Green Slime ( Ganma Daisan Go: Ushu Daisakusen - 1968), (Tora!Tora!Tora! - 1970), Message From Space(Uchu Kara No Messeji-1978), Virus (Fukkatsu No Hi - 1980). And this isn't to say that there haven't been some memorable works to come from these arrangements, many of the mentioned Fukasaku films contain a charm to them that transcend their limits. Among some of the non-Fukasaku productions that still hold a place in my heart is Masato Harada's GUNHED (1989), which despite being a bit of a derivative snore, contains some at-times impressive art design and concepts. But any way one slices it, east-west productions such as these have something of a checkered past, and cast a huge light on the cultural and spiritual rift that exists between both filmmaking styles.

Which is made quite clear in the small number of projects that occurred during the latter days of the swingin' 1960s, when Toho's already distinguished genre pioneer Ishiro Honda took on Ted Sherdeman's 1940s radio serial, Latitude Zero, to almost completely disastrous results.

Which leads me to a bit of a big confession, I had heard of this film years ago, but never had the fortune of experiencing it for myself. Now having seen it, perhaps it would be bad form to ever regret seeing it, but it was certainly difficult to get through an almost kidney-punching 105 minutes of film that felt more on par with any number of early MST3K experiments. While that at times can imply a certain amount of enjoyment, do not be misled; this is Mighty Jack without the charm. Would it not have been well-documented that the film was a troubled production from the getgo, it is likely that I would have been ready to hit the mute button just to experience the last science fiction FX work of visual giant, Eiji Tsuburaya (who fell ill during the making, leaving much of his crew to pick up the slack. He passed away soon after.).

So the story (Um..yeah) of Latitude Zero is essentially the finale of a longstanding battle between two behemoths of the superscience ilk. On the good guy corner is Captain Craig Mackenzie (played to the manly gills by an aging Joseph Cotten), helmsman of the supersubmarine, the Alpha-gou, alongside his crew of..two? And in the red corner, continuing his endless efforts to destroy Mackenzie and his undersea utopia located at (you guessed it...Latitude Zero) is the nefarious Dr. Malic (aka - Dr. Murderer, played by Cesar Romero!!) and his pouty lover, Lucretia (played by Patricia Medina). We are brought center stage to this protracted conflict via our audience surrogates in a trio including scientist, Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada), fellow oceanographer, Jules Masson (Masumi Okada), and journalist, Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckal). Rescued after a nearby volcanic eruption's concussive force knocks over the bathysphere the three were aboard on a research mission, the three are suddenly aboard the Alpha, and treated to the wonders beneath the ocean, and to the ongoing battle: scarves & open chest shirts Vs. flowing gowns with capes-er, good and evil. The revelation is that Mackenzie and Malic have been dueling it out for reasons unclear for nearly two centuries. And as Malic continues utilizing the commandeer abilities of one female Captain Kuroi(Hikaru Kuroki) via The Black Shark to end the Alpha once and for all, his plans to kidnap reknowned scientist, Dr. Okada and procure the secret to his latest breakthrough are moving forward with haste, leading to what could only be an ultimate showdown.


And despite all the words used in the last paragraph, there is no depth beyond any of this as the film careens from point to point without rhyme or reason. While it can all be considered childlike, there also seems to be a deep lack of energy to the proceedings to balance out matters. Even in many of the weaker kaiju eiga, there is at least some form of quirk, or sense of fun to keep the brain from drifting off too far, but in the case of Latitude Zero, everything is set up at the most basic level. It's so much so that one wonders how these two forces have kept any conflict going for as long as they have without killing each other numerous times. There's an almost Spy Vs. Spy logic happening here that could easily have been made into something both sly and hilarious, but played straight, is a poisonous mix. In many ways, the film feels like an extended, leisurely trailer, punctuated by a cool submarine shot, or a laugh-inducing monster. But we'll get back to that in a second.

Another egregiously awkward theme running throughout the film is a streak of philosophical defiance that the film goes out of its way to never back up. In here's it can easily be summed up with: everything the American journalist decries or opines-is wrong. As Mr. Lawton is taking photos, and investigating the no-want laden society that Mackenzie and company inhabit, it is made clear that the world he comes from is not only technologically slow to lead, but ideologically flawed. His questioning as to why the people of L.Zero have no desires, or grievances with leadership, Mackenzie's responses are often defiant to the point of smug. Now granted, to challenge ideas in film is potentially exciting, but when there's no depth to the declarations presented, it merely comes off as pompous, and ultimately shoehorned into the film. And as the script already has problems establishing character, things like this truly make the film feel off. So yeah, the individualistic, aggressive cowboy in Lawton is made to be something of an object of ridicule- which is later attempted to be the film's thematic "cornerstone", only to fall apart through an incredibly goofy finale. Silly blonde-haired, blue-eyed idealist! This'll show you! This is perhaps the most ambitious element in the film, and yet is completely bungled.

But we don't come to this film for any kind of philosophical debate, we come for the action and effects, to which I say only works in regards to the expected Tsuburaya miniatures and pyrotechnics. But when it comes to the wild and wacky creatures that appear once our heroes invade the baddie's stronghold, things just go from weird to outright laughably bad. When it comes to giant rats, fine, but once the quivering bat people come in, all bets are off for the viewers. Among the other highlight creations, my personal favorite was Malic's lion experiment involving the brain of one of his subordinates(in a bonehead move to end all bonehead moves) transferred into the beast, and then given wings(!!!) This griffin puppet must simply be seen to be fully comprehended. Thankfully, this creature doesn't get taken out by our heroes, and naturally becomes the film's desperately last second deus ex-machina-cum-disaster. If the film hasn't killed any remaining attention spans, this development alone makes the last minutes worth watching. The look of horror on the face of Cesar Romero is priceless (and possibly telling?).

And, no, I haven't even gone into the existence of the blonde Doctor Barton(Linda Haynes), and the burly Koubou, the Alpha's second in command who's only dialogue consists of "Hai kanchou!" (Japanese for "Yes, chief!"). And also no mention of Captain Kuroi's inexplicable crush on Malic, and Lucretia's seething jealousy. AND let's seriously not go into the sudden, tonally schizophrenic montage of real world imagery of world strife, and carnage near the end. The film as a whole simply feels like a classic case in both sides not completely being comfortable with each other, so some may see this, and take this as an excuse for some campy fun. It's just too bad that the film never runs with it. And this is possibly where Honda's talents might ot have made the best mix. Language barrier is one thing (the japanese actors did their best with what they had, having learned their lines phonetically), but cultural barriers are clearly a factor here. Latitude Zero, if nothing else is a good reminder of how far things have come since then, but also of how much more effort both sides must make in order to come out with a memorable, effective product.

At least we can be happy with moments like these as a reminder?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

State Of The Kaijyu: Exceeding The Obvious II

After two big anime reviews posted for Anime Diet that more or less stray from the path of what I had been covering before, it occurred to me that a lot has changed within me regarding looking at works with less of the kind of wonder that comes with being a fan, and with a more discerning eye for critical detail. It especially came clear upon dissecting Toward The Terra, that a certain amount of wide-eyed innocence had indeed been shed since last time I watched it. Not that this is any kind of lament, mind you. But something had to be documented here to chart the difference between being a devoted follower of certain types of media, or of certain creative entities, and being a filter for examining how something connects to the public at large.

This also came about when discussing an upcoming project (no large details provided) that demanded us to dig deep into our collective black hearts to see what kind of bad films we enjoy. And what came of this was something of a revealing mishmash of diverging tastes. These differences may have been generational, you see. And since "bad" is something of a relative concept, binding us all together in an endless web of relative suck, it becomes hard to decide what justifies attention, and therefore potential exposure to the masses. And without going into any internal debating as to what constitutes bad in regards to Hollywood-borne mediocrity brain-drain, perhaps its best to say that having grown up throughout the loudest parts of the latter days of the Drive-In, and the salad days of VHS, I have a slightly different view on what constitutes quality, as well as what works for me despite limitations. But what was revealing about my cohorts' entries is that a majority (not all) of what was mentioned was often material best known during the home video franchise era ala Blockbuster/Hollywood Video.

Which is by no means any kind of sleight, there were many bizarre and fun enchantments to be had in those plastic-lined aisles. From the occasional anime discovery, to over the top italian gorefest, there was often something fitting for Saturday viewing. But having admittedly worked for one of these two mechanized behemoths for nearly four years, I can honestly say that there was something lacking in their respective selections. A sense of all-inclusive schizophrenia that often could only be found in the local Mom n Pop. Hailing originally from the more desolate ends of the Coachella Valley, I can attest to there being a good number of these within the vicinity despite what some might imagine. And it was within these very stores that my brothers and I stumbled upon works, particularly from independent production companies, that no doubt primed us quite nicely for the "blood n boobs" marketing trajectory for anime & HK cinema at the time. Having spent years salvaging our allowances to take in a nearly 5 rental-per-weekend diet of genre-cheapies was something of a morning preparation for baptism. But when BV, and Hollywood came into the picture, so many restrictions, and codes were put in place under the assumption that they were for "family viewing" despite the fact that some unknowingly carried La Blue Girl, that it became harder to see some of the more standout diamonds in the rough. I would even argue that after the last gasps of the Drive-In, the direct-to-home-video market virtually squelched a lot of what made smaller productions strive harder to make any kind of impression, save for a fancy (albeit gaudy) cover sleeve on a shelf.

So a disconnect of sorts seems to have resulted. Not only this, but an H-Town eager to capitalize on mimicry in a post-Tarantino world has helped blur the line between what was trashy out of necessity, and trashy in an ironic, post-modern sense. And while I can attest to liking both (one obviously much more than the other- but I'm sure you can guess which one), there is definitely a difference displayed by those who have a firm grasp of what they are attempting versus having little options besides.

And this all spills into how one can love something despite its glaring flaws, and possibly even because of them. There is indeed a gulf between being objectively well-constructed, and loveable. The same happens in any other kind of art. Music perhaps being the paramount example. And even as a large population of these posts seem to reflect certain sectors of my critical mind, there are going to be instances when the upstart kid in the garage is going to overpower the studio employee with a steel-trap for a work. And while I do love well constructed narratives, and visual inventiveness, there will always be a part of me that roots for simple passion. So perhaps this new project will help expose this debate further, and help spur on further discussion as pop culture seems to be reaching something of a turning point. And hopefully, my thoughts can serve as something of a map, not only for me, but for anyone else curious about themselves, and what leads them to like what they do.