Sunday, September 25, 2011

Acknowledging The Paradigm

As hinted at during my most recent post at Anime Diet; would a modern reinterpretation of Naoko Takeuchi's Sailor Moon even remotely resemble the seemingly innocent vibe of young girls using vanity products to change their appearance, and defeat evil? What would it be like if the very notion of your savior was rendered out of date with a world that has long since moved on? The shelf life of certain stories can prove limited when philosophical, scientific, sociological, and even allegorical paradigms shift from their previously settled posts. This is something that has been swirling around the brainpan for several years, and has recently come back to mind when doing the latest writeup. Would doing a modern take of what many would consider a classic legend prove vital when the world has changed so much, and grown so much more sophisticated that a "pure" replay would prove either dated or irrelevant? One can argue that this has happened more than once in high-profile projects in recent years. But how about when the creative parties involved took the extra time necessary to use established properties to help illustrate these changes in at times lyrical fashion? Surface, too. This is something I'd like to call, Acknowledging The Paradigm. Meaning, an update fully aware of the cultural changes, and not only visually retrofitting the production, but also taking a studied, and thematic look into how the previously unchangeable would apply in another, more contemporary context- without holding back.

And in a climate where the term "reboot" has become something of modern anathema, there have been many attempts to acknowledge that the world is a completely different place than when their original creators thrived with their work. This is especially so in regards to superhero properties. When many were initially conceived, often very specific social circumstances helped to make them resonate with their audiences, often creating a specific image of them to the public. And if there has been anything common about fan reaction, it has been derision by those calling out author and artist time and again, that reinterpretations often do not match, let alone agree with certain established perceptions of what made these concepts great, or effective. It doesn't take much to send fans over the edge, so keeping this in mind it stands to reason why so many fear dramatic deviation from past models. It is a difficult ice shelf to walk, but as long as creators find the means to build upon what has been said before, perhaps what is revealed can offer some value to those looking for other qualities within the new story.

Which brings me to a somewhat controversial example. A large part of why I am in something of a minority, and actually appreciate Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, is simply because it isn't shying away from being both an allegory for the fall of previous ideals, as well as a tribute to the Donner film. The very idea that Kal-El would not only be fallible, but in many ways irrelevant in a world that has left him behind is a bold, and often troubling one to consider for many. But this is perhaps the one thing that most captivated me while watching it for the first time in 2006. Much of the film's writing that rendered it confused in places took a backseat for me, and what stood out was an often poignant look at how America's ideals were now at a crucial point, and ready to change into something altogether different. Almost repeatedly, Superman's role in the film is either sideswiped by how the world around him has moved on, or is put second-fiddle to how even the mortal are in some ways empowered. The most telling of which is the James Marsden character of Richard White, son of Daily Planet chief, Perry. As the husband-to-be of Lois Lane, it is made clear that he is by no means considered any kind of one-dimensional romantic rival for Clark/Superman. In fact, he is by all accounts a good, honest man willing to go above and beyond for those he cares for. And when he takes his personal plane to rescue his would-be family, he even saves Kal-El, making the film's central theme that much more concrete. That much of what the former Depression-era-borne icon has inspired lives on beyond even his own function on Earth. There will always been room for him in the hearts of many, and yet he tragically remains an outsider, unchanging in a universe thriving on continuous change. It isn't the easiest pill for audiences to swallow. And even if the film can seem a bit mixed, and unsure of its own identity, there is a sincere enough thread to make it viable to current sensibilities if one is inclined to take a moment.

An example of an update that may look visually opulent in places, and yet never bothers to reach such ambitious heights (well, to be fair-most modern reinterpretations fall prey to this) is Tron Legacy. For a film so predisposed toward offering a more cutting-edge sheen to what was initially a wildly experimental universe rendered via extremely rudimentary(see crude) cel-based, as well as primitive CG in order to explore an entire computer based world, the 2010 film fails to acknowledge the vast rift of change to have come in the wake of our current existence via the internet, let alone digital tech. We can hide behind the excuses that the film was bankrolled with the intent that it was meant to speak to kids as well as adults, but it doesn't even acknowledge the current sophistication of children. In a generation post-REBOOT(the 1990s cg animated series), it is easy to see how much of a grandiose missed opportunity it was. To further take matters into intelligence-insulting levels, the film makes little to no effort to fill us in on how the cultural/evolutionary changes in technology have affected groups and individuals within the respective computer and human worlds. As an update of a film that not only tanked due to it being a little too new and subterranean for mainstream audiences back in 1982, Legacy never really bothers beyond vague concepts, and mysticism to deliver what is essentially a biblical metaphor sans subtlety, or even appreciation for human ingenuity. It's satisfied with just saying dad needs to step away from his work, and spend some time with the kids. And with 200 million dollars, and all the effects budget one can hope for, that isn't saying much at all.

More often than not, the latter is what tends to happen. The contradictions often pile on, as nostalgia colors what the public often wants out of their 2000s entertainment. And while there is some mild value in seeing certain worlds, types, and characters brought back to our collective consciousness, there is often a lingering set of doubts one must suppress in order for them to work in any modern context. Being a bit of a Nolan Batman fan myself, I also happen to be part of this problem when in many ways a multi-billionaire playboy seems to make little sense doing what he does, taking on criminals one at a time as Ducard once quipped. But then again, the fact that the films acknowledge this absurdity is part of what helps this interpretation work for me. The counterbalance of this kind of acknowledgement can work in studied measure. But more often than not, this is something that can only connect in certain measures or timbre. Which is why some creations can only remain within a certain time framework. (This has come about several times between friends and I regarding Superman only making truest sense taking place in Depression-era Metropolis. Such a period piece has a lot of potential.)

As is the potential for running the world of Sailor Moon in contrast with the current not-so-ideal vision of Japan today complete with economic turmoil, disaster, declining birth rates, and a general lack of spark, it would be very interesting to see how the characters would function in such a seemingly difficult environment. Especially where feminine roles have begun to shift, despite a seething amount of almost desperate (I take it back, it IS desperate) masculine backlash in popular art such as manga and anime. I suppose it is this contradiction that fascinates me about this idea. Not sure if it would be great, but it would most certainly be interesting to see it play out.

Personally, I enjoy the idea of entertaining previous ideals under pressure due to social and philosophical changes. It in many ways brings what we are becoming into focus, and perhaps even offers hints of where we can go from here. Mere longing for the past has never been a strong suit of mine, and when story can  
help visualize the folly and potential of our current selves, rather than merely admiring passively.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Revelations In Mono

As recently mentioned via Twitter, the discovery that one of the great fields of cinematic revelation in my lifetime, the Indio Twin Drive-In, was once owned by early B-movie producer,  Robert Lippert. This rang fascinating to me as this little piece of land on the outskirts of the near-desolate Coachella Valley was something of a wellspring of not only great mainstream movie memories, but also of works of imagination that couldn't be seen anywhere else. The weekend ritual of taking up the family's 1978 Chevy Luv, and lying in the back (as per the days when children flying out of the back of a pickup were sadly under the cultural and legal radar), as we hauled into the Drive-in for a double feature.

This was where I was exposed to not only second runs of recent blockbuster titles, but also of the occasional lesser known, often B-grade works that either later disappeared into obscurity, or eventually became darlings of the VHS era. Many times, I would catch a film that I had previously seen in a theater weeks before, linked up with something that could likely become a future guilty pleasure.

Earliest memories include being taken to see The Exorcist (Yeah, yeah..A balanced childhood.), only to be even more deeply scarred by the US trailer for Dario Argento's masterful ode to Disney, Suspiria. Or how about the brief period when screen one would carry family fare like Superman The Movie, while screen two just behind us was playing raunchy mexican porn? Perhaps these admissons explain a lot. Or perhaps this merely indicates to some just how liberated the concept of the Drive-in, along with the old movie houses of the past, operated. It was a much more "anything goes" environment, puncuated by monoaural sound that came through either the antiquated squawky speakers, or the later "upgrades" to radio signal that could either play through a stereo we brought into the theater, or a cheap rental from the Snack Bar. Other memories that may have contributed to the madness include the super-bloody martial arts movie poster that adorned the inside of the Snack Bar as you waited for your popcorn butter.

It was the place where I learned names like Roger Corman, Wes Craven, and even Jackie Chan. It was where we'd catch the latest offering of genre weird, and awards candidates were out of the question. And because of the lack of instantaneous information, one had to commit what they could to memory regarding those who made these shows possible, which was often helped by the choices often being so unique. About the blandest pairing I can remember was Muppets Take Manhattan, with Annie. As much as I'd like to pretend that I was always the dutiful son, there were indeed times when a parent would put their foot down as to what we were allowed to see, but it isn't as if both screens were always showing kid-friendly material. And since the drive-in eventually had a new kids playground installed in between screens, it was easy to sneak off to watch whatever nastiness was on the other side. (Saw Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator for the first time this way.) But that kind of sneakiness wasn't as often when other family members came along. If the majority ruled, there was still leeway for some horror. Key memories included catching much of the Friday The 13th, and Elm Street series this way.

Granted, the further along things went, and as VHS made its advance into the mainstream, we saw less and less cheapie fare, and more multiplex-safe films as that swiftly became institution. But it was quite interesting to live through those days to see the transition happen in real time. And naturally, there is a deep amount of sadness that goes with it. And again, this may seem to run counter to statements I have often made regarding nostalgia for its own sake. But the notion that a physical space could become a location where people could discover the unusual without merely looking at a video case, or even an online image to click for a stream, is a potent one. The idea that whatever people were doing at the Drive-in, regardless of the movies screening, there was an almost communal spirit that was encompassing, and in many ways emblematic of the movie experience of days gone by.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Live Action Manga Blues: Peacock King (aka Kujaku Ou 1988)

Leave it to my good ol' roomie and erstwhile partner to lead me into partaking of this HK live-action manga romp from the late 1980s that I had completely missed out on during that oh-so volatile era. Based on the supernatural horror-action manga, Kujako Ou by Makoto Ogino, Peacock King (aka Spirit Warrior) tells the tale of a young Buddhist priest/exorcist taking on runaway demons, and inevitably evil factions with an array of extraordinary methods. In Lam Ngai Kai's(infamous as the man behind the legendary Riki-Oh feature!) first of two films, the production decided to make this a dual-affair by offering us the all-too familiar compromise of two traveling monks, unknowingly separated at birth (one from Japan, the other from Taiwan) on a mission to stop the long-feared resurrection of the King Of Hell by way of a chosen mortal in the form of a seemingly innocent young girl (played by a very young Gloria Yip in her feature debut). Playing the now two Kujaku Ou, are 80s kung-fu regular, Yuen Biao, and Hiroshi Mikami (later of Swallowtail Butterfly) (Mikami being the disciplined, straight-arrow, while Biao lays on the 80s-era unconventional jerk quite thickly) who meet for the first time while their investigation of a number of disturbances in Tokyo lead them to a troubled museum exhibit. It is here that the duo, with the help of one of the haunted exhibit's head staffers, Pauline Wong, several soon-to-be-very unlucky reporters, and throngs of running & screaming cityfolk are forced to take the fight across the ocean, as another order, partially led by an almost machinelike Gordon Liu conspire to stop our heroes from preventing the aforementioned evil force from attaining full reign of the planet by way of manipulating Ashura, a girl cursed with the means to open a rift between two worlds.

Now I would be remiss if I didn't mention that it has been years since I had even heard of Ogino's manga, let alone the two made-for-video anime series(one of which was directed by that maestro of missles, Ichiro Itano). So in many ways, this film had been completely off my radar. Leave it to a recent revival of the gory schlock favorite Riki-Oh, and Kiyo's mention of Gloria Yip that made this possible. And for all the expecting this to be as equally ludicrous (Read: goofy-with excessive amounts of blood and viscera), I often found Peacock King to be an occasionally competent, and even passable genre adaptation exercise. In a time when the moniker often left viewers with either disappointment, or severe cases of head scratching, the film does what HK cinema at the time can do to bring the initially Japan-centric comic world to life. Written by Izo Hashimoto (co-writer of AKIRA), the story is unusually more comprehensible than usual, not to mention unexpectedly humorous in places that aren't off-putting, or ill-cut. While we never really get a clear vision of the villains and their end-game, it all very much plays right out of a standard Hollywood spectacle playbook circa 1995. Not incredibly substantial, but fluid enough to have a grasp of. This is only made all the more interesting when the wacky finale came rushing back to memories of seeing clips of it on a cable show focusing on HK cinema at least 20 years ago.

For an effects-laden HK film in this era, one can argue that a lot of what is displayed in this film is pretty shoddy, even for films made in this time. Strangely, for all the stop-motion animation, foam-latex, and colorful composite work, the final product feels no less DIY than many of the latter films of Shinji Higuchi, and Keita Amemiya who did their part here. On a functional level, there is a lot of pluck in the effects proceedings that even rocket past the live-action Wicked City made in HK only a few years later. Just a nice reminder of the level of craftsmanship that was brewing in the early days of the Heisei Godzilla era. Many sequences definitely harken to how 90s effects films were going to color asian cinema in those pre-rampant CG days.


And for those expecting a good amount of Yuen Biao martial arts alongside the colorful ghostbusting, the idea that there is only one sequence in this film to satiate this requirement may come off as a letdown to some. But as singular and brief as it is, it is a fun scene that pits Biao, Liu and his small army in a fun nod to the many films Biao often played second-fiddle, be it with Jackie Chan, or Sammo Hung. It is by no means iconic, but definitely exciting in the best HK heyday tradition of things looking near humanly-impossible and painful.

As for the performances, this is clearly a late-80s HK affair, so the acting can be a bit on the overt and ridiculous side. But there are a few disarming moments where the leads are meant to cover expository beats with a little more direction than is typical. Which is by no means an admission that the acting is in any way this work's selling point. Being a big Japan-HK co-production, there are a lot of attempts to make this a more international showpiece. Definitely something that Biao was looking at when considering this project. Having been co-star to some of martial arts cinema's biggest names, this likely felt like a dream come true. While history may have declared otherwise, Peacock King is affable Saturday-matinee material, with an unexpected amount of focus in a time when names like Tsui Hark were ready to make their mark by redefining spectacle by way of anything goes action, at the expense of logic, let alone fragments of common sense.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labors For Labor Day

Mildly recuperating from what was strangely one of the more exhausting lazy holiday weekends I have yet to have in quite a while. And it was all in the name of either catching up with old friends, updating wardrobe, or even podcasting. Even had a chance to check out a slightly obscure live-action manga production from the latter 80s while I was at it(which I will definitely have some words to share about it in a near-future post). Having not remembered that this film even existed left it pretty open for me as I hadn't seen the original property in anime form since the latter 1990s. Possibly even considering a future podcast dedicated to some chat regarding it.

Was even able to catch early episodes of the 2007 skin & blood-centric Rin: Daughters Of Memnosyne, and was pleasantly distracted. Was a nice reminder of an era not so long ago when sleazy did in fact have a place in anime without leaving a dirty, unpleasant feeling. Or perhaps I've only started watching the show, and have yet to reach the most challenging/questionable section(s). And while there was some time to put in regarding projects, it only felt more appropo to take the time to stretch, wish the best to all celebrating birthdays this month (next to August, this is easily the most birthdays of people I know taking place within a few weeks - My best to all!), and to prepare my current living situation for great change in the coming months.

For now, as the summer movie season comes to a quiet close, as well as the current anime season, it seems time to do a little extra digging for material perfect to discuss on these pages. With the previous peek at Mikadroid last time, it seems only right that I continue to seek out some lesser known names and concepts in the name of Island Exploration. Top of the Pops might be great for "geek-centric blog no.1", but as for The Kaijyu, it seems time to break out the kit amp; microscope, and find out what kind of amazing we can dig up!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Trashback: Mikadroid - Robokill Beneath Club Layla

                                                   Jigoku Natsukashii

As I promised myself that the coming months would see some more adventurous choices in my reviews, even if they were short, in comes this long-overlooked piece of V-cinema schlock from a personally hallowed period of Japanese film, the late 80s-early 90s. Around this period of time, many of the mom and pop video stores would stock up on seemingly random batches of often clunky, cheaply produced, ultra-weird films from the far east. And just as certain anime from the height of the OVA era were making their way to our shores, there were many a film brought here, offering a glimpse into what would become the last glimmering lights of Japan's Bubble Era, featuring many now considered passe tropes of visual media of this time period. From the neon skylit nights in Tokyo, to the visage of young would-be professionals hitting on perm-hair-wearing cuties in discos with no-less business cards, supposed credentials, all signaling to some promise of a night in some hot car(likely nowhere near as cool as they claim it to be), ready to speed off into the night. All the while, synthesizers played along in the background, as digitally sampled taiko drums took us lumbering from one improbable situation to the next. What many of these films lacked in budget, they often made up for in goofy charm, and inventive practical effects.

While definitely little more than a footnote in this time capsule,the Toho Studios produced MIKADROID: Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla is emblematic of all that was both charming, and often annoying about the V-cinema world. Which isn't to say that it doesn't start off with a modicum of charm.

Right out the gate, we are shown how the Japanese military machine had enlisted scientists to help create a new breed of mechanized soldier to improve the position in the Pacific end of WWII, only to scrap the project later. The head scientist's work set to be eliminated, he is shot by a commanding officer, and in his last moments frees two of his remaining human-cyborg volunteers, who promptly escape termination. And with his last breath, the scientist unleashes the third soldier, the only one who had undergone complete conversion, who kills the commanding officer and walks off into the underground, never to be seen again. Jump forward to 1990, Tokyo, where several strangers are about to converge on seedy discotech, Layla, where the two enhanced soldiers will reunite with their heavily armored, and armed buddy are to have their final clash. All this as a young electrician, and usually cool as ice businesswoman, Saeko are caught in the bloody crossfire, all the while trapped within the underground sections of the building that houses the disco.

                        Oh don't worry. You'll only see this expression every five minutes.

So yes, this is essentially a no-budget exploitation piece wearing The Terminator suit and tie. But it isn't without it's surprises. The names that pop up as part of this production are so surprising, and yet a reminder of so many other names that became legend a while after this period. Among the staff include director Tomoo Haraguchi who recently gave us Death Kappa, former Gainax staffer/ Gamera effects master, Shinji Higuchi in his first real gig, as well as Detective Conan's Junichi Miyashita (with help from Masami Hara of Getter Robo fame) who wrote this film, not to mention an early score by the ever recognizable Kenji Kawai. Also worth noting, is the cameo appearance of a young Kiyoshi Kurosawa!

So when reviewing this film, it perhaps pays to look at it as something of a boilerhouse project, a means to taste test certain ideas long before any major work could come through. With moments like when a skateboarder is machine-gunned, only to be discovered still standing in mid-roll riddled with bulletholes Mikadroid wears its V-Cinema loudly on its sleeve. There is even an inexplicable moment of nudity that almost asks to be taken in an artistic dance context, which feels wildly out of place until one realizes that much of the film's bizarre pacing owes more to live theater than to more aggressively paced Hollywood films. But despite this, the entire package feels less like a film, and more like a dry run. Having done a little homework on the film, it seems that the sci-fi angle was chosen out of necessity, being that the notorious Tsutomu Miyazaki murder case had recently sent shockwaves throughout Japan, putting horror films and manga under harsh scrutiny. Which is sad since when one thinks about it, sci-fi films almost inevitably come out with larger price tags than horror, which is likely what led to the film's choices. And while it isn't all bad. There is certainly a lot more potential fun that could have been mined from the concept.

As it stands, Mikadroid is little more than a fun time drifter, with some interesting practical designs (the unused supertank seen in the background of the finale left me hoping for something like a GUNHED battle, but such as dreams...), and some amusingly off performances. (Yoriko Doguchi's cool-on-the-surface Saeko becomes nothing less than your typical whimpering hysteric, punctuated by excessive blank stares by the end) On a metaphorical level, this film could seriously have been more impressive. The concept of the ghosts of the past haunting the present in this manner seems rife with potential. But it merely settles with the mere idea alone, which is a bit of a disappointment. There also seems to be an attempt at embedding a sexual undercurrent, but it never has a chance to be more than incongruous flourish.

                                        A little late-night hardball never hurt anyone.

One film that could definitely benefit from playing it up. That said, is it wrong of me to still like silly perm hairdos?