Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Anime?


The question has been bouncing around again lately, and largely due to a sudden influx of new people in my life who have yet to fully understand why a 37 year old guy like me continues to seek out new and hopefully entertaining wrinkles to the medium. And it is still interesting how often I get comments and remarks about feeling either on the periphery of actually giving it a try, but feeling overwhelmed as to where to start, or were completely unaware that certain shows they loved as kids were even Japanese. And to this day, that second one remains especially so in that even during my childhood, watching Star Blazers and Battle Of The Planets(Gatchaman), it was pretty clear that these were shows that came from a very different culture and spirit. And as such, it seemed to clearly predict the kind of person I would grow up to become. Never fully satisfied by what the majority of kids around me clamored for (stuff which I admit was pretty cool considering the pop culture period I was growing into), the very notion that it always had to be that something else, that alien element, that neglected animal that would satiate my media consumption needs.

How easily so many forget how much Japanese media material was bring brought stateside by way of a number of small companies with an eye toward sharing foreign kids fare with Americans. Would I have still become the same Japanophile had it not been for folks like Sandy Frank? Or how about Carl Macek? Heck, even further than that with the folks at American International Television? Jack And The Beanstalk, as well as KTLA's playing of Yamato were early infections, ready and eager to serve as portent to what would eventually consume a decent portion of my world, as well as world view. So when more nostalgia-bait shows like Voltron(Golion) came about, I also made it something of a point to make sure I was watching dubbed and edited Mazinger-Z around the same time. And even though many my age were ravenous for Transformers, it was Robotech (specifically Macross) that made clear strides toward crystallizing my interest. And by and large, it was because of how much Macek intended to retain as much of the original version's flavor intact. Not that there was much of a way to completely localize the series, but there is so much of a regional feel to the series that its world and characters felt immensely more absorbing to me than most shows airing after school. And it was in these early packaged shows with such reverence for the source material that kept me curious. I wanted more, and sadly since no internet was available, all I could do was either wait, give up, or stalk adults with friends in the military.

It probably also didn't hurt that by age 9, I was already well versed in seeking out names involved in making the things I enjoyed. So by this time, I was already familiar with the Spielbergs, Lucases, and Carpenters of the world. Point is that the origin of a certain work was every bit as important as the work itself, which apparently continues to be the thing most people tend to regard. And with that, seeing names during end credits, as well as looking at all the clear-as-day signage in many of these shows, it was clear that I would eventually have to educate myself more and more in hopes of better appreciating shows such as these. So upon looking at the back ads in the latest Starlog magazine, it seemed that there was something of a culture of interest happening between english speakers, but the reach was still far too distant and expensive for a fifth grader to ever consider becoming an active participant.

But the real draw of this medium for me has always been akin to why I purchased a SEGA instead of a Nintendo, or listened to weird, noisy music as a late teen. Anime at it's rowdiest and most energetic, is when it reaches beyond the confines of budget to present a world bursting at the seams with energy. Vitality, even as cameras pan left with zero cels flipping. And ideas flowing at the cost of sheer logic. Not unlike the distortion-riddled, often electronic rock I was getting into, anime has had its reputation as something of a rebel art disguised as domestic product. Even through many of its most cliche motions, it has the potential to move hearts without sheen, or provoke without sentimentality. And more than this, it's a window into a culture that continues to confound me as well as fascinate. I at times can't get enough of how such an art form can shed light on contemporary feelings. Now one can argue that the days where this was most powerful are long gone as the early generations of the medium came out of the post war sturm and drang, while domesticity and recession may have dulled the medium's edge. But one can also posit that this prolonged sense of performance anxiety can only lead to something of a bursting point. We have recently seen some recent shows that again feature a grand need for creative and symbolic ways to illuminate contemporary problems and concerns. Even when they are clearly poised to be informercials to sell physical media, the possibility for them to transcend their "station" is still alive and well.

Or perhaps these are merely the squawks and bleeps of an indignant little punk. Hard to say. But this is my current story that works.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Video Girl Ai (1991) Movie Review

Upon discovering that the girl of his dreams is infatuated with his lifelong best friend, 16 year old Yota Moteuchi unexpectedly mourns her heartbreak upon the friend's open admission that he simply cannot return these feelings of hers. Witnessing something of a repeat of heartbreaks past, Moteuchi stumbles upon a magical video store, where he picks up a VHS tape containing what promises to be a "comfort girl" video featuring the cute and vibrant Ai Amano, ready to cheer him up. What at the offset seems to be a singularly sad moment in any young man's life, his VCR glitches, not only causing the genki starlet to appear out of his television, and into his life, but has altered a few things about her personality. Still cute & endlessly perky, she is also incredibly forceful, tomboyish, and quite inexperienced in regards to human life. Determined to help Yota with his unrequited emotions, the tale begins. The catch? Yota's malfunctioning VCR must remain on to keep Ai from vanishing, but tape is limited, and her days turning the young man's life into a carnival are seemingly finite.

Thus begins Ryu Kaneda's refreshingly earnest adaptation of Video Girl Ai, a long lost cinematic relic of the early 1990s which finally finds itself within the island of the Kaijyu, just in time for Valentine's Day 2012. Amazing how incredibly close it all hews to Masakazu Katsuura's original source material, which originally ran in Shonen Jump from 1989 through 1992, and was eventually a part of Animerica Magazine's english run several years later. It remains one of the formative manga works with a subsequent Original Video Animation series that became something of a staple in many an anime fan's collection of the time. And as a live action film, it achieves that rare state of being that in many ways meets the best tones of the original work without tipping itself into overt cartoonishness, or fan pandering. In fact, much of the film's strength simply lies in pure economic filmmaking, and in sheer timing of it's production which perfectly captures the latter days of a pastel colored Japan, and the possibilities still inherent within.

And in the hands of so many other filmmakers, this romantic comedy with a magical/supernatual edge could easily have been treated as some matter of throwaway, but with Kaneda and crew, it becomes an unexpected surprise in how it plays with the very idea of an adaptation, and takes matters in surprisingly charming ways. As Ai (played to the hilt by Kaori Sakagami) attempts to help Yota (Ken Osawa) any way she can, her very essence runs rampant against all that he has grown accustomed to in regards to life around females. Not one to scheme or play games, the once TV confined entity takes in life as a human as if making up for lost time. Taking in moments that stand out to her as benefits to Yota's character, and living life with gusto, she is the very essence that so many are missing even as money seems to be growing on trees around them. Even when discovering a pregnant passerby whilst eating shortcake, she can't seem to contain herself in her curious nature. In fact, Sakagami's performance is one for the books as being one of the most natural transitions from manga page to film I have ever seen.

And this becomes all the more important as one of the glitching VCR's "side effects" is that of strong emotions brewing within the character who has normally been designed to never get personal in any manner toward their tape renting charges. What could have so simply been completely obvious and hackneyed becomes disarmingly complex as Ai's struggles with these feelings lead her to a climax that would have made for a much braver OVA ending.

Also worth noting are Osawa's rendition of Moteuchi (often confused for "Motenai" IE - "dateless"), which is wide-eyed and amiable enough, and Hiromi Hamagichi's Moemi, the object of his initial affections. Both of whom function as something of a mirror for young people in a time period often hampered by image expectations. As such, they work quite well. Especially Osawa, who's Yota is a young man on the verge of finding his own defined place in the world, perhaps in need of that vital last push.

Yota's best friend, the Takashi (Naoki Hosaka) character remains the at times unreliable foil for Yota's wish to make Moemi's wish come true. An infinitely more popular guy, and something of a "school idol" type, Takashi comes off as something of a half-hearted womanizer with just enough hope for his friend to come out of a self-imposed shell of shyness with girls. In fact, this time around it is he who is running away from his true feelings, which in effect throws everyone else's choices into disarray. Kaneda decides to give a character that at times seemed far too aloof in the original comic, a little more of a soul. A choice that in many ways clears up even a few issues I initially had with the manga.

While VGA contains many of the elements of what could be considered an atypical "magical girlfriend" story, what always made it stand out, aside from the exquisite artwork, was in how it at times painfully captures the spirit of the latter economic Bubble period of Japan. And this extends well beyond the obvious trappings, fashions, and music. Moteuchi is something of a prototypical late Showa product in that he finds himself largely incapable of making decisions outside of what media tells him. The film makes decent work of emphasizing this consumer-centric lifestyle by making it clear that Ai is something of an alien entity, but moreso because she is far more spontaneous & unassuming than Yota is normally comfortable with. With Moemi, who more represents another person clearly set within a locked cultural mindset regarding who she feels she must date. Both seem programmed to look at love and relationships without actually fully comprehending what it means. True to not only mores of the era, but of being young in general. The film maintains a great deal of this with surprising sensitivity, and economy for a manga adaptation. (something that rarely if ever happens)

It is perhaps within the wholly original to the film third act that it in many ways finds new ways with which to tinker with the original story, to mostly satisfying results. Entirely free from having to merely play the fantasy-ending card, it instead opts for taking Yota into perhaps more realistic territory. It's in this grounded mindset that the whole feels so much more free to explore theme rather than merely play matters out for pure escapism. The romantic fireworks are clearly there, but it is unexpectedly understated, and more exemplified within the performances of the core leads. It's a wildly rare thing indeed to see a manga come to life, far more ready to play it straight. And for this, it wins massive points.

Finding ways through the clouds of expectation & discovering the value of selflessness continues to be the electric current flowing throughout the fabric of Video Girl Ai, and it does so in a near effortless fashion. While in no manner a perfect piece of work, it is a truly sweet love letter to self-liberation in an era of plastic dreams.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sayonara Jupiter (1984) Movie Review

In a far flung space faring future (2140 AD), humanity has expanded beyond the confines of Earth, and is at a crossroads in regards to energy consumption as colonies continue to expand throughout the Sol system. A confident and able consortium spanning all known nations has been planning and ready to execute a daring and controversial plan to create a second sun out of hulking planet Jupiter. Led by chief scientist, Eiji Honda (Tomokazu Miura), the massive JS Project is about to run across a galaxy of challenges. Including intervention by anti-space radicals led by a charismatic folk singer on Earth, (among their ranks an old flame of Honda’s) a sudden appearance of a black hole preparing to consume the system, Earth included. And even there are the eerie clues to an ancient alien civilization, as well as evidence of a craft somewhere deep within the storms of the system’s largest world. And then there’s the shark…seriously. 

If at least half of this description sounds familiar, don’t be afraid. Koji Hashimoto’s sprawling space epic for the then struggling TOHO studios remains Arthur C. Clarke & George Lucas by way some serious pipe fodder, and some of Japan’s most ambitious film craftspeople . And by that measure, the film can easily be seen as an important moment in the nation’s science fiction/tokusatsu identity, if not in anything resembling halfway sane storytelling. It is on one level, a truly remarkable piece of international genre filmmaking synergy featuring some of the most diverse casting ever assembled for a Japanese film; with many actors even speaking their lines to one another in diverging languages including English, French, & German. And the effects work comprised mostly of optical and model work, are amongst the most singular in the industry’s history. The influence of western film permeates virtually every frame of it, and also carries with it the kind of high ambition it’s home culture was beginning to exhibit writ large during the early 1980s. In fact, it’s hard to imagine another film that embodies the “go-go Japan” feeling more than Sayonara Jupiter, as its lead character in Miura assuredly maintains his faith in humanity’s need to shepherd nature into a path for a better tomorrow for a more needy humanity to regardless of those resistant to any grand change at the hands of scientists.

And even after all this talk of what makes the film such a treat, historically..One must also make clear that Sayonara Jupiter also has the distinction of being often hilariously silly, and borderline frustrating. As much craft and resourcefulness is on display, it cannot override the tonal rollercoaster the film is. Likely borne out of this unerring need to compete, the story careens from one plot to the next, often with little rhyme or reason, sometimes even stopping completely for any number of absurd stops that remain just mind boggling. Examples include an early scene when Honda’s american compatriot Kinne (Irwin Ron, who looks a lot like a bearded Matthew Lillard) kills time before a mission by settling down and watching Gojira and King Ghidorah duke it out. (Hey, look! Even gaijin love Gojira!) This is only made all the more bizarre, when somewhere else on the main JS ship, anti-space protesters disguised as tourist types reveal themselves to incite a riot (which is then intercut with shots of an angry king kaiju!!?). No sooner does this strange turn in the film happen, that Honda is reunited with Maria (Diane Dangley) which almost immediately leads to a truly one of a kind zero gravity lovemaking/flight/plead & argument session. I wish I were making this up.

And without delving too much further into the film’s story; as the film is in many ways more a showcase for effects, and a hopeful future vision rather than anything else, one must also make mention of a scene where after having had to send the offending protesters off the ship, and sabotage is blamed for the death of a major crewmember, Honda decides to visit the beachside paradise home of singer, Peter (Paul Tagawa) and his followers in hopes of pleading for the end of any further violent actions upon the JS project. It perhaps might be best to know that Peter’s beliefs regarding man’s earthbound destiny is also represented in a dolphin mascot…also named, Jupiter. In a moment that practically defines to all cinema the real meaning of hamfisted, Honda is forced into making science’s point when a shark attacks Jupiter. His need to not only kill the rubbery predator, but to fail in saving the life of the sea mammal does everything to stop the film dead in its tracks, if only to make a point that much of the counterculture takes so little into account. As the earth, and several worlds are in deep peril, it is man’s ability to rise to the occasion despite the odds that defines it. The big problem comes when one remembers, we are in a SPACE MOVIE. As well-intended as this whole scene is, it truly feels copped from a completely different film. In fact, most to all of the Peter-cult material seems horrendously out of place, which threatens to hurt everything else. And yet, even then, more oddness remains in the waiting, including laser-toting terrorists, a gargantuan spacecraft that looks Zentraedi and sounds like humpback whales, and a last ditch effort complete with self-sacrifice and painfully awkward finale for measure.

Initial stories inform that the original impetus for the film was when Tomoyuki Tanaka saw the original Star Wars in 1977, and wanted his own rendition made. And through the eyes of Hashimoto, and writer , Sakyo Komatsu, we are host to a film that just wants to be virtually every space opera made over the 20 years leading to it. The visual echoes of Kubrick are solid in places, particularly in the opening moments which are filled with detailed and drawn out shots of impressive spacecraft, as well as interiors. Only in a high-ideal film such as this can we get an early shot of a young seemingly american stewardess in a kimono answering passenger questions in a transport, taking place upside down. American pilots reaching destination only to partake of McDonald’s in zero grav. There is even a pint-sized genius in boy scientist Carlos Angeles (Marc Panthona) who is Honda’s right hand in the dangerous JS Project. 

The film’s influence can also be widely felt within the worlds of Japanese anime. (Macross fans take note, much of the score is by Shintaro Haneda who was working on this film around the time of the legendary Do You Remember Love? Feature- which is why a few tracks contain similar to exact moments) And with names like Tokyo-3, as well as a large-scale evacuation of Earth due to an oncoming calamity, it’s no small thing to believe that this made an impact regardless of story. It remains a beloved film, and on a production level, it is understandable.

With an unprecedented cast of internationals (many of whom were clearly not actors by trade), and an openness to leaving some languages intact, while others are dubbed over, Sayonara Jupiter is the kind of genre film that could only have come from the early 1980s. And much like a 1970s disaster movie, it simply attempts to be too much of everything to everyone, which makes for a truly surreal viewing experience. And perhaps in this “cranked to 13” sense, the film can also be seen as something of a one-of-a-kind camp classic. And for this, it truly wins some outstanding prizes. There is a lot of noteorthy history within the world of Sayonara Jupiter, just don’t expect hard, dramatic science fiction to be among the highlights.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sukeban Deka (1987) Movie Review

Transition has been in the air for former yo-yo cop/ seifuku-clad avenger, Saki Asamiya, but the implications of this bear a far greater challenge than she ever could have imagined. A would-be dictator, and his army of followers have taken control of a remote private school, and plot greater threats for the future of Japan (and possibly the world). More than done with it, Saki has little choice but to join up with several generations of her former detective life(including the sister of one of the students held prisoner) to infiltrate the prison school, rescue the hostage students, and save tomorrow! And if the preceding paragraph sounds like a recipe for fun, I wouldn't harbor any blame. The first full-length feature of Shinji Wada's Delinquent Girl Detective saga has been a review long in the putting off, and now in a time of mutual transition, it's time to put this wild child out into the ether.

I suppose the best way to preface the remainder of this review is to summon up a little history regarding the SD franchise, and its enduring cult appeal. First appearing via Hakusensha's Hana To Yume, Sukeban Deka's unique brand of often brutal action amidst the confines of a high school drama universe has long been a part of popular manga lore. The tale weaved shares the revelation that Wada, under pressure to concoct a new series received two conflicting suggestions (one being a hard-hitting detective tale, all the while he was developing a high school story), the mangaka took a hard left and combined both. The concept of a lone schoolgirl being picked to become a brutal crime-fighting machine for a secret government agency seems almost atypical for the era. But it was this completely bizarre concept decision that gave way to what became  SD's signature; Saki Asamiya's designated weapon in her war against the terrors of school life? A yo-yo.

Add this to a neverending gallery of bullies, freaks, terrorist organizations, and even cultists, and you have one of the most lovably absurd allegories for adolescence imaginable. So when SD ended its run after twenty-two volumes, things went silent until a popular live action TV series resurrected Saki Asamiya, pals and rivals for a solid run between 1985 and 1987 to the amazing number of 108 episodes. One of the biggest secrets to its success lied in the reveal that the Asamiya moniker was something of a "Bondian" code name for those co-opted for this role which initially went to exceptionally skilled/dangerous "delinquent girls", who also assumed the same close-combat weapon. Series one featured Yuki Saito in the title role which was a significant success in also launching a popular idol singer career for her. Then came the more friendly-faced Yoko Minamino, who's run in the lead granted her an expanded idol popularity which eventually led to this first feature film which in many ways functions as a bridge between second and third generation (series) of Sakis(The third being the smaller, more inexperienced yet plucky Yui Kazama played by Yui Asaka). And as a transitional tale, Sukeban Deka is as hilariously over the top as one can expect from the franchise.

The film immediately informs us that Sukeban Deka No. 2 (Minamino) has long earned her wish of returning to normal life, and is now a civilian prepping for college entrance exams, which is of course thwarted by a disturbing run-in with what looks to be a fugitive boy on the run from a group of elder shadies (why their abduction vehicle of choice is a public transit bus remains a mystery). It turns out that the young man, Saki has stumbled upon and is briefly captured with is a student of Sankou Gakuen, a secluded oceanside private school predominantly aimed at trouble students. Being isolated from the rest of Japan, the fortified campus is now apparently under the auspices of a dangerous megalomaniac with fascisistic tendencies, running the school with a militaristic iron fist. With students tortured, injured, and even killed, even Saki's old superiors at the shadow police agency she once worked for cannot intervene due to treacherous names amongst the higher ranks. Even when it is discovered that the brutal headmaster is in fact a once thought to be dead would-be revolutionary, their hands are tied, which only forces Saki to undertake a dangerous operation outside of any legal channels.

And almost immediately, the film remains true to the television series in how it balances some pretty fascinating and goofy extremes to entertaining effect. Having the usually black seifuku wearing Saki with hair ribbon and pink sweater as she is not only tortured with a ridiculous barrage of electric shocks, but also kicking holy arse is pretty hilarious in itself. Even as Saki amasses old friends including the ever reliable Biidama O-Kyo (played by fellow idol singer and fan favorite, Haruko Sagara), Yukino Yajima (Akie Yoshizawa) and newcomers Megumi Kato(Ayako Kobayashi) & Sukeban Deka 3, Yui Kazama (who's entrance makes for one of the film's most hilarious decisions- making her a successor to anything more than a doorstop. Her cries for her enemies to fight fair & square as they pummel the girls in a quarry with heavy machine gun fire undoubtedly wins the chuckle prize) the stakes in their mission are raised upon arriving at the school, only to discover that the cold mania that is headmaster Hattori, is complimented by...You guessed it. A MACHINE BODY complete with metal arrow launchers built into his arms.

But Saki is not as outmatched as one might expect as she is given one last gift by her concerned caretaker, Nishiwaki (Keizo Kanie); a triple weighted version of her already heavy yo-yo, complete with shoulder harness designed to theoretically cushion the recoil of her crushing blows to enemies. Concept notwithstanding, it does create tension as it becomes quickly evident that every time she uses it, it runs the risk of irreparable damage to her! And the fact that she and friends not only face a metal and stone stronghold, but an army of seemingly brawler-style video game army of drones at Hattori's disposal, makes for one incredibly tired and beaten looking heroine by the finale.

Other laughably funny elements include; often inappropriate music editing which largely consists of Ichiro Nitta's bombastic cues from the original series, the aforementioned bus action scene (exact change), the choice "landing" moment where the delinquent girl squad infiltrates the school, somehow revealing perfecly tailored and cared for seifuku complete with skirts underneath their waterproof suits (which were bright silver & pink complete with PANTS by the way). Another extremely funny moment is what seems to be a mission briefing happening as characters sample some of Saki's rice cooking skills! In the truest hyperbolic sense, the film wavers recklessly between being aimed at younger audiences, or those looking for a specific tone of action adventure trash. Again, the film reminds me of what may have inspired Kenta Fukasaku's contributions years later. When people assume Battle Royale was something of a first, one might want to point them in this direction. Sometimes, it's only Japan that could deliver something so innocent, and yet so visceral and violent. It isn't terribly bloody, but safe this is not.

But a large part of what makes it work for me, is Minamino who ultimately plays matters as straight as possible, all the while such absurdity is happening via her or the villains. The extremes are often so taut at both ends, and knowingly so, it becomes more endearing than exasperating. Being a product of the idol salad days of the 1980s, the film walks the thin line between cuteness and brutality the likes no other culture can manage. Sukeban Deka for all it's extreme thuggery and violence, is a tokusatsu action series at heart, so asking for a film like this to make sense is merely an invitation to insanity.