Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The State Of The Kaijyu: Vengeance Of The Baytaku?

There are only so many excuses.

But I will go ahead and lament that while the holidays are near, and events at home have created an aura where it is perfectly fine to lay strewn across the bedroom floor in a daze. Even then, there has been much internal activity. It is merely the typing hands, and perhaps even a little misdirected drive that has been keeping me from updating as much as I should. And not merely here, but everywhere else. Which isn't to say that I haven't been paying attention to buzzings here and there. Especially in a November where a new Rebuild Of Evangelion has just graced Japanese screens to massive profits, and possibly even more massive bouts of WTF.

And why? Since I am likely months to years from actually getting the chance to see it, the Twitter/blog talk has declared the film most popularly titled Q, as something of a fan service free-for-all with little to no real grapple on sense, let alone the original continuity which the previous installment so spectacularly jettisoned. It's apparently unrepentant in how chaotic, and pander-heavy it is (even going so far as to aging several major characters, and resurrecting others). Many even went so far as to compare the 2 hour service-fest as something akin to a Michael Bay event film...Stop. Right. There.


Now. I didn't expect to get into this on these pages, let alone anywhere else like Anime Diet, but there has been something of a niggling little piece of rant-fuel that has been plaguing my mind on and off for several years. And I suppose it was more than time to go ahead and just express my concerns somewhere for posterity, so that perhaps one day I could look back at this one day and better have a grasp on matters.

Now Japan has long been famous/infamous for gravitating toward some of the more unusual ephemera emanating from the west. A long held myth along these lines (for older anime fans at least) is the one contending that Walter Hill's ill-fated rock n' roll fable, Streets Of Fire inspired many a popular series and feature. (perhaps most famously, the OVA classic, Megazone 23) Check out a decent amount of shows from 1984-on, and it's pretty hard to dispute as motorcycle toughs, 1950s fashion and iconography, and even poster parodies are to be found with a minimum of effort. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and the like have also see plenty of reverence in anime between the 1970s and early 1980s, and to be fair, anime can always be seen as a frugal alternative to live action filmmaking for the studios, and the leaps and bounds made by many a western pioneer can easily be considered an inspiration to animators of the day.

So when the decades pass, and technology and society changes in vast and unpredictable ways, it's still surprising to see that of all the internationally popular filmmakers/storytellers that could leave a deeply ingrained impression, one wonders what has happened when the ever-grating Michael Bay has become one of the most important global figures for the Japanese. A part of me has been listing these references over the last several years, and apparently this Eva thing just pushed me back into that corner once too many times.

A few that come to mind..


2007's anime TV series. Lucky Star.

It's a subtle, yet effective little gag taking place in Episode 12, where our main characters are preparing for a day's doujinshi shopping during the sprawling Comiket. Veteran otaku, Konata lays out well worn plans for where to shop and when, which includes instructions that very resemble battle plans. (even ending with her handing wallets and bottled tea as "ammunition") The tense, almost somber military music that plays in the background is very reminiscent of many Hans Zimmer/Trevor Rabin scores for Bay's films. Merely one small gag in a series famous for pop culture references.

2010's live action Uchu Senkan Yamato.

Right from the trailers, this Takeshi Yamazaki blockbuster touted multiple attempts to pay homage to the Bay by mimicking his almost fetishistic slow-motion montages of crew members, and pilots preparing for battle as inspiring music plays. The film even goes so far as getting Aerosmith's Steven Tyler to sing the major single for the film, "Love Lives". A song that almost completely clones his stylings for the Aerosmith ballad, "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing", which graced Bay's asteroid epic, ARMAGEDDON.

 Apparently, Armageddon remains a large favorite in the east as it is the one film that receives the most nods. And on a scale level, one could understand as it is perhaps one of his more "cohesive", universal works. But the love for it is far beyond so many other iconic filmmakers, one has to wonder what else has been influenced by this man that I've yet to witness.

Here's a bonus...

                           Yes. Even a great film like Fish Story makes a grand nod.

Just something I have been noticing on and off for several years. Pretty sure, I'm forgetting many other instances. And understanding that Japan has largely been hankering for "pure escapism" for some time now, I guess it's not too far fetched. How about you? It doesn't have to be a Bay film. Prove that it isn't merely the Baymonster getting all this attention. Should there be others, please let me know. I'd love to hear of others getting mentions. Just the thought that it has too infected the minds behind one of anime's more independent evergreens just renders me kind of sad.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fish Story (2009) Movie Review

It is hours before a wayward comet barreling toward earth is to eradicate all life, as a sole figure rolls into a puzzlingly open record shop. Within the walls of the naturally quiet establishment, a pair of young men; one being the proprietor, the other a loyal customer, listen to some tunes, musing about the possibilities of salvation. This only vexes the defeated elder gentleman, set in his feeling that humanity is doomed. It is only within an old recording from a lost punk outfit that predated the Sex Pistols, that the fates of all just might hang in the balance. And such a strange setting is merely the beginning of an unexpected journey through the lives of several  seemingly random, yet inextricably bound souls in Yoshihiro Nakamura's  thoughtful fantasy based on Tamio Hayashi's novel. Very much in the vein of "hyperlink" films ala BABEL, or Crash, and even the most recent, Cloud Atlas, the film explores the threads that link a piece of creative work has toward possibly changing the course of history through a series of semi-vignettes, seemingly unrelated toward one another, yet somehow finding some manner of connective tissue.

Jumping back and forth through time with characters that on the surface, seem so distinctly different from one another(and often displaying varying tones), while is in no way is the piece as serious as the previously mentioned examples, but it is an unexpectedly rewarding paean to inspiration, complete with just a smidge of sly satire.

Without going into far too much detail as to avoid spoiling, the film covers several decades leading up to the central dilemma, as hope becomes a bit of a ping-pong ball, with the young, ready to embrace the possibilities, and the elders, ready to accept their fate with clenched fists. So as the stories begin with one in 1982, and a trio of young men listen to "paranormal recordings" before heading out for a night on the town, we are re-introduced to the track, "Fish Story", which was what we heard in the music store. A song by long-forgotten rockers, Gekirin. And in is within the rebellious sounds (and bizarre middle-section) of the song, that fate plays a heavy hand in the events of this initial tale. It is from here that we leap forward to 1999, where a doomsday cult sees themselves having better days. With the end of the world "postponed" for a later date, pieces begin moving that may (or may not) affect future events.

So when the film takes a sudden left, toward what almost looks and feels like any other quirky J-drama setup (ordinary schoolgirl oversleeps on a cruise ship, only to meet a most unusual do-gooder moments before the boat is hijacked), it is with perhaps a little disappointment as the segment itself veers between levels of sweetness as if primed to almost completely derail what had come before. And yet somehow, Nakamura and company figure out a way to make even this teeth-rotting cul-de-sac vital despite its pacing and tonal weirdness.

And just when it all becomes borderline frustrating, what the film is barreling toward is something of a welcome sucker punch once the final major sequence enters the stage; a dramatically laid back 1975 sequence involving Gekirin, the band whose song permeates the piece. During a tumultuous time in their days as a band, torn between success and artistic, freedom, the sequence is a leisurely, thoughtful, and sometimes even touching compliment toward everything prior. Made all the more potent via performances by Nao Omori, Atsushi Ito, and others, this is a lovely centerpiece that is all so familiar, and yet sensitively executed. It's a segment that echoes more of a western independence streak that is rare for a mainstream Japanese film. And with this affectionately non-consumerist theme in its arsenal, the remainder of the comet tale makes for a last heartfelt push toward destiny. Which is where I'll stop talking about the story in general as this is a work that is far more potent in the feel rather than the reality.

With limited resources, and the diverse color of the cast, Nakamura more than makes up for certain deficiencies with pure heart. Fish Story is not only a charming & fanciful musing on the power of rock n' roll, but is also a clever tribute to those who try, despite the lack of traditional means. One person's bungled inspiration, might be another's battle cry. One person's act of kindness may just inspire greater things in the future. It's a celebration of the wistfully naive, and meant for those who love dreaming despite the odds. Whether we know it or not, we all have a part in the same song, and boy does the future seem in good hands.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph: Immigration, Eminent Domain & True Democracy

Kind of funny to consider that the last time I went on about a Disney-produced film taking on prescient socio-political issues by way of childhood playthings, it was at the hands of animation stalwarts, PIXAR whose films have continued to break box office records, conventions, and deliver on multiple fronts. And to add this to how 2012 has played itself out, it's also amusing to see these guys, and the more traditional Disney studios seemingly switch roles as Brave seemed more comfortable in continuing the ever changing Princess narrative. So in comes 's irresistibly charming Wreck-It Ralph, a film that not only makes a near-perfect play for this generation's Toy Story, but also carries within it, a bold set of statements regarding a changing, more aware American narrative. This couldn't be more clear from the opening scenes in which we learn of our title "bad guy", and the circumstances surrounding nearly thirty years of living in the shadow of video game hero, Fix-It Felix.

As the voice of John C. Reilly's Ralph, his hulking brute physique, and tendency toward violence toward the buildings within the game world he lives in is based on the limited programming of the era, but it wasn't without reason. The narration and flashbacks establish immediately that before Felix and the clean-cut, seemingly well-to-do citizenry of this world came about, Ralph was living on the land where this building now stands. Bullied off, and doomed to live in a literal dump, and understandably upset Ralph then took it upon himself to rebel, thereby wrecking this structure on a regular basis. And this ensuing battle between the estranged Ralph, and the ever persistent "fixing" of Felix, to the rejoicing of the diminutive citizenry continued on for decades, leading to an upcoming 30th anniversary of the game's existence. No small feat for a game largely surrounded by newer, flashier machines. ( A point which we'll get back to shortly)

So when the time comes, and Ralph wishes to be at the very least acknowledged for his role in the game's history, he is practically ignored at an anniversary party--even as Felix himself basks in the limelight, he too cannot help but hope Ralph remains in his "predestined" place. Cake metaphor goes even further to display his own tiny shred of hope that what he does serves a greater purpose. The game's mayor, and party attendees seem content in knowing that he live forever as an outsider, even as they neglect that without him, there is no game. So when Ralph takes it upon himself to break protocol, and escape the confines of his machine in hopes of seeking another way of attaining adulation and respect amongst the elite,  it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to begin putting the pieces together as his first attempt toward his goal, is to enter a hyper-violent first person shooter in the hopes of winning a medal. Proof that he himself is capable of respect in his home, he attempts to brave the horrors of realistic combat in a futuristic alien environment. Which is where he acquaints himself with Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, a rough and ready soldier, a hardened warrior with a hidden past. Mere moments in, Ralph finds himself beyond over his head, but still figuring a shortcut toward his goal.

It isn't long after this, when Ralph finds himself within the colorful realm of the chibi-racer Sugar Rush, where he meets his match in Vanellope von Schweetz, a perky underdog with the distinction of being dubbed a "glitch". (an outsider feared for what she could mean to the game as a whole) Within the kingdom of Sugar Rush, the local monarch in the form of King Candy is seen as a befuddled, happy old chap with a seemingly benevolent nature, save for his concern over Vanellope, who is seen as something that could mean certain doom for a game's existence in the arcade. Sequestered to an unknown section of the game, Vanellope intends to race no matter what which perfectly mirrors the dilemma of Ralph, making them perfectly unlikely foils to a seemingly rigged pyramid.

This is made all the more explicit after Ralph's disappearance from his game renders his once-dismissive compatriots useless, forcing the game to be deemed "out of order".--[IE- Irrelevant]

So what does this all add up to in the end? I don't find it out of the realm of possibility that Wreck-It Ralph joins Cloud Atlas in this season's stories regarding the changing face of class, and the ever-present reality of eminent domain, meaning the role of a society's unseen, often those native to developing nations who are often politicized in a negative light in hopes of maintaining a currently popular reality. Ralph and Vanellope, natives to their respective worlds, find themselves displaced, and often ignored by those in power. Both eager to prove their mettle and value to the group, their mutual arcs reflect an idle worship of a system they themselves have surrendered to. Ralph moreso than Vanellope, who stands proudly alongside many of her own imperfections. So when he finds himself in his greatest inner conflict, it is within the faith of another with similar problems does Ralph find redemption beyond what the current paradigm could possibly reward. While so many in the worlds of these games adhere to an invisible order that resembles a top-down monarchy, it is Ralph and Vanellope's divergence that offers up a more realistic vision of the societies they inhabit.

So when we look at the clean-cut, blue eyed representation of infrastructure in Fix-It Felix, we are given a peek into privilege at a loss to understand a larger world view. His story, while endlessly perky, and helpful, is only so, like Ralph, due to his programmed fate. He is merely following protocol without question, to the adulation of the mayor, and clearly rich citizenry. Never considering that without Ralph, he is essentially useless. And as a bonus, his schoolboy yen for Calhoun is particularly suspect when considering the American narrative in regards to the privileged throughout history. Tying this back to Ralph's frightening tour within Hero's Duty, and the immigration ( and perhaps even the gentrification of so-called "lower" classes) issue, everything makes pointed, brutal sense.

When one considers the wacky, pixel-heavy world of Wreck-It Ralph, one may be able to see past the gloss to find themselves thinking a little more about where we as a nation are today, and perhaps once and for all consider how we all arrived at this point. And hopefully, those who do may consider a greater narrative that is perhaps more human than any play at generational familiarity a movie can be.  

Akumu No Elevator [Elevator Trap] (2009) Movie Review

In a hurry to reach his in-labor wife, young Jun Ogawa(Takumi Saitoh) finds himself knocked unconscious, and suddenly coming to within an elevator, now trapped inside with three uniquely peculiar strangers. One, a down on his luck yakuza(Masaaki Uchino). Another, an elderly man in a track suit(Fuyuki Moto) with a startling secret, and a teenager in gothic lolita garb(Aimi Satsukawa), seemingly ready to end her life. All three incapable of communicating with the outside, their personalities & circumstances clash, with unexpected twists unfolding as noone is what they seem. And all of this, merely prelude. Actor, Keisuke Horibe's directorial debut based on the novel by Hanta Kinoshita is a decidedly mixed affair that reaches impressive highs, and yet finds itself unable to tie matters together in any larger sense.

To be honest, I was ready for an entire film to be confined to this setting. There is enough sense of timing, choreography and performance here that it easily feels labored and well-executed. In many ways, this section alone qualifies as a classically-styled stage play, or short subject. Taken on its own, the entire film comes off like a well-storyboarded spin on flashback-laden tales of confinement ala LOST, with perhaps even a dash of The Breakfast Club. So once things truly get going, and headlong into a second act, there is definitely much more going on that unspools like a macabre game of reverse Mousetrap. Layers of truth slough off here and there, until reality is virtually upended top-down, and themes of living with fictions as justification take over-- even as bodies & revelations begin to pile up.

And while the latter end of this indeed has it's impressive moments of grim humor, a good deal of it feels unclear of what it's in the service of. And this is most likely due to a bookend structure that Horibe unnecessarily grants the piece, a structure that pleads to give it all meaning, but ultimately feels either underwritten, or lacking in clarity. When establishing at frame one as to who the film's true focal point is before the title-based sequence, there is either a need to make this a more prominent emotional core to the film, or else it feels forced, which it ultimately does. While its well and good that a film can attempt to pay tribute to mystery/suspense conventions, whilst nodding at human drama, Kinoshita's script simply finds itself unable to reconcile with all the additional baggage plaguing the opening and ending.

As it stands, Elevator Trap excels best when it's playing on genre expectations, parodying our love of the unexpected, and offering up a surprisingly funny satire of urban Japanese character-types. But when it tries to reach for something closer to the heart, it simply finds itself a little lost.