Sunday, November 17, 2013

Otaku Love Hurts: Cyborg, She Responded(2008) & Fujoshi Kanojo(2009)

Not sure how these films got lost in such a shuffle, but Sundays, when not steeped in projects of an outdoor nature, are often exercises in reaching back into old queues, only to realize why they stay buried as long as they do. And when this is regarding so-called romantic comedies tailor made to play to Japan's anime/manga loving crowd, it is also no wonder why recent fare like Pacific Rim feels like such fresh air. In lieu of the last decade's shift in production styling & attitude, it never ceases to amaze and dismay, the sheer lack of deep love and care that goes into such works. It is almost as if there is a quota to make, and appeasing certain interests are the only thing on the minds of all involved, and that a sincere love for the often wacky flights of fancy that Nihon-based scribbles can only deliver is lacking in a big way when talking the movie industry overseas. In the decades after a live action Video Girl Ai did plenty to offer just as much manga-esque silliness with a grounded charm that is endemic to a more universal language of filmic storytelling, it's kind of strange to see these contemporary tales of young love flat out miss any potentially healthy/thoughtful message that at times can happen in the funny pages. As both films feature young men in love with a mysterious, often exaggerated other, there's a troubling thread of crippling normalization that is happening, often in forced manners that not only speak to long held traditions in their native land, but of corporate message maintenance.

Starting with 2008's Cyborg, She Responded, we are in an impressively budgeted fantasy offering up the ultimate rendition of the so-called emotionless heroine (in this case, a Terminator-esque time traveling humanoid) and her relationship with a lonely otaku. (another thread that binds both films we are discussing together) Helmed by Kwak Jae-yong of My Sassy Girl fame, the story begins briskly as our lone protagonist, Jiro (Keisuke Koide) celebrates his birthday alone, purchasing his annual present to himself when he is reminded of the previous year when he encountered a most unusual, nameless girl(Haruka Ayase). Taken on a whirlwind chase around town, the seemingly free spirited girl ends the night not only blowing his mind with her antics, but just as simply vanishes from his life. Now merely a memory, things only accelerate into weird when an identical girl makes a grand entrance into the city, only to claim that she is a cyborg from the future, here to help Jiro avoid an impending disaster. Fortified with frightening reflexes, bizarre weaponry, and immense strength, Jiro's new bodyguard becomes something from dream girl to nuisance, to dream girl as the film strains to justify a man's attraction to simulacra. And while the film does want very much to be as much an action film as a love story, Jae-yong never seems capable of finding an amiable balance. Even when the script insists that the answers lie in oh-so-gimmicky time travel, there never seems to be any good reason for both characters to even like each other.

It becomes such a muddle, that one must inevitably give up and just drink in the occasionally amusing gags Jae-yong and crew must have had fun executing with our leads. Wish to see a lithe beauty trounce a couple of street punks up and down an alley? Check. Wish to see her tip over a bus full of commuters with her immensely heavy chassis? Check. Wish to see her take out desperate hostage takers and psychos, all while tending to a wet paper thin excuse for a romantic arc? Or how about an "ironic" gag involving a robot doing "The Robot" in a club scene? Check, check, check. The film is eager to please, but also seems so eager to be as much a somber tale of fated love, as well as an asian take on Reitman's My Super Ex-Girlfriend. The scripting and tone of the finished product reeks of stumbling in the development department, which only makes the emotional core all the more perplexing. In the end, it becomes pretty hard to discern just what the film wants to say. And considering the impressive production on display, it all boils down to a zero sum game with super-jokes.

So when we flash forward a year, one would think that a film centering on a lesser spotlighted faction of the anime/manga world would prove interesting in the quirky romance realm, but Fujoshi Kanojo (aka- How To Date An Otaku Girl, 2009) asserts otherwise with vigor. Adapted from the light novel by Pentabu, the on its face tale of an ordinary guy, and his two-years older co-worker's rocky relationship. The sticking point being her rampant love for male-to-male relationships in animation and comics. More a half-hearted commercial for so-called "rotten girl" proclivities, and yet another exercise in forcing a pair of people into love for the sake of the story, rather than what is actually necessary for the characters. It is simply the worst kind of sentiment disguised as love-laden fluff due largely missing out on perhaps the other big elephant sharing duplex with Cyborg; dealing with two characters that have no real reason to like each other.

As much as the film's opening "confession" scene wishes to offer up a most unusual relationship, all we get is dysfunction, and often in the name of overselling. Unwilling to make the pair into uniquely complimentary characters with some understandable gulfs in between, director, Atsushi Kaneshige seems uninterested in the material, and only offers up a shrill view of this side of the obsessive fan world. Title character, Yoriko(Wakana Matsumoto) almost off the bat comes off as controlling, avoidant, and generally hyperbolic. And this is often shared with her friends, now just getting to know her new boyfriend, the incredibly ordinary, Hinata (Shunsuke Daito). Right from the offset, and despite her warning, it is clear that he is not one hundred percent ready for the oddball life of his new partner. (much of this consists of her dubbing her new beau as "Sebastian" - a loyal servant name, and making often bizarre demands on the regular) And while that indeed could make for a mildly engaging diversion about something many fan types go through, the film seems perfectly comfortable being as a sub-par commercial for numerous anime stores, and events, while playing up the fujoshi lifestyle as a club for unreasoning harpies. One would wish for a more sensitive way to describe it, but the direction seems unwilling to sell it otherwise. Even when there is a sticking point that harms Yoriko's ability to accept that her boyfriend really does care for her despite her lifestyle, it never amounts to anything compelling, let alone substantial for the story.

There is a general feeling of apathy, and almost contempt that permeates the core conflict that it occasionally infects both the performances, and pacing. So when the second half comes, and the inevitable fissure between both leads comes to a head, matters are made worse when the film takes on a tar-like slog with its pace, as if this is all meant to mean anything. It all ends up as inert as a dud bullet, with only an implication of a debate, but one that never really sees any real exploration. In fact, when things heat up, all it takes is a character being sent overseas to fuel a finale which accelerates to becoming one of the more forced final acts of a "romantic comedy" imaginable. It's so jarring as to be borderline disturbing to be frank.

In fact, the forced nature of taking both films' leads who would normally be seen as aberrations by the mainstream at large, only bolsters a grand admission of ignorance on the part of the filmmakers. One would think that after decades of books, documentaries, and even animation observing this phenomenon, that there would at least be some semblance of understanding of the humanity behind what makes such individuals tick. (Even in Densha Otoko's eye-rolling view of the 2D enamored, there is a faint amount of sweetness to it that is lacking here.) While Cyborg's Jiro is something of a non-entity, Fujosji's Yoriko comes off as imbalanced until the film forces her into being something average Japanese society can tolerate. Latent sexism aside, there is enough happening in both films that grant us a stillborn picture of an industry still unwilling to humanize a misunderstood minority- not to mention women. It's to the point that society's narrative for quirky central characters see them without any depth of voice, and happy to keep it that way.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Switching - Goodbye Me (Tenkosei, Sayonara Anata - 2007) Movie Thoughts

If one had told another more casual cinephile that the man responsible for the increasingly beloved cult favorite, HAUSU (1977) was responsible for this deceptively sedate take on one of 1980s cinema's creakiest premises, they may be considered a fibber at best. On the surface, there is little here to remind viewers of the commercial director who's visions of psychedelic nightmares & carnivorous pianos burned themselves into the minds of many an adventurous movie fan. Some might even see a work like this as some manner of legitimization of a once rabblerousing auteur, now turned mass market craftsman. But with this adaptation of a book by Hisashi Yamanaka, we are given an unexpectedly heartfelt, and yet no less strange tale of two souls forced to best understand one another (in the most literal way possible).

Daydream-addicted teen, Kazumi finds herself at a loss when her childhood boy pal, Kazuo returns to her small town with very limited memory of the days they spent together as kids of neighboring noodle shop owners. Determined to jog the retransplanted city boy, she takes him to the well which is the source of her family's tasty noodles, only to end in an accident which ends up magically switching their bodies. Now dazed, and unsure how to remedy this new problem, the two must work together as friends and family begin to question their bizarre shifts in behavior. And as if this isn't enough, multiple angles in how the two know each other are explored. But alas youth is brief, and neither are very good at playing each other.

Confounding matters, are things that are already going on in each other's lives since they had last seen one another. Kazuo's father is now out of the picture after a divorce, and may be in the middle of a long distance relationship with a fellow piano genius in the city. While Kazumi has been dating a straight-faced philosphy junkie for some time now.  Life now, more than a little interrupted, matters can only be more overwhelming by the fact that they are no longer children. Whether it be troubles with love, or just pesky anatomy, so much is to be forced into the open by sheer cosmic luck. And this is perhaps Obayashi's most fascinating wrinkle to the whole tale. It's a film that is as interested in what happens when a girl once smitten, is now inhabiting the life of someone so important, and vice versa. The language of modern manga is turned fully on its head, as the convenience of neighborly love takes on an almost crash course aura. It seems to be asking, "what does it mean to truly love another?" And while the film may not be wholly successful in this area, it does have enough earnestness to get by.

Obayashi's gift for exploring often sexual themes with the goofy innocence akin to a child's imagination is about as sedate as it gets here. As so many japanese films of the mid-oughts, there is a want on the production's end for this is to become not unlike so many coming-of-age fantasies that are often one step removed from a Makoto Shinkai anime. But what Tenkosei offers up, is a unique series of not only funny, and dramatic questions about the current era's obsessions with nostalgic love, but even a pointed criticism of such thinking. Despite the fact that both central characters find themselves in a situation that they never asked for(they even do the unthinkable by pleading directly with disbelieving parents of their plight), all the protesting in the world won't change the fact that perceptions will never be the same. Even as the visuals of the film seem awash in fall colors, and perhaps even in line with all that is safe within so many recent TBS produced family films of the era, there is an aggressive playfulness that indicates that we are still in the hands of a visionary unwilling to grant us an ordinary piece of youth-driven pep. Even the film's flowing camera work and editing predates JJ Abrams' Star Trek by two years, and makes for a surprisingly kinetic experience for at least two thirds. 

Much of the film's running time is made up of almost episodic stops and starts as the duo try desperately to adjust to their newfound, awkward reality. And it is in some of the smallest moments that it all shines so nicely. Having the leads played by both Misako Renbetsu & Naoyuki Morita perhaps makes all the difference in the world as both do admirable jobs as kids with almost perfect androgyny built into them. From vocal work, to body language, rarely does it ever feel forced, or done for sheer yuks. And when it is funny, more often than not, it tends to convince as the story carries more than a few surprises locked inside. And while there are a few missteps along the way (an encounter with a random groper in a park, and a perhaps unnecessarily sappy third act), there is more than enough here to warrant a look as one of Japan cinema's unsung heroes of quirk weaves his magic in ways that are unexpectedly sober and effective where it counts.