Part-time wandering artifact, part-time student, Wintermuted's travels from the wastelands of California's Coachella Valley have crystallized his love of all-things soulful & strange. A child of the VHS era, and often working for the anime man, his voyages continue onward in the name of bridging generations of Japanese popular art together. Can also be found via twitter.com/winterkaijyu , as well as wanderingkaijyu.blogspot.com !
It’s the year 2206, and a bright pink spacecraft has made an unauthorized launch from Pluto Space Base #17, and is sporting its hyper rocket engines with intense haste. As authorities seek to control, and perhaps even down the runaway craft, a crucial baseball drama is unfolding. With perhaps the Tigers’ 200+ year losing streak at an end, their winning play is thwarted as the troublesome pink streak fouls up the game, rendering a mob of spacefaring fans ready, and eager to destroy the speeding interloper. Not even the denizens of Macross, or Yamato can stop this intergalactic bullet from causing all amounts of nuisance to all in her path. Seriously, she’s a real pain.
Such is the life of headband wearing, pendant-sporting Micchi, pilot of the Pink Shock. Her mission is not very complicated. And it isn’t concerned with your space wars, your losing streak, your culture. She’s having none of it. She’s seventeen years old, and speeds on for love. And not you, nor any militaristic regime can do anything to stop her from reclaiming it.
How is this hard for your to understand?
OVAs in the 1980s are pretty much a wasteland of VHS nonsense, often highlighted by your random Bubblegum Crises, or Megazone 23s, and offer very little in the way of viable historical context. Even in Japan’s anime on home video heyday, these were the shelf stocker equivalent to today’s Asylum Pictures release. They were a dime a dozen, and often made on the quick and cheap. New studios opening, and new studios closing. It was a new market, and something rife with mental images of airborne yen signs just itching for a slice of this new home entertainment pie. So why in the world do we want to talk about 1986’s Cosmos Pink Shock?
Quite frankly, because despite everything in it that is typical, there is also a potent, and perhaps even frightening sliver of prophecy embedded within. From the wet-wafer thin nature of the aforementioned “plot”, there is both a reverence for the era’s legendary love of space war tales, as well as the burgeoning of that now all too worn concept of moé. The show makes every effort imaginable to play into the fetish, and does everything possible to justify its existence. In fact, the entire point of Cosmos Pink Shock, is just that: “Space Wars are annoying, this is the era of the cute girl-STEP OFF.” It has no compunctions saying that the space heroes of the past will have to make way for all the petulant cuteness, as if the show itself were Noah’s dream of a flooded planet, and we had to prepare for the inevitable.
It even goes so far as to introduce a possible foil in the form of woman hating, Gatsupi. A handsome ball of noble whom the ladies like for his looks, but are constantly rebuffed by his declaration of disinterest. Even when the assumption is that of a slashfic narrative, he contends this isn’t the case. Yes, even fangirls of the 1980s were quick to assume this guy to be prime fantasy material. But this Sho Hayami-voiced character holds within a simple reason for his standoffish ways. Perhaps leave it to the newly captured Micchi, to weave her tale of woe, thereby thaw Gatsupi’s frozen heart?
You see, Micchi’s one true love, a boy she was fond of at AGE 4, was abducted by a UFO during the night of the matsuri. Yes. And noone seemed to remember who he was, nor was motivated at all to find him. So naturally, she stowed away on a space shuttle in hopes of finding him. Again. How is this not getting through? Are you just being stubborn?
Looking back at it now, it feels like this was a sentiment that had long been festering until it finally saw a ray of legitimacy with the original Superdimension Fortress Macross series. And from that point on, it became standard practice to keep that element as an integral part of the space war genre. That is until the conditions were right. Cosmos Pink Shock feels like a light handed back slap against the decade preceding it in all its need for hard edged militarism and samurai propriety. Featuring some neat character design work by the always terrific Toshihiro Hirano (of Fight! Iczer One & Vampire Princess Miyu fame), and some impressive animation direction by Keisuke Matsumoto & Yasuo Hasegawa, there is some visual charm happening here. Especially worthy of note are the scenes involving hardsuit armor and even a robot baseball game. There is much to see as mere distraction in Cosmos, that many may see as your typical benign japan toon, but there is just enough moxy, and outright raspberrying to all things Gundam and Yamato, to make it into something of a manifesto. A harbinger of the future.
A future that was barreling closer toward us.
Whether we wanted it..or not. Get out of the way.
Oh yes, and it features quite a nod to fans of the Hanshin Tigers, granting it a Kansai aura that must have been bubbling in lieu of their once rumored “cursed” state. A running gag that screams “you had to be there”, but is mildly chuckle-inducing regardless.
To expound feelings about the upcoming tweets, I cannot help but feel like anime as a medium has long been teetering between iconographic storytelling and didactic overkill. And as a longtime viewer of many a show, it has come to mind that a big reason why so many shows tend to leave me cold, is that so many writers find themselves in some deep need to information dump, or hyper-explain the motivations behind the story, rather than illustrate them by way of the power inherent. While a great many series (see; Evangelion, Kill la Kill, etc.) make their mark by being pretty open with their inner thought process, some of the more interesting, and often impactful series find ways to allow the art and animation do much of the legwork.
When considering the medium itself, this seems kind of absurd, really. When there is this much freedom and creative possibility, one cannot underestimate the power of a pondered image. Or the potency of a great allegory. Or the emotional power of a well-imagined tale.
So when this longing makes its way back into my mind, the works that first come to mind are the ones of Osamu Tezuka, and of Leiji Matsumoto. But to make my point clearer, let’s consider Rin Taro’s 1979 Galaxy Express 999 film. Regardless of whether we are talking about the original manga, or the classic TV series, the themes of growing up in a civilization where machine people are the 1%, and the rest of humanity are relegated to last class status, there is a power within it that cuts deeper than most. A huge part of its enduring legacy lies in Matsumoto’s achingly honest look at growing up in an industrialized, capitalist civilization. Where roles are determined via often heavily priced means.
To watch many a recent anime series (especially the most popular), one might occasionally see more collectivist themes of working together, aiming for an idealized “top”, or perhaps even romantic love as some manner of ideal. But what 999 posits, is that youth is that one time where all beings are free to self-identify before the machine of the corporatized adult world molds us into functioning parts of society. While the television series and manga do quite well in elaborating on this as the core theme, the film version does a phenomenal job of taking us from point to point with almost Gilliam-esque levels of subconscious wit and poetics.
For the unfamiliar, GE 999 tells the story of Tetsuro Hoshino, a human boy and street urchin who finds himself determined to avenge the murder of his mother by way of a machine man who hunts humans for sport. Hearing of the legends of “free” spirits such as Captain Harlock and Emeraldas, he is inspired to attain a ticket to the fabled Galaxy Express, a means to set off beyond the bounds of a machine dominant Earth, and to attain a mechanical body. His reasoning being that in order to avenge the death of his mother, this is the only way to be able to face the killer, Count Mecha. During a bungled attempt at stealing a ticket to the legendary space train, Tetsuro runs into, and is subsequently saved by the mysterious, Maetel. An almost ethereal beauty who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime, and grants him a pass onto the 999. It doesn’t hurt that the luminous maturity of Maetel seems to remind Tetsuro of his long lost mother, the only person who cared for him in those desolate early days.
From planet to planet, his journey into manhood truly begins.
The means by which the film assembles these allegories is legendarily aggressive. Even when most shows grind to a halt with explanations for character motivations, there is a propulsive sense of knowing that allows the flashbacks to work with energy and efficiency. We are brought up to speed rather quickly, and are quickly off onto Tetsuro’s voyage of self discovery. And while the show certainly states Matsumoto’s thoughts pretty openly, there are also fantastic tidbits of character and events that illustrate these concerns. It becomes less about being told what to feel, and more about Tetsuro learning what it is to “grow up” in a universe where this means casting away your truest self. It is no accident that the machine people portrayed at the train station are cold to others, spitting as they regard those who cannot afford a ticket as lesser beings. This very simple moment, is at the very heart of the film’s worries; that we have turned technological and economic hegemony as a closed-off value scale, rather than a shared goal.
We see more of this “forsaken humanity” theme in the characters of Shadow, of Count Mecha, Ryuz, and of Queen Promethium as the film plays out. Most of the adult cast of 999 is bound by this seemingly ineffable fate that a machine body is what is necessary to make an impact on the world. Be it through sheer willpower, or by way of inheritance, there is a constant conflict between what Tetsuro believes to be his destiny, and what choices he actually has through the course of his life. Starting off as an angry kid with a wish, he is confronted by adults who either worked, or clawed their way to machinehood, only to become shells of their former selves. So when he does confront the truth of his end point, the tragedy is threefold as familial duty becomes a means to an end. But humanity always seems to leave a mark, leading to a climax that remains as powerful now, as it was in 1979. The connection to theatrical audiences then was palpable. They could see what was happening here as an extension of what was truly happening in the real world.
Having lived through a similar situation to Tetsuro’s, there is much to take away from the encounter at Andromeda. Having been in relationships torn between the heart, and familial expectation is a very real thing. And even though the dressings of 999 are that of the most classic space operas, there is a universal nature about the piece that speaks volumes by mere virtue of showing. From the sprawl of an Earth ravaged by corporate mindlessness, to a machine planet, fueled by those with their hearts closed off by way of the “order of things”, there is a very real set of concerns bursting at the seams through Matsumoto and Taro’s vision. They may have even foreseen the breakdown that was to come, and we are witnessing to this very day. Humanity can only see itself as a closed off being for so long. Youth is a check that can only be cashed by way of feeling matters through, and actually experiencing the world through tactile means.
Matsumoto and company saw the future, and had a warning to share..
In summation, anime is an extension of the film medium, and is capable of so much more than is often being churned out. This has always been the case. It’s just more exciting to see when the powers that be allow for such expression to eke itself out. Far too often, the themes that are shared are often in the societal narrative, or some form of shapeless, emotional backlash. And rarely is it done with clarity or grace. There is a great potential in animation, but is often at the mercy of those who would see it as part of a creaky, mass production machine.
Meanwhile, at Hazama Medical University Hospital..
Ever have one of those bad hospital experiences? The kind that shake your faith in the medical establishment, and all that is right with the universe? You know what I mean. The kind of experience where you’re brought into the ER for a broken leg from a vehicle accident, only for it to end with you being turned into a fully functioning cyborg, complete with missile launching capabilities? Or the kind that does this, leading to your neighborhood nominating you as defender of community, complete with spandex outfits, and a limited expense account as invading hordes goad you into joining their band of local weirdos? Oh be quiet, you know what I am talking about. Liar.
Welcome to 1986’s OVA one-shot, based on the parody manga by Koichiro Yasunaga. One of the more sought after treasures of the anime on home video era. Goofy to a fault, the show pits a ragtag bunch of local miscreants with an augmented Indian transfer student, against the troublesome Telephone Pole Group in a series of overstated encounters and battles taking place in essentially neighborhood backyards. Looking back at it now, one can see the roots of shows like Kill la Kill, just beginning to burrow deep into the soils of anime past. And while the original manga’s punch is given a pretty lavish treatment considering the animation of the time, the focus seems less on story, and more on piling gag upon gag. The 50-minute piece remains charmingly animated, if not altogether fulfilling anywhere else. And while older fans like myself continue to adore works from this era like Project A-Ko, there is something about this OVA that remains elusive when it comes to the big laughs. Which isn’t to say that PEDF isn’t funny. Heck, any show that pokes good fun at so many J-sci-fi cliches can’t be all frownsville.
And yet, there is much to learn from this unrepentant, goofy work. Told in almost episodic vignettes, there is plenty to enjoy as both forces find themselves often undone by mutual incompetence and ensuing property damage. At times it’s the often unprovoked wrath of a missile-launching, blonde-haired foreigner with a bone to pick with-well, everyone. Others, it’s the all-out nuisance of a team of heroes with no sense of subterfuge, PEDF bursts with goofy, and is indicative of an era that simply wasn’t afraid to make up any excuse for an anime wild take. Like A-ko, it is certainly an animator’s work, displaying tons of shots and ideas that reek of a staff ready and willing to play to their talents. While definitely not Urusei Yatsura, there are quite a few jabs at super sentai shows, local politicking, and perhaps even the travails of being a startup business in an iffy market. And with superheroes/villains who can’t even figure out a way to usurp their adversaries with effective ruses, we’re definitely looking at the kind of farce that one simply doesn’t see anymore.
Upon watching it again recently, I’m reminded of what has been severely lacking in my anime intake as of late. And what Studio Trigger’s recent TV achievement truly stands for. PEDF, while not as classic as some of my just mentioned favorites, is certainly a charming entry in what has long been a neglected subgenre in the anime world. It’s often important to be able to laugh at your own absurdity. Anime once knew this quite well. So happy to see that some animators are keeping those embers nice and toasty.
Well there’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in an age. Looking back at the first piece I slapped together regarding Studio Trigger’s initial leap into the television series gauntlet, I’m pretty sure there was no awareness of what would happen. In fact, one could say that I was a bit of an unabashed naysayer regarding Kill la Kill. On its face it seemed like just another hyper-referential Imaishi noisefest. And while it maintains this facade throughout the 24 episode run, I sincerely didn’t expect to love it as much as I do now. Now, the mental drifting goes back toward his previous works, and it is clear that this is a show that required a few big warmups before happening. This is a refined and wisened Imaishi & Co., taking on roughly 40 years-plus of a medium’s history, and coming up with one of the most satisfyingly warped serial experiences I have ever witnessed. And just because they are wisened, this in no way implies matured. As far as wacky shows go, Kill la Kill is unrepentant, even as it treads classic alpha vs. omega stories with aplomb. (and that is exactly why it works.)
We can talk all day about the show’s referential nature, but to do so would mean to undermine what Imaishi & Nakashima have fashioned here as pastiche. In order to do this, one has to grasp why this is so. When one thinks of not only anime, but film in general over the last several decades, we must consider the role of post-modernist works, and how they succeed beyond the obvious. And to do this, we must think of some of the most effective uses of direct filmic response over this time period. Star Wars, Matrix comes to mind. The point is, it doesn’t matter how referential your show becomes. What matters is if it is in service of a larger story. And this is where KLK pretty much wins across the table. There is an inherent knowing behind all of the creative decisions. One that might not be as clear to some viewers, but it is present throughout the posturing and fighting.
The goal here is one of deceptive restraint. (Yes, I said “restraint” in a Kill la Kill discussion.) This is where we see a visual nod to a classic work of the past carefully embedded in service of the project’s larger themes. Not merely apparent for obvious reasons, but more as a direct symbolic response. And this is but one place where this show succeeds. It rarely to never feels superfluous, nor tacked on merely for nostalgia reasons. There is a more aware, more heightened reason as to why. Confession: upon my initial viewing of Gainax’s Top Wo Nerae! GUNBUSTER in the early 1990s, there was a feeling that something was being missed in my neophyte mind. I earnestly was not aware of all the anime & classic science fiction nods that were happening throughout, and I was taken by it regardless. THIS – is precisely the kind of effect that is happening here. It does not require us to be medium junkies in order to appreciate it. It’s just enough a melange of past and future, that it hardly seems to be issue-worthy.
So what we’ve just discussed, factors greatly in why the show ends up becoming as multifaceted, and exciting as it is. As much as a lot of it is TRIGGER’s way of respecting their sempai, and doing good by what they learned from their elders at Gainax, it is also a story of generational strife, and what it often does to families. Threads that find themselves at odds by reinforced beliefs between the generations lies burning at the heart of the show. There is a genuine concern for this tension between parental expectation, economic interests, and independent thinking. Even as the world is at last briefly shown as a complete, naked, and honest entity, the show implies that this is a constant struggle. One far beyond one massive spacebound battle for the soul of humanity. With this playing itself out in the most ridiculous, visually assaultive manner possible, the series kind of gets at the heart of why I love anime in the first place.
Before being whittled down to a calculated series of tropes and ideas ready for market, anime was far more emotional, far more unrestrained & far more surreal than it has been for years. And while many may argue that it is only in the post-1990s that we have come to a place where indeed everything and anything could happen within the form, it has long become something synthesized. And by this, I mean..controlled. Kill la Kill is kind of a kiss off to the current model and is also keeping the best elements of the past slung happily around its shoulders. The legacy of many a young, hungry, intense artist is at the heart of Ryuko Matoi’s battle for familial understanding. And even though we can see the initial episodes as being a perpetuation of oh-so many expectations based on toy and hobby item sales, the remainder goes out of its way to see well past all this to become its own, wild, restless entity. By the end, so many of the show’s more questionable qualities become moot, and the focus becomes resoundingly clear for all anime studios to see. Uniformity as an end goal – quite the terrifying prospect to the heart and soul of this project. It sees what has happened, and is daring more fans and makers to alter course.
This is exciting stuff.
So where to now? Where does one go after such a profoundly crazy ride? I could lie, and say that Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan could serve as a happy methadone for the days and weeks ahead, but seriously. This was a show (let me correct myself, IS..a show) that makes careers and possibly leaves a well-planted mark in the story of anime. Whether one finds personal value in the madness inherent or not is beside the point. As a production, it is all something of a miraculous thing to exist. Like a stubborn weed amongst forests of uniformed concrete, the tale of the Kiryuin family, the Makanshoku family, the Elite Four, Nudist Beach, and others find themselves as singular in a medium landscape that will continue to feel fresh and exciting for a long time to come. If TTGL was a loving appetizer, then KLK is that obstinate, scrappy main course that can make one want to be a punk chef of their very own.
Twists at breakneck speeds, revelations abound, and allegiances reversed. There seems to be no stopping the heartpounding freight train that is Kill La Kill’s final stretch of episodes. Common cause has been unveiled, leaving it a war of nudes versus clothed avatars of shame, and former enemies now aligned with the once thought only rebellion. With many of the principle roles now falling perfectly into what could be considered destined ones, only one element remains dangling precariously; heroine, Ryuko Matoi. Traumatized, distraught, and more than a little angry about the truth of her origin, her rudder is all but completely broken off. Unwilling to see herself as part of any side other than her own, it is up to a most unexpected ally to make a grand leap in hopes of her salvation. (even if it means beating the tar out of her first..)
Contrary to what the internet would like you to believe, it’s often a great pleasure to be wrong. Looking back at twenty episodes of Studio Trigger’s grand kiss-off/GAINAX love-fest, Kill La Kill, one couldn’t truly be faulted for being a tad presumptuous after years of often disheartening material. So what happened to make this jaded naysayer hit the about-face button so violently? Well, the show as it has been thus far owes much of its success to not only understanding the so-called Gainax formula so well, but to how well it eschews so much of what often hobbles many of the mother studio’s shows. More about playing with form, rather than clumsily taping together with function. What Imaishi and company have successfully fashioned, is the first truly post-Gainax series. One that takes everything since Top Wo Nerae!, and amps up the levels to near murderous methedrine levels, complete with hair-raising cliffhangers every week. Honesty time, it has truly been a long, long time since I have felt this way with any show.
Say what one wishes about previous Imaishi efforts, this is the first truly breakthrough series from a director who’s style has often overridden any semblance of meaning within and without. As great as Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan is, there remains a feeling there that is more akin to a dry run at “Hero’s Journey” territory. What KLK offers up, is something both representative of his powers as a stylist, and as a fledgling visual satirist, doling out both incredible energies and sneaking wit beneath oodles of crimson chaos. Even when the show hits an occasional iffy note, more often than not it is countered with something far wilder and more insane that what had come before. Always on the brink of total collapse, the show flirts so often with the bad, and yet it corrects course as if performing a high-wire act, knowing full well that the key to a successful display of showmanship, is the semblance of fallibility. KLK seems to know very well that it’s playing matters quite close to the wire, and yet it never steps away from the edge of that ravine.
And it’s all in the service of some very real concerns regarding the delicate balance not only the young must maintain in life affairs, but everyone. Even as the show has made it alarmingly clear that issues are to be approached in grandiose, broad strokes, it does so with such a deft, visual manner that it almost becomes a moving political mural. A warning, not only to the elder otaku set, but to all passionates that the moral standings we take are often of a musical chairs nature. One of the show’s biggest stylistic triumphs is in how it eschews a lot of the typical muddled anime thematic posturing that bogs most series down, and allows action to dictate more. Even as characters spout out about their requisite viewpoints, it is often within battle that their truest intentions for the world are made clear. Imaishi seems to finally have grand control of his best strengths(visual hyperbole and overt visual metaphors), and is hitting far more than missing this time around. And Nakashima’s story supervision has kept the story developing at such a uniquely effective clip, that one doesn’t mind so much when grand escapes happen, and one is asking questions as to how. This particular story is about the language of action, and what happens when we run so hard against another that we begin seeing the other side’s attributes. That there is more than one justice in the world, and in life we find ourselves dabbling in more than one to see what fits. The origin of community as we strive toward larger goods despite differences. While some of these were indeed explored in TTGL, it feels so much more refined and singular here.
And yes, I realize the absurdity of using “refined” to describe a series that largely consists of largely disrobed teens fighting to the tune of immense collateral damage. But despite all the anarchy and unisex debasement on display, it all seems to be in the name of greater ambitions for anime on television. Even if Kill La Kill’s final stretch turns out to be a typical series flameout, it will no doubt be spectacular. I can’t imagine the staff behind this having it any other way.
(Oh, yes. And I have to remark here that I kind of geeked out about those flashbacks regarding a younger Ragyo & Soichiro Kiryuin. Their hair. Maaaan.)
Imagine the saucers I had for eyes upon the discovery that Hollywood’s fabled Egyptian Theatre was hosting a multi-week tribute to the films of Studio Ghibli, and that two longtime favorites were sharing a bill this weekend. Upon hearing the news early Saturday, I told a partner of this and held steadfast that this could be our nocturnal activity. And considering that this new quantity has had little to no knowledge of the works of legendary animators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, this felt like a brilliant entry point. As both films represent Miyazaki at something of a career turning point (firmly planted between humanist blockbuster maven, and quasi-individualist auteur), the commonalities and breaks seemed just right to allow new eyes to survey what it is that has captured the hearts of animation fans the world over. And while personal feelings have shifted some on these films over the years, it was truly magnificent witnessing these films in their full 35mm glory, complete with scratches, pops, and prolonged silences.
At roughly 7:00pm, we filed on in, and found seats surrounded by fellow attendees. As ideal as the seats were, I was quite impressed by the serious dearth of “anime folk” in the audience. In fact, a great deal of those in the auditorium with us were either fellow cinephiles, the occasional family, and possibly more local animation and effects artist types. The overall feeling was that of a more well-rounded viewership than I have ever been privy to for a screening like this, and that was certainly telling of Ghibli’s impact in the years since Disney/PIxar brought Ghibli’s catalog to the US masses. In a very real way, it felt as if Miyazaki’s works have finally become part of the general fabric of family film in a way that eluded many of us admirers in previous decades. It truly has been a long time since that fateful Cagliostro Castle screening at the Disneyland Hotel, with not only nerds, but parents and kids with eyes aglow at the sheer kinetic artistry gracing that audience.
Truly a long time.
So also imagine my surprise when upon giving Kiki’s Delivery Service(1989) the nth viewing, I found a great deal more to derive personally from it than I had expected. Even in the many years since first watching it, there is a confidence and effective simplicity that still evokes a potent response regarding the inherent potential in all. While many have continued to write the film off as a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s work, it is also very much a touching call to the young, and for them to follow beyond familial piety. As young witch, Kiki seeks to create a name for herself in bayside, Koriko City, there is much to figure out as many a witch have within them a special ability that they hone into their main focus of practice. And in this single year of being away from her family (including a potions-specialist mother who muses about wishing her daughter had taken up potions as her focus), Kiki and her chatty feline familiar, Jiji must find the central meaning to independent life. Through many meetings, trials, errors, and adventures, Kiki is throughout the film faced with her own self-doubts as a girl in the world, let alone a witch. It’s a story where magic is no more than the things we grant to the world as ourselves. Told in a patient, wistful manner, the film never veers far from the focal point that Kiki is that moment between being our family’s child, and our own giving, working individual. (Which is best encapsulated by the film’s opening scene, as Kiki makes the sudden choice to leave for her one-year trip at the behest of unprepared parents. It is both a charming, and heartrending stuff that evokes feelings of that moment so many of us go through, as we move out into the world.)
So when Kiki’s journey inevitably leads to a crisis of ability come the latter third, it is vital to consider the preceding hour as lead in for this. With all the pressures that she must carry with her as both girl and witch, as other girls her age in town are living up to many of the atypical fun and relationship building, she must maintain something of an icon of tradition. We even meet another young witch early on that informs us early how this rite of passage can very easily lead us astray, without much room for others. And rather than becoming this, Kiki’s arc largely involves her natural capacity for more hand-based services. While her mother is closer to a doctor/pharmacist-type, she is closer to a public service specialist. And while that may look less than flattering to some, there is something very sneaky and hopeful happening with this in mind. When she suddenly finds herself unable to use her magic abilities, it is no wonder that the broom she came flying into Kokori breaks..is her mother’s.
It is here, and with local artist, Ursula’s advice that even our greatest gifts will experience something of a block at times, that the road to maturity drifts into cruising speed. Kiki finds herself at her best and happiest when she is living up to her own instinctive ideals, rather than any fears she might have about the thoughts of others.
As with the breaking of the mother’s broom, the broom used to rescue airship fanboy/witch fanboy, Tombo from a nasty fate..belongs to an elder street sweeper. A “public servant”. Personal redemption comes from Kiki’s own passion for helping the people of Kokori. It’s a pretty solid tale in the telling that still finds ways to keep me active and enamored throughout.
Porco Rosso(1992), while still a truly personal work for Miyazaki containing some of his most sumptuous imagery and elegaic moments, seems to have lost some luster for me over the years. Hard to say why this is so, but upon this viewing it became evident that the tale of WWI fighter pilot ace, Marco Pagot, while as complex and politically dense as it is, suffers from a lack of a stable central thesis. It really is something of a kitchen sink affair, as Miyazaki struggled to make Porco into a loving tribute to the era, and a tale of personal redemption in a time fraught with change. With Porco, now living the cursed life of a pig after long deserting his life as an air force pilot, and now making a living on the Adriatic as a bounty hunter, the film shakily dances between sweet natured comedy, adventure, and romantic homage. And while much of it works magically (as most Ghibli films of the era did), there is a lack of focus that dogs a majority of the running time.
And yet at the same time, one of the film’s meatier themes is that of a life independent. Not unlike the shame Porco feels for having abstained from serving any nation, as well as the loss of his closest colleagues, it all feels like Kiki’s darker, more battle-worn sibling. Even as the previous film lauded the individual as part of a collective, Porco represents a search for life beyond the state. Miyazaki both praises the talents and honor of those who dedicated their lives to flight, but admonishes governments who would exploit it in the name of foggy politics and control. As Italy seems on the brink of another governmental shift, and the world economy is en route to great depression, taxes and allegiances are on the lips of all. All the while, pilots find themselves in this situation either scraping out a meager living as sky pirates, or as bounty hunters living on the fringes of this now rapidly changing society. Rivalries aside, hunters like Porco and pirates like the Mamma Aiuto gang seem culled from similar cloth. All well represented by all parties cooling their engines in peace at the Andriano bar, a place run by Porco’s lifelong friend and long-suffering love interest, Gina. With these air bound skirmishes growing ever more and more desperate, things exacerbate once the pirates opt to hiring American hot-shot, Curtis, in hopes of taking down the “red pig” once and for all. (Or at the very least, humiliate him..)
Upon losing what even wouldn’t constitute an actual air duel with the eager american, Porco is forced to make a run into fascist led Milan in hopes of repairing his beloved seaplane. So when he is surprised to learn that his long trusted plane engineering and construction genius, Piccolo is bereft of his usual help, it is in the shared labor of the feminine and the talents of his youthful american granddaughter, Fio, that Porco finds within him an unexpected spark. And while much of this is classic storytelling, a great deal of the film feels more interested in the details of the world than in any real character based storytelling. The main throughline, while relatively solid, is equally as happy to examine the the world around them, occasionally to mixed results. So when it comes time for the big rematch between Porco, and the american Rattlesnake, our attentions are recalibrated toward the fate of Fio, who in the event that our hero loses, must go to Curtis, who’s buffoonish aims seem to be mostly intent on getting hitched..even if to an underaged plane engineer.
But the worries Miyazaki has about his own talents and the way in which it is utilized post-success are evident during an important exchange between him and a former colleague-turned fascist ace, Ferrarin inside a movie theatre. As Ferrarin secretly informs Porco that the new government is actively buying off sky pirates, and actively rendering them obsolete, Porco remarks how the standard “Dog Vs. Pig” animation they are watching is lousy. Staying on message seems to be the program. This is only bolstered by Ferrarin’s respone that the animation is great. It’s well considered that Porco, is indeed the spirit of Miyazaki, ever dogged by powers that only see him as a company tool. Ever longing for the freedom to tell the stories he wishes, his way. Now if only, the film could pick a theme before being merely one of several disparate ones. One could even argue that PR is something of a rail against the changing fates of animators throughout the 1980s. At any rate, there’s simply so much going on that it becomes a little tricky to suss out.
All this said, Porco Rosso remains one of Miyazaki’s most poetic and playful films. There’s no denying the power to entertain here. And as a work that lies in between the thoughtful, straightforward Kiki, and the oft-considered overbearing Princess Mononoke(1997), it’s still a gorgeous movie with a lot on its mind.
So in all, a memorable evening of some of the very best that commercial Japan has to offer, with an audience that was more than adequately receptive. So happy to see that the American Cinemateque is continuing to host these films over the next few weeks, with Takahata’s incredible Grave Of The Fireflies(1988) and Tomomi Mochizuki’s Ocean Waves(1993) tonight, ending with Miyazaki’s Oscar winning, Spirited Away(2001) on Thursday, March 20th. So if you’re in LA over the next few weeks, do give it a consider. The Egyptian remains one of my favorite cinemas, and this is a most exciting way to introduce these works to a whole new world of eyes.
As for the person I shared last night’s event with..I’d say we have a new convert.
Doctrines have been questioned, true faces revealed, and all bets are off..
You know the more this viewer wishes to resist the caffiene-injected, nonsensical, and often audacious nature of Kill la Kill, the more it has this pulling effect that is utterly irresistible. Looking back even a few episodes, so much of what has come before has finally paid off as Honnouji’s greater purpose has revealed itself, and the secret of the Life Fibers has come to light. And while the story of Ryuko Matoi has taken on galactic proportion, all of the show’s buildup of the ramparts and players has led to a battle royale over which direction civilization will take in a world dominated by clothing. And by clothing, one could mean an old world based on not greed, or simple corrpution, but by the base motivator- shame. The gravity holding the show together just enough is one of a world up for grabs. A world long dominated by market forces now in disarray as the major players learn the truth, and must eke out a way beyond the conflicts of the past. As exploitation and war no longer seem as viable as they once were, where does humanity’s relationship to shame’s remedy lie?
Just watching the show, one sees a classic “street toughs versus rich kids” play taken to impossible extremes, and that is merely a starting point. And with the focus shifting heavily away from the simpler revenge road plotline, the ground has given way to reveal larger, more potent targets. Most notably the roles that the powerful and proletariat have played over our species’ history, and the potential grand shift that is within our collective grasp. Amidst all the punching, the screaming, and the confusion, change is near, but its never been more dangerous. For all the regional stereotyping, and often garish posturing, KLK has taken full advantage of its advanced length and is offering up an unrepentantly wacky exploration of humankind’s will to be dominant and to be dominated.
Even as the show threatens to completely derail itself, there is always this sense of greater purpose that keeps the show from succumbing to style. For example, Ryuko’s initial reaction to the truth about herself, her father, and the role Senketsu has to play in the grander scheme is both unclear, and hastily resolved. As grand as things have been throughout, there is often a feeling that Nakashima and Imaishi have been trying to reign each other in before tipping the show’s hand out too far. One can even see places where cost-saving has become important in order to make sure the animation in certain scenes can be fulfilled. But as a balancing act between style and thought, KLK often barely hangs on by mere virtue of staying true to purpose. While it can never for a moment be seen as a bastion of subtlety, there is enough happening in between the battles that offers up this notion that not only Japan is in this grand flux, but so is the world. Where philosophies for all on both sides of the pole may need to reconsider the shape of the world they once believed was certain.
And in keeping with that uncertainty, the show remains a tonal rollercoaster. Unwilling to play simple and fair, the cast and crew have made it imperative that KLK seeks its own voice. One that is equal parts serious, and unerringly silly. It is anime getting sick on itself and gleefully puking all over the dancefloor in a colorful splatter of joy and concern. Not quite Dead Kennedys, and not quite Black Flag, this show is an unruly mosh pit with purpose. In the world of KLK, the center cannot AND will not hold, so dance to your heart’s content and rejoice that this is no simple beat-em up anime. As classic as some of the turns in this story are, we have never seen anything quite like this. Sure, fisticuffs cannot solve the world’s greater problems, but it sure is a cool vessel for what is an important conversation. It is both a celebration and a yearning.
All that really matters now, is the kind of world we want.
Perhaps it is time to up and say that all this fighting and stripping might represent a shift in personal priorities. Not so much in the minds of those behind Kill la Kill per sé, but rather in my own. There was indeed a time when anime excess was something I could wholeheartedly get behind. “The more bugnuts insane, the better!”, I often thought. After all, there is something about the pure gut nature of the medium that is both dangerous and alluring to many admirers. But as one grows older, often it is depth of context that wins out over visual chutzpah. After all, what good is an experience without that element of thoughtfulness? What good is spectacle without a set of human conversations bursting out around the noise?
Make no mistake. Kill la Kill is on its face a tremendously dopey show. But don’t let that fool you for a second.
Now that we have come to the mid-point of Ryuko Matoi’s ultimate challenge within Honnouji’s grueling Natural’s Election gauntlet, it felt right to finally fess up and come to terms with this series’ paradoxical nature. And while I cannot pretend to pinpoint every fragment and crumb of the mad cacophony of symbolism that is this show, one can at least deduce that it is not as clear-cut as some might have surmised early on. The battling has been pretty nonstop, and our heroine continues to impress with her graceless, yet effective wins against the totalitarian academy’s Elite Four. On top of all this, the mystery behind Matoi’s scientist father’s demise, and the ultimate aim of school leader, Satsuki continue to remain foggy. But for all the hyper-simplicity of Kill la Kill’s storytelling battery, the sheer carnival of absurd battles in between is what offers up the most meat for viewers to gnaw. In here, the action is not a pretext for ideas brewing on the sidelines- the text is in the action.
And while we can definitely chart the last several episodes, and pilfer out a talk of recap for this post, it seems a whole lot more interesting to just dive headlong into the central conflicts and seek out just what the hell Imaishi & Nakashima seem to be making noise about. Looking back to my initial impressions, not much has changed since declaring the show a hyperactive savant’s half-hearted attempt at feminine empowerment. And even as some of the most devastating action moments from this show come at the hands of the female characters of the show, it’s often with this all-too-omnipresent streak of middle-school level lasciviousness. It’s pretty safe to say that the acts of the characters often say more than their words as each side of the conflict spout out virtue after virtue of their respective philosophies. And as on-the-sleeve as action comedies like this go, Kill la Kill offers up some effectively satirical sucker punches.
So let’s look at what we do know about the world of Honnouji, and the conflict that has made up most to all of KlK’s running time
On its surface, the tale of delinquent schoolgirl, Ryuko Matoi’s two-fisted war to defeat Kiryuin’s regime of “uniformity” has been largely one of escalation. Starting off with merely her trusty, yet still mysterious half-scissor, Matoi’s reputation as something of a scrappy, yet devastating quantity has launched us directly into the caustic final circle. While it would be easy to just see the story as a simple good versus evil tale (something even Imaishi & Nakashima’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan played safely with), there is a surprising twist to our heroine’s rise that may be central to the series as a whole. Despite what we already know about her and her bond with the sentient “Kamui” seifuku known as Senketsu, there are still questions lingering as to what it is, and its true goals. Not to mention the fact that there are still those on the periphery who clearly also wish to see the tables turned, often masquerading as simple allies. And as a result, the battles have become increasingly taxing on nearly everyone.
Even as Ryuko has shown her mettle against theoretically hundreds of bizarre and desperate club members, little of this wouldn’t have come to pass without a lot of mutual exploitation. Movement in the series seems to be constantly at the whims of those willing to use others for their standing in the current order. While Ryuko uses Senketsu, her elder informant in turncoat teacher, Mikisugi (and his clandestine group of rebels, “Nudist Beach”!!) seems poised to use the duo for his own ends. Add this to nearly every major move Satsuki has made since frame one, and you have a culture of exploitation where both the unstoppable forces and immovable objects are in a constant state of strategic puppetry. It’s a sly thematic addition that undercuts a great deal of the show. Within the harsh, pyramid-like structure they are scrapping in, noone seems capable of coming off without looking a little parasitic.
The need to exploit in order to maintain the status-quo (or break it) is high in this series as Honnouji almost plays like the ultimate parody of otaku servitude. While we are indeed watching a show supposedly set in a high school, there are tons of potshots being fired at fictions the young must endure in the name of societal idealism. Be it by use of status, and name dropping as a means to get ahead, rig a game, or just plain circumvent it by way of hyperbolic fisticuffs, Kill la Kill seems eager to bite numerous feeding hands. Even the show’s initial conceit of having Ryuko and various other characters reduced to compromising half-nudity (or is it really “most nudity”?) hints at the exploitation anime companies have been forced to employ in hopes of maintaining what remains of an audience. One only need look at our hero’s reactions to all of this and imagine the animation staff feeling the same “are you kidding me?” manner as projects grow more and more desperate. Everything is at the edge of collapse, and this show’s landscape never lets us forget it.
We can see numerous shades of Japan’s competitive societal norms being lambasted by way of the show’s action and often unsubtle gag barrage. What really sends it all home is in how the aforementioned culture of exploitation makes itself so well known in what has become my favorite episode in #7. Without spoiling anything, this single episode parodies virtually every “perils of success” moral tale imaginable, culminating in one of the most satisfying fights in recent anime history. By making all characters fallible to the illusory nature of success on the bruised backs of the ordinary, we are given a critique on Japanese competitiveness that even rivals the work of one Takami Koshun. (It’s perhaps no accident that Ryuko’s proto-yankii nature is reminiscent of many 1980s stereotypes of working class teens.) Even her adversaries represent different shades of Japan’s “ganbare”/”shogannai” culture, complete with self-flagellating samurai spirits, and a need to mold the youth into the perfect infrastructural ideal. Even our heroine’s often bullish nature isn’t given a romantic treatment. She is often portrayed as inefficient, and ever rash about her strategies. But as adversaries grow increasingly intimidating, it is her openness to unorthodox thinking that often works. It is in her relationship with the scene stealing Mako and the rest of the Makenshoku family, that we are granted some semblance of an emotional core. Perhaps the bastion of faith she stands on in order to face the system on its own playing field. They are the everypeople of the series, doing their best in the maelstrom called their reality.
But furthering this theory, is in what motivates alpha and omega as the story draws toward what should be a finale that could rival Gurren Lagaan’s mammoth climax. When looking closer at what society under Satsuki wants, versus others, plenty comes into focus. Where Satsuki sees solutions in plots within plots, all often in the name of fabric-like consistency, all Ryuko wants is some semblance of closure by way of the truth. She may have gained something of a new family through Mako’s simple-living clan, but it is in this need for understanding that all this crazy is endlessly unleashed upon her. And even as many fight and claw to gain stature within the world model that has been in place since Satsuki took power, there is often a question of what manner of world do others wish to create. So many here are well entrenched, and will do anything to climb the ladder that is dangling before them, whereas Ryuko would sooner break it into splinters. Not unlike the student council of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, a world unmade is hinted at if not explicitly stated. Both poles of this war seem to originate from homes with fragmented families, and yet could not be more different in approach. Micro versus Macro.
And while I am sure that Kill la Kill is not terribly interested in positing alternatives to this world of panic and wayward id, it is at the very least enamored with the idea that things are on the cusp of great change. Much like how I look at anime now versus a decade ago when more seemed to be better. One does not always have to play the game to win. And even when Imaishi seems poised toward making fans choke on a medium’s more cheeky natures, perhaps that is the real goal. The whole thing is like a gauntlet of frustration made manifest in an orgy of silly. While the show revels in its excesses like a junkie’s last great binge, there are fragments of a more pointed mind stewing beneath. A presence doing its best to keep the whole thing from going off a bridge in flames.
Never imagined a show featuring so much underboob would have so much to say about the current state of affairs, but there it is, diary. Now that the canvas has just been widened by the entrance of those likely behind Satsuki’s deep seated disdain for unbridled ambition, I seriously cannot help but wonder where the hell all of this leads.
Anthology series are often such a rare recipe for even mild success that it’s a surprise to many when they do pop up. And in Japan, when such a concept is applied to the animated world, this becomes quadruply rare. Even after popular shows such as World Masterpiece Theater, and the like, the science fiction vignette concept certainly sounded like a perfect marriage. Especially in the latter 1980s, when the genre and the medium seemed at perfect sync with each other. So when looking back at the lost OVA series, Twilight Q, I am reminded of what potential might have been, and how certain animators saw it as a means to stretch their experimental wings- perhaps to its detriment. A defiantly literate concept, Q was the coming together of what would become something of a dream team of anime luminaries. Produced by a very young pre-Bandai Visual, and with only two episodes to its name, it remains something of a footnote in the history of these would-be legends.
First Episode: Time Knot – Reflection
The first installment concerns teen girl, Mayumi who on vacation with a friend, discovers a near-intact camera on a beach with mysterious clues written all over. After attempting to develop pictures from a roll within the eater resistant casing, most is indecipherable save for one shocking image – one of her with a boy she has never met before. Troubled by this, her best pal’s big brother takes it upon himself to investigate the camera’s origins, only to discover that it is not of any preceding/present time frame! A very laid back, and almost poetic journey ensues as Mayumi (and in turn, the audience) is taken on a trip between eras that not only explain her role in all of this, but of Japan’s path toward ecological disaster. Written by longtime Oshii collaborator, Kazunori Ito, there are clear parallels to what would become a solid theme in his work, looking into a nation’s less than flattering past as a means to ensure young people like Mayumi some manner of clarity. While less science fiction than wisftul, Time Knot is presented in a more deceptively sunny, reflective manner than one would expect. And also contained within its very short running time, an almost stealthy level of meta-humor holding it all together.
Ito, and director, Tomomi Mochizuki (Ranma 1/2, Umi Ga Kikoeru) take full advantage of the short’s sunny skies, and light-hearted musings to paint a portrait of prosperity on borrowed time. As Mayumi finds herself drawn even further into the mystery, there is almost a feeling as if it isn’t merely time that is being manipulated, but also reality. The implications of Mayumi’s world being a quasi-parody of anime’s overt compensation for reality, is a potent one if viewers are willing to take the trip. Even without it, there is plenty to chew on considering how brief the short is. On top of this, the presentation remains gorgeous.
And then run headlong into..the second and FINAL episode..
Mystery Article File 538
What one could consider an odyssey into social isolation, and borderline obsessive insanity, 538 tells the tale of a lone detective who has found disturbing typed testimonial whilst investigating the connection between a recent rash of jumbo jet disappearances, and the lives of a man, and his toddler “daughter” in a disheveled apartment. And the closer we intently listen, the more confessional, and bizarre the tale becomes. From the very beginning, the totems of a particular anime voice are established loud and clear as we listen to the narration being read, and the revelations that this case has indeed been going on longer than many might imagine. Obsessions with endless meals of noodles, lack of human interaction, detailed descriptions of a life cloistered, and even imagery of JAL planes becoming scaled, breathing carp telltale the presence of the one and only Mamoru Oshii. And in classic form for the anime auteur, the findings in File 538 are less about aliens, espers, or time travelers, it is more of the surreality that is modern Japanese life.
Very much a spiritual follow-up to perhaps his most obtuse work, Tenshi No Tamago, 538 is much more concerned with atmospheric montage and rambling theory than perhaps Oshii’s most impenetrable works. As we are drawn into the lives of the aforementioned “man”, and his pantsless toddler child, are are also given glimpses into the hidden metropolitan. Parts of Tokyo that have become reclaimed, and often discarded whilst the economic engines of the era pretend that all is fine. There are even some challenging notions regarding Japan’s role in the contemporary asian sphere as we see both nature and human sprawl scroll across the screen. In many ways, the obsessions displayed in 538 are ones that would eventually become major components of Oshii’s more mainstream works to come (most notably the first PATLABOR film, which was clearly in the wings at this point). It’s clear that despite his yen for comedy, Oshii’s temperament had decidedly become more solemn, more sober in only a mere few years. 538 is a mostly forgotten, but important bridge between a famed director’s most well-defined poles.
It’s also no wonder that the concept only lasted as long as it had. Even in the formative days of anime as global populist entertainment, this is perhaps as uncompromising as it gets. And while Twilight Q might not seem to be the best, most well-realized hidden treasure anime around, it is certainly one of the most interesting. As the opening warning in red states; This is a show that is capable of controlling your reality. And as a very brief visitor, I was certainly hooked
Having traveled far, with a small hill of defeated enemies behind her, sailor fuku sporting toughie, Ryuki Matoi may very well have found those responsible for the death of her father in the brutal regime known as Honnoji Academy. With the net abuzz post pilot episode, it looks very well like the spirit of Ryoko Ikeda is alive and kicking with a perverse blood transfusion via Studio Trigger’s Kill La Kill. The latest series directed and written by the same team responsible for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan, Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima. A project that retains much of the predecessor’s warped yen for riff, with production to spare. And what the pilot episode seems to give off, is in many ways a return to Gainax’s classic formula where tried and true staples of the past is given an often hyperbolic, occasionally hypersexed sheen.
As for whether this debut works or not, perhaps it’s best to admit that outside of style, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal beyond the expected wild imagery and occasionally awkward sexualization of action tropes. While it is everything one would expect from Imaishi and crew, there is not a great deal more here beyond the establishment of the lone fighter versus the totalitarian school and their gallery of student council weirdos. Yes. There is certainly a masculine Utena at work here as posturing is fiery, and bold text is whooshing across the screen. The presentation is brutal and vibrant, but there is something clearly already missing from the proceedings. While one can be considered grateful that the scatological fetishism of Dead Leaves remain long gone, there remains an ever present “why”, in regards to making jokes at the expense of a character being assaulted. There is no good reason, outside of some strange aim to be humorous- which is tricky to get behind.
With a “boyish” attitude, and readiness to take on a seemingly invincible army of single-minded stormtroopers in strength enhancing uniforms, the show’s apparent bent comes at the latter half of the episode when Ryuko stumbles upon, and is accosted by a talking, animated (!!) seifuku known as Senketsu. And what ensues, is best described as an attempt at a humorous rape scene, which ends with our heroine becoming near-invincible. (again, interpret as you will) And while one can also see the episode’s remaining minutes as something of a sideeye to such a creative choice, as Ryuko seems to maintain her aim as unyielding avenger, it is pretty hard to shake off. Also in the choice’s defense, is a reminder that a lot of Gurren Lagaan’s more playful subtext involved the occasional homoeroticism that tipped the balance in a fun sort of manner. And it isn’t hard to see how this is element is going to play out with the first episode’s head baddie in masculine-dressed student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin. Not sure how to feel about that one.
So for what it’s all worth, Kill La Kill debuts with a great deal of the expected immature machismo & penchant for bending the classics. Will I be able to weather it’s storm of usual suspects throughlines, as well as its clear “clothing is weakness” trajectory? Only a few more courtesy viewings may tell.
Oh, and did I happen to mention that Ryuko wields an extra large half of a pair of red scissors?
Personally speaking, the best one can wish for in regards to those who inspire and imbue us, is for them to seek (and hopefully find) truest happiness. Already several glances at today’s news, and here I am, hoping it is indeed true. Several hours into the morning, and the news of animation legend, Hayao Miyazaki announcing his retirement from feature direction has been bouncing across my screen like colored lights at a pachinko parlor. And while the animation fan community shares with the expected sad face emoticons and sentimental musings, the only thing that will come out from me as response is, “this had better be serious this time”. Much like another breakup announcement by The Cure, the retirement of this cartoon grandmaster has been one that has been long delayed, and is a relief to hear.
And it isn’t due to any direct disapproval, or wish for any manner of ill will, but rather that in the years post Mononoke Hime (1997), there simply hasn’t been the same manner of flare in Miyazaki’s works that have felt as strident, or as important. Often escalating in visual quality, and much less in narrative or spiritual immediacy, his films have become an almost thinly veiled lament over his inability to retire peacefully. There simply hasn’t been as much for him to say in a while outside of either screeds against contemporary Japan(Chihiro), or to merely dabble in less involved, less coherent tributes to the written works of others. And while there were truly some memorable images and scenes in the films post-1997, it often felt as if there was this lingering feeling that the last word had been said, and everything else was a perfunctory series of bitter and indifferent post-scripts.
But prior to all of this, his career with Studio Ghibli has remained and will remain an all-important benchmark in animation history. From his early television work, to his run with the now Disney-like icon of a wheelhouse, it will be hard to imagine another creative name who will have such a wide-reaching impact. His thematic and artistic imprint has grown to influence generations of visual story lovers, and likely will continue to for generations more. Even as word spreads that he may remain with Ghibli in some other supervisory capacity, it can be finally said without hint of irony, and in best supportive voice, “arigatou kantoku”. (Be free.)
For those less familiar with many of the other things I tend to post on the internet, I also happen to share views of other forms of entertainment via The Wandering Kaijyu, a blog where I can often wax about films and projects both standard and weird. And I have long made it important to draw parallels between a lifelong love of genre, and works that often succeed beyond the fun, offering more thematic meat than some might expect. And what does any of this have to do with anime? Simple, really. The binding polymer between all these writings has always been a search for a healthy mixture of revelation and nuance. A means for the epic to be balanced alongside the personal. That increasingly elusive juice that binds many great tales of the fantastic. It is not enough that a film distract us, they also must speak to smaller, more intimate matters that concern on a plane akin to our own.
They need to connect.
Be it anime, film, play, book, painting, music, this is a grand mission shared by the collective whether conscious or not. And only a mere few works gel in ways that can honestly be considered important to a cultural landscape. That moment where adults and children can look back into their shared memories and conjure that rare sense of genuine, breathless awe. A touchpoint where grand myths make an indelible mark between generations.
And I’ll be damned if Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim doesn’t become one of them.
One part apocalyptic allegory, and one part massive tribute to anime and tokusatsu films of yesteryear, Pacific Rim tells the tale of humanity’s final gamble against a destructive onslaught of gargantuan monsters hailing from a fissure beneath the seas. Years into the seemingly incessant attacks by the well-dubbed, “Kaiju”, the people of Earth instill the Jaeger Program, an international force, utilizing mammoth robots in hopes of fighting back the inevitable. And while taking the fight to the kaiju had long proven successful, the tide was inevitably turned, leading to humanity opting to scrap the program in lieu of a last ditch plan to build walls of protection. Even as reports come in that even this option may very well be in vain, once celebrated Jaeger Program leader, Marshall Stacker Pentecost(Idris Elba) chooses to take his team and go it alone to seek out what remains of their now dwindling resources. And as the once hailed champions of humanity find themselves all but completely decimated, he chooses to tap former Jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket(Charlie Hunnam) of the US class mecha, Gipsy Danger to suit back up years after a crippling loss that killed his brother & partner. Soon convinced to return with Pentecost to the Shatterdome(the final place of operations near Hong Kong), it is not long before Becket witnesses the full desperate scale of matters, as the once mighty Jaeger corps has recently dropped to a paltry four.
Now down to Russia’s Cherno Alpha (with team comprised of a husband and wife), China’s Crimson Typhoon (a hyper-articulated machine piloted by triplets), and Australia’s swiftly dangerous Striker Eureka (piloted by father & son, Herc & Chuck Hansen), Becket’s lack of sureness to return to the defense of the human race is tested by loss. One of the film’s greatest challenges to convey to an audience is easily the concept of The Drift; a truly Evangelion-esque concept of psychic bonding between person and machine. Only this time, in order for a Jaeger to truly reach full fighting potential, a pair of pilots require a most intimate and unusual co-mingling of memories and psyche. And since Becket’s brother was his ultimate expression of this, his faith that something that strong could ever come again is in deep doubt. That is until he meets Mako Mori(Rinko Kikuchi), a young survivor of the first kaiju attacks and long adopted ward of Pentecost, who naturally does whatever in his power to not allow this duo to come to be, even when the bond gels so naturally. The conflicts between what remains of this final push back by humankind is at the core of the film, and is ultimately Pacific Rim’s beating heart.
So when it finally comes time for viewers to experience the much-anticipated battles between humanity bearing mechanized behemoths, and an army of marauding giants from the sea, the film goes into full-blown anime mirthland. These are not merely battles that pull back and allow us a complete view of the action from a safe space, these are fight scenes, willing to dig deep, and grant us a pilot’s side seat, confusion and all as storm waters clash upon both sets of titans. It’s a truly bold and impressive move by Del Toro, and Industrial Light & Magic, who seek out an expansion beyond the days of Japanese SFX pioneers such as Eiji Tsuburaya, and yet never forget their roots. Covering both the systematic and the human, the camera, light work, choreography and soundtrack offer up one of the most impressive melange of its kind ever made. We are in there with them, and we feel every slug, drop, splash & crash. And the drama of each battle is kept fully in check as we are never neglected in understanding where we are, and what is happening, which is pretty rare. It is a bravura thrill ride experience in the best sense of the cliche. Even when you are done recovering your jaw from your seat, there’s still more. The Battle Of Hong Kong alone would make for an impressive climax, and even so, this isn’t the end.
At the center of all the spectacle onscreen, is Del Toro’s and screenwriter, Travis Beacham’s contention that despite our greater gains in technology, the most important component of survival is unfettered human connection. And it is a constant throughout the piece as we are whisked from location to location, continuously reminded of a need for all of us to reach out, and allow for others to come in despite our respective situations. The thread of Becket and Mori, and their development also does wonders in this as it avoids the pratfalls of oh so many summer blockbusters. It ditches the obvious in the name of making its point succinctly clear. Intimacy and understanding between disparate souls is both miraculous, and necessary, and their arc is explored beautifully in almost dead-on Sunrise anime style. Even when things are super generalized (the film is still largely written broadly for younger people, and is not meant to be taken as seriously as so many recent big releases- think Star Wars: A New Hope, and you’re about there), there is a sincerity that runs through that is incredibly rare in movies of this scope nowadays. Strangely enough, I don’t think I have felt this way about a movie since 2008’s Speed Racer. Beyond a need to cash in on what some industry names love about Japanese pop culture, there is also deep-rooted admiration for that world’s often unerring straight-forwardness, which is refreshing for Hollywood film. (What that says about us as a culture? I leave to you.) For those unfamiliar with the works of Guillermo Del Toro, this might very well be the spell that spurs one to look at his back catalogue. He’s a director who knows his fantasy as well as his monsters. And he applies it here with a reverence that is impeccable.
And boy, what reverence!
To think that we are in an era where we could see a film that strives to pay homage to everything from Go Nagai to Hideaki Anno, and still retain its own unique soul, is a miracle in and of itself. While not as interested in playing “spot-that-reference” as say..The Matrix, there is plenty hidden despite the film’s incredible pacing and urgency. From weaponry right out of Voltes V, Mazinger-Z, and others, to some thrilling new takes on giants almost breaking out in professional wrestling moves ala Ultraman, there is much to be mined for those versed in the culture, but does not discount those new to this particular realm. From the design of the previously mentioned Shatterdome, with its upright hoists, carrying each respective Jaeger, to their launch setups that evoke so much Evangelion, it is all clearly made with so much love and understanding of the mediums/genres, that the mind boggles at how any of this was produced and not excised by some studio. Heck, we even have a fist-fight between “brothers” that smacks of oh-so many classic 1970’s rivalries between comrades. In a world post Speed Racer, all of this is brought to life much in the spirit of the film’s final mission against the monstrous hordes; with serious passion and a go-for-broke attitude. Heck, even Hunnam’s performance which many may consider to be hammy, is done so in the manner of many a Bang Zoom! dub. It all feels deeply intentional. Del Toro has been granted full control here, and he plays it his love for all things mecha melodrama like a final shot at the title. He spares us nothing, and it is a pure thrill.
And as much as I would like to lay it all on Del Toro for making this what it is, there is a sense of family that persists in his film shoots that clearly happened here. Even as an artist himself, Del Toro surrounds himself with some of the more passionate names in the industry, and it shines brightly here from crew to cast. The overall look and palette of the film takes a cue from a mix of Blade Runner and previous Del Toro visual motifs by way of art directors, Patrick Neskoromny, Carol Spier and others. The entire look and feel of the film is unlike anything I have seen before, and it is a large collaboration of fantastic artisans that went allowing Pacific Rim to feel and pulsate with life as it does. The world building is sparse in its edit, but dense enough to imply a comic-style world on the brink. And on top of all this, the kaiju themselves are truly unique, and utterly terrifying in their morphology and abilities.The entire affair is harmonious in the name of the film’s emotional core which is never lost, even as the film’s action reaches often crazy levels.
Adding to the old-fashioned comic flavor of the film are fun performances by Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and of course, Del Toro regular, Ron Perlman, who’s role as the successful-yet-slimy kaiju parts merchant, Hannibal Chau is memorable enough to warrant his own movie. Elba’s Pentecost is the classic conflicted leader who must remain a fixed point even as things are crumbling all around humanity. It’s a meaty and occasionally fun performance that more than makes up for his truncated turn in last year’s PROMETHEUS. But the real discovery here, is the winning performance of Rinko Kikuchi as the reserved, yet noble Mori. A character that could so easily have been treated like so many others in previous genre works. She is portrayed as a person long seeking some manner of closure for the loss of her family due to an early kaiju attack, but up until now has had no real way to seek it. Now on the cusp of a choice that could change her fortune forever, Kikuchi plays Mori as a person yearning for even-earned connection, something she has yet to achieve on her own. This is not about being a love-interest, this is about identifying with others who share her sorrows despite a shared fighting spirit inside. It is a memorable turn among many impressive ones.
Looking back at the history of my writings regarding movies of the fantastic, and celebrating the world’s yearning for shared myths, I can honestly say that only a strict few can ever be considered evergreen moments. And when each of them hit, it was often unexpected, and game changing in regards to movie trends and overall attitudes. For those looking for something a little more nuanced and open-ended, this isn’t such a film. It simply doesn’t intend to do more than it does, and what it does, it succeeds wholeheartedly. I am sincerely envious of today’s youth, growing up in a time where Pacific Rim exists. This is a film constructed out of true love for things I continue to hold close to my heart, and it pulls it all off with sincerity and energy unlike any other film I have seen this year. It knows and wields the hot blooded passion of the past, and holds open its arms in hopes for futures rife with potential. Most importantly, it all retains a humanity that is becoming all too rare in big releases. We don’t get experiences like this in theatres very often, so make sure to share this one with anyone you connect well with, be it family or friends. A heartfelt bridge between gaps beats loudly through Pacific Rim, and it is one not to be missed.
To hell with adaptations. This is how one does it.