Tag Archives: Anime Feature Films

Your Name(2016): A Telling Tale (Film Thoughts)

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In the race for anime box office domination (a race largely reserved for studios, and the occasional anime industry wonk), the unexpected can often be the most telling barometer of where art and commerce are currently merging. A dance that can often illustrate, befuddle, depress, and justify. But after finally stepping from the dark, and mulling about Makoto Shinkai’s runaway blockbuster, I am again reminded that sentiment, no matter how awkward, can be a powerful force for escapism. Adding to my still controversial relationship with the auteur’s output, the sentiment exuded in often bizarre increments by Your Name, remains a concentrated reminder that for all one’s diet for japanese animation, it takes a specific openness to quirk to overcome what has become something of a signature. Your Name, while the most standard across the surface of Shinkai’s work, stands as a veritable carnival of his best and worst tendencies.

Taking the term, En Media Res to it’s most most absurd conclusion, Shinkai throws us into the plot with all the swift-cut ferocity of an anime television teaser.(Seriously. This is a film with not one- but two segues into anime television opening montages.) City boy, Taki(Ryunosuke Kamiki) awakens, but something isn’t right. His body is swollen in some strange places, his home is now in the sticks, and he has no idea how he got there. Meanwhile, country girl, Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) is again occupying the body of a young high school boy with a yen for architecture, a crush at work, and some perplexed buddies. Especially in regards to his ability to suddenly talk with girls, and needlepoint. Both sides of this 1980s style body-switch scenario are taking in that both kids are indeed acting strangely, and that they seemed rather out of sorts the previous day. To both Taki and Mitsuha, there are no clues as to what is causing this, but handy mobile phone blog apps are providing clues to these bodies they are forcibly borrowing, and the confusion they’re causing. But can either of them ever permanently retain their respective bodies again? What kind of irrational hocus pocus is behind this shared affliction? And will Shinkai ever be able to maintain a cohesive narrative without falling back to his safe zone – the wistful, longing voice-over?

Without spoiling too much, the film does come at the audience fast and with greater energy than is common for the filmmaker’s more glacial speed. We are quickly granted glimpses into the lives of our protagonists, and their respective backgrounds. Especially true of Mitsuha, who’s father abandoned the family business of priesthood for township mayor, in a town with only a few friends, no real hangouts, save for their idea of a cafe, which is a rural bench near a coffee vending machine. These moments are endearing, but are often too brief to properly absorb. And while we do get a little background on Taki, his background does feel the real end of the shrift. He is well-to-do Japanese city boy, which is an archetype that is never given any proper background outside of the occasional crush. The film is often too busy to marinate, which is strange for Shinkai, who attempts to get out of his safer first gear, only to imitate a teen with a new car; endless stops, starts, and sudden leaps forward. Your Name, never seems to find a footing until the third act, in which case finds itself in a pacing quagmire that threatens to render the film numbing.

There are the expected sentimental images of dynamic skies, a reverence for tranquil nature, and a yearning for some form of grounded meaning amongst youthful recollection. Like the last twenty years of anime, there is a neverending nod toward some nebulous past that drives Shinkai’s work that echoes a cross between Anno and perhaps even the often forgotten Tomomi Mochizuki, but lacking in the same complexity. His works often feel like an echo rather than a spark, and with Your Name, there is this ever growing sense of the familiar that reeks of everything that has come before, without a terrible amount of freshness. Even as the film attempts to reconcile the plight of our heroes with the cosmic, and the musubi threads that bind us together, the notion never truly finds a place to be properly absorbed. The notion in a story is vital, but like proper sun and moisture, it becomes hard to effectively feel anything that is to be felt. We can gawk all we want, but to truly feel, that is at the heart of what it is to come away from a work forever changed. Which is why it’s one thing to talk about that feeling, and actually experiencing a sensation. Your Name, spends a lot of time trying so hard to obtain this, yet never allows the reins to its world, allowing viewers to take in more than a pat ideal about connection and resonance. By the end, I had no real understanding why these characters would or should find resonance with each other beyond the confines of the story.

It’s a gorgeous film for sure. It’s just too bad that for all it’s greater aspirations, the final piece never finds comfort in prolonged immersion with these charming characters. Every time a gag begins to work, the narrative grinds gears once again, skipping pertinent information that would be better explored in clearly animated terms. Very often, all we get are the occasional line explaining what happened. As if apologizing for a scene that simply had no time to be made. As a result, the film feels helplessly incomplete.

If the goal was to treat humans as proxies for collated data, we could easily watch Ghost In The Shell, but what Your Name implies within the premise, never runs further than skin deep. And if this is what passes for a complete entertainment experience, I’m quite curious about what it is they are seeing. Because for me, I see a grand missed opportunity to tell a tale of better understanding one another via cosmic circumstances. Which still feels like a goal worth exploring. Maybe five more films will be the charm?

The Pure, Savage Fury Of REDLINE

 

There comes a time when it feels as if the things you liked have up and passed you by, or encompassed nowhere near the appeal that they once embraced, allowing you to be pulled in with insurmountable force. It could either be that a) one has outgrown these things, or b) trends & concepts have steered into territory that lack the attraction as previously mentioned. The thrill is gone, the experimentation, excitement, piss & vinegar, watered down into something non-resembling anything appealing. The end result is a feeling of scraping the ashen, desolate dregs of the former landscape for just about any remaining flints, or gobs of fuel capable of instilling the old, once-tangible high. Anything for that flame to begin again, no matter how brief.

Enter Takeshi Koike’s long-awaited REDLINE….

In Media Res, we are launched face-first into the final stretch of the Yellow Line, a legendary, yet horrifically dangerous all-terrain road race hosting a bevy of speed freaks from numerous planets. It is here that we are introduced to several racers, including humanoids, the amphibious Crab-driving Sonoshee McClaren & killer pompadour wearing Trans-Am longshot, JP, often known to the fans as “Sweet JP”. As wagers fly, coverage of the race spanning multiple networks, and nervous gangsters look on, it is looking like JP’s penchant for spectacularly rigged flameouts is about to be broken by an unexpected victory. It is mere seconds before this is rendered moot, however, as JP’s Trans-Am is partially detonated at the home stretch, leaving its driver in the hospital, and McClaren the winner, and lead qualifier for the most infamous of races, the REDLINE. A race so secret, even racers aren’t notified well into the last microsecond. A mild humiliation, and perhaps a quiet dream of  actually winning legitimately, JP’s role seems to be over – that is until he is slotted by default to be a replacement racer after several qualifiers suddenly drop out. Turns out that the location selected for this hallowed carnivale of speedy carnage is none other than the soverign rock known as Roboworld; a dangerous planet of metal titans, determined to quash any , and all entities looking to race within their atmo..But alas, the race is on..

Years of waiting, this has been the MADHOUSE production that I had been following on and off since peeps began floating around that Takeshi Koike, and Katsuhito Ishii(also responsible for Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl)  would be collaborating on a wholly original animated feature with something of a hefty budget. And in the years that followed, and the revelations that anime studios were beginning to shut down, and the essential climate for anything other than trope-heavy pep was to be something of a dying breed, my hopes had been beginning to fade that this, along with other projects, would never see the light of a projector, let alone the glow of an HD screen. And as the very concept of the full-length anime feature was beginning to look like a forgotten relic outside of Ghibli, and the Ghibli-inspired, tiny sparks of light began to appear in those neglected places. And it finally seemed like REDLINE was to actually become a completed work. Flash forward to May 2010, when Twitter buddy, and science fiction author, Tim Maughan shared his thoughts on the completed film after catching it across the Atlantic. And it all immediately came to mind that if anime was in need of anything vital, it is a wholly original, all-encompassing piece of work that could possibly speak within form, rather than through means most safe to the already initiated.

After a year-plus, I can say with utmost sincerity that REDLINE can very well be that film.

A boundary-ripping exercise in form, Koike’s movie is a ride for the ages that is pure sensory bliss from start to finish. Much more a testing ground for cinematic world-building than story, the tale of JP and his adventures toward reaching for the dream is more excuse to take us through the colorfully kinetic world & ecosystems that inhabit the piece. Part studio 4c-style experimental film, and part Heavy Metal comic gone berzerk, just about every corner of the frame is packed with business that is equally as fun and fascinating as what is happening in the foreground. From the diversity of alien, and machine species, to their mannerisms, as well as fashion and decorum do wonders to populate what is eaily one of the most insanely fun anime films to scope deep into since AKIRA. Even as the story grants us enough charm in the form of likeable loser (with an iffy past-of course..) JP, who longs to not only go the distance, but perhaps break free from shackles no doubt assisted by loyal-yet ultimately sold-out mechanic, Frisbee, the film find its way to keep matters fun without bogging the film down with stock cliches (something I can’t help but feel helped sink TEKKONKINKREET-  studio 4c film that fell victim to this to a certain extent). There is even an attempt to infuse a little drama in between the main characters that doesn’t amount to a great deal. But as mentioned before, if a story is light in places, it helps to compensate in other areas. And this film is stocked to the gills with more than enough to help it glide past.

Oh sure there are dozens of fun characters to witness here that warrant mention. One of the film’s more standout elements is how well it identifies each of the event’s main racers, along with their vehicles, and temperaments. Living up to the original teaser SuperBoin are especially ridiculous in their loyalty to their diminutive princess. There is also the frightening duo of bounty hunters who look like they ran off the set of yet another speedball-injected shonen series, and smack into matters. And another duo that look like a parody of every other comedy duo featured on weekly Nihon TV. There is a satirical edge to much of the TV spots featured in the film that feel lifted from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. A more than welcome piece of humor, and exposition that only raises the stakes as Day Zero for REDLINE approaches. (Wait, is that a Koroshiya Ichi gag? And wait, is that Zigorow??)

 

Even as the film occasionally diverts away from the core narrative to grant us looks into how the rogue’s gallery racers is preparing for the big event, as well as how the erm-citizens of Roboworld are taking all of this, there is a certain fluidity to matters that them feel more matter of course, rather than outright digressions. Koike and Ishii (along with contributions by anime surrealism scribe, Yoji Enokido) seem to have found a brilliant sandbox to work within, and all that extra time toward completing the production pays off by allowing the film room to breathe within the mad organics of the world, giving us just enough to laugh and gaze in wonder. There are slight flashes of atypical anime-ess, but one of REDLINE’s greatest strengths is that it is unlike any anime previously created in long form. Just as Koike’s previous works in the Wachowskis’ ANIMATRIX project (World Record), and in the quirky OVA, Trava: Fist Planet, we are looking into worlds beyond the safe and familiar, and personally speaking, this is truly exciting territory to explore. When it is made clear that Roboworld’s bio-engineered weapons are near-poised to be used on our unsuspecting racers and spectators, the film becomes a free-for-all that threatens to almost derail the film completely. And yet, despite all this, again, Koike’s direction, with an astounding amount of animation work, and artistry that is the medium’s equivalent to an extended FANTASIA sequence infused by a hard pounding techno soundtrack, and a penchant for the purely hallucinogenic, it’s all functionally alive in ways anime simply hasn’t been in years.

And we won’t go too much into what is perhaps the most obvious element of this near out-of-control interstellar racing opus, the racing. But this is truly where the film completely goes for broke with astonishing design, jaw-dropping choreography, and some seriously mind-boggling frame rates. If the wild universe Koike and staff have unleashed upon the world haven’t impressed enough already, the opener and closer for the film certainly will for years to come.

It has been a long, truly winding road to find anime that is capable of inspiring not only animators, and anime fans, but anyone truly appreciative of the power of cinema. There is something primal and exciting about works that not only offer fun and surprises, but brings with them a battery of passion & energy that can only be shared through experience. After years of merely adequate features that skirted familiar territory, it’s so refreshing to see such a classic metaphor interpreted with so much energy. This is a film that demands repeat viewings, and is as exciting to listen to as to watch. It is a thrilling gateway drug experience, as well as a bountiful sensory feast for lovers of wild cinema. Was well worth the wait, and essential to any connisseuer’s collection. But if it comes to your town for a theatrical run, get ready to bust down some doors. Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to pure anime.

Fan Service As Pop Genius: Project A-ko

They aim to misbehave..

 

Superhuman action, mecha, galactic-scale collateral damage, and in-your-face fan service; as rote and perhaps expected as these elements are within the anime medium, it can be argued that there is a science to making it all work beyond the confines of the time in which it was made. Not unlike a well-timed comedic moment, or even a tightly constructed plot reveal, it is often more about execution, rather than originality. So when I make mention of a feature film originally meant to be an installment of the legendary “Cream Lemon” series of proto-H anime shorts, one may also be surprised to know just how important Yuji Moriyama & Kazuhiko Nishijima’s Project A-ko is to modern anime, as well as projects of the past which it lampoons with biting wit, and boundless energy. So when the sneaky minds at Discotek Media announced that they were planning to bring this title back to home video, one can only imagine my reaction.

So what does it mean when someone like myself who tends to dismiss most ouput that relies on so many of the aforementioned tropes, and gimmicks regards one title with an unending love and admiration reserved for Masterpiece Theatre material? Two simple words; Application and precedent. When looking back at everything this project brought to the forefront during the industry’s heyday, one can easily see that this was a film that could by no means be made today. Or even ten years ago for that matter. Truly an artifact of it’s time, and yet by way of sheer audacity, it remains something of a cult classic, even among fans of Japanese animation. But should you ever meet a fan, it is often the kind of fandom rivalling a dangerous crush. And possibly the prime reason for this is how much A-ko loves and adores the art of animation, and the possibilties of comics. It’s a wildly enthusiastic hug to all within the realms of fantasy- particularly pulp superhero & science fiction. And yet it does all of this without alienating potential converts. No easy task, as the film is chock full of some impressive anime & manga in-gags, as it careens wildly around a simple one-joke conceit that hardly disguises itself as a plot.

The ::sic:: PLOT:

 

At it’s very essence, Project A-ko is the tale of a schoolyard girl brawl gone horribly awry. It’s Eiko (A-ko) Magami’s first day in a new school during a whole new day in Graviton City. ( A happy-shiny megalopolis constructed over a crater forged by a devastating meteor impact years prior to our tale.) Along for the day’s first class is her definitively dim-witted best buddy Shiko (C-ko-ERGH..) Kotobuki. A short, blonde-haired, childlike creature decked with cuteness to spare, and blessed with all the charm of a bad ringtone in a movie theater.Their first day in class is in many ways hectic enough, but only becomes worse when the seemingly well-mannered model student, Biko Daitokuji finds herself entranced by the fire-alarm charms of C-ko. So she takes it upon herself to claim what she feels is rightfully hers, by way of any dirty trick that could be devised by the beautiful heiress. Unlucky for her is the revelation that the redheaded transfer student in A-ko, is endowed with….wait for it….superhuman strength, and incredible speed! It is within this bizarre quasi-love triangle that the show begins in earnest, and only exacerbates when it is discovered that a group of aliens are watching from above- in search of their lost princess, who may, or may not be who we think she is…But knowing just how defiantly the film wishes to play with things, it is pretty easy to figure out. But the REAL fun is when we as audience begin to ask the burning question…WHY? By why ask why, when the surprises don’t end there?  Can Graviton City survive?

 

One-step solutions.

 

Confessions Of A Near-20 Year Homeless Alien

From mistaken identities, to hand-to-hand girl-on-mecha action, to some incredibly staged action sequences, (Yes, even by today’s standards.)  the film continuously flirts with going completely off-the-rails insane, and yet, never loses the ability to decompress by laughing at itself. It fully knows what it is, and gets completely drunk on it by the finale as three parties seem primed to destroy virtually everything around them over something so patently absurd.

Now I won’t go into any detail regarding the many anime references littered throughout the film as it is well-cataloged all over the internet, but I will make mention of the wealth of talent involved- which is pretty astonishing. Names such as Toshiyuki Kubooka ( Giant Robo, Gunbuster, the Lunar game series), Atsuko Nakajima (Ranma 1/2, Trinity Blood), Kia Asamiya (Steam Detectives, Silent Mobius), as well as a personal favorite, Tsukasa Dokite (Dirty Pair) who’s main contribution to the piece remains, at least to me, one of the defining moments of the anime medium. A gag so wildly over the top hysterical, it demands keeping the remote close by. In fact, there are many “did I just see that?” moments in the film, it is hard to pick them all out on first viewing. In the days before CG-intervention, many of A-ko’s visual charms range from the charmingly simple, to the out-right bizarre.

Also worthy of note are the audio contributions made by the cast, as well as the unforgettable score by Ritchie Zito, and future J-pop darling, Joey Carbone (who went on to write several songs for Johnny’s Jimusho). The score is a pitch-perfect mixture of synth & rock from the Top Gun school of film scoring, which plays beautifully with the film’s vibrant primary colored universe. Featuring early vocal work by Michie Tomizawa (Linna in BGC & Rei in Sailor Moon) as the potentially savant C-ko, as well as Emi Shinohara, who went on to become Makoto in Sailor Moon as well. Her Biko is something of a cool spin on the Lex Luthor archetype which actually wins points for making her something of a sympathetic villain, even when it is clear that this is a young lady OBSESSED. When she sheds tears, assuming her role as villain in this predicament, one can’t help but jibe a little. And this is part of the secret weapon Project A-ko hides underneath its spectacle & unrestrained ambitiousness; a sort of sincerity regarding our two main battling archetypes. Without this, the whole gag wouldn’t work, and one can’t help but feel that this one character is worth all of this (even when perhaps the best thing for us all is to shuttle her off into deep space). The quarry means something to them, and it goes a long way(for the film at least- Can’t say the same for the OVAs made soon after).

 

So when I make mention of precedence & application, it is merely in the context of history. Looking at decades of the evolution (or-de-evolution) of so-called “fan service”-centric anime, it seems that even many who worked on this film went on to television projects that inevitably succumed to the very thing that helped their work reach new creative highs. Much like the lightsaber, one of the striking minor elements in a film like this inevitably becomes the fodder for lesser shows like Agent Aika(which Moriyama also worked on) . A creator’s masterstroke sometimes becomes its own prison. When one looks back at A-ko, one might realize that a mere panty flash wasn’t what made the show stand out so much as where and how. The gag since then has become over-emphasized, and therefore becomes irrelevant & even boring.  So when it’s done here, it all feels like a part of a larger, wackier fabric. And executed with dare I call it, “class”. So when an industry relies on a gag executed so much better elsewhere, it comes off as tired, and dishonest. Whereas here, it comes off as an important image that goes along well with it’s playful XX-chromo power play. And as displayed by the entire work’s attention to action detail, complete with explosions, crumbling structures, and flying machinery, this is Michael Bay-level spectacle, except with an actual focus, and none of the infantile baggage- again, done 25 years ago.

Project A-ko by its very nature, is anime broken down to its most base components, packed with nitro-glycerin for blood, and shamelessness on its sleeve in its wanton reverence for otaku fantasies & lack of regard toward anything resembling conventional narrative. This is a penultimate example of a medium fully at the mercy of a mad group of artists in love with their work. An animator’s anime. All the wild takes, inside-gaggery, and hyperbolic action one expects- and yet in the realm of these seemingly stock-card thin characters, there is a life that veers well beyond the borders of the screen(and possibly bounces off into another universe). We’re talking a film that does for seifuku what 2001: A Space Odyssey does for viewers as David Bowman enters Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite. It is a laugh-wrenching amalgamation of genre-fantasy’s best and worst qualities, and yet it all continues to work its daffy magic 25 years later. And again, all before a certain recent Hollywood director ripped off visual cues from this film, whilst losing sight of the sly, feminine empowerment undercurrent that permeates it. While the intention may have been the opposite during the time of production, the final product is startlingly ahead of the curve.

It’s a title that I still love to spring on friends, and a title I always hate to see come to its finale. And it never finishes without leaving me feel energized, and hopeful for those times when pop art penetrates the stratosphere, and into pure crowd-pleaser territory.

For a short time there, it began to feel as though titles that some would consider dated, or even old-hat would stand an ant’s chance under the magnifying glass of anime industry armageddon. But to see Discotek Media take point, and bring back this beloved title harkens to something of a return to sanity in a landscape fraught with corpses of dead-on-arrival tv series, OVAs, and even feature films. All with tales of woe to share. And yet, A-ko is one of these strangely stalwart titles that no video collection can truly do without. So to see it back in the ether for possibly an entirely new generation to discover, it’s a heartening move. Make no mistake..A-ko’s back, and all is right with the world.

 

 

Discotek is a dvd distribution company that has quickly parallel-wired my mind when considering license choices. And as much of what adorns the new dvd release comes from the previous CPM releases of the film, it is still too sweet to see so many extras still available for what remains a criminally underdiscussed title in American anime fandom. Especially worth it for the amazing Yuji Moriyama commentary that fills in so many blanks regarding the chaotic production of this film. A must own.