Tag Archives: CG Anime

How To Muddle A Rebellion: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

harlock one

Reinterpretation can often be an exciting, yet dicey thing, especially in regards to classic characters. And upon first catching the often breathtaking teasers for Shinji Aramaki’s opulent computer animated incarnation of Leiji Matsumoto’s ultimate superhero, there was already a sense that a die had been cast. That viewers were soon to be host to a darker, more action-oriented take on the revered space outlaw. And since many icons of comics past have recently seen themselves reflected upon through more challenging lenses, it seemed time to explore this spirit in a new, potentially exciting way. Which makes it all the more troubling to say that Space Pirate Captain Harlock is an ambitious, yet spectacular failure that never finds itself comfortable with this new sheen. It’s the very model of what some may dub as forced corporate tinkering, featuring the best money can buy. A souped up show vehicle with no real engine inside.

Set generations after humankind has left the cradle of Earth, and have long existed on planetary colonies elsewhere which have inevitably dried up. This inexplicable phenomenon leads to what historians call The Homecoming War, a conflict that saw millions of would-be returners unable to return to Earth. One hundred years after this costly war against the installed Communion leadership, Harlock and the crew of his legendary battleship, Arcadia have been fighting to return to Earth, even if it means to merely die there. The secrets of which lie in those fighting days, and perhaps will serve to undo the sins of the past. Meanwhile, the outer colonies dwindle as they are informed by Communion that Earth is seen as sacred ground, and cannot be repopulated.

The tale follows a pair of brothers, swearing an oath to bring down the seemingly immortal space pirate by way of sneaking one of them onto the legendary Arcadia. With the elder brother confined to a wheelchair, and connected directly to Communion’s high officials, it is up to fair-haired Yama(Haruma Miura) to take on the mission. And what he discovers upon becoming a crew member , are Harlock’s vast plans which include altering the now dwindling dominion of humanity in space, and resetting the clock to a time when all was not so lost. This “Genesis Clock” can almost instantly be interpreted as a means of nostalgia, whereas the fanatical high command seek to keep everything business as usual. These two brothers now see themselves at a crossroads as to where humankind could go. And boy, does the film never grant us any good reason for any of these choices. With a forced plot such as all resources outside of Earth are reaching dangerous lows, and a collective need to return should work poetically, but it never stops feeling forced.

Upon the Arcadia, Yama’s encounters with Harlock’s crew offer up reasons as to their defiance of his home government, which never convinces. Upon meeting crew members such as Kei Yuki(Miyuki Sawashiro), and Yattaran(Arata Furuta), we never feel the full breadth of what this means to anyone. Posturing precludes reason throughout Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi’s script, and it never becomes any clearer. Even the classic “outsider” in the ethereal alien, Miime (Yu Aoi) never grants us any better a picture as to what is at stake. In fact, the film’s title character, never gets more than a few moments to grant us something cool to look at, and never addresses what makes him so cool. It is completely unearned, and pretty much smugs all over the screen without any support. There is an almost passive aggressiveness being doled out with the character here, and it never works beyond a “deal with it” attitude. – Which is the worst thing one can do with such an icon.

We could talk all day about the film’s lack of plot clarity, and all the shifting regarding the story’s end game, and what it means for our characters. But the crucial problem that continuously dogs Harlock, is a severe dearth of character clarity. While some may adhere to what they know about the classic Matsumoto character, it is vital that any iteration retain such clarity for the ultimate story to uphold, revere, or even reflect upon him. And a great deal of the film immediately assumes that the audience requires less of this, and more an iconographic interpretation. Meaning that the imagery would sell him. And that this alone (that he is an operatic, brooding, romantic figure) is enough to carry an audience’s sympathy and support. What might have worked better here, is to use the world building as a means of winning us back into understanding Harlock’s tragic burden. But here we have a film where the title character never gets any real juice. And for a character as simple, this is a tragic mistake.

Having seen and loved many of Harlock’s adventures on film over the decades, it isn’t difficult at all to ascertain the kind of noble spirit he can be. So why is it that his big budget CG incarnation lacks any of his simple charm or sense of heroism? The film just plunks him down like an object, and we are expected to follow – no question.

As the film plods along, we are granted closer looks at the reasons behind the brothers’ mission, and how this run in with the Arcadia reshapes their views. And while this could easily have made for an interesting story, we are so bogged down by this lack of character clarity, and emphasis of plot rugby, that it never compels. After a while, all we can ascertain from these characters is that one looks like a young Harlock, while the dignitary brother is an ill-conceived sociopath. So much angst on display, and no real human drama driving it. It is so much that nearly everything outside of the mechanical design work of Atsushi Takeuchi feels overworked, and leaden. The film wants so badly to be taken seriously, but it garners none of the wistful charms nor emotional highs that adorned films such as Arcadia Of My Youth(1982), or the first Galaxy Express 999 features.

After a decade plus of productions like these, and one cannot help but come out and state that Japanese producers perhaps lack a certain grasp of balancing story with grand scale 3D computer animated projects. Unsure as to whether it happens due to a lack of proper prep time, or if they make creative decisions on the fly. Whatever the case, it is a trend that seems to allow so many of these films to be buried under the weight of their own self importance. They never seem to live beyond a need to be taken seriously via their heavy textures, and three dimensional panoramas. There is a deep need to justify the expense, and it often is the visual team’s cross to bear, as writing often takes a tragic backseat. Something that should never be the case with any production of this size. What seems to have happened here in particular, was a need to overwrite, to overemphasize. It is to the point that the film lumbers instead of soars. Baffles, instead of inspires. Too moody to be fun, and too self-conscious to be interesting. Space opera can be complex, but this is overcooked to the nth degree. You cannot Dark Knight such a romantic character unless he comes complete with morally complex baggage. Throwing it on just because that is what big films are doing today, is missing the point entirely.

It’s funny to think of this being released in the same year as a moody Superman reboot. In many ways, one can easily regard the classic Harlock as the Superman of japanese comics. And as such, he seems to have suffered a similar fate this time around. It’s a real shame, as his indomitable spirit should endure. Harlock is at his best when he sails the seas of freedom. Adding more to such simplicity just feels tacked-on. (not to mention dishonest)

The Joneses are simply not worth the backbreaking effort.

(Not) Bridging The Gap: Ghost In The Shell 2.0

 

If there’s anything more played out, and dangerous than a reboot, it is the “enhanced” reissue of a classic. Be it for the celebration of an anniversary of a favorite title, or merely due to certain interests, the re-release has become something of a tainted concept since the days Jorge decided to being his legendary Star Wars back to theaters with new effects and sound back in the mid-to-late 90s. Before this, we were more privy to just seeing a favorite on a large screen years after it hit. And only a few films ever came back into circulation with added scenes, and various nipping and tucking thrown in for measure. For me, this goes all the way back to when Spielberg went ahead and re-released Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But it’s a rare beast when the changes exhibited do anything but give us an alternate version of a story so many are familiar with. And with the advent of digital cinema, the temptation for filmmakers to revisit has sometimes been to great to resist, often leaving viewers with baffling, and let’s just face it, unsatisfactory results. I’m sure I don’t need to bring up Han Solo & Greedo to further make this point. So when I initially heard that Mamoru Oshii was to supervise a cosmetically updated version of his turning point feature, Ghost In The Shell(1995), my initial response before I saw any imagery was,…an all-digital Koukaku Kidotai sounds cool in theory, but would be nothing less than a pretty footnote. Three years came and went, and for whatever reasons I never got around to catching this version until last night.

So what are my reactions?

Well let’s just say right now that this is by no means meant to be a review of a film that I already own in a number of forms, and continue to enjoy at least once a year. Being a fan of each rendition of Masamune Show’s dystopian masterwork of a manga, the film was something of a watermark, not only for anime as a whole in regards to global consciousness, but for me as a longtime lover of speculative fiction dealing in the blurring lines between humanity and machines. I many ways, it takes the best elements laid forth by Blade Runner, and offers up a bolder examination of the themes Philip K.Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson & others had been ruminating in literary form for years in a cinematic manner not before seen anywhere. It is a seminal piece of cyberpunk cinema that transcends genre, and offers more insight to those curious to explore the career of one of anime’s final pioneers & most curious personalities. More than this, the film also functions as a declaration of sorts by its director long tiring of merely spinning cartoons for overgrown children.

Oshii’s Ghost is something of a tale of transfiguration, of leaving the nest, and embracing that which being endlessly young fears most. By using the framework established in Shirow’s complex, and yet often self-relfexively humorous universe, Oshii takes a more serious route by using the manga’s iconic lead character of Major Motoko Kusanagi, and giving her a journey of self discovery beyond the confines of not merely her occupation, but of her own definable form. What starts off as a hard science fiction tale of espionage, cybercrime, and harder hardware, the film directly posits questions of the characters of the mysterious Section 9, and their place in a world ever coming closer to Kurzweil’s Singularity. Not the most easy film to pick as a breakthrough hit, but somehow, against all odds, the film became a cult milestone beyond Japan, where it was only mildly received. Also sporting some of anime’s first major use of CGI, multlayering, and cyberspace imagery, the film is a nearly seamless feat even by today’s standards. The film has gone on to helping create an ongoing tv franchise that exists in its own separate universe, as well as a quasi-sequel in the large budgeted 2004 arthouse anomaly INNOCENCE. A film that for better or worse, cemented Oshii as not only a brilliant visualist, but increasingly oblique in his boldness as a majority of his filmography in recent years has included live action work that has also remained an acquired taste.

So it’s pretty difficult for me to It’s difficult to articulate into words what went on as Ghost The Shell 2.0 is concerned. If anything, it reveals more definitively that Oshii is much less interested in what the masses enjoyed about the original, and is more interested in keeping his own stamp on matters. Which would be fine if any alterations made to the film had any basis on the story. In 2.0, much of the original film is as it was, save for a near audio-visual trimming overhaul. Which is to say that the film is now attempting to be a lot more visually in line with the world of INNOCENCE’s Hong Kong than it is interested in anything else. Mostly gone are the grayish, and humming green hues that once were considered major inspiration for the world of the Wachowski’s The Matrix. Which makes one wonder if Oshii was going out of his way from the opening scene to distance himself from that as much as possible. Especially considering that his live action virtual world exploration, AVALON (2001) shared such amber & gray tones. But the choice to basically change at least 95% of the film’s color grade remains nothing more than a means to maintain some kind of visual continuity between his films, and again, has no bearing on events.

(For more instances of these alterations, please consult this post by the ever reliable Tim Maughan.)

What makes this all the more disconcerting is when we see the opening scene which puts us en media res as Section 9 members are watching over a rogue programmer looking to leave the country. A scene that has already had a lasting impact on the visual language of anime, and maybe even cinema in general. And what we have here is an almost complete 3D computer animated version of the Major, perched over the edge of a building, listening in. Again, an already visually impressive moment, redone in CG, as the interior scenes remain 2D cel animation. Why? If this is all they set to do, then we’re already in trouble. And sure enough, much of the film’s most memorable bridging moments in its very clearly established 3 chapter structure are done in this half-CG, half re-colored 2D method that just screams uninvolved. While the helicopters & buildings in the opening scene are now more in line with the INNOCENCE world, why is it that other machines, and vehicles not similarly upgraded? This creates a schizophrenic effect that murders any sort of world building consistency the original film had, and it’s astonishingly frustrating. Again, there are no real words to best approximate just how cold, and careless this feels. Especially when the then-unprecedented CG work in the original film does nothing to detract from the film’s complex, and often provocative themes. If Oshii wanted to keep a work consistent regarding intent, all of this is clearly shot in the foot with a full clip at point blank range by these decisions. There’s simply no reason for it, other than money, and perhaps ego. It’s like adding trick lights, and plasticy looking import accessories to a vintage Chevy Impala for no other reason than it seems impressive to one person; the differences are simply gaudy & distracting.

One of the most standout nitpicks I can recall from this version is the botching of one of the original’s prime visual motifs; Major Kusanagi’s eyes. Her eyes are a major point that Oshii, along with character designer Hiroyuki Okiura went out of their way to sell with the film as we are meant to essentially see the world through the eyes of a construct in the guise of a human. We see this happen throughout the film every time we are meant to empahize with her as she observes the world around her, even as she begins to question her role. And one of the most telling images of the film is at the beginning of the second section of the film (the boat scene) as she is scuba diving. It is in this moment that she begins to quietly resurface. She reaches, and passes through her reflection against the rippling surface of the ocean. And we have a sustained single shot of her seemingly dead stare into the sky. And in this version, we have….this…

Again, I’m not sure whether this was a technical issue since they decided to go 3D with this moment or not, but whatever the case, the flow of this theme is almost completely compromised by obscuring her eyes like this. If one is going to redo a film in this manner, it pays to go all the way, or not at all. This is a glaring example.

For this viewer, there are those rare instances when small changes are necessary. When Blade Runner was re-released without voice-over in 1992, many of us rejoiced. And more recently, as the film celebrated 25 years with a beautifully rendered FINAL CUT, much mention was made in how the new alterations were small, and slight enough to both add layers to the world of the film, and not distract from the film’s thematic center. Ridley Scott seems to understand that the changes need to be virtually invisible in order for them to function in story. However, in the case of Ghost In The Shell 2.0, the new images, shots, added lines, and voice actor change for the central “villain” of the Puppet Master stand out like a skin infection. There’s simply no way this could make for an alternative viewing experience for those new to the film, as much as one for fans. The only folks I could have seen to have “benefitted” from making this would have been Oshii, the producers, and CG artists hoping to work. It’s just a shame they didn’t get a chance to do any work on a full-narrative project in hopes of making a dent in the current landscape. Even Randy Thom’s updated sound renders events lifeless sans much to any reverb in outdoor scenes. There’s simply no sense of space to the proceedings, making it sound even more cold & artificial than the often stock anime sound mix the 1995 version exhibited.

Not sure why there was any reason to make these alterations outside of putting a lacquer on a classic, and hoping fans would bite, no matter how it looked. Sometimes all it takes is some respect for the works of the past, and a re-iusse to share great love for a work. I can see a number of better things to have been done than this.