That’s right, I said it. It is no longer the “salad days” of fandom. It’s train that has long passed. In fact, when the best possible celebration of these things came to our doorstep, it was the international audience who came brandishing that flag to wave it, not us in the states. Solidarity is a nice thought, but it’s something that if even came to pass, wouldn’t make the mainstream quake in its collective boots.
Adaptation should always be about more than casting. These words have been on my mind for almost two weeks now. Whether it happens or not, the Ghost In The Shell project has again stirred the hornet’s nest. After yet another attempt to adapt a beloved Japanese property to the Hollywood realm did its part to unsettle and stir the pot, it felt time to again dish out the whys. Also, to hopefully quell minds with a few good realities to consider.
A quick fix is rarely a good thing.
We see tech offer up simplified answers to often step-packed questions, and technological development does what it can to leapfrog those steps. But skipping about can very often obscure room for nuance, and specificity that can occasionally be important to many. Which is why many stalwart admirers of the longview tend to gather more understanding of process.
As far back as I can remember learning about it, my love of anime has been a protracted lesson in how localization works. From the beginning, it has long been a held reality that direct translation leaves quite a bit to be desired, nor does it better grab the cultural and psychological nuance of a foreign work. So tweaking and fine tuning are an expected norm. And while we have made substantial leaps to best synthesize this into a palatable shared language, there is still nothing like learning and better understanding other languages and cultures. So when the mainstream is confronted with work almost completely in step with classic anime tropes and ideas (see- Pacific Rim), it’s understandable to see the average moviegoer take in such ideas and cock their heads sideways. The response is often not that of revelation.
Even when manga and anime properties are adapted on their home soil, there is disconnect. This is another huge hurdle I have had to get past these last few decades. In writing the column, Live Action Manga Blues at the Kaijyu, it over time came into sharp focus that even the Japanese are saddled with both the budgetary and literal limitations that come with taking something iconographic and making it into fleshy reality. And the reasons here are multifold. After all, we are talking about taking what is often seen as Japan’s hidden id, and bringing it into another plane of existence. To assume that the two can co-exist seamlessly without losing some grand component remains paradoxical, and often unrealistic. Sure, we have had success with certain more “experimental” fare such as Oldboy, Video Girl Ai, and the Speed Racer. But very often, there is a temptation on the part of live action filmmaking to conform the work into a language that rarely melds with the weight and necessity of itself. It either has to be almost indistinguishably gritty, or it needs to be completely gonzo. Rarely anywhere in between. And to a degree, big films like Racer and Pacific Rim are indicators that they can only work in the hands of the rare risk taker that is willing to bet the farm to see their vision to fruition. Artists with the acumen and sneakiness to ostensibly fool already cynically inclined studio heads that this is worthwhile.
(Something the director of Snow White and The Huntsman, hasn’t proven himself to me. Just saying.)
So a huge part of me isn’t expecting much of this recent news. Many would dare to still hope that one day, their favorite property would make the transition, changing the perception of at least one more set of eyes to their favorite thing. But time has perhaps hardened my purview, I suppose. Because the allure of anime is truly its own organism. And it doesn’t require further validation. It’s wild, weird, and enjoyably dysfunctional in ways that would lose fathoms of itself in being conformed to a more docile cinema language. The average mind accepts new ideas when it is time. And frankly, in twenty years we have seen Ghost In The Shell become something of an evergreen that continues to make converts out of film and science fiction fans the world over. And as new animation continues the adventures of Section 9, such windows will continue to open. Because of this shared world we now reside, it takes more than one obligatory, stunt-casting laden feature film to turn heads. Especially when the genuine global article already exists.
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.