As raved about over Twitter just a short while ago, subscribers to Hulu Plus can now enjoy the recently released HD edition of Mamoru Oshii’s classic adaptation. Now alongside the later (and equally thrilling) television series’, Koukaku Kidotai has itself a nice little home base with the mega streaming service. Debate no more about Hollywood film renditions, irrelevant casting controversies, and just drink in why Production IG and company have Masamune Shirow’s crowning achievement well in hand with its exploration of political intrigue, cybercrime, and groundbreaking hybridization between science fiction and faith.
Memories come rushing back during Ghost’s initial US art house theater run via the folks at Manga Video, and just how well LA audiences reacted to Oshii’s vision. A vision that until this point was largely either unknown or patently ignored by westerners. Coming hot on the heels of the ultra-personal Patlabor 2, Ghost was a pretty unexpected theatrical and home video success story stateside. And considering the cinema world pre-Matrix, this somber and flawed mood poem had so much stacked against it, save for those who knew what a terrific coup between director and material this was. And when I say flawed, I mean this as pure compliment. Before INNOCENCE veered into near ancient library obscurity, Ghost finds itself beautifully poised between crime thriller and existential voyage. And despite it’s occasionally jarring three segment structure, it’s pretty hard to impossible to envision it work any other way.
It is Oshii at his thoughtful, grounded best.
This is especially cool news since the only version Hulu has had available for years was the irksome 2.0. Rust color and unnecessary bad CG no more!
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.
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
And so it turns out I come out of half-hibernation to reflect upon a pair of interesting announcements to come out of Day One of this year’s TAF (Tokyo Anime Fair). It seems as if a number of souls out in animeland see it the right time to revisit a pair of old favorites. Favorites that even now, helped establish the anime medium as a global contender for thoughtful & amusing science fiction storytelling. And while both touch heavily upon a period of time that is especially close to my heart, one has me giddy with delight, while the other kind of plunks onto the tile like a neglected piece of fruit. And while both are far from either surprising, or potentially earth-shattering, I find them amusing enough to fuel a few brief paragraphs here at least.
The first of these two, comes courtesy of long defunct creatorship, HEADGEAR, whom have delivered upon recent rumblings to bring us back to “Late 1990s” Tokyo with a new PATLABOR live action project. Just in time for Maiden Japan‘s announcement today regarding the DVD re-release of this hard science fiction comedy favorite.
Personally speaking, I could not be more ecstatic. There was something inherently grounded within the world of the SV2, that could translate well in live action. Unlike most projects of this ilk, it’s a choice that makes great sense if one is versed in the world of the series and its memorable cast. Even when the show was at its zanier points, one of the biggest strengths of it all was the interplay between the cops, the higher-ups, and even the mechanics as they struggled to maintain civil peace against ever troubling techno-creep. If HEADGEAR and crew play their cards right, this could very well be on par with the best adaptations of its kind. The tone of it gels almost organically with how Japan makes their big films these days anyway.
And while they haven’t yet specified as to whether this means the project will in fact be a television series, special, or a feature film, original co-creator, Mamoru Oshii was among the few who were hinting at this project weeks ago.
Elated hardly covers it for me.
Then comes the announcement from Gainax..
I never thought it would ever see the light of day, but it looks like early Gainax is ready to come back in a big way with Aoki Uru (AKA Blue Uru), the spiritual follow-up to their prolific, original raison d’ etre, Royal Space Force (AKA Wings Of Honneamise). This is a project dating back to the late 1980s-early 1990s, when the G-folk were looking to expand the universe of their feature film milestone, roughly during the time between Nadia and Evangelion. Re-ensliting the talents of studio head, Hiroyuki Yamaga, and famed character designer, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the old copy once shared rough synopses of a more action-centric tale of a fighter pilot and his quest to rescue his girlfriend in a Streets Of Fire-inspired tale set in the Honneamise world of early space travel & flying machines. The announcement came ripping old memories from long thought forgotten chests of olde today, and to be completely frank, I’m not terribly sure if excitement is the first thing that comes to mind.
It’s simple if I just went ahead and laid it out like this; Age & zeitgeist often do not make for great bed buddies. In fact, more often than not, when a noted creator comes back to familiar territory, it is often a 70-30 proposition that it will not connect on the level that the original did. (One need only watch Prometheus for extended proof.) And while I am more than happy that some big names (and seeing Sadamoto take on something of this size again does make me grin ear to ear) are finally taking on something that does not involve a high school, or clueless teenagers, I cannot help but feel that this is another case of “way too late, man”. Royal Space Force, while not a blazing success upon its initial release, was done so in a time where experimentation was almost encouraged, and genuine alternate-world drama could in fact be made into a feature. A large part of that film’s success is mostly in its grandiosity, and almost tragic naiveté by a group of young animators who didn’t realize just how foolish their grand vision had become from an ambitious short, and a series of lush illustrations. Adding 25 years to this, and one cannot help but feel like this is also not going to have the reckless abandon that the world of Honneamise requires.
But who knows? Perhaps my concerns are for nothing, and Yamaga can finally find himself out of the dregs of projects past (Mahoromatic, anyone?), and back into a realm that best reflects his passions.
One day out of TAF already. Here’s hoping there are a few more squawks from the big wigs that can match these two, because it’s going to be hard to top.
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.