A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 568 – The Taste of Tea

The Taste of Tea – September 19th, 2011

Several months back when we hosted a member of Loading Ready Run before PAX East, we got to talking about movies with her. Now, this is not unusual for us. Even before this project we enjoyed talking about movies. We like movies. That’s why we own over 600. We explained the project to her and she gave us a couple of suggestions to add to the list. This was one. And I forget her precise description of it, but I know she said it was bizarre and slow. And that’s pretty spot on. Bizarre and slow. But also sweet and thoughtful at the same time. Long, too. So we decided to put it in for a night when we had time, but not a whole lot of energy. We were up to reading subtitles but not up to following a complex plot. This seemed perfect.

And oh, it was perfect indeed. I need to remember to thank Kathleen if she attends next PAX East. It’s a very dreamy movie, taking place over the course of several weeks in the life of a family living in the countryside in Japan. There’s no huge overarching plot that sweeps up the entire family. No real action or massive drama. Instead there are a number of smaller dramas, little stories in the lives of the family members in the time span of the movie. And for the most part their stories don’t really connect directly with each other. They touch on each other, but it’s more that it’s the story of a family living together and interacting. So when young Sachiko becomes convinced she has to complete a back flip over a bar in a playground, her grandfather sees and it impacts his own actions. But the back flip isn’t his story. When Sachiko’s father, Nobuo, plays Go with his son it’s not because he’s trying to help his son find something in common with the girl he likes, it’s just that father and son play Go together. And that’s how the movie goes, with each story involving the other, but not intentionally.

There are six members in the family, five of whom are living together in the house in the country when the movie begins. There’s Sachiko; her parents, father Nobuo and mother Yoshiko; her older brother, Hajime; her grandfather, Akira; and finally her uncle, Ayano. Uncle Ayano is only visiting, there to take a break after some undisclosed difficult times in Tokyo. And off in the city is another uncle, Ikki, who draws manga and produces what is likely the oddest thing in the movie: The Mountain Song. But we’ll come back to that. I promise. Uncle Ikki is very much a side note to the rest of the family. His story involves Uncle Ayano and Grandfather Akira, but none of it takes place at the family home and once his music video is done he’s not really touched on again. The focus is definitely on the family home and the people who live there or have lived there.

We begin with Hajime watching the girl he had a crush on leave by train. Right from the outset the movie makes it clear that it’s veering towards the magical realism side of things by showing the train exit from Hajime’s forehead. Now, I’m fully willing to accept that many of the magical realism type things that are shown on the screen here are the visual representations of the imaginations and thought processes of the characters. I think that’s probably a good way to interpret them. But the fact remains that there’s little division between imagination and reality in this movie. We don’t see every single bit of thought in the characters’ heads and we don’t even see any from some characters. But there are things we do see, such as the train and the giant version of Sachiko that appears (but only to her) from time to time. It’s not fantasy, but it’s not all reality either.

Hajime’s trouble with girls is his story. He finds it hard to talk to girls and is scared of relationships. But his Go playing ends up being they key, getting the attention of a couple of older students at school who invite him to join the Go club, which a new girl whom he’s been interested in but too intimidated to talk to has also joined. They play together, they talk, he gives her his umbrella and things seem to be looking up. On the other side of things, Sachiko has decided that to get rid of the giant phantom Sachiko who’s following her around she needs to complete a backflip over a horizontal bar. This is because of a story Uncle Ayano told her about how when he was a boy a phantom Yakuza followed him around until he did a backflip. Meanwhile, Yoshiko is busily working on a hand-drawn animation project with the aid of Grandfather Akira and Nobuo is spending his time going back and forth between his hypnotherapist job in the city and his private life at home. Elsewhere in the countryside a group of what seem to be gangsters are running around and a couple of cosplaying anime fans are working on a photo shoot. And yes, it all does work together. It’s all woven in with little scenes between the various characters. Hajime and Nobuo see the guys in costume doing a photo shook on the train home, then Sachiko asks for their help when she finds one of the gangsters buried in the mud near where she’s practicing her backflip. And Uncle Ayano hits one of the gangsters in the head with a rock – totally by accident.

If I had to pick one storyline in here as my favorite, it would be Ayano’s. I don’t recall it ever being explained exactly what happened in Tokyo that led to him needing to take some time off in the country. It just happened. He hangs out with his niece and nephew and wanders around town, watching people, talking to an old girlfriend, then befriending a dancer who’s practicing at a camp site near the river. He observes a lot, and tells stories. And eventually he goes back to work as a sound engineer for his brother-in-law Ikki’s “birthday song.” His reaction is pretty much precisely what I think everyone’s reaction is: “Listen to it long enough and your brain will melt.” Don’t believe me? Take a look: Oh, My Mountain. Let me make it clear, I love that song and the video. The guy with the gray hair is the grandfather, and he is a marvelous part of the movie. Easily my second favorite character after Ayano. He also observes everything, but injects bizarre comments into his observations. Things like asking why his granddaughter is a triangle. Apparently most of his lines come from things the director said while drunk. Of course.

It all sounds like such a busy movie, with music videos being made and anime showings and the Yakuza fighting in town and Hajime’s girl troubles and Sachiko’s phantom troubles and everything else, but it comes across as a slow and peaceful, meandering through the stories as they naturally flow into each other. Even the ending, which is sad in its way, feels like a natural part of where the movie is going. I suppose the movie could be shorter, but shortening any of the scenes in it feels like it would force the movie to sacrifice much of its tone and mood. And that would really be a pity, because the tone and mood are much of why it works as well as it does. It’s certainly on my short list of favorites now and I don’t think I’d change a thing about it.

September 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 560 – Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! – September 11th, 2011

Given that the running time for this and the original turned out to be so very much shorter than we’d been counting on, it really ended up being not a big deal to watch them back to back. And Andy really wanted to see them together. So we popped it in the night after watching the original. It really does qualify as its own movie, given the nature of the editing done to it. Which I find kind of fascinating. It’s the same story, but restructured a tiny bit and with a brand new character added in. Oh, it’s not a seamless addition. Whenever new guy Steve Martin talks to Emiko, for example, it’s painfully obvious that he was cut into other scenes of her talking, or that he’s speaking to a double whose back is always kept to camera. But that aside, there was an obvious effort to make him a part of the story instead of just a bystander narrating it all.

Now, making this new guy, Steve, the center of the human story is not without problems. For one, he’s a big white American lunk (sorry Raymond Burr fans, it’s true). For two, in order to make him central to the plot he has to be inserted into the relationships that were in the original. Instead of Emiko, her suitor, Ogata, her father, and her friend, Dr. Serizawa, you’ve got the four of them and Steve. And he just seems so out of place. I kept thinking grumbly thoughts about him, like “Why are you there? Leave Emiko alone! She has enough to deal with without worrying about some random American reporter! They figured it all out just fine without you in the other version!” And really, he’s not that bad. He just feels shoehorned into the plot, perhaps because in the original there was no need for a fifth main character. His purpose really seems to be to provide a US “voice” and presence in the movie to make US audiences more comfortable with it somehow.

Otherwise, the movie’s story is largely the same. The monster still attacks boats first, then the villages on the island before moving on to the mainland. People still testify as to the monster’s destructive powers. The monster still kills many and the results of its rampages are still shown. There are still the same main characters – no one’s missing. No one was excised in order to make room for Steve. The major plot points are all in there too. The various attacks, the determination of how old the monster must be. The professor’s desire to study the monster to learn about how it’s survived this long and adapted in the ways that it has. The insistence of others that it must be stopped. The eventual answer – the horrible weapon that might kill it, but also cause untold horrors as a side effect. It’s all there. But truncated.

It should be noted that this movie is a full 16 minutes shorter than the original. And that’s with all the extra US reporter stuff added in. I’m sure someone has done a scene by scene comparison between the two movies but there’s no denying that there’s material that’s been cut out. I suspect a large part of it is in the editing of each scene. Where the original lingers over shots, letting the visuals have time to speak for themselves, the US edit flips between shots much faster. It doesn’t change the pacing of the whole movie all that much, since everything still happens in the same order. But it is noticeable. What does change the pacing more for me is the addition of scenes of American reporters talking to Steve and trying to get details on the story. Those made me feel like the movie was both rushed and interrupted at the same time.

While the US edit didn’t shy away from showing the horrors of the monster’s attacks, it did feel as though less time was spent on it all. What’s frustrating about that is that it diminishes the power of the allegory. I suspect that these edits were done strategically, but I don’t have to like them just because they were done with purpose and intent. That being said, there were things I did like about the movie. Amazingly enough, it really does serve many of the same purposes as the original and I’m very glad that the allegory wasn’t lost in the editing room. Yes, it was diminished a little, but not lost. And that could easily have happened if the additional character had been handled clumsily or if key scenes were removed without much thought. But that didn’t happen.

A whole hell of a lot was kept the way it was in the original, such as the fantastic music. Bizarrely enough, they even kept the large majority of Japanese dialogue, but didn’t dub or subtitle it. Not that I like dubbing or think it would have been a good choice for this movie, but I could have seen it happening. But no, there’s a lot of Japanese, and left with no translation. What strikes me as odd there is that there was an effort to make this movie relate-able to a US audience but then vast swaths of Japanese language lines were left in without any way for people who only speak English to know what, specifically, is being said. I suppose it could have been because it was all deemed not quite important enough to subtitle for, it just struck me as odd. Still, even with that and Steve and the editing, it’s a far better and more serious monster movie than most that came after it.

September 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 559 – Gojira

Gojira – September 10th, 2011

When we decided to undertake this whole big project Andy and I had to first create a list of everything we owned. That on its own was a huge task. We had to ferret out all our DVDs, and since we have a small apartment with limited shelf space we’d stashed them wherever there was space. That took a while. Then we went through and made a spreadsheet for it all. Title, running time, whether each of us had seen it or not, where it lived in the apartment, date of review, etc. For the most part we took the running times off the DVD cases. A couple of them didn’t specify a running time so for those we looked online. And most of the time? It worked out a-ok. The trouble is that there seems to be no real regulation for how these things are listed. And so this movie was noted in our spreadsheet as having a 176 minute running time. That’s actually the combined running time for both this and the edited for the US Godzilla, King of the Monsters! included in the same set. Oops.

For that reason, we’d been putting this off a bit. Andy wanted to do the original Japanese version back to back with the US edit and that running time was a bit of an obstacle. Finally we buckled down and put it in. And it was good! Really dark and really interesting and really well done. But as the movie went on I started to wonder about the pacing. I mean, I’ve watched a lot of movies. I’d watched a lot well before we started this project but I think now I can definitely state I’ve seen a lot of movies. And the pacing just didn’t feel right. Here were the two male leads putting on diving suits, preparing to unleash a deadly weapon on the monster after several failed attempts to kill it. There’d been mass destruction and death and a fight between the male leads and a tearful revelation by the female lead and it all pointed to the movie ending relatively soon. And yet we were at just under an hour and a half. So I looked it up. 98 minutes. It’s more than a little disorienting to realize a movie is over an hour shorter than you expected. But it does mean that there’s nothing wrong with the pacing!

My background with Godzilla isn’t remotely the same as Andy’s. He grew up watching monster movies. I grew up watching stuff like Solarbabies. I think he got the better end of the deal, much as I love Solarbabies and will love it forever. But I think it’s important for me to note that my family wasn’t a movie-going family and we also weren’t too much of a movie-watching family outside of a few particular favorites. I really started getting into movies in high school and I admit, monster movies weren’t something I sought out. I saw quite a few through MST3K and I didn’t try to go any further. I was quite aware that Godzilla had been edited for western audiences and that while the newer movies in the franchise were, sometimes, on the silly side, the original was far more serious. I just hadn’t ever made the time to watch it.

Silly, really, because this is a classic and well deserving of its status as one. This is a far cry from the cheese of something like Godzilla vs. Megalon. The story is the introduction of the titular monster, but also more a parable of destructive force causing tragedy and the morality of using greater destructive force against it. As an allegory for nuclear war it’s pretty obvious. At least to me at this point in history. But that doesn’t mean it’s poorly done. Just the opposite, in fact. Because it’s a good story and a good monster movie, regardless of the allegorical implications.

The story begins with a series of mysterious attacks on boats. There are no survivors found until one washes ashore on the beach of a nearby island and only lives long enough to give a few vague details. As the monster continues its periodic destruction the people of Japan begin to realize just how bad it can get. The locals on the island that’s first affected have some inkling of what’s going on, having had legends of a monster from the sea. Everyone else has to learn the hard way: By seeing the monster destroy their homes and families. Once it’s clear that there’s a real threat here the folks in charge start to talk about just how they’re going to deal with it. Many want the monster killed, but a few, such as paleontologist Professor Yamane, believe the monster should be studied as well. The professor’s daughter’s suitor, however, believes the monster must be killed. So that right there puts them at odds. And then there’s Dr. Serizawa, who has created a weapon that could destroy the monster, but could then be co-opted by others for less necessary purposes. This all creates a good deal of character tension in the midst of the horrific disasters and that makes for a more solid story.

If there wasn’t much in the way of character interaction then the whole allegory would just fall apart. The allegory is rooted in the interactions. Because it’s clear in the movie that there is no good answer. That either the monster will continue wreaking havoc or a terrible weapon will have to be unleashed to stop it. There’s no right answer there. There’s no good answer there. Of course the destruction has to stop, but the cost of stopping it is so great. This movie doesn’t pull its punches. It lets you know just how bad it got, from scenes of devastated cities to children crying over their dead parents. And the effects and cinematography are still fantastic, even now. The music too, adds to the whole mood of the movie. It’s somber and grave. This isn’t a monster movie you watch for fun. It’s a thoughtful commentary on arms escalation and morality, but told with explosions and a huge monster and all the trappings of monster action flicks.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gojira

September 10, 2011

Gojira

I have a long history with the Godzilla films. I’ve been a fan since I first saw the big rubber galoot during the Channel 56 Creature Double Feature. The movies had everything a thirteen year old boy could want in a movie. Aliens. Robots. Giant rubber monsters. Hilarious dubbing. I always wanted, however, to see the movies in a more pure form, un-dubbed and un-cut. I figured when DVD came around that Toho would eventually come out with special editions of the movies with sub-titles for American audiences so we could see the films the way they were meant to be seen. Since the movies are generally considered light-weight pop sci-fi this hasn’t really come to pass unfortunately, but this, the first Godzilla movie is an exception.

This film is not a popcorn sci-fi film for kids – it’s a serious disaster movie and obvious allegory about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In addition, as the progenitor of the entire Godzilla line, and indeed the beginning of the Japanese giant rubber monster genre, this film has special historical significance. So it was that for the fiftieth anniversary Toho released this deluxe edition DVD set that includes the original Japanese Gojira movie. At last I got to see at least one of the Godzilla movies in its original form.

It’s a good thing, too, because if ever there was a movie that needed to be seen in Japanese with English subtitles to be properly appreciated it is this one. This movie is so quintessentially Japanese. Before the infamous monster ever appears on the screen we spend an awful lot of time being introduced to the little fishing village where he starts his reign of terror. As with many a monstery disaster movie the film starts out as more of a mystery. What has caused a small fleet of fishing boats and the boats sent to rescue them to disappear? There are only a couple survivors and they say that it was a monster that destroyed their boats. A supremely grizzled old man declares that it must be the same monster that used to terrorise the village known as Gojira.

At the heart of this movie are four human characters. There’s the scientifically minded paleontologist Dr Yamane who is the first to piece together just what the monster is. There’s his lovely daughter Emiko. There’s her fiance Ogata, and her childhood friend the one-eyed mad scientist Serizawa. Then of course there’s the two million year old living fossil with radioactive breath from hydrogen bomb tests – Godzilla himself.

Dr. Yamane doesn’t actually want the beast destroyed. He’d rather study the monster to understand it and how its species remained alive on the ocean bottom long after such dinosaurs were thought extinct. This causes some friction with Ogata, who takes a while to gather the nerve to ask the doctor if he can have his daughter’s hand in marriage, but insists that Godzilla is a threat that must be eliminated at all costs. Serizawa, meanwhile, has developed an ultimate weapon called an Oxygen Destructor that could probably destroy the monster, but he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of politicians who could corrupt it and start a new arms race. He tells only Emiko of his discovery and swears her to secrecy.

A couple things struck me as I watched this again tonight. The first was just how bleak parts of this movie are. After Gojira’s attack on Tokyo there are several scenes in infirmaries and hospitals that drive home that this attack has not just destroyed a bunch of detailed models and set fire to sets – it has had a brutal impact on the people of Japan. There are irradiated children. There is a dead woman and her inconsolable daughter. There are hundreds of bodies on stretchers. It is a powerful scene of emotional devastation which must have been even more intense when the film first came out, less than ten years after Japan became the only nation on the planet ever to be attacked with nuclear weapons.

The other thing that struck me this time was the caliber of the talent brought on board for this movie. Of course the monster itself and the destruction it wreaks are fantastic to watch. The special effects work as well today as they ever did. I also love the actors they have on board. In particular I was amused when I thought I recognised the actor playing Dr. Yamane and checked IMDB to find that he is the ubiquitous Takashi Shimura (who we will also be seeing in The Seven Samurai when we review that for our collection.) Glancing at his resume leads me to believe that he probably starred in every Japanese movie made in the twentieth century. Or close to it.

I still heartily wish that there were a comprehensive Godzilla special edition collection that gave the same kind of attention to even the cheesiest and stupidest of Godzilla movies as is lovingly provided to the original on this DVD, but at least for now I can take comfort in the fact that we have this one movie in our collection. I’ve proposed the idea to Amanda that we should watch the dubbed American version tomorrow as a separate film, since so much was altered to make it more palatable for American audiences. We’ll see how we feel about that tomorrow.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 529 – Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone – August 11th, 2011

Honestly? I’m not even sure how to start to review this. Mostly because it’s a re-do of a series that I would never have attempted to sum up in a short space. But also because I feel like there’s no possible way I have anything new to say about this. The series this is based on has been around for a while and it’s rather famous for its bizarre ending and heavily allegorical plot. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a million times before by hundreds and thousands of anime fans? Nothing, that’s what.

It just feels silly, trying to recap the plot here, but then that is something I do have to say about this. It’s been a very long time since I last watched the Evangelion series but while watching it I remember feeling like there were always things I was missing. Meaning I should have gotten but which turned out not to be revealed until much later on. At first it’s basically a monster of the week sort of deal, and only later do we find out that there’s a hell of a lot more going on. In this movie remake the same events take place, but with more of the overall plot incorporated into them. Or at least that’s what I’m assuming. Like I said, it’s been quite some time.

I first watched the Evangelion series when I was in college. I’m fairly sure it was during my sophomore year, because I can remember the apartment Andy was living in at the time and the way it was set up. We grabbed the episodes two at a time from the video store we were working at and watched them every night for a while. It’s not one of those series that went on and on forever, but it’s not a concise miniseries either. To be honest, it’s very much like The Prisoner to me: Full of lots of allusions and messages and purpose, then ending in a blaze of what the ever loving fuck. And I don’t dislike what-the-ever-loving-fuck endings, but the series seemed to have spend so much time on the build-up that it just felt odd. I can’t speak to how this movie series will play out, but at least the beginning feels a bit more cohesive.

As in the series, our hero here is young Shinji, who’s been away at school for a while and is pretty convinced his father doesn’t care about him in the least. He’s wrong, but not in a comforting sort of way, because his father does care but as far as this portion of the plot is concerned he only cares that Shinji has the ability to pilot a giant mech called an Eva. And the Evas are needed in order to defeat a series of giant attacking monsters called Angels. So Shinji’s father cares that Shinji is now useful, but other than that he’s pretty distant. Which leads to the immense amount of whining Shinji does throughout the story. Shinji is famous for his whining. And you know, if the fate of the world wasn’t at stake, I’d be a lot more forgiving of his daddy issues. His daddy is a remote jackass and at least in the series it becomes clear he’s also pretty creepy. So I’d totally let Shinji’s whining go, but it’s so ever-present that it feels egregious, and this is not something that this movie fixes. Even knowing that a lot of what Shinji is whining about is perfectly valid, I still rolled my eyes.

So Shinji shows up in Tokyo and is immediately told that he’s not there for a loving reunion with his father but is needed to pilot a giant mech he’s never seen or heard of before and oh yes, he needs to do that right now because an Angel is approaching the city. The only other Eva and pilot in the area are disabled due to an accident and so it’s up to him. Is it any wonder that he has trouble piloting the damn thing? The Angel kicks his ass, at which point his mech goes berserk and freaks out, giving us a clue that maybe the Evas aren’t really just big suits of armor. There are other clues by the end. It’s made clear that there’s a much deeper game going on, with something imprisoned deep down under the city, even below the fortified underground space where the city exists when it’s all been retracted during an attack. It’s clear that Things Have Happened and will continue to happen. And it’s clear that there’s a lot that isn’t clear.

Really, I’m not sure what else to say here. I’m watching this movie somewhat tainted with a years-back experience watching the series it’s based on. Of course that’s bound to color how I see the movie itself and I freely admit that I am a biased viewer. I know a lot of what isn’t revealed in this movie, so perhaps my knowledge of what’s to come is affecting how I see what was revealed. I know the natures of some of the characters a little better. I know the ending, such as it was when I watched it way back when. Ultimately, I came out of this movie having enjoyed it, and it was certainly nice to see a good quality version with what were likely updated effects. But I also came out of it wanting to rewatch the series to check myself and my perceptions of it. I don’t know how someone with no prior knowledge of the story and universe would react to it. Perhaps it would be an easier sell than the series. Or perhaps it’s just as incomprehensible, just in slightly different ways, and if you’re going to enjoy it you’ll enjoy it either way and likewise if you’re not going to enjoy it. I wish I could review it better, but like I said, I’m sure other people have already done so.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

August 11, 2011

Neon Genesis: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion was still relatively new when Amanda and I first watched the series. TLA Video had just about every episode of the series on the shelf (dubbed VHS I believe) when we worked there in the late nineties, and although the series was renowned at the time it was not acclaimed as it is today as one of the greatest and most completely befuddling anime series ever created. Indeed I am pretty sure that we started watching the series before all of it had yet been imported to America, so we had to wait in eager anticipation for the last two tapes to come out here and we got to scratch our heads in wonder when the series reached it’s completely strange climax.

The genius for me of Neon Genesis was that it started out as such a typical anime show. It’s the story of a fourteen year old boy who is forced by circumstance and by his uncaring father to pilot a giant robot to defend the Earth from giant invading aliens. There were little hints, even in the early episodes and in the opening credits, of some of the grander schemes afoot, but for the first few episodes this series was very familiar territory, with a different monster each week to be defeated by Shinji and his Eva unit. Of course there was much more than that. There was the mystery of what the “angel” attackers were, why they were bent on breaking into Nerv headquarters, what was the mysterious event called “second impact” which had so radically changed the Earth around the time Shinji was born, what role did his father play in things, and just what exactly was the giant machine he was piloting. As the series progressed it became clear that the world was much deeper and more complex than it at first appeared, and I loved that slow reveal. (In much the same way that I love the meticulous construction of the world Alan Moore created for Watchmen.)

Although the story told in the original Neon Genesis series has a very definite end this is in many ways the show that will not die. So great had its success become, and so confusing was its end that it continued to spawn new projects years after it was done. There were two movies based on the series – Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion. Death and Rebirth is a pretty dense thing to get through because it’s a sort of “greatest hits” of the entire series, compressing 22 or so episodes into a single two hour experience. Then there’s End of Evangelion, which I have heard described as an alternative to the last two episodes in the series that presents more action and answers and less metaphysics and philosophy. There was also a “director’s cut” of the series that was released while I was working at Suncoast which is pretty much the whole series re-mastered and with some newer digital effects.

This movie is something completely different. In 2007 a project was begun to re-make Neon Genesis, preserving the character design, characters and overall plot, but doing it with a much bigger budget and with the benefit of hindsight. This re-make is intended to take the form of (I believe) four feature length theatrical films, although to date only two of them have come out. Knowing full well how confusing the end of the series is the makers of this movie have gone to considerable effort to start layering in the overarching plot much earlier. Shinji’s father is seen talking much more with his bosses in Seele – the conspiracy behind the Human Instrumentality Project, and it’s made much more clear that some kind of apocalyptic endgame is being planned by them.

I absolutely loved this film. We watched it in Blu Ray on my new computer’s hi-def widescreen monitor and it looks absolutely spectacular. I love seeing elements of the plot of the series being introduced much earlier in the new version, and I also loved all the familiar faces and scenes from the original. The lavish big-budget treatment and extensive use of computer effects fits very well with the epic story and lager than life creations in the world of Eva. This movie is a treat for the eyes, particularly near the end when things really begin to get blown up.

I will admit that I found some changes from the series jarring. Since this is in movie form the opening credits, which were one of my favorite parts of the series, are gone. Shinji’s first time piloting the Eva unit is significantly different than how I remembered it in the series – in particular I missed the moment when the Eva’t helmet gets damaged and a giant eye emerges, seeming to look right at Shinji in the reflection in a skyscraper. Also, part of the whole point of that first encounter was that the Eva seemed to come to life after all was lost, and when in theory it should be unable to move because its external power supply was disconnected and its charge was run down. I miss details like that. Oh, and I really miss “Fly Me to the Moon” over the closing credits.

I’m very much looking forward now to watching the second movie in the new series. I haven’t bought it yet, but I will be soon. Then it’s going to be a mighty long wait for the other two films. If they even come out.

I kind of hope that the proposed live action film never gets off the ground. Everything I’ve heard about the dreadful live action Akira makes me dread what might be done to this other anime classic.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 492 – Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma – July 5th, 2011

I have to say, our years working at video stores have definitely affected our movie purchases in a big way. Working at a smaller store with lots of lesser known titles certainly exposed us to things we’d never have seen otherwise, and might not have bothered renting had we not had employee accounts to use. And now we get to go searching for some of those lesser known titles to find them for this project. Because the thing about this project is that we owned a lot of things we’d never seen before, but when looking at our list we realized how many things we had seen and loved but didn’t own. And this was one of the latter.

A little over a year ago I asked some friends online if they could help me figure out what this anime was. I’d seen it in college while working at the video store, and I remembered that it had an eerie counting song run over the trailer. We’d originally rented it because of the trailer and that song and been thoroughly baffled by it once we’d seen it. I remembered it having lots of monsters and a woman who turned into a moth (or vice versa, I wasn’t sure) and one of the main characters had a scar on his face. The protagonist and antagonist were childhood friends and now one of them had gone evil. And that was pretty much all I could give anyone to go on. Because I sincerely doubt that saying “I’m pretty sure we saw the trailer on some other thing that also had a trailer for Gappa: The Triphibian Monster,” would help. And really, take a look at that list of characteristics. Monsters and shape-shifters, creepy music, childhood friends turned rivals because one is evil? Yeah, that’s totally unique.

None of my friends were able to put a name to my mystery movie and so we moved on, hoping that some day we’d remember it or stumble across it. Then, after watching The Ninja Scroll, Andy decided to actively look. And how did he look, might you ask? He searched youtube for anime trailers with creepy music. And lo and behold, there it was. Over ten years later and I could still hum the tune. It’s a weird sort of movie that’s stuck with us despite being confusing and flawed. Because make no mistake, this movie is not a great anime classic full of lush visuals and impeccable storytelling. It’s an animated movie that actually has still sketches as part of its action scenes and one of the main characters is a total cipher.

The story is a little patchy. We start out with Hikage, a ninja warrior who’s been assigned to track down his former best friend, Marou, so Marou won’t spread knowledge of their clan leader’s death too early. But of course it’s not that simple. Marou has been claimed by the Yoma – demons who want to take over the world – and is growing in power. Hikage sees him in a strange village full of oddly happy people who don’t seem to have any cares at all. The village has no apparent resources, yet everyone in it is partying and laughing and super happy. But then he doesn’t see Marou again and instead becomes enamoured of a young woman, Aya, who has a bad scar on her cheek. And then he finds out that the village is full of suicidal folks who are being kept happy so they can be fed to Marou and he and his demons can take over. He fights the demon who was responsible, then some more demons, then everyone dies and Marou gets away and that’s the end of the episode.

Oh yeah, this is actually episodic. We hadn’t realized that before. And actually, I think it’s better this way. I’m fairly certain that the version we originally watched wasn’t divided, and it does play well enough as a whole. The thing is, I’m fairly sure there are some bits missing out of the version we originally saw, and I like that the second half introduces itself as a second half, divided from the first by three years. Because while the overarching plot of Hikage and Marou and the Yoma is still going on, the specifics of what Hikage encounters are different. And by smushing them together without much acknowledgement that there is a gap? Ironically, I think it would make the movie less cohesive.

The second half of the movie picks up three years later with the introduction of another character named Aya, this time a young woman who’s a ninja. She joins Hikage as they encounter a village full of ghosts and a bunch of other demons, most of whom shapeshift from human form to some sort of animal. And of course the whole thing ends with a climactic fight between Marou and Hikage, with Marou going full on demon and there’s lots of swordplay and yelling and blood. Aya gets attacked by a horse demon and eventually it all ends with Marou’s death. Not exactly a shocking ending. Of course, it also introduces the idea that Marou will be back, and that he will make the same choices he made before. Which brings up the question of Aya. In the first half she’s got a scar that a younger version of her (we assume) gets from the events of the second half.

The Aya thing is what gets me here. I can sort of see what the movie was going for with it, suggesting that there’s a cyclical nature of the events that are playing out. Marou’s rebirth, his strange origins, his choices and his words all hint at there being an inevitability to it all. But then there’s Aya, who dies in the first half only to sort of reappear in the second. Maybe it’s not the same Aya. Maybe the first half showed the potential future of the second half Aya had she not met Hikage? Maybe they’re not the same person but share the same soul? The movie does include the concepts of possession and reincarnation, allowing for the possibility that Aya wasn’t the same person but gained aspects of the other Aya. I don’t know. It’s all very vague, much like the battle scenes of the movie, which are shown by panning over some still sketches.

I find it frustrating because it hints at such a bigger picture. A lot of the movie does. But that bigger picture just doesn’t exist. This wasn’t a longer series condensed into an OVA and it doesn’t seem to have started as a manga series. It’s just a two part movie with some really big concepts that don’t quite fit. I love the still visuals and the demons are nicely drawn. The idea is pretty solid at its core and the characters are as well drawn as I’d expect them to be (aside from Aya) but it leaves me feeling like I missed something. This version left me feeling less that way than I remember feeling after the first time I saw it, but it’s still there. I enjoyed it, but I really wish there was even more of it to enjoy.

July 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma

July 5, 2011

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma

Way back on the third day of our movie-a-day project we reviewed Hellboy: Storm of Swords. It was a direct to video animated Hellboy story inspired by Japanese folk tales and it reminded me of an anime I had seen years ago, but I couldn’t think of the name of it. Then again, when we reviewed Ninja Scroll a little while ago I was reminded of this mysterious and bloody anime from bygone days. It was so irritating – like an itch – to have this movie I only vaguely remembered and couldn’t therefore find. So I spent about an hour searching the internet until a title leaped out at me. “Curse of the Undead Yoma.”

This was it! This was that mystery movie I couldn’t remember! Amanda and I first sought this out when we saw this trailer and were instantly captivated. Just haunting, wistful song in the trailer made us curious. What was this strange looking movie filled with ghosts and demons? Luckily at the time we were working for TLA video and they had this in their vast collection of anime, so we were able to watch it soon after seeing the preview.

I think that version we watched way back in the nineties was different than this, which we picked up on DVD last week. For one thing, I don’t remember the other version being two separate episodes as this one is. For another I remember being utterly confused and befuddled by the goings on the last time I saw this, whereas tonight it seemed relatively simple and clear. Either I was very tired the last time I saw this or the version we were watching was compressed and edited. Maybe it was also dubbed, which could add to the confusion (this being in the days before DVD when everything was properly available in multiple languages.) Anyhow, back then this movie was just a series of interesting pictures strung together by only the vaguest of plots.

Tonight I was able to understand the plot pretty well. Young Ninja Hikage is sent to kill his childhood friend Marou after their master is killed by a mysterious demon. He tracks Marou to a lost village where nobody has any memory of their past. It’s an unsettling place where people with no direction seem to wash up, including the beautiful young Aya, who sings the haunting song from the preview and who has a distinctive scar or birthmark over half her face. As Hikage searches for Marou he discovers that something is brutally killing the villagers, although everybody he confronts about it denies that anything is happening. Soon he finds out that the villagers are sacrifices to a resurrected demon god of some sort. he kills the demon’s spider henchmen, releasing the villagers from their ensorcelled peace, and confronts the god himself, who of course turns out to be his childhood companion Marou.

Marou gets away and the villagers, released from their dreamlike state, all die. (They had been drawn to the village by their suicidal tendencies apparently.) Thus ends the first of the two episodes. The second episode catches up with Hikage two years later. He has been travelling all over Japan slaying Yoma, the demons being raised by Marou to overthrow the human race. He encounters a young ninja girl on a beach who is also coincidentally named Aya. The two of them strike out killing Yoma, encountering ghosts and whatnot until Hikage finally catches up with Marou and has his climactic confrontation.

Amanda is somewhat upset by the recursive nature of the coda to the film, what with the two Ayas, but I kind of enjoy that aspect of the movie as well. The entire thing has an otherworldly and mystical feel to it, so the strange sense of inevitability and rebirth works for me. It’s a ghost story, really. All the people in the first village are lost, perhaps lost in time even – so the Aya we meet there could perhaps be an echo of the Aya in the second half. Or perhaps Hikage is just fated to love a girl named Aya with a scar – who knows? The movie doesn’t present answers, and that’s just fine by me. It’s a movie about second chances and love and betrayal, and all of those themes fill it from start to end.

This was made in 1989 – around the time of Akira. As such I can’t help being impressed with the detailed animation throughout. It’s full of cool demons, ninjitsu and acrobatic fight scenes, and lots of gore and corpses. There’s a lot of imagery that is frankly disturbing and unsettling, which is exactly the mood that the film makers were going for I’m sure. The whole “childhood friends who have to fight to the death” might be a tired kind of trope in the anime world, but this is one of my favorite examples of it. My other favorite is a spoof in the short lived Here is Greenwood series.

July 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 482 – Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll – June 25th, 2011

I know I’ve mentioned my video store experience in the past. It’s one of those things that figures into this whole project since it figures into our love of movies of a wide variety of genres and quality levels. After all, when you have access to a huge number of movies for free, you become willing to pick up a lot of things you otherwise would have passed over. And believe me, I was thrilled to have the run of the anime section at the store I worked at in college. The store I’d worked at in high school had a total of maybe thirty cassettes of anime, and over half of those were Ranma ½ episodes. And this was not in among the non-Ranma tapes. So I ended up not seeing this until college, when Andy brought it back from work one day so I could see a classic.

He did warn me at the time that there was a moment in the movie where a snake slid out of a woman’s crotch. And that right there is the thing I think of when I think of this movie. And I do think of it. It’s still strange to think back to a time before I was at all familiar with anime, when this was brand new to me. But strangely enough I didn’t see this until college. I’d seen some of what I’m fairly sure was the original Macross series when I was a kid, up early enough in the morning on Saturdays to get away with watching something not on PBS. And I’d seen Vampire Hunter D (which we don’t have yet!) during my high school years when I didn’t sleep more than an hour or two every night. There was a smattering of other stuff I’d seen with friends or caught on television, but this had escaped me. And it was a title everyone seemed to know. I wasn’t sure what I was going to see on the screen, because by the time I sat down to watch it I’d seen a variety of other things. Enough to know that anime isn’t so much a genre as a medium with a number of common themes that show up but certainly not limited to them.

This movie falls solidly into the supernatural feudal Japan theme. It follows swordsman for hire, Jubei, as he is drawn into a plot to use stolen gold to start a civil war. A mysterious old man poisons him in order to force him to help in return for the antidote. Turns out Jubei has history with the man responsible for the whole plot, Gemma, and I’ve got thoughts on the poison plot and all that but I’ll get there in a moment. As far as the main plot goes, Jubei ends up having to fight off a number of warriors with supernatural powers who are working for Gemma in hopes of stopping Gemma from getting the gold and using it to start a super army. Their history together is a little complicated but suffice it to say that they’re rivals and Jubei killed Gemma but Gemma found a way to reincarnate himself and make himself immortal. Immortal enemies are always a pain in the ass, aren’t they? Yeah, Jubei agrees and gets kind of pissed that all his earlier hard work is more than undone.

Alongside him in his mission to stop Gemma is a young woman named Kagero who is usually employed as a poison taster for the head of the Mochizuki clan. She’s also a ninja, and since her poison tasting skills aren’t needed at the moment she goes with a team of ninja to investigate a town that’s been wiped out by a plague. Her team is wiped out by the supernatural warriors sent by Gemma, since the town wasn’t killed by a plague but by poison so Gemma’s men could retrieve the gold. And you know, the specifics of where the gold is and getting it and sneaking it through the area and all? Yeah, it’s important to the overall scheme of things, since without that impetus there wouldn’t be all that much reason for the movie to happen, but I glaze over when I try to explain it. There’s an evil dude who wants power and in the course of his attempt to get it he kills people and the hero and heroine try to stop him. There. Done.

Because what I take away from this movie isn’t the political maneuverings of Gemma or the clan he’s latched onto to get his dirty work done. I don’t really care about the clan leader Kagero works for. What I care about are the fights between Jubei and the warriors Gemma sends after him. Known as the Devils of Kimon, we’ve got the aforementioned snake woman, a woman who can make things explode, a man who has a wasp nest in his back, a man who can turn his skin rock hard, a man who can slip in and out of shadows, a blind swordsman and then Gemma himself and his immediate second who can control everyone else with invisible threads (which he can also kill them with). It’s implied that the last one there has a thing for Gemma and that the explosive woman wants the thread dude and they’re all jockeying for position and don’t trust each other or much like each other and I’m kind of fascinated by them. I do wonder if their powers are based on anything in particular or if they’re just a random collection of potentially useful powers. I like that they don’t all work on a theme, like all be animal related or something. It makes them more interesting.

It also makes for a wider variety of fights for Jubei. He has to deal with the snake woman more than once and the wasp man is a far different sort of fight than the swordsman is. And he doesn’t even kill all of them himself! Which I also like. The snake woman is killed by her superior for failing and Jubei wouldn’t have been able to take down the stone man without Kagero having weakened him. Which brings us to Kagero being awesome in a way I’m not entirely comfortable with. Because she’s a poison taster she’s immune to all sorts of poisons herself, but she’s also taken in so many over the years that she secretes poison. She’s saturated with it. Which means she kills anyone who touches her too much. Which is how the stone guy got weak enough that Jubei could take him out, since he’d tried to rape Kagero earlier. Which is what started to make me uncomfortable. Later on we find out that the cure for the poison the old man gave Jubei is, surprise surprise, to sleep with Kagero. Which is when I start glaring.

I like Kagero. She’s strong and smart and she’s clearly good both at what she does most of the time and at her side job of kickass ninja. She’s able to use her poison powers to hold off an attack from the wasps at one point and she’s clearly an excellent fighter. But her major contribution to the plot is her deadly sexin’. There’s something distinctly unpleasant about that to me and it makes me unhappy because she is so strong otherwise and I do like her and I do like the rest of the movie. To reduce her importance to sex just irks me and due to Jubei’s history with Gemma the poison wasn’t even really necessary and given how much the old man knew and planned you’d think he could have figured that out. Which means he was trying to hook Jubei and Kagero up for kicks. Fortunately for Jubei, he declines to actually use her like that, giving her a friendly hug instead, which makes me like him a lot more as a character. Unfortunately for Kagero, she’s doomed to die so Jubei can walk off alone like he walked in.

But other than that, this movie is really pretty impressive. The animation is lovely and the villains are interesting. It’s a wonderful example of a fairly dark animated film and I really do like the vast majority of it. I think the political plot is a little ambitious and not given enough time for the details it’s supposed to have and there’s the Kagero issue, but I like Jubei and I like the overall mood of the film and I think it’s a great accomplishment. Certainly worthy of its status as a classic.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ninja Scroll

June 25, 2011

Ninja Scroll

This review is going to make me feel old. I can sense it. It’s a “you kids today” review. You kids today with your handheld video games and your internets and your smart phones – you don’t know how lucky you are. When I was growing up in the days before VHS and cable television there was almost no anime available to sate my desire for strange, non-American animation that was not necessarily intended for children. Of course I obsessed over the few tantalising glimpses I was able to find on UHF TV hidden between the mind-numbing Saturday morning fare. Like the intriguing Battle of the Planets (severely edited for American audiences from Gatchaman) or Force Five (which was actually five different shows, a different one for each day of the week) or Robotech, which made no sense to me because I kept missing episodes – and because it was adapted from four different anime shows and re-dubbed into a single non-sensicle time line – or the awesome space soap opera that was Star Blazers. I remember how disappointed I’d be when I tuned in to Force Five and it wasn’t a Grandiser episode, for example.

Anyhow, my point is that I spent my youth intrigued and fascinated by these awesome cartoons which were so completely unlike anything else on TV. Only when I was in college in the early nineties did I start to find original anime in Japanese so I could enjoy it in its unadulterated form. At that time the big sensation of course was Akira, which had only come out a couple years prior and was far from as ubiquitous as it is today. Naturally I saw other classics like Vampire Hunter D and Dirty Pair. This movie, however, had not even come out yet. Years later when I was working at TLA and Amanda was in college in Pennsylvania anime was beginning to gain a more significant foothold in America. People who didn’t live entirely in dark rooms lit by computer screens had heard of it. It was at this time that Ninja Scroll became required viewing for anybody new to the genre. The reason why is clear as we watch this again tonight: this movie exemplifies everything awesome about Japanese animation that isn’t present in the pap created for American audiences.

What this movie is is a classic Japanese samurai movie but more magical and extreme. It takes place in feudal Japan, but includes unearthly magical powers. Three unlikely companions, each for reasons of their own, do battle with an upstart clan that is trying to oust the Tokugawa warlord that currently rules the country. Opposing them are the shadow clan, who have retained the help of eight legendary ninjas – the Devils of Kimon. Each of the eight Devils has his or her own deadly power. One can turn his skin to impervious stone and hurl a devastating spinning boomerang sword, one can fill corpses with explosives and re-animate them under her own control, one commands hordes of snakes, another hordes of wasps and so on. Leading the devils is the immortal warrior Gemma whom our hero Jubei had thought dead after they fought years ago while in the service of a different master.

The basic plot, of Jubei the wandering ronin teaming up with the last survivor of a ninja strike team sent by a local leader to investigate the doings of the Devils and a wise old manipulative government spy, doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s pretty much the story of the three of them reluctantly uniting and one by one defeating the unimaginably powerful foes they face, leading up to a climactic confrontation between Gemma and Jubei in a burning boat full of stolen gold bars. Kagero, the ninja woman whose kiss brings death because of her years as a poison taster for her clan, is bitter and cold. Jubei is your classic lone wolf, who has no interest in political conflicts like this but is manipulated by the government spy Dakuan. Even together they have no hope of defeating their supernatural foes, but they do battle with them nonetheless.

That’s not really the point of the movie though, at least not to my eyes. The point of the movie is to have a never-ending series of brutal action scenes that are the absolute pinnacle of extreme Japanese animation. This movie is absolutely packed with nudity, sex, severed limbs and geysers of blood. Right from the beginning when Kagero’s ninja team are destroyed by the giant stone-skinned Tessai, raining blood and body parts from the trees to the ground below you know exactly what this movie is all about. It’s a thrilling action adventure with a pulsing soundtrack and awesome fight scene after awesome fight scene. It also manages to encompass many of the tropes of the entire anime genre.

In the late nineties if you wanted to introduce somebody to anime as a genre there were three films they were required to watch: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll. All three, for an American audience raised on Disney films, were shocking, awesome and left an indelible impression. Animation as a whole is not limited to childrens’ films about talking animals – it can be dark, violent, bloody, and sexy. It can be a whole lot more as well (as evidenced by the works of Hayao Miyazaki) but this movie is part of an important revelation for American audiences. I love it for that. And for being unbelievably cool too.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment