Monday, 29 September 2014

攻殻機動隊 / Koukaku Kidou Tai / Mobile Armoured Riot Police / Ghost in the Shell

For a long while now, I’ve been meaning to rewatch Ghost in the Shell and review it. And by a long while, I mean several years – since around the time I wrote my Akira review. After all, when I was growing up, those were the two most iconic anime films in the West – Akira and Ghost in the Shell, held up as the pinnacles of what anime can achieve. And having enjoyed Akira, I expected to love Ghost in the Shell too. But I must confess, I did not. I was disappointed at the time: it was beautiful, but rather sterile and dull. I never felt involved with any of the characters, and found the incessant nudity a bit puerile – too obviously titillation masquerading as art.

Yet I’ve always wanted to reassess, and to rewatch. This was especially the case on a recent trip to Japan, where I visited an exhibition of the artwork for the film and its various sequels. I hadn’t fully appreciated the sheer level of detail in the artwork, nor the obvious joy in machinery, weaponry and the human form that went into them until that gallery. It really is astounding and rather beautiful, and the long pan up on the city that ends the film made for a beautiful sketch and painting. That really set me wanting to watch the first film again – but still I put it off, and I’m quite glad I did. Last night, there was a one-off screening of the remastered version in a local cinema, and that really was the best way to see this visually stunning film.

Plot-wise, for an action piece, it actually moves very slowly and makes a point of making much of its more dramatic violence stately, with languid, epic music composed by Kawai Kenji rather than pounding rhythms. It’s remarkable how far that goes to elevate things. Based on the first part of the manga by Shirow Masamune, it tells a thoughtful but not very eventful story that unfortunately ends just as it gets most interesting.

In a world of cybernetic implants and enhancements, law enforcement officer Kusanagi Motoko is almost entirely robotic, to the point that she worries if she is still human or not. We see her and her likeable team of colleagues investigating the ‘puppet master’, a hacker capable of controlling others. Eventually, it turns out that the Puppet Master is actually artificially created, though now believes itself to have a mind and a soul. Trapped in a single body so as not to spread over the network, it engineers events to bring itself into contact with Motoko, realising that without the human element, it can never diversify in a way that it can protect itself through unpredictability. Everything works, a new gestalt being is created and...the film ends, just as it becomes most intriguing.

Still, the journey has many very interesting elements, including interesting philosophical questions related to the Cartesian ghost in the machine. Most affecting is the minor character manipulated into believing he has a wife and daughter: if the soul results from important memories and relationships, what is the soul when those are fabricated? Is the mind just a ghost and the body the shell? How is that affected when the body is artificial? For a film that also has a beautiful woman stripping off all her clothes to do physical battle with a huge spider-like ‘tank’ and beat up her target while cloaked to even scratch at the surface of such questions is quite satisfying, and this balances them well.

But the problem with that very elevation is that especially around the middle, without any real clear goal or motivations made apparent, the film is actually quite dull. I was kept engaged by simply enjoying the art – the detailed backgrounds, the interesting angles, the highly detailed machinery. But I ought to be engaged by the plot. And the thing is, I know that Oshii Mamoru can give his characters a whole lot of heart and soul and interesting character arcs. But I don’t really see it here, and that Motoko remains a glacial figure of intrigue and mystery works only if the real emotional heart of the piece is with her teammates. And while the beginnings of that are there with Batou and Togusa, it’s not taken nearly far enough. The result is something rather beautiful, but icy and distant. Conceptually understandable, but for 90 minutes, not especially enjoyable.

The film achieves much, especially visually. But I can’t call it one of my favourite anime films of all time. Nice to have finally, finally watched it in Japanese, though! 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

HunterxHunter (2011): Election Arc

Well, I don’t think that when they revived it, Madhouse thought that in the time it would take to animate 16 years’ worth of HunterxHunter manga, Togashi would only have managed about 40 chapters.

So, well...the inevitable has happened. With the end of the Election arc, HunterxHunter is over once again. And I’m sad, because watching that final episode, which is actually a good place to end because it marks the culmination of Gon’s emotional arc with him getting to hand over Ging's Hunter licence and accomplishing the goal established at the very start, I’ll realised a few things.

I realised that even if One Piece is consistently better and I enjoyed Naruto more in its first 40-odd episodes, HunterxHunter is the Jump action property I care about the most (and second overall only to Hikaru no Go). Gon is by far my favourite of the action protagonists, much more pure-hearted and less annoying than Luffy, Naruto, Ichigo, Goku, Tsuna, Allen Walker, Yugi, Yoh or any of the rest of them, as well as going through far more harrowing experiences. HunterxHunter does darkness far better than any of the others ever did, and I’m going to be sad if Togashi is demoralised by the end of the anime and stops again for another long hiatus. Money isn’t going to motivate him – I’m sure that with his titles and the money the new Sailor Moon is bringing in for his wife, the only motivating factor is gonna be love of the piece. Is it still there? It feels like it, when he’s writing, but then for months and months he won’t do a thing.

Anyway, inception aside the Election Arc, while short and almost entirely lacking the protagonist of the story – another bold decision you won’t see from other Jump writers – is actually a very satisfying one. It reintroduces the long-absent character of Leorio and makes him look pretty impressive (setting up his role in the next arc), it despite a magical solution illustrates that the power-up Gon received was not a typical shounen ass-pull but genuinely put him and those close to him through significant pain and suffering, and with the parallel story arc for Killua, it further fleshes out his relationship with his family and fills in some important blanks.

But best of all, we get introduced to the Zodiac. Some are absurd, and some uninteresting, but Pariston is one of the most brilliant creations in any manga I’ve ever seen – and I detest him. But to have such powerful feelings about a fictional character who is only ever seen on the surface and who is named after Paris Hilton is quite the accomplishment. Pariston is an utterly brilliant depiction of a smarmy, insincere politician type. He’s slick and polished and knows that everyone hates him, but has an incredibly deep cunning under the surface and runs intellectual rings around the others – especially poor likeable Cheadle – while making it all look accidental or idiotic. Bringing Ging to the fore – and having him a foil to Pariston yet not entirely able to deal with him – is the most wonderful, watchable dynamic and again, sets up the next arc.

But fun though the election story is, the real emotional heart of these episodes was of course Killua’s rush to save Gon. Gon turned himself into something horrific in exchange for the power to defeat Pitou, and Killua can only think of one way to save him – the fearful power of his little sibling (most likely biologically male but identifying as female) locked up in the Zoldyck household.

With a set of strange rules, Alluka – or the other personality residing within, known as Nanika – can grant wishes when various demands are met. But failing to meet those demands brings horrific consequences. It’s the furthest HunterxHunter delves into horror territory, and it works really rather well. What Togashi does best is show that Killua actually sees Alluka as human, which none of the rest of the family do, and their bond is quite touching.

Illumi and Hisoka end up giving chase, another interesting dynamic – and Hisoka is enigmatic as ever, though brutally effective in his battle with Gotou. There are also some interesting new Zoldyck butler characters, though I think Tsubone’s goofy, rather embarrassing-looking ability was a waste – especially since she herself is awesome. It’s a pretty classic chase storyline, but wrapped up with all sorts of family drama, as well as Killua’s love for Gon and conflicted feelings.

The big climb to finish the arc is very sweet. Not only is that kind of ascent an old classic of shounen stories – most notably Dragonball – and finished off with trademark Togashi silliness with the nest, the conversation Gon finally has with his father is done brilliantly – it’s not too saccharine or emotional, but the message that Ging imparts, that the journey and the people you meet on it are more important than the goal, comes over very nicely.

I’ll very much miss my weekly dose of HunterxHunter. But I have every faith that it will come back again – someday. And until then, well, there’s always the manga. Sometimes. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Boxtrolls

I could already tell from the way it was marketed, but it’s already obvious that The Boxtrolls, a likeable and funny film, will not do anywhere near as well as Laika’s previous films. While I can see there being life after Selick for the studio, what hooked people before was associations with Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman. What The Boxtrolls needed was the kind of concept that immediately hooks people in, like Wall-E or Happy Feet. They needed something that kept the dark edge but still seemed accessible. A grimy film about ugly trolls who live underground with a hermit crab-like relationship with cardboard boxes may have a lot of gems in the actual execution – and indeed it does – but I am completely sure that fewer people will give it a chance than it deserves. If they had marketed it with the human characters more to the fore, as the main point of identification and even with some cute factor highlighted, it could have attracted more of a crowd. But the trolls themselves were very much where the campaign centred, and that felt to me like trying to sell Frozen on those funny little rock troll things. They may have an important place in the plot, but they’re not what an audience identifies with.

And that gets in the way of a cracking story full of very well-executed characters. It has a neat set-up that both gives us our hero and sets the antagonist’s actions into motion – though we have to assume the evil Mr Snatcher works extremely slowly for it to really work.

In the rather wonderful towering fantasy-English town of Cheesebridge, the curious little Boxtrolls live a nocturnal existence scavenging for bits of technology to put into their rather steampunk-ish lair. 

When a respected inventor vanishes and his son is taken by the Boxtrolls, the community begins to fear them – egged on by the nefarious Mr Snatcher, something of a tribute to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child catcher, and voiced with as much evil camp as Ben Kingsley can muster. Snatcher is the most dangerous kind of social climber, desperate to join the elite of Cheesebridge, who wear white hats and mingle to discuss governing the town over all the finest cheeses – and he will do anything for this goal. He is aided by three henchmen who are rather brilliantly rendered – one is utterly unhinged, but the other two, played by Nick Frost (for once having a larger role in a film than Simon Pegg) and Richard Ayoade (star of The IT Crowd), wrestle throughout the film with questions of morality and the ever-dwindling chance that they are in fact the good guys.

The child taken by the Boxtrolls, however, was not snatched away. He was given willingly by his father (Pegg), who was attacked by Snatcher, demanding he invent a killing machine. Adopted by the Boxtrolls, he grows up believing he is one of them, even getting a name like theirs, based on what is on his box – ‘Eggs’. Eggs is joined by the likes of ‘Fish’, ‘Shoe’ and, indeed, ‘Fragile’. When he is somewhat grown but Snatcher has succeeded in capturing almost all the Boxtrolls, he has a chance encounter with Winifred, daughter of the highest-ranking official in town. Winnie (Elle Fanning, spirited as ever) has something of a fixation on blood and gore, a character quirk that sits just on the right side of contrived, and resents how her father is much more interested in cheese than in her. Together, they put together a plan to rescue Eggs’ adoptive family – but ultimately it is Snatcher’s own plan reaching fruition and then finally him getting everything he ever wanted that proves his undoing.

Some of the scenes here are the funniest in any animated film I’ve seen in a very long while. Eggs trying to pass in high society is just the right balance of embarrassing, disgusting, adorable and humbling. I loved the henchmen’s banter, and while I don’t usually like that kind of humour, I enjoyed the closing stinger of Ayoade’s character musing about his existence. Snatcher was animated with such grotesque relish, and I very much enjoyed the steampunk elements. Laika also seem to be the only American animation studio alongside Dreamworks-in-serious-mode who seem to be able to get adolescent characters right these days: Eggs and Winnie are not only a very enjoyable odd couple, they are both very sympathetic in their own right, and Eggs in particular I found extremely cute – helped by a natural sort of performance with an estuary twang from Isaac Hempstead-Wright, better-known as Bran from Game of Thrones.

For a film animated in Portland, this was a remarkably British sort of a film, from its setting to its cast, and with that comes something of an appreciation for the dirty and grimy, as well as a celebration of quiet, unassuming hard work and a dislike of those who pull others down to advance themselves. That this also has a neat story with likeable characters attached to it, as well as some really stunning visuals and incredibly smooth stop-motion, and you have a highly enjoyable film. But I can’t help but feel it just wasn’t the film Laika needed just yet: they needed a couple more to really make themselves a household name with more obvious ideas first, and then this could be a follow-up. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

劇場版 HUNTER×HUNTER ザラストミッション/ HunterxHunter movie 2: The Last Mission

The first HunterxHunter movie from Madhouse, Phantom Rouge, was a slight mis-fire, but felt like an event. There was a Togashi-approved backstory for Kurapika, complete with original tie-in manga chapters in the midst of one of the longer recent hiatusxhiatuses. The Ryodan showed up and lots of them looked awesome, and we even got more from the deceased Uvogin. I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend the film, sloppy as it was, but it was enjoyable.

The second film feels far less exciting, far less of an event. It’s a very simple, rather dull story and there are no surprise cast members – though there is a funny little wordless cameo from a certain vice-chairman of the Hunter Association, messing with everyone as usual. The new characters introduced aren’t even as interesting as the last film’s uninteresting baddie, and there’s no cute cross-dressing Gothic Lolita girl to offset these ones either.

After Greed Island but before the Chimera Ant arc, Gon and Killua return to the Celestial Tower to see the show they’re putting on – a big tournament between all the floor masters. In a nice touch, it seems Zushi has risen up to become one of them, allowing for a reunion with Wing and Biscuit. Kurapika is still working for the Nostrades, and as Neon is watching the tournament, he is there too.

But the tournament never happens. An old adversary of Netero’s appears to interrupt proceedings, take control of the tower and kidnap Netero using a formidable power. Why they don’t just kill him and what they actually hope to do is a little unclear. But the interlopers are using an alternative to nen called ‘on’, which gives them great power but at the cost of their lives, like most dark powers in anime that are effectively doping analogies. Hisoka watches from the wings, as well as helping get Leorio involved, and things are neatly arranged so that there’s one strong opponent for Killua and Gon, one for Kurapika and Leorio, and then a final boss. Despite the moment where inexplicably everything changes because Killua pierces through the unbreakable barrier and touches the dead girl on the shoulder to free her from being dead, mostly the combat scenes are flashy and satisfying. There’s lots of fancy moves, explosions and heartfelt speeches as Gon once again prepares to sacrifice himself for those close to him. Very sweet.

But ultimately this comes over as a fight about nothing much, to prevent nothing much, which doesn’t improve the world or enrich the characters in any real way. It’s a fight in a big tower, and feels inconsequential. It’s very much standard shounen anime filler, and that’s a shame because HunterxHunter only really succeeds where it shows that it is atypical and idiosyncratic. This could easily have been a sub-par movie version from any of the Big Three.

The Madhouse anime is winding up soon, because Togashi hasn’t finished the next arc so they’re not confident in beginning it – I assume. That’s a real shame, because I love to watch it. Conceivably, I should have saved this for after the series ends, and I want something to fill the void. But I’m quite glad I didn’t leave this to be my final viewing experience of the Madhouse adaptation (bar future releases based on the current arc). Because ultimately the word I would use to describe the film as a whole would be ‘anticlimactic’. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014


Much as I love Rio de Janeiro, I was averse to Rio. I didn’t like the trailer. I didn’t like the ugly design of the main birds, or the rather whitewashed, Hollywood vision of Brazil where everyone is a party animal and nobody is geeky or awkward.

Well, the birds are ugly and this Brazil can still be called somewhat whitewashed, there are geeky Brazilians here, and much to recommend the film. Yes, probably I would have preferred the Pixar project with the blue-footed newts that was cancelled when they realised their plot was too similar to this one – and didn’t want to be the Dreamworks of Antz, Shark Tale and the rest. But in its own right, Rio has much to recommend it – not least of which being the awesome soundtrack.

This is a classic fish-out-of-water romance, but with birds. Blue is a rare Blue Macaw – the last male of his species. As a chick, he was taken from the Brazilian forest by smugglers and was to be sold as a pet – but fell off the back of a truck and was taken in by a nice geeky girl who runs a bookshop. When a Brazilian scientist comes to whisk the two of them to Brazil to meet the last female of the species, but smugglers once again get in the way, and the birds end up not only chained together, but out in the wild with an evil cockatoo on their feathery tails.

Once again, though, just as with Bolt the film doesn’t feel like it really has the capacity to move the audience. Though the stakes are the future of a species, that never feels like it’s in question. There’s no real sense of danger, nor of triumph. And the way Blue having to learn to fly is signposted so heavily all through the film just feels incredibly clumsy.

But there are a few scenes that make the whole thing worthwhile – when the birds all burst into song and Jewel has a solo verse, the way Carnaval itself is rendered, and some of the shots of Rio.

But it certainly could have been better – and more satisfying. And there’s something deeply amusing about how they tried to render two birds with hooked beaks kissing.  

Bolt (2008)

Bolt appealed to me when it had its cinema run, but like so many animated films, sadly I didn’t actually get around to going to the cinema to see it. Signalling effectively the transition of Disney Animations from ailing production house playing second fiddle to Pixar to newly accomplished CGI studio in its own right with Pixar mastermind John Lasseter at the helm, Bolt had a lot to prove – but didn’t make anything like the impact of Wreck-it Ralph or Frozen...or, indeed, Tangled. But for all that it’s likely going to be consigned with Meet the Robinsons to ‘minor feature’ status for all time, it was a whole lot better than, say, Cars II. And I liked Cars II much more than most people did.

Something like Homeward Bound meets Finding Nemo with the delusional-ideas-of-own-abilities comedy from the first Toy Story, cute animal story Bolt has a bit of everything – comedy, action, sweetness, emotionally heavy notes, and quite a few sharp jibes at Hollywood, including an especially cutting and brilliant depiction of a manipulative agent. 

The story is that there is a successful TV show called Bolt, which is rather like Inspector Gadget but with Gadget and Brain merged. A little girl – who is even called Penny – gets into scrapes because a terrorist organisation is after her, but has her highly-intelligent dog for protection. Fortunately, Bolt has been enhanced to gain super speed, amazing strength, heat ray eyes and an incredibly destructive superbark. The real Bolt is the star of the show with his real owner, who wishes he could just be a normal dog – but that’s not possible because the director has mandated the dog truly believe what he’s doing is real. In other words, Bolt truly thinks he has amazing powers, and has an incredibly sheltered life – even for a dog.

The show isn’t doing so well, so a network executive demands darker stories – which include a cliffhanger. Leaving Bolt genuinely distressed for his owner leads to him escaping in a rescue attempt and, as seems usual practice in this sort of story, getting knocked out in the back of a delivery van and being taken right across the States.

Bolt at first believes himself depowered by the mysterious properties of styrofoam, but undeterred, goes to look for Penny. He asks some pigeons, who lead him to a cat that has been extorting them – cats being the underlings of the bad guy in the TV show. This alley cat – who turns out to have a genuinely very sweet yet understated backstory involving being left behind when her human family walks away, leaving her to fend for herself after having been declawed, is forced along for the ride, and after picking up a crazy fanboy hamster (who never seems to miss HIS old human for a second), they make their way to Hollywood. But will there still be a place for Bolt?

In animation terms, it’s just a little dated and clunky now, especially the human characters, but the animal designs are very strong and the acting matches well. I had no idea that the actors were John Travolta and Miley Cyrus until the film ended, but both suited their roles extremely well. Also fun to see Malcolm McDowell voicing yet another crazy English bad guy.

I don’t know why Bolt wasn’t more of a success. I guess that it needed a bit more scale to really draw in the crowds, but it benefited from keeping things small and simple – in contrast to its show-within-a-show. The humour was good, the music was good, the emotional parts were good and the payoff was good. I guess it was just that little bit too straightforward to stand out in the crowded market of kids’ American CG animated feature films. 

Mr Peabody & Sherman

Despite quite a prominent advertising campaign – including dominating the Regent Street lights – nobody I know went to see Mr Peabody & Sherman. Honestly, I’m not surprised – if the characters are popularly known in the States from their old cartoon appearance (I think in Rocky and Bullwinkle?), they never made it over to the UK, and honestly they’re very hard to like. A know-it-all dog with incredible physical dexterity and a seven-year-old who is a long way from cute. There’s nothing about their adventures travelling through time that comes over as appealing or likely to strike a personal chord, and other than a few rather excellent moments near the end when different versions of the main characters end up in the same place at the same time, the film bears that out. It’s not very interesting, has very few laughs, doesn’t have appealing characters or designs, and overall is certainly one of the least impressive of Dreamworks’ films.

The story follows a dog who just happens to be a super-genius named Mr Peabody. Despite having invented a great many things – including some very silly ones – what he wants most is a family, and a home. So he adopts a young boy. Seeking to educate young Sherman, he begins to take him to different periods in a ‘wayback machine’ to show him first-hand some of the most significant events in history. Of course, this is all loose and slapdash for the sake of comedy – Sherman points out that the George Washington story with the cherry tree is apocryphal, yet we have the French Revolution depicted as having started as a direct result of Marie Antoinette saying ‘Let them eat cake’.

On his first day of school – wow, American kids start their education late – Sherman’s grounding in history is evident as he can answer all the questions, upsetting a girl called Penny by correcting her. She is a really nasty piece of work – something the film’s redemption arc for her never comes close to satisfactorily undoing, even if she’s seven – and bullies Sherman in a more literal ‘racism’ than that of real life. He was adopted by a dog, so he must be a dog too, she reasons.

The two of them end up fighting and Sherman bites Penny. This leads to trouble – because a large bullish woman who is a pleasing mix of Miss Trunchbull and the Queen of Hearts who works for child services wants to take Sherman away. Now, since when we meet them, Mr Peabody is putting Sherman in mortal danger during the Bloody Revolution and escapes only by igniting a sewer full of methane which really should have killed the people pursuing them, she may have a point. Nonetheless, Mr Peabody arranges for Penny’s family to be there on the night of the inspection of his suitability as a parent, so that the kids can make up. And of course, the kids end up getting into the time machine.

The adventure takes them to Ancient Egypt, where Penny almost marries Tutankhamen, then to Renaissance Italy for frivolities with Da Vinci to recharge, and then after a mishap with a wormhole back to Ancient Greece and into the Trojan Horse. Of course all of these time periods are replete with stereotypes, though not all of them national: witness Agamemnon as a big beefy jock. There’s not much that is very funny or engaging here – through mortal peril and too many poop jokes, Sherman and Penny get closer and puppy love is soon very evident.

Things get better once an emergency leads the kids to go back to shortly before they left, resulting in the classic two-in-the-same-timeline matter-antimatter paradox and the best joke in the film being a decidedly non-kid-friendly one about what Mr Peabody must stop Sherman doing in this situation. Soon the film’s big climax explodes into silliness with space-time collapsing and going very fast somehow providing an equal and opposite gravitational reaction to a tear in the continuum, and Agamemnon saying ‘Don’t taze me bro’, which I can’t see anyone getting in twenty years’ time.

This film just doesn’t have the heart it needs. It’s fundamentally a story about a father who loves his son, but it never really realises that, or makes it touching. It quite often comes close but it doesn’t quite get there. So all the snappy dialogue and impressive action sequences and silly minor characters can’t come together in something that can move the audience. So that is why it falls short – and why I’m convinced that Dreamworks are much better-off doing films with a serious fantasy premise and inserting humour than silly films and trying to insert sentiment.  

I seriously doubt Rob Minkoff will ever do anything again that comes even close to what he accomplished with The Lion King.