Tuesday, 30 August 2011

ואלס עם באשיר / Vals Im Bashir / Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir got a lot of attention – primarily with arthouse audiences – upon its release in 2008. With a striking, realistic art style, a hard-hitting and intellectually fashionable subject matter and unconventional structure, it was nominated for an Oscar not for best animated film but best film in a foreign language, won the equivalent award at the Golden Globes and earned top awards from respected animated film awards such as grand prizes from Zagreb and Tokyo Filmex. It is not hard to see why it was such a darling of the arthouse animation crowd: completely adult-oriented, based on harrowing real-world experiences and from a culture not generally associated with animation (this and $9.99 being the first animated films made in Israel since 1962), it is certainly not the average animated feature.

Key to its seriousness and distinctiveness is that it is an animated documentary. Not a thousand miles from Nick Park’s Creature Features work, a series of interviews are taped and then the animation is made to match it. But these interviews, some repeated or even conflated to make the details work better for a film, are not simple observations of life delivered by cute animals: they are recollections of Israeli soldiers from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The main character of the film, the director and writer Ari, has a strange memory of his time serving in Beirut, but can remember almost nothing of the actual events. So he sets out to interview others who were there to try to piece together the truth. There is brutal violence, graphic depictions of death, even one absurd sequence where gratuitous pornography is animated, something I doubt could be featured in live-action. And at the very end, in a fine moment of contrast, real news footage is played, reminding the audience with stunning simplicity just how real these events are, and the distance between reality and animation is artificial.

This is not made to tell the story of a war. It is not to educate, to make political statements or to excuse. If you don’t know the background, you may well be lost. If you don’t know why there would be Palestinians in Lebanon, or who the Phalangists were, you might struggle to understand all the implications of what is happening, but you are likely to understand the stories individuals tell and the sense of despair, helplessness and disgust so many of them retained after the event.

Visually, there is much to be praised, though it is somewhat annoying to read other film reviewers who clearly have very little to do with animation clearly not recognising the very obvious visual characteristics of Flash animation, presumably because they see only blockbusters and have no knowledge of the evolution of Flash on the web or the cartoons from the likes of Cartoon Network that make extensive use of it. Those disconnected limbs and that odd fluidity, the slow movements of the heads and the way the camera can squeeze in and out – all are hallmarks of Flash. There were accusations of rotoscoping here, presumably because those bold lines and the smooth motions are reminiscent of the likes of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and the like, but the filmmakers vehemently deny the technique was used. On the other hand, there are a few junctures where I suspect that at the very least the faces are traced or very heavily drawn from film footage – for example, one martial artist demonstrates a kick in a sequence the filmmakers were clearly so proud of they repeat it a few times – and his face has the most realistic expression for a person doing martial arts I have ever seen in animation.

Other sequences are fine for their strangeness and the symbolic elements, the very reason for making this a piece of animation; the are visions and dream sequences that come with really surprising and impressive moments of beauty, including the eponymous waltz. On the other hand, there is much that doesn’t satisfy: the idea of the suppressed memories seems artificial and forced, and the fleeting mentions of the Holocaust needed far more development to be valid thinking points.

But Waltz for Bashir is nothing if not memorable, powerful and unique. Well worth watching, if not one to enjoy.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Dead Space: Downfall

Dead Space: Downfall is spin-off of a successful atmospheric sci-fi/horror game. Serving as a prequel, it tells the story of how the player comes to be on a spaceship full of nasty alien creatures that can turn humans into six-limbed killing machines. I’m guessing the idea was to produce something along the lines of The Animatrix, an animated tie-in that is well-received by fans of the original, animation fans and general critics and ties up some loose ends.

Unfortunately, with terrible dialogue, characters it was impossible to like and a very juvenile fetishisation of violence, it was far too bad to like, and almost (only almost) too hard to enjoy with merciless mocking. Made direct-to-DVD by American studio Film Roman, who farm most of the work to Korea and are best-known for animating the bulk of The Simpsons, they manage to make everything look ugly, move awkwardly and sound silly.

The game it’s tied in with is undoubtedly far better, but nothing that interests me. I’ll stick with Aliens, which the film so clearly ripped off that it didn’t even bother to hide it in the last scenes.

(slightly expanded from impressions, 19.8.09)

クレヨンしんちゃん 嵐を呼ぶ モーレツ!オトナ帝国の逆襲 / Crayon Shin-Chan: The Storm Calls! The Adult Empire Strikes Back (Shin-chan Movie 9)

It’s perhaps purely because of his vague presence on Cartoon Network in somewhat bastardized form that Shin-chan isn’t seen as the national treasure he is in Japan. The success of Crayon Shin-chan is phenomenal, both as a manga and on televisions, the anime having run continuously since 1992. The end is in sight only because of the tragic passing of series creator Usui Yoshito in 2009, but such a fixture of television animation is little Shin-chan that his name ought to be uttered in the same breath as the likes of Doraemon and Sazae-san.

Like Sazae-san or Tonari no Yamada-kun, the appeal of Shin-chan is the presentation of a family unit, drawn in crude comic-strip style, having silly but charming small-scale adventures. While the free-wheeling and ugly aesthetic is hardly the peak of beauty on the screen, there is not such a big leap to, for example, the respected artistry of Yuasa Masaaki, whose first jobs as animation director were on the Shin-chan series. If I ever watch all 800+ episodes of the anime, it will not be for a very long time, so for now, these thoughts can be confined here, to my impressions of the ninth Shin-chan movie.

2001’s The Adult Empire Strikes Back begins with the usual Shin-chan fare: crudely-drawn, crazy, puerile, parody humour in the South Park vein. However, soon after, it becomes a strange, rather epic, almost didactic movie about what would happen if adults acted like children. Like South Park, the creators know exactly how far to take their ridiculous premise, building upon the inherent absurdity of the scenario with plenty of incidental gags until it all gets very strange, but stopping short of being unfunny – and I’ve seen few things stranger than John and Yoko (or, perhaps, their beatnik clones) taking over the world.

Of course, Shin-chan is still mostly suitable for small kids, which you can’t say for South Park, despite the similarly diminutive characters. That said, perhaps some American audiences would be appalled by the comic nudity and talk of retracting balls and big maternal bottoms. The film is also unafraid of genuine sentimentality. The movie was well worth viewing, and provides some fascinating insight into the mixed attitudes to modernisation prevailing in turn-of-the-century Japan, despite their global image as futuristic and ultra-progressive.

One final thing: no matter what you make of Shin-chan and his misadventures, it cannot be denied that one of the best examples of panicked Engrish ever exists in this film: ‘I’M-SORRY-MY-KID-IS-SORRY-I’M-BEAUTIFUL-JAPANESE-WIFE-PRETTY-SEXY-FINE-THANK-YOU!’

(expanded from impressions, 20.5.05)

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


Beowulf turned out to be quite a surprise, albeit not a very good one.

I didn’t think it was going to be animated to the extent it was. I thought it would be like 300 or Sin City, heavily stylised live-action with lots of CG overlaid. But alas, Robert Zemekis is no Robert Rodriguez, and is still hung up on his Polar Express experiments, so Beowulf takes the interesting step of having real actors, motion-capturing them, faithfully recreating faces and expressions, but sticking them into computer animation. The final effect is like human faces pasted onto the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and the opening scenes in particular, with lots of sub-Shrek crowd scenes, look terrible. Scenes with horses make the intro to the original Tekken look state-of-the-art, and everything still looks moulded out of plastic, be it skin, fabric or eyes. Aesthetically, a total failure. They may have made Ray Winstone look young and muscular and Brendan Gleeson look like Gimli, but it really wasn’t worth it for the floating, swollen, immune-to-momentum mannequins we had to watch, even in glorious 3D – and this really isn’t a film to see without the 3D effects, because they provide what little interest there is in the visual spectacle.

The story is a typical Gaiman reimagining, the kind of thing that looks really clever in a single comic issue if you’re familiar with the source material, because a flaw is shoe-horned into Beowulf’s character so that there can be clever-clever talk of unreliable narrators. To be fair, though, for a movie to work, some way to tie the dragon into the main storyline was needed, and that was really quite a seamless way to integrate it. Despite this advantage, the whole fight against the dragon was so Saturday morning that it became intensely dull.

And this is really the problem with the film. The two- or three-part narrative of the poem (ah, much scholarly debate about which it is) all gets neatly tied together, in a very modern femme fatale sort of a way, and there’s the macho revivalism of 300 at play, but this film fails where 300 succeeded because it just isn’t any fun. The fights are plastic and false, Beowulf isn’t interesting as a man or hilariously excessive as a warrior (as is Zack Snyder’s Leonidas), the conclusion is gobsmackingly cheesy and the CG falls way short of what it needs to for this film to be in any way watchable in ten years’ time. Oh, and ‘hiding the penis’ gags may work in Austin Powers or The Simpsons, but they really don’t belong here.

Kudos to Gaiman and collaborator Roger Avery for their little Macbethian revisionist unification of the tale and their attempt to humanise an idealised hero, but as a film, this really did fall flat.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

劇場版 NARUTO 大活劇! 雪姫忍法帖だってばよ!! / Gekijōban Naruto Daikatsugeki! Yukihime Ninpōchō dattebayo!! / Naruto Movie 1: The Snow Princess’s Book of Ninja Arts

This, the first Naruto film, is also the only one to date that I saw on a big screen. I saw it first as a fansub in 2005, but then caught it again in 2007 when there was a single promotional screening in London. That may well mean that it is the one and only Naruto film I’ve watched through twice. By 2007 Naruto was already losing its lustre as a series, though had nothing like the blind hatred it gets today, but in 2005 I was quite genuinely keen on the series, before filler made it a laughing stock and the post-timeskip manga storyline even put off the long-term fans.

There were worse ones I could have suffered through. I quite liked this movie adaptation, if truth be told. Because, as I wrote on May 02, 2005, it really made me giggle.

‘I really enjoyed it!’ I went on. ‘No, it was nothing like as good as the early chapters of the manga, and had a very trite story, but that was alright. Team Seven have never been so beautifully drawn and animated, Naruto himself has rarely been so hilarious and some of the shorter fight scenes were very satisfying. The story was merely functional, with barely a new idea throughout, but on occasion, it's fun to watch something brainless - especially if you know and like the characters already. The context (movie stars, machines) was so different from the kind of thing Kishimoto writes that it felt like another series altogether – and we also got a USEFUL Sakura, which was just bizarre, but very welcome!

I found it to be a lot of fun. Not the best movie ever made, but certainly enjoyable, and I'd watch it again quite happily.’

Those impressions have not changed, really. Naruto had a great cast in 2005 and some really fun ideas. Those who pour vitriol on it today likely never experienced the exuberant fun of it when we didn’t know what a state it was going to end up in. Back then, the aesthetic could still be stunning, the associated talent still remarkable (director Okamura Tensai coming fresh from working on Wolf’s Rain) and the end result still pleasing. Fond memories here, and I don’t care who disapproves.

(the English title is Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow)

はるのあしおと The Movie - 桜鈴奪還 / Haru no Ashioto The Movie: Ourin Dakkan / Spring’s Footsteps: Recapture Ourin

This silly little piece of moé frivolity was apparently based on an H-game, and given that although it calls itself a ‘movie’ yet is only 20 minutes long and dispenses with more or less everything that could be called exposition, it’s one for the fans.

But anyone familiar with archetypes in anime will instantly understand the cuteness factor of the girls here, and the charm of the broad slapstick comedy. Three girls rebel against their vice-principal, who has taken over their school and likes to laugh like a villainess. Little girlies fighting usually brings in a bit of a fanbase, especially when done in a cutesy way.

No brains, no originality and with low-budget animation from Asahi Productions, it’s just a fun little diversion for fans of the game, but for something to make you smile for twenty minutes, you can’t do much better.

(Slightly expanded from impressions, 8.9.08)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

メトロポリス/ Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis

Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis was a very interesting project. Made in 2001, of course long after the death of the legendary Tezuka, who created the likes of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, it was based on a 1949 manga he created, adapted by Akira’s Outomo Katsuhiro and directed by Rintaro, renowned Harlock helmsman who worked with Tezuka in the 60s.

These names, the legacy of the ‘Godfather of Anime’ and Madhouse at their very best make for a striking feature. The production values are excellent, and Tezuka’s distinctive and old-fashioned designs look superb when animated beautifully. The setpieces, cg-tinted like those of Gankutsuou, are often stunning, and the jazz soundtrack is undeniably fun. It’s midway between Tezuka’s manga, which sounds a bit odd and babyish, and the live-action film (Tezuka supposedly wrote his version based on nothing but a movie poster) – Tezuka’s recurring character designs and overall tone dominate, but scenery and power structures are straight from Lang’s vision.

The plot gets somewhat sloppy towards the end, with Rock in particular mostly just being there as an unstable catalyst, but it’s beautiful and good fun and a fitting homage to the legacy of one of the most important figures in animation history.

(expanded from impressions, 28.2.08)

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

パーフェクトブルー / Perfect Blue

This 1997 animated film was for some reason quite heavily promoted over here five or six years ago. It’s dated in several ways, not least of which being the notion that any young idol could be clueless about the Internet, but it’s still a very powerful work, and something of a mind-fuck.

When a pop star wants to make a transition to being an actress, those responsible for tarnishing her pure image, making her act in rape scenes or do nude photoshoots, start to be picked off in grisly ways. But she herself is losing grip on reality, and unsettling cuts and disjointed scenes which may or may not be real disorient the watcher: for all the lack of subtlety in talking reflections and repeated waking-up scenes, the idea that possibly pop star Mima really is the character she was acting and the fiction is what was presented as real life is appealing.

Some impressive fast-paced animation and unflinching presentations of sex and violence rather than being gratuitous actually demand to be taken seriously, which was surprising. It was a bit unconvincing that three separate pivotal characters are quite mad, and the identity of the ultimate antagonist was, for me at least (and the friends I watched it with, since I piped up with it as soon as it occurred to me) far too obvious, but it was a striking, mature and memorable film, different from what I was expecting but surprisingly good, and quite a leap from the average anime film.

(originally written 4.1.08, before I had anything but a vague notion of who Kon Satoshi was - though I had already written about him in my impressions of Millennium Actress.)

臀撃おしおき娘 ゴータマン ゴータマン誕生編 / Dengeki Oshioki Musume Gōtaman: Gōtaman Tanjō-hen / Butt Attack Punisher Girl Gautaman

With a title like that, it’s going to be a comedy, right? And so it is, a very strange piece of ecchi irreverence from 1994. I got this out to amuse people at a con, and it didn’t fail – Buddhaaaa became one of the in-jokes of the weekend.

A surreal comedy, it centres on a girl who in order to protect her best friend is granted the powers of the Buddha (Gautaman being ‘Gautama’ rendered in superhero style), which for whatever reason entails getting sumo powers, complete with the traditional loincloth. The joke, then, is that there’s a cute girl wearing very little with some absurd powers.

While religious irreverence in cartoons is pretty commonplace, and after all the precedent goes all the way back to Journey to the West, it’s actually quite rare to see Buddhism treated in such a silly way.

It’s 45 minutes long, and very slightly overstays its welcome, the joke wearing thin by then. But for something absurd and funny – with the added veneer of respectability being over ten years old for whatever reason anime is granted – you can’t go wrong with this.

爆発寸前!! 天使のカウントダウン / Ready to Explode!! Angel’s Countdown / Countdown to Delight

Time to slip impressions of a hentai in between two slightly more respected older anime, albeit possibly not much. From Green Bunny, the great minds behind Wordsworth, and apparently farmed out to be animated in Korea, comes a hilariously plotless pornographic comedic anime that can’t quite decide who its audience is. Like so many ecchi series, Countdown to Delight gets most of its laughs by having a main character who doesn’t want to do anything sexual getting aggressively pursued – only here, the sex actually happens. And it’s remarkable how much less erotically charged things are as a result.

The plot, such as it is, is divided into two parts. In the first, our hero Motoki cannot get his homework done because his sister insists on having loud lesbian sex in the next room. Poor Motoki – not only is he pretty and childlike, with an unbroken voice and almost no body hair despite being in junior high, but his best friend has decided they ought to be gay lovers. On top of that, his sister’s lesbian lover decides that she ought to seduce him. His best friend walks in on this and has a hilarious jealous reaction. The best friend's sister came along, too, wanting a threesome with the two girls, but they decide on a fivesome instead. Motoki doesn’t like this idea, so runs away. While in this state of distress, he is almost hit by a car. In the second, this situation leads to him getting tutored by a beautiful rich girl, who of course turns out to be dominatrix fond of sadism. Poor Motoki is tied up, whipped and otherwise abused, until the three girls come to the rescue in silly magical girl/sentai outfits and prepare to fight – only for the meta humour to kick in as they declare nobody wants to see action scenes in a comedic hentai, so they have an orgy instead. And the poor gay kid gets no action at all.

It’s actually quite refreshing to see a hentai that’s actually meant to be funny. Though the humour is derivative, it makes everything much more pleasant to watch and at least avoids being self-important. On the other hand, playing it for laughs makes me wonder what the point of the existence of this episode is. I’m not one for hentai in general, it never…doing it for me, but I can’t see how anyone finds this erotic.

Plus it seems odd to me to have Motoki at the centre of it all. I guess he’s supposed to be easy to identify with, and it’s the fantasy of having four aggressive girls actively pursuing you (even if one is your big sister) that’s supposed to appeal, but…in the end, because he’s at the centre and always getting subjugated, it ends up seeming like he’s the object of sexual desire, and the whole thing is actually straight shota rather than the intended fantasy for straight boys.

I don’t think it bears overanalysis, though. A hentai to watch for laughs – like just about every other hentai around.

トワイライトQ / Twilight Q

What a peculiar little piece of animation the Twilight Q OVA episodes are. I don’t know exactly when or where I got hold of these 1986 episodes, but it was at least two years ago. Very mysterious, I’m sure you’ll agree. With the title drawing immediate comparisons to The Twilight Zone, the episodes also revolve around mysterious supernatural events, and are rather unimpressively realised and unveiled. The biggest mystery about these two half-hour pieces are why they both fall under the same title at all – the only thing they share is the element of empty mysteriousness masquerading as something clever and sophisticated, and the concept of things slipping in time in ways that cannot be explained. Otherwise, they are extremely different, in art style, setting, execution, humour and characterisation – they are even animated by two entirely different studios – the first by Ajia-Do Animation Works, and the other by Studio Deen, back when the only series that had distinguished them were the second half of Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku.

Possibly the reason I originally thought to check out the OVAs was that the second was directed by Oshii Mamoru, famous for his Ghost in the Shell work, Patlabor and more recently Sky Crawlers. If anything, though, the second episode was the less engaging and intelligent one, though it was the one that took more risks, and more experimentation might have made Twilight Q truly memorable rather than a bit of ephemera connected to some big names.

The first episode revolves around a camera found by two girls on a beach. A picture of one of the girls is on the film, with a boy she has never met, and it soon transpires that the camera is still in a pre-production phase and ought not to exist yet. As the plot thickens, the camera ends up disappearing in a disappointingly lame scene, and ultimately it becomes clear there is no explanation beyond magical time warps. However, the mini-episode is at least engaging and brisk, and the inevitable final scenes give a sense of closure, at least in the story’s own terms. The art is also rather nice, extremely 80s in design but at least showing why the way characters were drawn in the 80s came about, still looking cute and appealing today – where so many 80s designs look hideous.

The second episode only really has three significant character designs – or two, depending on how you look at it – and they are meant to be comedic rather than pretty. One is a toddler drawn in more or less SD style, with a huge head about the same size as the rest of her body, enhanced by a big helmet. She lives wearing only the helmet and a t-shirt with her father, a filthy man who looks like a clichéd anime burglar or some such, and does nothing all day. Meanwhile, a private investigator is hired to look into the strange father-daughter pair from the room next door, and begins to suspect the man is also a private eye. Or perhaps one or the other doesn’t exist, or indeed, none of it does, but it is all a plot made up by a novelist to give him an escape from his own stifling life. Multiple levels of reality are toyed with, coupled with some very heavy-handed imagery featuring parallels between a koi carp, the child and aeroplanes that have been disappearing. It is full of good ideas, and certainly the multiple levels of reality make for a more engaging mystery than magically-appearing cameras from the future, but ultimately there is the same hollowness at the core, and the characters and setting are far less accessible and appealing than in the first segment, making this one by far the duller one.

I feel glad to have seen what seems a fairly significant piece of anime history, for its length, but I can’t say I hold Twilight Q in high esteem, or would care much for a repeat viewing.

Friday, 12 August 2011


What a strange place in Disney’s story this film occupies. A CGI film from Disney, but not from Pixar, but still going for a more realistic aesthetic rather than the stylised look of films like Bolt or Chicken Little. It was for whatever reason excluded from the official Disney canon for some years, before being slotted back into place in 2008, possibly because only then would including the likes of Meet the Robinsons and Bolt seem legitimate.

I myself did not profess to be greatly impressed after seeing it on the 14 October 2000. ‘Okay, not wonderful’ was my glib younger self’s verdict. CG films were nothing very new by that point, not to mention the myriad impressive intros made for Playstation games back then, so if it is tempting to think the audience was more forgiving of CG back then because it was relatively new, already the visual style was not in an of itself enough.

Which is not to say that the film isn’t beautiful – it’s dated now, but the visuals remain pleasant. And of course, dinosaurs are always a hit with kids, and play a big part in animation: the ones in Jurassic Park pushed the boundaries of CG, The Land Before Time has to be one of the animated films that spawned the most sequels, and when Sony wanted to show what the Playstation could do with a technical demo, it was with a T-Rex. Dinosaurs are also good for pushing an environmental agenda – let us not forget the utterly bizarre and unnerving end to the Dinosaurs puppetry sitcom, in which a the main character’s attempts to take control of nature doom him and his family to a slow, hopeless death.

Dinosaur is part of this tradition, perhaps appearing at the wrong time to be a part of it rather than being dismissed as derivative at the end of the mainstream trend. After a meteor strike, talking dinosaurs begin an exodus to a valley that supposedly survived the impact intact. Tensions soon arise between the leaders of the group, who must focus on getting as many of the herd to their destination as possible, and the compassionate heroes, who hope to save everyone.

The problem with the film is that it just wasn’t memorable. The plot was simple and straightforward, and the heroes did nothing to distinguish themselves. Nothing iconic happened to them, as it does to all the most famous Disney characters. What is left is simply one of Disney’s low points – a film that nobody counts as their favourite, and very few care about.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Tokyo Babylon

I wasn’t impressed by the Tokyo Babylon OVAs when they were screened after Read or Die at the first meeting of my university anime club. In fact, all that I wrote on 13 October, 2002, was that ‘the comparatively dull Tokyo Babylon proved an unsuccessful follow-up’. But the scant two episodes, barely hinting at a main storyline, were never going to be a satisfactory adaptation of Clamp’s manga. They have the feel of a pilot, attempting to put over characters and themes in a short time, yet coming nowhere near to having a satisfactory plot arc or showing any real progression.

This is in some ways Clamp distilled, in perhaps the worst way. A twin brother and sister use magic to fight demonic forces. They are dull even for Clamp designs, and Madhouse make them even more ordinary than in the original manga. Meanwhile, a quiet, mature doctor with hidden powers provides some comedy with his homoerotic attachment to Subaru, the male twin. The girl is mostly useless, supporting her brother from the sidelines, while he is shy, gentle and submissive despite his great powers. The intended audience is clearly female, but even so, those of us who actually enjoy this sort of plot theme will find it far too obvious and dull to work.

I’ve never been a great fan of Clamp, despite Cardcaptor Sakura. And this is one of their lesser works. While the manga is better and even successful enough to have been adapted into a live-action feature, I cannot say I recommend this. Lacking originality, likeability or scope, it’s assuredly one to miss.

The Emperor's New Groove

Aside from the Pixar films and the likeable Lilo & Stitch, The Emperor’s New Groove was the last Disney film I watched in cinemas until 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. For me, it marked the end of an era of great affection for the studio and the beginning of a notable slump. While my short diary note about seeing it on February 26, 2001, was simply that it was ‘quirky & amusing’, it has been probably the most forgettable of the Disney films I’ve seen and is certainly not one of their classics – while Disneytoon churned out a sequel and a TV series, there has been little in the way of legacy here, and overall the story of the emperor who turned into a llama seems mostly forgotten.

Kuzco is an Incan emperor, young and spoilt. An assassination attempt goes awry and Kuzco is, yes, transmogrified into a llama. He ends up helpless and in danger, but is helped by the subjects who only recently he had told would be losing their homes when he tore down their village to make way for a new pleasure palace. Of course, the emperor must learn lessons of humility and friendship as an unlikely band is formed to restore him to power – and his original form.

Vibrant and well-realized, the film nonetheless suffers from its human character designs being somewhat ugly, which along with them being so unsympathetic makes it difficult to care.

The production story is in itself perhaps a more interesting tale than the final result – and indeed, a documentary about the problems the film had getting made were made into a documentary, The Sweatbox, although Disney do not seem very willing to release it to a wider audience. The film was originally conceived as Lion King co-director Roger Allers’ follow-up. However, his film lacked comic relief, so Mark Dindal of Cats Don’t Dance was brought in to lighten the story. Unfortunately, rather than a synthesis, the two started to work in different, opposing directions. Knowing the film was going poorly and behind schedule, Disney pushed for progress, but being refused an extension, Allers quit.

The result was the zany, silly comedy film that was eventually released, more Warner Bros than Disney (as may be expected: Cats Don’t Dance was from Warner). It seems a shame we will never see what Allers planned, and that the songs Sting wrote for the film ended up not being used, but honestly, the film could have been considerably worse.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow

Marvel Animation, in its various iterations, is perhaps under-appreciated as an American animation studio. Over the years, there have been a huge number of Marvel properties adapted into animation – Ralph Bakshi was animating Spiderman in the 60s (very badly) just before he went to work on Fritz the Cat; a wide variety of shows in the 90s were made under the studios of New World Animation that became the ‘Marvel Animated Universe’, including the X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk cartoons; while in more recent years, the likes of X-Men Evolution and its follow-up Wolverine and the X-Men have been successes for Marvel Animation. The studio’s latest project is a series of anime produced in collaboration with Madhouse, thus far a mixed bag. But from 2006 until the May of this year, Marvel produced eight animated films for Liongate. Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow is one of them, the most kid-friendly and light-hearted, but just like all the rest, making minimal impact on the world of animation or the mainstream and being released direct-to-video.

Next Avengers comes so close to being superb enough that I would go recommending it to anyone who may be interested as an attempt to do what Teen Titans did but better, and without the contrived anime stylistic imitations – albeit not first, and for that many will dismiss it as a poor imitation. What holds it back, sadly, is the animation. It’s a little strange, because the production values are high: pause the film at just about any point and the frame will look superb. The character designs are by and large cute and appealing. The story, while odd, is good, and the voice acting much better than I expected. But the characters just do not move right. They are stiff and often weightless. They do not move enough, and do not seem to connect with one another, especially in action sequences. There’s a scene where Torunn is slammed to the ground, grasps her sword and flies back up at intense speed, and it should be awesome – but it just seems so flat and lifeless.

It’s a shame because there is real promise here. The premise is oddly dark and might well cause some confusion with young kids who don’t know about Marvel’s multiple universes and assume this will be the ultimate fate of the Avengers: after a period of peace, they are attacked by Ultron and crushed, almost all of them killed. Iron Man escapes, taking with him the four children of Avengers – Captain America and Black Widow’s son James, the Pyms’ son Henry Jr, Black Panther’s son Azari and Thor’s daughter Torunn. Hawkeye, too, had a son, but Iron Man was not able to reach him before they fled to the Arctic.

Somewhat out-of-character for him, Tony Stark spends twelve years in hiding while Ultron conquers much of the world. He trains the children and tells them stories of their parents, all dead but for Thor, who had returned to Asgard. They grow up as siblings: James is a somewhat self-centred boy who yearns to set out from their ‘island’. Azari has more of a sense of responsibility and is the sensible one of the bunch. Pym is the youngest, and the cute, mischievous comic relief – probably the most likeable of the four. And then there is Torunn, who wears a very silly breastplate reminiscent of Zero from Megaman and tries to imitate her father’s speech, being quite adorable when she gets it wrong – and right. ‘I say thee nay!’ Always gets me.

One day, with an amusingly nonchalant entrance, The Vision, damaged, comes to the island to tell Stark about Hawkeye Jr. The children follow Stark into an underground layer, where he is repairing The Vision. They accidentally set off Iron Man’s robotic versions of the Avengers, who are not only captured by Ultron and made into his soldiers, but who give away the hideout, meaning the Next Avengers are on the run. Of course they eventually must confront Ultron himself, but even with the help of the much more worldly, rather flirtatious new Hawkeye, they’re going to need help. Torunn’s father may help in some way, but he won’t return. But perhaps there is another Avenger still alive – the strongest of them all.

I really wanted to love this. Seeing the cute designs and fluid motions of the very first shots, I was eager. I could forgive the utterly awful exposition piece with static cut-outs of the Avengers moving about as stylised. I even liked how Storm’s appearance was limited to just a hand – perhaps a rights issue? But then the real story kicked in and it just looked clumsy, and only for a few minutes of the whole could I put aside how poorly animated and clunky it all was. A shame, because I really liked the characters and probably even prefer the general premise to that of Young Avengers. Oh well.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

骸なる星・珠たる子/ Mukuro Naru Hoshi, Tama Taru Ko / Dead Star and Girl’s Jewel / Narutaru/ Shadow Star

Commonly listed as a ‘mindfuck’ anime, NaruTaru starts out somewhat cutesy, rapidly grows darker and ends with a subplot that, while perhaps not the most gory or shockingly sexual piece of animation ever to come from Japan, comes suddenly and with such a shift in tone that it tends to catch people off-guard and leave them reeling, especially when they are not forewarned. However, the anime is also undoubtedly a mess. Its scant 13 episodes introduce main characters, begin to build a larger world and hint at revelations to come, then veer off into a sidestory before coming to an abrupt end. The problem was that it was far too early to adapt Narutaru into an anime when minor studio Planet decided to do so.

NaruTaru, then, does not stand alone. It’s one of several anime adaptations that only show one part of a manga’s overall story, and then end too soon for the rest to be unveiled. And it is not easy for an English-speaking fan to find the rest: it was popular enough for the first few volumes to be officially licensed for distribution in the States by Dark Horse, which put a stop to unofficial translations. But Dark Horse seemingly didn’t know what they were in for, and when the tone became extremely violent and frank in depictions of sexuality, they reacted first with censorship, and then by relegating their translations to a short-lived magazine without releasing volumes, and finally with abandonment. It took half a decade and the success of Bokurano, mangaka Kitoh Mohiro’s follow-up – with its theme song even immortalized as part of the Nico Douga Ryuuseigun mix that was such a hit in Japanese fandom - for fans to return to NaruTaru and complete translations.
All the conclusion of the manga brought to the fore, though, was that the anime didn’t go nearly far enough. The cheap kicks of violence and easy sex there are no match for the bleak way Shiina reaches her maturity, suffers through great loss, tastes imperfect and damaged love and remains always fragile, lost and yet optimistic. As in Bokurano, the adolescents here are not idealised or glamorously emotional, but stupid, cruel, selfish and vulnerable; they make mistakes and hate themselves. Cute things are not to be trusted, and the ones we support are not protected just because we like them. The world of Narutaru is brave for a mangaka, but mature, depressing and moving, so that despite the over-the-top final conclusion somewhat souring the final taste, it is a manga I will always count as one of my favourites – one of the cleverest, strangest and most elegant.

I would certainly welcome a second attempt to animate NaruTaru, or another studio deciding to continue what Planets started. Online fandom still exists: it remains popular in Japan to produce parodies of the opening sequence, replacing the characters with those from another series – my favourite being the girls from Higurashi – but NaruTaru was fragmentary and had no true ending, so remains too flawed to endure as a full piece of animation. On the other hand, there is no way whatsoever any anime company could animate the final episodes for television, and it’s doubtful an OVA would make money.

So it seems that like Wings of Vendemiaire, this work will remain one for Kitoh fans to seek out if they are interested, and unlikely to ever be animated in full. In truth, I’m grateful even these episodes were made, and introduced me to Kitoh.

(adapted from manga impressions, 13.10.09)

Monday, 1 August 2011

劇場版NARUTO−ナルト− 疾風伝 / Gekijouban Naruto Shippuuden / Naruto Shippuden the Movie

This, the first Naruto Shippuden feature film, was typical Naruto movie fare, with some nice fights that would’ve been so much nicer if the baddies’ designs weren’t such a load of crap, a tsundere who gradually comes over to Naruto’s way of thinking, and a really daft climactic fight – oh, and an incredible artificial opening crisis featuring bad CG soldiers who march halfway to Konoha and then just decide to go back home after all.

For its flaws, though, Lee fighting with the gates open and drunk was pretty hilariously awesome, and I have to say that Neji appearing with his divination ready is quite spectacular – even if the enemies turned out to be total pushovers. I’d’ve been unimpressed, paying to see this in a cinema, but when it’s essentially an extended filler episode with some rather nice little bits of animation, as it is for me, it was worthwhile.

The plotline is simplistic but quite neatly-told. When a sealed demon is unleashed, only one person can banish him again, a wilful priestess called Shion. Shion can see visions of the future, and upon meeting Naruto proclaims him about to die - something that probably would have meant more tension if not for the impossibility of such a movie as this, screened during the programme's main run and not written by the original author, killing off the main character. He argues he can change his fate and of course eventually proves it - but only once Shion has learned valuable lessons about herself, a little too late to save the people she's sacrificed.

It's flawed, but a little more ambitious and successful than the other Shippuden movies, and nice on the eyes, too. The fact that it ended on a sex joke was a bit of a surprise, but I have to say that it made me laugh.

(expanded from impressions, 3.5.08)

: ヴァンデミエールの翼 / Vandemieeru no Tsubasa / Wings of Vendemiaire

I read Wings of Vendemiaire for one reason: because it was written by Kitoh Mohiro, also behind the excellent and harrowing NaruTaru and Bokurano. And I ended up wishing this obscure two-volume title could be less obscure, and could be animated to a high standard, perhaps as an OVA series. It may not be the best of his works as a whole, but I think it quite probably the best of his premises.

His debut manga, it is remarkably sophisticated and elegant, with many of the themes of his later work, including adolescents sacrificing themselves, flights in airships and jaded cynicism about the value of life. In a European post-war setting, there exist strange living puppets, made of wood but living beings with distinct personalities and, it would seem, feelings and desires of their own. The puppets are known as Vendemiaire, which they also take as their names. Some are somewhat empty slates, learning mannerisms from others, while others have manipulative owners who have forced them into specific roles.

Prefiguring Rozen Maiden, and particularly the more angst-ridden sub-plots featuring Souseiseki and Suigintou, the whole work is pervaded by Kitoh’s characteristic melancholy. The stories are beautiful and tragic and simple, and the art is his usual mixture of fragile youths, faces that do not necessarily signify beauty and beautifully-rendered aircraft in the midst of a lot of white space.

The only way I would see this improved would be the addition of more than a handful of small references to tie together all the Vendemiaire puppets, perhaps some common cause for them as a climax. But the disparate, episodic nature lends to the bleakness of the situation and this is after all not intended as a conventional story. But it is too beautiful to be an obscure two-volume release read only by fans of other Kitoh Mohiro works. I want it to find a wider audience.

幕末機関説 いろはにほへと / Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto

Bakumatsu is what you might call a historical fantasy, or alternate-universe story. Set during the bakumatsu period, when the Bafuku was falling and the Meiji Restoration was about to begin, it’s so full of historical detail and characters based on real people that if you don’t have some sense of what happened in the last days of the shogunate, you may be a bit lost here - the series often assumes some knowledge of Japanese history. That said, you’ll likely follow the gist even if you’ve never heard of the Shinsengumi or the Ezo Republic, and there are a lot of fantastical elements overlaid.

As the shogunate’s forces slowly fall, a mysterious man with an oddly modern haircut called Akizuki searches Japan for an ancient cursed artefact called the Head of the Conqueror. He soon gets mixed up in a theatrical troupe’s quest for revenge, and then later with Hijikata Toshizou of the Shinsengumi as he struggles against the newly-established government’s forces.

Overall, Bakumatsu has a serious tone, especially for a Sunrise anime. Apart from some token cute kiddies, the characters are grim, there’s blood and death, and there’s an interesting presentation of the Westerner’s presence in Japan not long after the Black Ships. The first half drags a little too much, though, too much mystery and not enough character development. The action of the second part is better, however, and Hijikata is the real star of the piece, though as with Seirei no Moribito, everything is somewhat cheapened by the dafter parts: famous figures getting possessed by a magic evil skull, magic sword techniques, bullets deflected by blades, whole regiments taken out by lone swordsmen and most of all big flying castles that zap the world below with lightning. Also several bad cases of heroes saving the person who happens to be onscreen, even though several we don’t see must be dying elsewhere.

The show would perhaps have been better if it were as highbrow as it tried to be at the outset, but it was by no means a disaster. It was also certainly pleasing for the eyes, and with some superb period detail. Not bad at all – but disappointing at the end.

(originally written 5.5.08)