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’.