The Red Spectacles is a little like what you might get if you took a screenplay for one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies (Le Samouraï) and gave it to F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu). That doesn’t mean it’s any good, though. Here, the director and screenwriter are Mamoru Oshii, he who gave us the digressions of the Ghost in the Shell films and the deeply underrated Avalon, so I expected at least something thoughtful. Red Spectacles is actually the first live-action movie after he’d already spent a great deal of time in anime (his dream-state production Angel’s Egg immediately predates this film), and it’s clear throughout this movie how he tries to apply an animation director’s sensibilities to what he’s doing. Unfortunately, he doesn’t produce a movie that’s worth watching, let alone one worth thinking deeply about, and in the end even the most hard-core movie buffs will be left scratching their heads.
The plot’s a reworking of a story that Oshii has revisited time and again throughout his career, where an elite metropolitan police force, the Kerberos, were established to combat growing levels of crime, insurgency and corruption. Then the Kerberos themselves succumb to the same vices that they’re allegedly combating, and are disbanded — except for a loyal few, who stick it out to the end after being outlawed. One of their number, Koichi, flees the city and returns several years later to pick up what he’s left behind, to reunite with his comrades and to strike a blow for justice, or something. (A much better version of the Kerberos saga was told in the animated film Jin-roh.)
Members of the disenfranchised "Kerberos" elite police unit split up when their own government
disowns them. Years later, they meet up again in one of Mamoru Oshii's least coherent productions.
Most of the story takes place after Koichi comes back, and is shot in the moody black-and-white of a noir thriller — but Oshii chooses to play everything off in an uneasy combination of dreamy slapstick and stark realism. When he comes back to Tokyo, the only advertising to be seen is the same picture of a woman’s face repeated endlessly (and when he enters a movie theater, the only thing on the screen is the top half of the same image). Armed men come to kill him in his hotel room, and the whole thing is executed with the cartoonish exaggeration an episode of Lupin III. Ditto a scene where he confronts an old informer in a bathroom and beats information out of him, or any number of other movies where the movie seems to be bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.
Eventually a sort of a plot accrues, where Koichi tries to track down the two comrades he was forced to abandon when he left town. Based on what we’ve already seen, though, it’s already too clear that the movie doesn’t plan to take these plot development that seriously. The movie ultimately suffers as a whole from the same problem I’ve encountered in many other movies that tried to take animation tropes and apply them to live action. Something that works in one doesn’t always work in the other when transplanted wholesale. But more than that it’s just a failure of tone: it’s not clear what’s being attempted, or why, or to what end. When it tries to be funny, it just isn’t; when it tries to be serious, it’s even less interesting, because that’s when Oshii’s style slows to a crawl. There’s also a good deal of posturing about reality vs. memory vs. fiction, stuff that Oshii has handled better elsewhere.
The movie's lack of a consistent tone is bad enough, but when the comedy's
unfunny and the drama's uncompelling, that only makes it all the more of a cold fish.
Come to think of it, every Oshii movie I have seen has been a mixture of charming and infuriating in different measures. I defended Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence when other people called it indulgent junk, and I admired Blood: The Last Vampire even if it was far too short and sported only minimal input from him to begin with. He used up a lot of his credit with me when his novel for Blood was a stiff; there, Oshii’s obsession with the antiauthoritarian Sixties in Japan went from being a source of inspiration to a redundant dead end. His recent Tachiguishi Retsuden (a/k/a The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters) appears to have been simply inexplicable, much as vast stretches of this movie end up being. He’s like a number of other artists I’ve grown fond of — men who have a few things they do far better than anyone else around, but outside of their home territory they founder dreadfully. Red Spectacles is like watching an orchestra conductor trying to tap-dance while juggling oranges: I’d applaud him for trying, but that’s about it.