You wanted a live-action Blood: the Last Vampire, you got it. The first of the big-budget Hollywood anime adaptations has arrived, and it has pretty much everything you could want from such a project. We get Saya, the katana-swinging vampire hunter in a sailor suit; we get tons of gory, fantastically-photographed action; and with any luck we get the door thrown open to more quality live-action anime adaptations. My money’s still on Vampire Hunter D there, but this’ll do for now.
The basic premise is the same as the Production I.G. animated short feature that should be familiar to most people reading this. In Japan, 1970, a girl named Saya (Korean actress Gianna Jun, of My Sassy Girl and Il Mare) stalks and kills vampires by night. She looks like she might be in her teens, but as always looks deceive: she’s been around for centuries, and this is just her most recent battle. She chafes quite a bit from being on the end of a leash held by her American controllers, since they’re mostly using her to keep the Things That Go Bump In The Night from ruining relations between the U.S. and Japan. These “bottom feeders”, as she calls them, are not her real target — she wants to go after the head bloodsucker, Onigen, who’s been around even longer than she has. Read more
1994. The dawn of anime fandom. Huddled in my little ratbox NYC apartment, I sat down with a copy of the July/August issue of the now-defunct Anime UK, which sported none other than ur-fan Helen McCarthy in the editor’s chair. On page 27 I read Peter Evans’s “The Beautiful and the Terrible”, a paean to all strong female leads from Ellen Ripley on through Motoko Kusanagi and beyond. “I find it a constant joy that anime continues to give us a welter of strong, competent, sensible heroines who do not exist purely as a prize or objective for the male ‘hero’,” he wrote, and went on to ask why there were not only so many female leads, but all-female casts for so many shows (Knight Sabers, Eternal Story, et al.). He mused about biology and physiology, the sociological implications of “male” and “female” role behaviors, and in general found a lot to mull over apart from the fact that, yeah, hot chicks in armor kicking ass is a major ratings draw.
2009. The grand tradition of the Beautiful and the Terrible continues. Evidence for the defense: Claymore. Here, again, is another show where not only the lead character but the vast majority of the cast, period, is female — where they do not exist as objects of sexual conquest, and in fact dish out far more devastation and destruction than their generally genderless enemies. The Claymores are presented as chaste but powerful Joan of Arc-like figures — nominally female in form, but unmistakably female in the way they bond with each other and use both tenderness and strength to lift each other up. Clare and her friends may look good, but we’re never in doubt that it’s what on the inside that matters. This is a series about blood and guts, make no mistake, but it’s also about heart and soul, and how “please kill me” and “I love you” can both be words of tenderness. Read more
They called Osamu Tezuka the God-Emperor of Manga for a reason: he produced a whole bookshelf's full of work in his lifetime, and had as much impact on the art of comics as any one man has had in any country. That said, it's still possible to derive a mediocre product from his work (much as Romeo and Juliet was turned into a screeching, unwatchable mess by Baz Luhrmann).
Jungle Emperor Leo was adapted from one of Tezuka's comics, and while a great deal of his spirit is present in it, it doesn't quite work. Not nearly as well as the outstanding Metropolis, certainly, which brought us a great many sights unseen and visions undreamed of. The vision of Leo is slightly more mundane — animals and men conflicting in the jungle — and it's also hamstrung by storytelling problems that dilute a great deal of what it could have been. Read more
All countries have their perennial movie subjects. Western viewers get treated to new cinematic versions of Dickens and Shakespeare every few years, and Japan has had no less than three movie adaptations of the immensely popular pulp-fantasy novel Makai Tensho (known variously in English as Samurai Reincarnation, Samurai Resurrection, or Darkside Reborn). The first one, a Japanese pop-culture staple, starred the inimitable Sonny Chiba and was directed by Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku; the second one was a dreadful direct-to-video product that wasn’t even worth slamming. This version, released in 2003 under the banner of the Kadokawa media empire, isn’t quite as gleefully wild as the first but it sports better graphics and hardware (so to speak) and is still fairly fun to watch.
Makai Tensho takes inspiration from an actual historical personage, Christian rebel Amakusa Shiro Tokusada (Yōsuke Kubozuka, of Ping Pong), who stood off against the Shogunate in 1638 along with his army of thousands of loyalists. The movie opens with the final siege against his stronghold in progress, a massive battle scene with hundreds of extras and full-scale sets that’s over way too soon. Shiro is beheaded by his enemies, but not before making a pact with the underworld to rise again as a demonic incarnation of revenge. With him come several other figures from Japanese history, including another Christian martyr, the Lady Hosokawa (Clara Oshina), whose seductiveness takes over where Shiro’s powers to raise the dead leave off.Read more
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in the movies they just call it homage. The Most Terrible Time In My Life might seem like parody at first, but it’s actually a sincere love letter to Hollywood’s hard-boiled detective movies. It mixes black comedy, straight drama and hard-boiled noir very effectively — it’s genuinely enjoyable, and not just some self-indulgent filmmaking exercise. Movies like this are hard enough to get right for real, so to turn them into a kind of in-joke is only all the more self-defeating; I love it when a director is able to be sincere with his source material and not simply hijack it.
I suspect some people are simply going to consider Life a sophisticated act of cinematic plagiarism. Consider the main character’s name: Maiku Hama. Yes, that’s a Nipponification of “Mike Hammer,” much in the same way popular Japanese horror writer Edogawa Rampo took his name from a similar rendition of Edgar Allan Poe.Read more
History lesson first. One of Japan’s best-selling novels in recent years was Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks, a bit of Crichton-like popular SF about seismic activity causing the Japanese islands to disappear into the Pacific. It was adapted into a hit movie not just once but twice, thus converting itself into a prime target for satire. No less a satirist than Yasutaka Tsutsui, he of Paprika fame, took it upon himself to pen just such a lampooning: The World Sinks Except For Japan.
And now we have a movie version of said parody, courtesy of Minoru Kawasaki — he of Executive Koala and Calamari Wrestler and a whole slew of other satire / parody / black comedy hybrids. The underlying idea is to poke fun at Japan’s nascent insularity, or at least the worst aspects of it. Like the very material it parodied, it ended up being a big hit, although those of us who weren’t there for it are likely to not laugh as hard. Some bits are dead-on, some are not, and some are just aimless milling around. Read more
At this point Takashi Miike could shoot a movie about tree bark and make it work. He has made films in every conceivable genre — and some of no conceivable genre — and is not only comfortable but downright revolutionary in many of them. Crows Zero is Miike returning to territory he practically has a monopoly on: gangsters and delinquents. What I didn’t expect was how oddly charming the results would be. It’s a great example of how Japanese movies go for the heartstrings at the same time they go for the gut.
The plot’s straight out of a shonen manga — in fact, it is one, since it was adapted from the comic of the same name. It’s set in Suzuran High, one of those fantasy schools where the students are all ass-kicking punks, classes are never in, graffiti covers more surfaces than ads do at the Indy 500, and everyone’s fighting to be the king of the hill. In strides freshman Genji (Shun Oguri), determined to climb to the top of the heap as a way to score points with his gangster father. He sets his sights on the current #1, Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada), and while he has strength and heedlessness to spare, he’s only one guy. He needs to build an army, and he doesn’t know how to do that yet. Read more
The laughs are sparse and sporadic in Monster X: Attack the G8 Summit, which is allegedly a spoof of man-in-suit-monster or kaiju movies. I say “allegedly” because the spoofing is only skin-deep: scrape off the surface comedy and what you’re left with is a flick that follows the formula pretty rigidly without kidding it in ways that would produce real laughs.
It’s from the same man who gave us Rug Cop and Executive Koala, Minoru Kawasaki. Of the movies from him that I’ve seen so far, Koala stands up the best — it reveled in its absurdity from front to back and had as much fun breaking formulas as following them. Monster X is too straight for its own good, with most of the potshots being glancing blows. Part of the problem is that it is a sequel-of-sorts to an existing kaiju franchise — The X From Outer Space — but can't make up its mind if it’s being silly or sincere or just plain dumb.Read more
Parked immediately to the right of my monitor is an artifact from a previous home video era: a catalog of all LaserDisc titles released in Japan from the format’s inception until 1991. It’s the last edition published with pictures of each title’s jacket art. In idle moments I open it to a random page and wonder what many of these titles are. Some might well be classics. I suspect I will never see most of them.
Toward the Terra is in that catalog, at the bottom right of page 288. I’d known about it since reading the excellent manga it was adapted from, and I wondered if it was one of those slumbering classics. Then RightStuf picked it up for an English-language release, and I wondered no more. It was made in 1980 and so has dated, but only in the most superficial stylistic ways. The parts that matter the most — the story and the characters — are still tremendously strong and affecting. Read more
Strange how a show that can seem to get everything outwardly right somehow also falls short. And I had half-expected Blade of the Immortal, the animated version of Hiroaki Samura’s manga, to fall short in some way. Here we had arguably one of the best manga running right now, perhaps one of the best ever made — not least of all because it sported art that started off on a level most other manga never attain. If the anime were to fall short anywhere, reasoned I, it would be in the visuals.
I reasoned wrong. Immortal manages to preserve the look of the manga, and even a great deal of its story beats — but never quite gives us the same emotional rush of the original. And that’s a shame, because the emotion in the story — and the life force of the characters in it, too — was the biggest part of what made Immortal special. Take those away and what you have is just a vehicle for a bunch of creative kills, which any seinen manga can do with one hand tied behind its back and one eye poked out. Read more