What a stupendous-looking show this is, and also what a boring and incoherent mess. Karas: The Prophecy is a wonder of production design and visual flair, animation and color, movement and sound — but not of story or character, coherence or logic. It’s bursting at the seams with ideas, many of which tie compellingly into Japanese legend and fantasy, but they have been jammed together cheek-by-jowl with a total disregard for how they are employed other than for flash and filigree. This has nothing to do with knowing that, say, a kappa is a dangerous water-goblin that looks vaguely like a turtle, or that a karasu is a crow-like spirit, or any other bit of mythological trivia. It has to do with the fact that if nobody understands the nature of the simplest plot developments in your story, nobody’s going to give a damn about it. The fact that this is the first half of a projected two-part series only makes things worse.
Karas is, I think — with a movie like this it’s difficult to be certain of anything — about a race of supernatural beings who live in parallel with the human world, or in conjunction with it, or something along those lines. The human world is vaguely aware of them, but never more than that. Sometimes these being-things fight each other in scenes that look like out-takes from Power Rangers: first they pull out a sword this big, and then they pull out swords this big, and then they pull out swords THIS big, and you ask yourself, how come they didn’t just pull out the biggest swords the first time and get it over with? The first fight or two is decently creative, but after the fifth or sixth Bullet-Time style fight it becomes an instant cliché. Quit mucking around with time and space and get on with the damn story. Read more
Trinity Blood begins with a fantastic idea: If vampires are creatures that feed on humans, what kind of creatures feed on vampires? It then spends as much time and energy as possible doing absolutely nothing with this concept. Instead, it gives us a story that’s so fractured, aimless and uninteresting it’s like reading notes prepared for another, better treatment of the subject. But it sure looks pretty, and if that’s all you care about, that’s about all you’re going to get. It’s a résumé for its design team.
The series opens several hundred years into the future, after a war has devastated most of the planet (although they’ve done a mighty nice job of rebuilding everything in European Gothic). Society is split into two mutually hostile camps: the vampires, who style themselves the “Methuselas”; and humanity, or “Terrans”, whose sole form of social organization at this point appears to be the Catholic Church. There is a lot of technology left over from the old days, most of it in the form of plot devices — like a satellite that can incinerate a building from orbit, or computers that seem to exist for no other reason than to be hacked and overridden.Read more
Not only is Mikadroid: Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla the best title for a movie since The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies!?, it’s a pretty good little movie, period. It’s one of the more legendary Japanese horror / fantasy / SF movies of the Nineties, mostly because a) it was next to impossible to find, and b) it was directed by special-effects maven Tomoo Haraguchi (Uzumaki, Gamera, All Night Long). Haraguchi also gave us Sakuya Yokaiden, but I forgive easily: this movie accomplishes a bit more in less time and is even more unapologetically cheesy fun. It’s not a classic and it won’t live forever, but it’s nice to see it back in the land of the living after floating around in bootleg limbo for so long.
Mikadroid opens in an underground bunker during WWII, where a Japanese scientist has been working on a project to fuse human subjects with robot technology. The Allied bombing campaigns are growing fiercer, though; the project is to be shut down, and all the materials related to the experiment are to be destroyed — including, one would assume, the experimental subjects themselves. In his last moments, the scientist sets them free, and is buried along with his cybernetic creations when the bombs rain down on Tokyo. Read more
I’ve long believed that if you grabbed someone at random off the street, gave him $10,000 and told him to make a film, odds are he’d come up with something that’s at least as good (or interesting, or funny) as anything being dumped into multiplexes. To that end, here’s Lethal Force: a movie that was shot for less money than most people spend on a wedding or a new car, stars no one you ever heard of, and is a complete blast from beginning to end. It’s as rough-edged as you’d expect a movie like this to look, but the movie knows that and has great fun with its bargain-basement production values instead of being trapped by them.
Force is an anthology of fast-moving clichés lifted from pretty much everything in sight: direct-to-video action movies, splatter flicks, and “heroic bloodshed” Hong Kong gun-fu films. It’s played straight when it needs to be played straight, but it’s mostly twisted into comedic shapes at unexpected moments, and it all works. The whole thing’s the brainchild of one “Sir” Alvin Ecarma, who wrote and directed (and probably did the catering, too), and turned the whole thing out for something like a mere $15,000. Somehow bootleg VHS copies of it leaked onto the tape-trading circuit, and everyone who stumbled across it were not just impressed with but fond of the movie (myself included). Now it has been licensed for DVD courtesy of Unearthed Films, and it lives admirably up to the hype. Read more
Some movies are about plots and characters and stories, and some movies are about images and sounds and feelings. Rampo Noir starts in the second category — it’s a deliriously beautiful movie — but gradually backs into the first. It does not, however, make the mistake of explaining so much about itself that it ends up in the same category as Silent Hill, where we got so much explanation that everything else became moot. And it also stars Tadanobu Asano, easily my favorite Japanese actor of the moment, making himself as inscrutable and fascinating to watch as only he can.
The name “Edogawa Rampo” means nothing to most Westerners, but in Japan it’s the name Edgar Allan Poe, Nipponified (try saying it out loud) and adopted by author Hirai Taro as his pseudonym. Rampo claimed Poe as a major literary influence, along with Maurice Leblanc and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and wrote dozens of stories and novels in that vein. Like almost every successful author, his works have been adapted to film — Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini (which this movie resembles in many ways), The Watcher in the Attic, The Boy Detectives, Blind Beast (and Teruo Ishii’s Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf) were all adapted from his work.Read more
If Trinity Blood was an example of an anime where they took a great idea and wasted it, Shinobi is the live-action version of the same sort of mistake. It is a period ninja-fantasy adventure with a game cast, based on a bestselling novel, and my god is it ever boring as hell. Sorry, gang, but that’s the way it is. The movie is all promise and no payoff.
I gave the movie a chance, honest. I let Shinobi unspool for two hours without feeling it strike a single neuron, without a single surprise that I hadn’t seen coming miles off, and when it was done I could not remember a single image, a single line of dialogue, a single scene that had held my interest in more than the most fleeting way. How is it that Japan can use the samurai / period-adventure genre to produce some of the most compelling, visually striking and all-around inventive films — Gojoe, or Takeshi Kitano’s Zatōichi — but then turn around and come up with a complete wet dog of a picture like this? Probably because Gojoe and Zatōichi were the products of artists with vision, and Shinobi is a piece of made-to-order piffle. Read more
Otogi-Zoshi is a great and bold experiment that works — a story that spans hundreds of years of history, that freely ties together drama, mythology and fantasy into a unified whole, and above all is grand fun to watch. It’s the complete antithesis of stuff like Trinity Blood, where they took one good idea and didn’t do a thing with it; here, they have almost more ideas than they know what to do with, but they make them all serve the story. It’s also yet another remarkable piece of work by VAP — the production company who gave us Berserk — and Production I.G, the animation studio that gave us Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Blood: the Last Vampire, and many other shows that are staples of anime at its very best.
Otogi-zoshi (御伽草子) means a book of fairy tales, and with a title like that I expected something along the lines of the outstanding Requiem from the Darkness: a series of self-contained stories that tie into Japanese myth and legend. Instead, there are two large and broadly integrated plots, both of which draw on extant folklore and history for inspiration. The first half of the series is set in the medieval Heian era (cf. Gojoe, Portrait of Hell, Onmyoji I/II); the second half, in the modern day — albeit with contemporary editions of all of the same characters. At first the two halves seem to share nothing other than the shared-cast gimmick, but over time they grow closer together and complement each other quite thoroughly. I’ve seen vague variations on the same stunt before, but Otogi-Zoshi works entirely on its own merits, both in part and in whole. Read more