Sunday, 2 September 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 40

This will be the last of these themed posts, I promise, at least until I inadvertently stumble over a reason to come up with another one.  And really, the topic is more tenuous than ever, to the point where I hardly know how to sum it up.  Oddities would be one word, and "nineties anime that aren't really what you'd think of when you talk about nineties anime" would be, er, one sentence.  The thing is, the lines get awfully blurry sometimes, especially when you take into account that anime, from a Japanese perspective, is a blanket term covering all animated films made anywhere in the world.  Which is good news for those of us hunting an excuse to review whatever they like in their nineties anime blog posts, but bad news for anyone who'd get annoyed by, say, a Tsui Hark-produced movie or a Christopher Columbus-written film from 1989 popping up here.

If that's you then prepare for annoyance, I guess!  And brace yourself for reviews of Pokémon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes BackA Chinese Ghost Story, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, and Colorful.

Pokémon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back, 1998, dir:

Pokémon: The First Movie was, I believe, the first anime I ever saw in a cinema.  I mention this not so that we can all chuckle over my poor life choices, but to emphasise what a huge damn deal the film was way back in 1998.  Anime simply didn't get wide releases in the UK back in those days, certainly not from major studios such as Warner Bros., and absolutely definitely they didn't go on to make astronomical amounts of money that put the likes of My Neighbour Totoro and Ghost in the Shell to shame.

With all of that in mind, it beggars belief what a cheap, scrappy, inconsequential bit of fluff the first Pokémon movie is.  I mean, it's not even feature length; they only managed to pad it out by inserting the execrable Pikachu's Vacation before it, a delirious nothing of a twenty minutes that must have left many a parent in sweaty-palmed dread of what they were in for.  And yet Warner Bros. behaved as though this was the biggest damn thing, and for many a kid (and, er, twenty-something with too much time on their hands) it really was.  Heck, I even remember responding to it quite positively, without being ignorant of the fact that it was essentially shoddy and trivial.

With the benefit of both hindsight and research, this didn't altogether have to be the case.  It turns out Warner got a bit nervy over the Japanese original, which made antagonist Mewtwo an ambiguous character with meaningful motivations.  None of that for US children, oh no!  And so international audiences lost an opening chunk of plot, and were treated to some truly unfathomable changes in emphasis.  It's for this reason, incidentally, that a show about literally nothing other than fighting thinks to pause leadenly for every cast member to discover that fighting is just dreadful and we should all really stop it.  Though, given how hysterically weird the moment is, perhaps we Westerners got the better end of that one after all.  The same can't be said for the vomitous pop songs that stink up the soundtrack, surely from artists that Warner were eager to push before their unearned fifteen minutes of fame expired.

And yet, there's something here.  When the soundtrack isn't being stinky American pop, it's rather grand and portentous, and the animation, while aggressively subpar by what we'd generally accept as feature standards, is at least solid, with some well-integrated CG to set it apart from the TV show.  Mostly, though, it's the fact that Pokémon was a thoroughly likable franchise back in those days, and that the film takes that and shoves it into some unexpectedly dark places retains its impact to this day.  We get a major character death, and even if it's reversed basically immediately, it's still startling in a franchise where stuff like that just doesn't happen.  More, we get the scene that's indelibly burned into my subconscious, in which the Pokémon have to fight their clones, ending in a sequence where Ash's Pikachu turns the other cheek to a pummeling from its counterpart.  In slow motion.  While the other Pikachu weeps in anguish.  I swear, it makes Sophie's Choice look like a light-hearted romp, and if the film doesn't remotely earn it, nevertheless it'll haunt me to my deathbed.

Note that none of this should be considered a reason to go back and watch Pokémon: The First Movie, which is mostly a bit rubbish.

A Chinese Ghost Story, 1997, dir: Andrew Chan

A Chinese Ghost Story - and here I'm talking about the live-action 1987 original - is a basically perfect film for what it is.  Imagine Evil Dead 2 as a martial arts rom-com and you'll get about halfway to envisioning what it has to offer.  So it's sort of comprehensible that, some years after, producer Tsui Hark would decide to bring about an animated semi-remake, despite the fact that the Chinese animation scene was in a somewhat woeful state at the time.

(And here let us briefly divert to point at the elephant in the room: I thought when I bought A Chinese Ghost Story that it was conceived in Hong Kong but made by Japanese animators, and in this I was almost entirely wrong.  So it's only anime in the sense that all animated films are anime.  All of which is to say, it's my blog and I can write about what I like!)

So: at some point between 1987 and 1997 (I'm going off a brief interview on the DVD here) Hark would decide to lavishly adapt his live-action success into the animated medium.  More than that, he was determined to do so by utilising all that then-current technologies had to offer, and that meant dabbling with CGI.  After much wrangling with his animators and others, who insisted that computer animation just wasn't there yet, Hark settled on a mix of 3D-rendered backgrounds and mostly 2D hand-animated characters, a notion that would become at least somewhat standard in following years, if not to the extent that Hark embraced it, but at the time was crazier than cat juggling.

Now, I have immense respect for Tsui Hark, I truly do, and if you're remotely familiar with the golden age of Hong Kong film-making then probably you have too.  But in this he was horrifyingly wrong.  The hand-drawn animation in A Chinese Ghost Story is, but for the odd slip-up from a team that like as not had never attempted anything remotely so ambitious, flat-out lovely: not perhaps up to the standards of Disney in 1997 but certainly on a par with what they'd been producing a mere few years earlier.  And the character designs are as fun as anything anywhere in the Disney canon, or anything in anime for that matter.  But, oh good god, that CGI!  The maddening thing is that it's not that bad: I mean, for 1997 it's not.  But by 2018 standards it looks like crap.  And it's surely the single reason that the movie, which otherwise is witty and goofy and charming and just thoroughly lovely, isn't remembered with immense fondness two decades later.

I'll say this: you do get used to it after a while.  And the compositing between 2D and 3D is surprisingly respectable, though of course far from perfect.  But my goodness, to think about A Chinese Ghost Story with backgrounds to match those delightful characters ... it breaks the heart a little.  I mean, I loved it with the constant distraction of sets and props that look like they've wandered in from a mid-budget late-nineties video game; imagine how giddy I'd be getting without them.  And who knows, maybe the film is getting a free pass on some other weaknesses that I didn't notice because I was obsessing over the glaringly obvious one?  It's a little frantic, I guess, and the DVD - from Viz Films - is pretty much garbage, with an overly soft print and the sort of offensively bad subtitling that graced many an imported martial arts movie.  But, much like its live-action progenitor, A Chinese Ghost Story does a brilliant job of marrying comedy, horror, action, romance and music into one weird, intoxicating whole.  It's worth tracking down if you like Eastern animation of any flavour, and if you have an interest in the Hong Kong film scene that Hark was (and still is) such an integral part of.  But if, like me, you fit into both groups then find a copy right this minute.  You'll thank me, I swear.

Colorful, 1999, dir: Ryûtarô Nakamura

I promised unclassifiable oddities, and unclassifiable oddities you get!  Honestly, it's hard to even know where to begin with Colorful, but trying to establish what it is would probably be a sensible starting point.  The DVD release consists of sixteen short films, which, aside from a couple of partial exceptions, all follow an identical formula: a man or men purposefully or accidentally catch glimpses of women's underwear, are uncontrollably aroused, and suffer some mishap as a result of their distraction.  These episodes are delivered in five-minute bursts, interspersed with credits and clips of apparently random footage, some of which is thematically related (i.e. mildly pornographic) and some of which hasn't a damn thing to do with anything (i.e exploding cars.)  Altogether, the shorts come to a little under two hours, though a good chunk of that consists of the intro and other repeated footage.  With judicious skipping, you can get that running time down to about an hour and a half.

It's still a hell of a long hour and a half.  Really, one of these shorts would have done me.  Sixteen in a row is a merciless slog into a very peculiar sort of hell.  There are no remotely likable characters in Colorful; the men are hideous lechers utterly at the mercy of their libidos and the women are basically sexy furniture, however much the creators seem to think they're presenting them sympathetically.  (And this is definitely the intent: while the male characters are frequently exaggerated and reduced to monstrous caricatures, the female characters are uniformly realistic, or at worst idealised.)  For most of the running time, there's one joke, which repeats ad nauseum: man glimpses underwear, man loses it and seeks to see more of said underwear, man suffers misfortune.  It should be no surprise that the shorts that differ from this formula are far and away the most interesting.  Even if they both end in more or less the same place, the tales of a high school girl the size of Godzilla and a TV documentary about a creepy psychic boy manage to wring a bit of humour from their material, and are that bit funnier for being surrounded by so much leaden anti-humour.

If anything redeems Colorful (and it doesn't, and couldn't) then it would be the production, which has a certain heady vitality and vague surrealism that are appealing in and of themselves - or they were to me, anyway, as an animation nerd and as someone who appreciates a bit of high-energy weirdness.  I found myself reminded of the video game Jet Set Radio Future, which played around with bursts of music, sound, and animation in a similarly aggressive manner, and more distantly of Satoshi Kon's masterpiece Paranoia Agent, which surely has to be the pinnacle for this sort of thing.  Colorful is less successful for the simple reason that its sound and fury ultimately signify bugger all, but still, credit where it's due.

I'm willing to accept that the creators of Colorful believed they were making some sort of meaningful social comment, if only because Ryûtarô Nakamura has some infinitely better work on his CV.  Conceivably, in the distant, more (less?) innocent age of 1999 that was even sort of true.  Though if would be a great deal truer without the punchlines that basically amount to: man thinks he's looking at sexy young girl and in fact is looking at an older / transgender woman, to his horror and disgust.  Colorful certainly finds male lecherousness absurd; however it's still wholeheartedly committed to the notion that female youth and beauty are to be idolised, which leads inevitably to the assumption that women without one or the other are effectively without worth.  With that in mind, perhaps the only surviving value here is as a handy learning tool for those left behind by the #metoo age: if you should stumble upon someone who genuinely doesn't believe that male gaze is a thing, or that, for many women, harassment isn't the exception but the norm, sit them down in front of Colorful for a couple of hours.  It might not change their perspective, but it will sure as hell leave them feeling wretched.

Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, 1989, dir's: Masami Hata, William T. Hurtz

Imagine for a moment that you're producer Yutaka Fujioka, and for years you've been harbouring a dream of transforming Windsor McCay's decades-old comic strip about a child's phantasmagorical nighttime adventures into an animated motion picture.  Who do you turn to in the hope of making your vision real?  Do you start with the animation masters of your own country, the likes of  Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Osamu Dezaki?  Do you look to America, since that's where the material you're set on adapting came from?  You might approach animators like Brad Bird and Chuck Jones, or a live-action director with relevant experience like George Lucas, or a writer of fantasy like Ray Bradbury, or a script-writer with more direct experience of writing kids' movies like Chris "The Goonies" Columbus?  Or just maybe America seems too much of a stretch and you turn to Europe instead, and try, say, Jean Giraud, also known as the legendary Moebius?

The correct answer, if you haven't guessed, is that what Fujioka did was approach all of those luminaries over a period of years, and many of them left their fingerprints on what would end up being Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, one of the most lavish - and troubled! - animated films created up to that point.  Were art created by osmosis, that would surely make it the greatest masterpiece the human race has ever concocted.  Sadly, it doesn't quite work that way, especially when not everyone involved was altogether positive about the project: Lucas bemoaned a lack of character development, as did Takahata, while Miyazaki had issues with the "everything's a dream" concept that was so essential to the source material.

And from this one might argue that Fujioka should have drawn two clear conclusions: firstly that when people like George Lucas and Hayao Miyazaki give you advice, you should listen, and secondly that too many cooks really do spoil the broth, especially when the ingredients are dubious to begin with.  Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland was a colossal flop, and deservedly so.  It simply doesn't work.  Part of the problem is that it's too saccharine and empty for adults, too weird and scary for kids.  Part of the problem is Miyazaki's point that the material feels empty and inconsequential due to its very nature, and part of the problem was probably co-director Hurtz, since much of the direction is flat and lifeless regardless of how extraordinary what's occurring on screen is.*  But the heart of the problem is Nemo himself, who manages to be both deliriously boring and an annoying, amoral little shit at one and the same time.

The story goes like this: utter nobody Nemo - see what McCay did there! - whose talents stretch to a knack for duplicity and a tendency toward exceptionally vivid dreams, is made heir to the throne of Slumberland by its king Morpheus, who, judging by the available evidence, is severely senile and really shouldn't be allowed near decisions of such magnitude.  His sole injunction is that Nemo not open a certain door, with the definite implication that something severely unpleasant lies on the other side.  Nemo, under the influence of the obviously ill-intentioned clown Flip, duly opens said door, unleashing all manner of horrors.  Nemo then spends the remainder of the film trying to make right his mistake, a task that mostly gets done by others but for which he inevitably takes all the credit.

It's an awful plot with an awful protagonist, and it's at its most awful in the first half, which mostly just introduces us to Slumberland and the characters and goes to great efforts to lower our expectations of Nemo, so that when he gets to his most atrocious act we at least won't be surprised.  It's material that could never have worked, and one gets the strong impression that the project finally shunting into life had less to do with anyone feeling the script was ready and more because Fujioka eventually threw his hands up and said "Sod it."  And honestly, I wouldn't be wasting a tenth as many words were it not for the one detail I've dodged until now: Fujioka's company was TMS Entertainment, who around the same time were working on a little something called Akira, and in general experimenting with what feature length animation could look like if you threw astounding amounts of money at it.  And as Akira looks extraordinary, so too does Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland; this is some of the smoothest, most lavish animation you'll ever encounter, and for all the directorial failings, and despite some largely bland character designs, it's never less than mind-blowing.  It's up there with prime Disney, from the early days when Walt was still convinced that the medium could be made to appeal to children and adults alike.  It's up there with Akira, or damn near.  And its failure ensured that TMS Entertainment would never again try anything a fraction as ambitious, thus arguably setting anime film-making back an entire decade.

Taking all of that into account, I have no qualms about devoting so much time to Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.  But really, the crucial points I wanted to make are that a) the film is pretty much a mess and b) if you have even a shred of interest in animation as a medium then you absolutely have to see it, and will certainly enjoy it at least a little despite every one of its flaws.  You should see it preferably in the blu-ray edition, and in Japanese, since the American voices are just one of the many problems, especially that of the ever-punchable Nemo.  Heck, if it erases the dismal, cloying Sherman Brothers' songs then it might even shove the film over the line into being quite good.  But truly, it doesn't matter, because what you'll be watching for is the absolutely astonishing craftsmanship, and that alone makes all of Fujioka's efforts worthwhile.


Okay, so ultimately this post was a bit of a cheat.  I just wanted an excuse to review A Chinese Ghost Story and Little Nemo, neither of which can honestly, comfortably be described as anime.  Heck, A Chinese Ghost Story really isn't anime in any way, shape or form, and I've probably gravely insulted the entire Hong Kong animated film industry.  So, er, sorry about that.  But perhaps I made up for it in some small way by being probably the only person on the planet currently excited about the movie?  Let's hope so, eh.

Elsewhere, the Pokémon film was a weird old trip down memory lane, and I suspect I actually downplayed what a miserable, merciless slog Colorful was.  But the biggest trauma here is that I know damn well that one day I'm going to have to pay good money for Little Nemo on blu-ray because, despite its many failings, it's still an utter masterpiece of the animator's art.

Next time around ... we all knew I was lying when I said no more themed posts, right?

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* I'm inclined to blame Hurtz over Hata because his entire prior CV was pretty much garbage and he'd never work in animation again, and because almost all the directorial failings feel like someone trying to badly ape Disney, whereas its successes seem like someone successfully making late-eighties anime.

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