Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 50

49 posts!  196 reviews!  It's been a long road to get to this point, and there's been a great deal of nineties anime under the bridge.  What began as an idle whim has become something between my main hobby and a second job, and I find myself weirdly okay with that.  Along the way, my love of Japanese genre fiction and animation as a medium has only grown, and I've discovered some truly wonderful works, along with a lot that's silly but fun.  As time sinks go, I've no regrets.

But no, that's not true, I do have one regret, and here at the big half century mark, I'm going to address that.  Since my focus has always been on discovering gems I haven't seen, I've largely ignored the established classics of vintage anime, meaning that the list of works I've awarded nine, let alone ten stars to is awfully brief.  By the same measure, so much of my time's been taken up with watching new stuff for these reviews that I haven't been back to revisit my favourites.

Basically, then, it's personal canon time: these are the films I unreservedly love and that helped give birth to this whole crazy experiment, and for the first and perhaps only time in this series we get to gaze at the dizziest heights of vintage anime for an entire post, in the shape of: Perfect Blue, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, Ghost in the Shell, and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade...

Perfect Blue, 1997, dir: Satoshi Kon

If there's a criticism to be leveled at Satoshi Kon's directorial debut Perfect Blue, it's that it's no more or less than a superlative thriller.  And even that's perhaps harsh: not many thrillers comment so perceptively on the culture they inhabit, or are so mechanically fascinating, or dare to challenge their audience in such flagrant fashion.  Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight and compared with everything Kon would do from here on in his extraordinary and all-too-short career, Perfect Blue is merely a smart, intricate, mind-bending genre picture made with outstanding craft.

But if it's true that Kon's characteristic mind games and fluid take on reality would subsequently be exploited to better effect - if I had to choose, I'd call Millennium Actress his masterpiece, out of a career consisting of nothing except masterpieces - it's also true that he hit the ground running, with a story ideally suited to the themes and approach he'd go on to make his own.  Perfect Blue follows Mima Kirigoe, who we meet as she's bowing out of her idol group CHAM! to pursue a career in acting, much to the chagrin of her devoted fans, one of whom in particular seems to consider himself personally responsible for setting her back on the right path.  That's hardly Mima's only worry, though, as her part in a straight-to-DVD thriller and the pressure to shed her little-girl idol persona drives her to make choices so wildly at odds with her natural inclinations that her troubled mind begins to splinter in all sorts of weird ways.  Or could it be that she really does have a doppelganger, and that the fairy-like other Mima she keeps seeing somehow exists outside of her increasingly muddled imagination?

It's a great setup, an intriguing melting pot of Hitchcock, Lynch, and Argento, all of whom Kon references more or less explicitly; but it's easy to imagine a version of Perfect Blue that wasn't a classic worthy of discussion two decades later, and what pushes it over the line is largely a matter of dedication.  Kon's contempt for an entertainment industry with no roles for women that don't fall into the categories of virgin and whore is palpable, and his adventures in reality-bending are wholeheartedly committed, the approach of an artist asking genuine questions about the extent to which we can trust our perceptions rather than an entertainer who simply wants to mess with his audience - though that's certainly a factor, and in the best of ways, one that's sly and playful without being smug or needlessly obscure.

Then of course there's the animation, which is as good as anything the nineties had to offer and holds up strikingly well today, and the score, which manages both freaky, disorientating pseudo-music and J-pop tracks so catchy that you can readily believe they'd be the work of a moderately successful idol group.  Indeed, how Kon managed to conjure up such production values to make so adult and uncompromising a film is anyone's guess.  That he did, and that it was successful enough for him to keep making films, is a fluke to be thankful for, even if it doesn't make his premature death at the age of 46 any less devastating.  He'd go on to make better films than Perfect Blue, ones that transcended their material in ways it doesn't, and he would explore these same themes more vigorously in his series Paranoia Agent.  But when that's the worst that can be said, you know you're looking at one heck of a movie.

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, 1987, dir: Hiroyuki Yamaga

If Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise had nothing going for it beside its world building, it would still be one of the great genre films of the twentieth century.  The kingdom of Honnêamise belongs to a world like and unlike our own, similar enough to be recognisable and relatable but alien in its every specific.  This is one of the most designed movies ever made, with every element, from vehicles to telephones to clothing to lights to drinking glasses rethought in ways that are somehow both strange and correct.  Yet it's also a movie that never feels designed, because the job has been done far too well to call attention to itself.  We've no choice but to accept Honnêamise as a real place, absorbing its customs through osmosis rather than because they're forced on our attention.

Couple that with Hiroyuki Yamaga's assured, naturalistic direction, which refuses to treat the narrative as any sort of science-fiction, or really as fiction full stop, and what you get feels like a documentary beamed from another dimension.  That approach is absolutely correct for its material, the story of an alternate space program in an alternate world, one where to be a member of the Space Force is a wholly disreputable career that only someone like our slovenly protagonist Shirotsugh Lhadatt, whose poor grades nixed his dreams of flying jets, would consider.  When we meet him, he's too disheartened at the death of a friend to even bother turning up on time for said friend's funeral, and it's only a chance encounter with young, impoverished street preacher Riquinni that begins his journey toward being his world's first astronaut.  But as the unlikely possibility that the Royal Space Force might actually accomplish something begins to look like a potential reality, so it grows increasingly clear that his government's motives are less than noble, or much to do with getting a man into space.

In a sense, it's easy to see why the result was a flop that nearly killed off the burgeoning Studio Gainax: it's an ambling story full of odd diversions, not least the sort-of romance between Lhadatt and Riquinni, which culminates in an atrocious act on Lhadatt's part that would break a lesser film, because it's damned hard to sympathise with him afterwards.  But Wings of Honnêamise doesn't require us, or even particularly desire us, to sympathise with its protagonist.  Indeed, to do so would perhaps be missing the point.  Boiled down to its essence, its narrative is basically Oscar Wilde's adage, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," and that message is the heart of the film both on the level of character and in its wider themes, to be ultimately expressed in a closing few minutes as sublime as any sequence put to film.

Oh, and it neatly sums up Studio Gainax too, who at this point were just a bunch of young Turks with the arrogance to assume they could do animation better than anyone in the industry and the raw talent and scrupulous commitment to their craft to actually pull it off.  Wings of Honnêamise offers some of the most astonishing hand-drawn animation you're ever likely to see, and at the same time looks unlike any animated film ever made, with that dedication to verisimilitude spilling over into every aspect.  Lhadatt spends most of the film looking miserable, exhausted, or both; the movie's central action sequence is notable mostly for how much it refuses to be exciting; and the attention to detail is bewildering, especially in the special effects work of a certain Hideaki Anno, who models details as seemingly trivial as tumbling ice shards with the most exquisite, mind-boggling precision imaginable.

The culmination of those efforts is unique even by the standards of late eighties anime, a period when the medium was stretching itself to a degree that would never truly happen again.  It's essential watching if you're an animation fan, that should be obvious; but it's also one of the most truly bold and original science-fiction films ever made, broaching material any Hollywood exec would dismiss as too bookish and complex to work on screen.  And in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, they'd be right; Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is the sort of lightning strike you could only get when a bunch of genius creators set out to smash their way into an industry through sheer talent and have the arrogance to break all the rules along the way, including a few that would normally be better off not broken.

Ghost in the Shell, 1995, dir: Mamoru Oshii

I'm not going to say Ghost in the Shell is the best science fiction film ever made.  I'm certainly not going to deny it either.  There are other contenders, for sure, but I'll go this far without hesitation: Ghost in the Shell is as close to a perfect sci-fi movie as it's possible to get, and thus its only competition comes from other functionally perfect movies, the Blade Runners and Stalkers and Aliens of this world.  And this struck me more on a rewatch than ever before: there's simply nothing unquestionably wrong with it, nothing to be definitively pointed out as a misstep.  As a narrative, as a work of animation, as the creative vision of a singular director, as a philosophical argument even, it's basically flawless.  For a little under ninety minutes of running time, it never puts a foot wrong, nor wastes a single frame, nor raises an idea that doesn't tie intimately into its central themes.

This certainly has a lot to do with Mamoru Oshii, a staggering talent who reached a peak here he'd never quite equal again, and refined techniques he'd developed on a series of lesser but still terrific classics over the last decade and change.  What struck me forcibly coming back to Ghost in the Shell was the degree to which the film breaks down into discreet chunks that are rarely required to do more than one thing: generally they're action, plot, or thematic exposition, with a nebulous fourth category that might be classed as world-building, though it's as much to do with mood-building: I'm thinking here of the famous sequence where our protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, wanders through the urban sprawl of New Port City, accompanied by Kenji Kawai's gorgeous, hypnotically alien score.  Anyway, the point is that mostly scenes are expected to fulfill one purpose and to achieve that purpose outstandingly.  Few directors could get away with this; there's a scene, for example, set in a brief moment of downtime, where the two main characters sit and basically discuss the movie's themes.  It shouldn't work, yet it does, and the reason is Oshii, who's honed this economy of storytelling to such a remarkable degree.

It helps, of course, that the animation is some of the finest ever created.  Normally in these reviews I'd have to caveat that with a nod to Disney and Ghibli, but not here: what Production I.G. and their collaborators accomplished is the pinnacle of the craft.  Moreover, there's not a second where the medium inhibits the storytelling, not a shot that feels compromised by the technical difficulties involved with drawing complex three-dimensional objects in motion or layers of action or the minutia of expressions or anything else.  Watch it on blu-ray and it's nearly impossible to grasp that it was made two and half decades ago; the only real clue is that pretty much nobody is producing hand-drawn animation so exquisite these days.

Should you not be an animation fan, I suppose you might argue that none of this is a reason to consider Ghost in the Shell an enduring masterpiece.  You might even propose that it's merely riffing on familiar genre themes.  Can mankind create an intelligence to rival its own?  Can an AI ever be truly considered intelligent?  How far can we modify ourselves and still regard ourselves as human?  If we rely on external memories, can those memories be trusted?  Interesting ideas to be sure, but none of them fresh, and all chewed over extensively since 1995.  However, Oshii, along with scriptwriter Kazunori Itô, invariably finds new angles and challenging conclusions.  The film is happy to conclude that one intelligence is much like another, and anyway, both are largely illusory: we think we think, therefore we probably are, for all the good it does us.  And if that weren't enough, there's plenty else to get lost in around the margins, and some of that really is still novel: particularly, the film's treatment of gender identity and sexuality remains fascinating and complex.

So sure, I won't flat out claim that Ghost in the Shell is the greatest science fiction film ever made, or the greatest anime film, or the greatest filmed work of cyberpunk, but it certainly might be, and it absolutely belongs in the highest stratosphere of all those categories.  It's a movie I never grow tired of, indeed one that I can never return to and not be surprised by; there are individual scenes of such brilliance that they're burned deep into my brain, yet I'm always startled by how new and unexpected the plot feels, how essentially distant and unreachable it all is.  At the start I called Ghost in the Shell perfect, and that's not a word I use lightly, especially not when describing films, but here I do so unhesitatingly.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, 1999, dir: Hiroyuki Okiura

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to view Jin-Roh as a last hurrah for the soon to be largely extinct art of purely hand-drawn animation.  By 1999, the writing was on the wall; indeed, Ghost in the Shell, four years earlier, and made also by studio Production I.G., had already become one of the benchmarks that proved CG could be incorporated seamlessly into 2D animation.  The approach taken here, amounting to an immensely laborious three year production cycle and some 80'000 cells, must have seemed dated even at the time.  As the new millennium was ushered in, most of those involved would embrace the incoming technology wholeheartedly: writer Oshii, adapting from his own Manga, would reset the benchmark all over again with his sequel to Ghost in the Shell five years later, and assistant director Kenji Kamiyama would team up again with I.G. three years later to make arguably the greatest sci-fi anime series of all time, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, which would go a long way to rewriting the rulebook on how the skillful deployment of computer animation could up the bar of what TV animation was capable of.

All of which I present for basically two reasons.  Firstly, Jin-Roh is a staggering work of animation, so smooth and realistic and subtle in its effects that it's awfully easy to forget you're watching an animated film at all.  If it's not exactly what you'd call beautiful, that comes down entirely to its subject matter and not at all to its craft, which is in the very highest echelons of the medium.  And secondly, Jin-Roh feels not of its time on almost every level.  Even if you don't know to spot the lack of CG, it has the air of something that might have been made a decade earlier, in that window where costly experimentation in smart, difficult anime for adults briefly blossomed.  And though Oshii's influence didn't extent beyond the script, this very much has the feel of his earlier works, particularly his two Patlabor movies.  But none of that would matter much if it wasn't for the subject matter, and that's one of the things that makes Jin-Roh truly fascinating: its defiance of the cutting edge of animation technology is perfectly of a piece with the mood it creates and the story it tells.

That's not a story I want to spoil, but a bit of background should clarify my point.  The movie takes place in an alternate nineteen-fifties Japan, one caught in an escalating conflict between domestic terrorism and ever more extreme law enforcement, the darkest facet of which consists of the Capital Police and their heavily armed and armoured forces, who've shown so little restraint that even the other branches of the police are getting twitchy about their antics; that they look like Nazi stormtroopers with glowing red eyes probably doesn't help matters, nor do the rumours that they're running a secret counter-intelligence unit from within their ranks.  And what better way to take them down than by discrediting one of their number?  Say, Kazuki Fuse, sunk in emotional stupor after watching a young girl blow herself up with a parcel bomb and now showing altogether too much interest in her older sister?

Cheery stuff, right?  But truth be told, Jin-Roh is even more bleak and dour than all that.  When it's not being an examination of how totalitarianism destroys hearts and souls - mostly by numbing them into oblivion, if the film is to be believed - it's sidelining as a particularly gothic, Germanic telling of the Red Riding Hood story, one that scorns the very notion of happy endings.  Had Oshii directed himself, he might perhaps have found some poetry in the material, but Okiura doesn't appear to be trying - odd given that his return to feature directing, many years later, would be with the sweetly charming A Letter To Momo.  Then again, it's not really a criticism, merely an observation: Jin-Roh is a joyless, suffocating vision that captures as well as anything I've encountered the hollow feeling of deep depression, and it's hard to imagine that Okiura ever intended it to be anything else, given how surehandedly he controls the material.

It may be apparent by now that, unlike everything else here, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigage is not a film I recommend wholeheartedly and to everyone.  Its pace is leaden, its cynicism nearly overwhelming, and though there are some superb twists and bursts of action along the way, there's a reasonable chance you'll be feeling so bludgeoned on a first viewing that you might miss them.  Indeed, it was the last movie I rewatched for this retrospective because a part of me wasn't eager to return to it - though admittedly that had as much to do with the fact that I'd recently seen Kim Jee-woon's recent re-imagining Illang, which I dare say may even improve on its source material.  Nevertheless, Jin-Roh genuinely is a classic of its genre and close to indispensable.  It might not make you happy, but sometimes it's the job of great art to make you feel like crap and open your mind a little, and sometimes that's every bit as valuable.


You know, I think this was something I needed to get out of my system.  So I guess the fact that I had to write 196 reviews to get to this point is totally okay.  Occasionally it's really satisfying to remind yourself of why you love something, and then to try and put that passion into words.  I've no idea if I've done these four films any justice - honestly, I doubt such a thing is possible! - but the effort felt good.  And there's no other possible conclusion than to say that, if there's anything here you haven't seen, for goodness' sake correct that fact as rapidly as possible ... these aren't just masterpieces of anime, they're masterpieces of cinema and of storytelling.  Basically, they're flat-out masterpieces, and they deserve your attention.

Next time?  Well, I know pretty much for certain where we'll be next, because I have about ten of these posts finished and ready to go, but suffice to say that, while some of it will be good and some it might even be great, it's going to be at least another fifty entries before we hit this kind of high point again.

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

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