Review: RETURNER (2002)

Coolest DVD Cover in the author's opinion

It is hard for me to review this film without being a little subjective for nostalgia's sake. I caught it on television for the first time since I lived in Memphis (which was 6 years ago). The reason why it is hard for me to review a film such as this is because when it came to be watching Japanese films, some of the first ones I saw I didn’t see again till recently. RETURNER is one of those films. Such juxtaposition between my views on these films then and now proves interesting.

I saw RETURNER when I first started to notice that some channels on television actually did show some Japanese films that were not kaiju related. This included ONMYOJI, ONMYOJI 2, VERSUS, KUNOICHI: LADY NINJA (which was especially interesting seeing how (even though I didn’t know it at the time) it was the first film I got to see with the character Yagyu Jubei in it, and was also very pornographic), JU-ON, and the last of the Shintaro Katsu Zatoichi films.

Of course, in the move, things changed. A lot of those films stopped coming on. It was not that bad, since the Sundance Channel and IFC - at the time - indulged me with their offering (which helped introduce me to a lot more). But it wasn’t till this past year that I finally got to watch - for the first time in ages - films like ONMYOJI and RETURNER.

RETURNER was a weird film for me. Luckily, I saw it before I saw any of the Matrix films. Additionally, I saw it around the same time I got exposed to the Terminator franchise. Already, I am just naturally dispositional to like the film more than the more experienced, older audiences. Along with that, I saw it at the same time I saw Ryuhei Kitamura’s VERSUS. That duo is a very interesting thing to get exposed to at the same time - young me would kind of want to start thinking all Japanese action films had their main protagonist be leather trench coat-clad with their enemies being gangsters from one side of the Sea of Japan or the other, involved with something from the science fiction or horror genre.

For those who do not know, RETURNER concerns a young girl going back in time to stop a group of Chinese gangsters (with a Japanese member) from screwing around with a space craft holding an extra terrestrial monikered “daggra”.

With all that I have told you now, you will now see why there is influence from the TERMINATOR. Even a bit from INDEPENDENCE DAY if you dare to read too much into it. THE MATRIX comparisons come from the visual style instead of the substance. In fact, the slow motion in Returner is not like the Matrix's at all. Where as the Matrix did bullet time to just make a pretty picture, the slow motion in Returner is a side effect of the use of a time-slowing decide our protagonists have at their disposal. It actually serves the story.

In a more innocent time (when I first saw this film), I just thought this was a fun action film with some cool direction. But, since it is six years latter, I know a lot more about film. I know a lot more about how filmmakers can express ideals almost subconsciously into their work. And I also know this film was made by the last guy to legitimately show Godzilla on the big screen in Japan (Even if for a few seconds) - Takashi Yamazaki. I guess I cannot say I expected the greatest movie ever, even with Yamazaki’s name on it (seeing how much acclaim he has gathered since his ALWAYS films). It did feel a bit more welcome seeing that it is from him though. But then, we get to something quite interesting about the film…

The anti-Chinese sentiments. It is Chinese gangsters that are the main antagonists. Their Japanese member ends up turning his back on his Chinese friends. We also find out that in the future, the last resistance against the Daggra aliens is in Tibet (Daggra is a Tibetan term). In other words, Tibet is the last standing ground for a Triad fuck up.

But some will think that conclusion is very close to one “grasping at straws”, so we’ll just keep that to a simple curiosity. Other than that, this is a science fiction story which isn’t purposely trying to put a mirror to humanity or anything like that. Instead of a theme being expressed, we just have a group of characters acting out on the premise which involves their histories (check this out - Milly’s (the main female character) history is the future). Milly’s partner in the present day (now our past of 2002) is Miyamoto, someone who grew up in China and was an indirect victim of the child slave industry lead by his arch nemesis - Mizoguchi - who is the Japanese member of the Triads who is going to lead the fuck up. Milly and Miyamoto’s scene together have a certain warmth to them which really keep the film character driven, and that is where the film excells.

Yes, it has some great SFX (mostly CG), but the not-too-complex story and the warmth coming from their scenes together really do help the film from being derivative. But that’s RETURNER, a simple film with a couple of good things going for it. It’s purely an entertainment and a well made one at that.


HEAVEN AND EARTH Theatrical/Uncut Edit List

This is not the first time that this blog has had material related to the film HEAVEN AND EARTH (1990) on it. For a more traditional review of the film, please follow the link here:


This article is of differences in edits. Indeed, HEAVEN AND EARTH has an extended "uncut" version released in Japan on home video, seemingly only been released in Japan. The uncut version of the film is 21 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but both versions of the film contain shots and extensions of scenes unique to themselves, hence more variance. It is such that it can be compared to the different cuts of Ridley Scott’s LEGEND. 

This is a list of the differences in the two cuts of the films. 


Unique to the Theatrical Cut
Though possibly only in the version on American home video, there is a small prologue which sets up the time and location of the film - like this being 16th century Japan and that the two war lords is Kagetora and Takeda. 

Use of Different Angles
During the village raid coinciding with the beginning narration, different angles are used for the cavalcade of horse-laden samurai coming down a hill. 

Unique to the Director's Cut
When Kageora has a letter of praise read to him in front of his peers, the directors cut extends the scene considerably. We see the ceramony revolving the opening of the letter being a lot more formal and complicated. Added shots make the scene more formal. Unlike the theatrical cut, we have a documentarian shot panning down the middle column of fellow samurai, titling names and positions of those in attendance. Most important is also the expression that instead of paying all of his attention to the opening of the letter, Kagetora is looking at a stone idol of the god he has dedicated himself to - Bishamonten.

Unique to the Theatrical Cut
The letter scene ends in the theatrical cut with Kagetora saying thanks for the letter. Where as the directors cut skips ahead to a deer hunting scene, the theatrical cut keeps to a scene of Usami - one of Kagetora's most trusted men - talking to Kagetora during twilight next to his castle in Echigo. Kagetora ponders on his right to be a ruler when it meant the slaying of his brother. Usami reassures him. 

Unique to Theatrical Cut
The deer hunting scene which leads to Kagetora meeting Nami for the first time is extended a bit with shots of Kagetora drinking from a stream, expressively getting off his horse, and the deer he was hunting looking back at him. 

Unique to Director's Cut
While Kagetora watches Nami and other priestesses play the flute and bells, a shot of an elegant waterfall is inserted, causing not only an extension of the scene but also an extension of the music being played. 

After this scene, the differences between the two cuts get more drastic. The theatrical cut goes onto play a scene (which would come up latter in the director's cut) of Takeda, his lover Lady Yae, and other soldiers looking at a mountain range which marks the final barrier before extending Takeda's dominance to Echigo and questioning Kagetora's war title, "the Tiger of Echigo". The directors cut goes into a scene which would be played latter in the theatrical cut of Takeda being shown a bunch of rifles which, due to Kagetora's dislike for them, will give him an advantage in future battles. Again, there is stipulation over the "Tiger of Echigo" moniker.

Both the theatrical and directors cuts synchronize back together with the next meeting of Usami with Kagetora in a house. In the scene, halfway through we see Nami and we have the first dialogue the two characters say to each other in the film. Dialogue is the same and takes up the same amount of time, yet the shot choices are different. The theatrical cut adds in shots of Kaegora looking at Nami pouring a beverage where the directors cut keeps the camera and shots more stagnant (the Kurosawa influence bleeding in) on Nami. The directors cut goes onto show the scene of Takeda, Lady Yae, and some men looking over the mountains and talking of Echigo. 

Unique to the theatrical cut
The scene is extended with Kagetora and Nami looking out at the rain, with Kagetora asking Nami if everyone’s destiny is pre-determined. It’s after this that the theatrical cut shows the scene of Takeda looking at the guns his soldiers are going to use. 

Afterward, both cuts resynchronize to a scene of Kagetora - now with mustache - checking out rifles that his men will use.

Unique to the Directors Cut
The dialogue about rumors of a traitor to Kagetora is extended on a bit in one take, keeping all in the frame scenic a la Kurosawa. After added dialogue, shot progression goes back to being the same as the theatrical shot. 

Different Shot Progressions over same audio
The scene where Nami plays her flute for Kagetora and gives him a book on battle strategies is different only in what can be more scenic - a more intimate view of the romantic sub-plot or a more distant view. The theatrical favors the more intimate view where as the director’s cut chooses the distant path. 

Unique to the Director’s Cut
Durring this scene, Nami questions as to why Kagetora hasn’t married yet. Kagetora watching Nami walk away in the cherry blossom filled breeze is the same, but afterward, the directors cut has an added short scene of Kagetora riding his horse during a full moon in a cherry blossom field - thinking of Nami (this scene can be viewed in Tetsuya Komuro’s music video for Heaven and Earth). 

Unique to the Theatrical Version
Instead of a wide establishing shot as shown in the directors cut, the theatrical cut has a shot of samurai blowing horns, signaling battle. Additionally in the theatrical cut, the battle is extended a bit before the traitor that Kagetora is weeding out decides to use balls of fire as a weapon. Theatrical cut has more shots of the fireball offensive. There is also more close ups of Kagetora when his envoy is speaking to the traitor of the possible death of his son and wife (right before they are killed).

Different Shot Progression
Kagetora praying and meditating after having killed a wife and her child plays out the opposite way in the directors cut. Same shots, different order. 

Unique to the Directors Cut
Along with a longer shot of Takeda’s men going to Usami, making Usami a traitor, the convos the two have is extended at the beginning. 

Both cuts synchronize to a shot o Takeda talking alone with Lady Yae of establishing a possible naval force. A purple sky shot from a lot earlier on in the theatrical cut is move to after this in the director’s cut. 

Unique to the Theatrical Cut
Durring the initial set up for the first real battle between Kagetora and Takeda’s forces, we see Usami talking to Kagetora before we have the shot of Kagetora and his generals looking over the cliff to see the plain filled with Takeda’s men. Director’s cut simply has an extended version of the cliff shot. 

Unique to the directors cut
With the initial attack (which includes Kagetora establishing bridges to help men enter the plane), the battle starts sooner and individual shots last longer than their counterparts in the Theatrical cut. This includes an extended cut of Takeda asking his men who is Echigo’s best warrior. Theatrical cut has extra shot of Kagetora watching the Battle. The celebratory dance by Kakizaki (the best warrior of the battle) is longer and is of alternate shots in the directors cut.

Unique to Theatrical Cut
We have a scene where Kagetora talks to his men before having to gun down Lady Yae. Tetsuya Komuro’s melody for heaven and earth can be seen being played by a soldier playing the flute at the beginning of the shot. 

Unique to the Director’s Cut
When the frame rates for the shots start speeding up to give the scene momentum via slow motion, the director’s cut inserts an image of an enraged Takeda, having learned his mistress is acting on her own accord. Not a necessarily good choice. Shot progression of actual shooting differs from Theatrical cut. 

The next three scenes are of Takeda’s retreat after Yae’s shooting, talk of Usami being a traitor to Kagetora, and Nami talking to her father Usami of his betrayal. It is that order in the theatrical cut, while in the directors cut, it is first talk of Usami being a traitor, then Takeda’s forces retreating and then Nami talking to her father.

Unique to the Director’s Cut
Nami feints after talking to her father about his treachery to Kagetora

Unique to Theatrical Cut
There is an extra shot of Kagetora looking at the sun rise before he writes a letter to Usami, telling him of the learned treachery and of the duel to be had as judgment. 

The battle between Usami and Kagetora is the same dynamic as the scene where Nami gives Kagetora battle strategy books. 

Unique to Director’s Cut:
More shots of grass waving in the wind and of Kagetora demanding entrance to see Nami once she learns that he killed her father. 

In the smoke signal scene, the directors cut has a simple wide shot of the Takeda base raising a smoke signal with horses riding towards the camera. The theatrical cut plays it more complex, with the camera zoomed in on the pale of smoke, only to go onto a wide shot of a mountain range showing the use of smoke signal. 

Unique to the Directors Cut
Takeda’s forces dispatch to the Kawanakajima plain, yet have to maneuver through some foggy mountains. In the Directors Cut, we see Kagetora’s men move in front of them. The foggy Saigo Mountain scene has additional scene in the directors cut of Takeda’s point of view of things, moving Kaegtora footage back a bit. This also includes interesting CG soldiers walking across a map of the area, showing where Takeda was taking his men. Takeda’s discussion of strategy after this is extended in some places in the director’s cut, followed by more CG map footage. 

Unique to Director’s Cut
News of Nami’s death to Kageotra is drawn out a bit longer in the theatrical cut. 

Now, for the rest of the film, there is only the main battle for the Kawanakajima plain. 

Unique to Theatrical Cut
Shots of spears held to the sky climbing up the hill with chanting is extended, along with added shots of a pleased Kagetora added in. 

Unique in Directors Cut
Individual shots of the battle are longer in the directors cut. Alternate close ups are also utilized along with new shots showing Takeda’s use of rifles. By the time Kagetora and Takeda meet, the two cuts have two different battles (both on horseback, fighting on the stream still). 


Looking back over DEATH KAPPA

This is a review for DEATH KAPPA, a film which can be only described as "horsepucky". It is, to an extent, a fun film, but also a boring film. You are either in the mood for this film or not. While watching it this past time, I was a "middle" mood, thus I am on the fence with this film. This film seems to have a message - since a JSDF member says that Kappa taught Japan something it forgot... well... the audience might have learned what he is talking about (not like all of Japan was following the main female protagonist's story like we are).

Oh yeah, here is the plot of the film.

Kanako is an unlucky young lady. Many a time in kaiju eiga have Japanese "idols" cast in a film, but this time around, our main character is... or atleast was an idol. The idol curse is the typicall Hollywood trajedy - people love you for so long and then they go on to the next thing. Idols are subject to the buisness side of the entertainment industry - they are products. Sooner or later, the audience will tire of you and go for the next thing. Either that or they will not buy your products at all, making you a bomb. Kanako didn't go anywhere. The materialistic life didn't work out, so screw it, it is time for her to get back to the old country to take care of her grandmother.

However, when she gets back to the country side, she has a couple of reminders of her life in the big city. Her town is just now getting her merch (which doesn't seem to be selling), and right as she meets her grandmother again, a couple of arrogant teens run over her grandmotheer and leave her for dead - along with bumping into the ocean (with their car) a Kappa shrine. For those who do not already know, the Kappa is a Japanese sprite of shinto belief in which is classified as a goblin with turtle like qualities.

To fulfil her grandmother's dying wish, Kanako has to take care of the Kappa. It is more of an act of devotion rather actually taking care of a sprite... the wish is like saying to someone to take care of the demon in the basement... until it turns out the shrine dumped into the ocean comes alive and eats the cucumbers which were left out for it.

This first act is a nice little metaphor for escaping the modern materialistic culture and escaping back into the more spiritual, olden cuture... of Japan.

Meantime, it turns out that there is a threat within this little town. Problem is, the threat on the surface seems to be good meaning, bringing back the pre-WWII Spirit of Japan. Kanako and the people who ran over her grandmother are kidnapped by decendents of Japaese WWII soldiers who want to bring an elden Japan back... with mutated fish-like creatures which were originaly going to be used in the war. Kanako is saved from these bad guys in a scene which is an amalgram of weird, Saving Private Ryan, and Texas Chainsaw Massacare. It ends with an interesting mix of prctical and CG effects of an atomic explosion. It's the perversion of the drama angle in 1963's ATRAGON.

Such an explosion releases a seemingly unrelated monster (or maybe related, it is not specified, but the main antagonist monster looks similar to the fish soldiers) named Hangyolas who ravages the big city, the JSDF, kills Shinji Higuchi (or rather a character played by him), and battles in iradiated Kappa - DEATH KAPPA - in a battle which mixes sumo, what we can see in a Bruce Lee film when he gets the nunchaku out, and a little kaiju volleyball from a 1966 Goji film.Afterwards, Kappa rips Japan a few new assholes until Kanako wets his plate (he is a kaiju that needs to stay moist).

I guess the message is this: Japan was better off idealistically back some time ago, and the modern materialism or the radical Showa-era spirit are pretty bad things. I guess.

Maybe this whole meta-kaiju movement where kaiju films have to be parodies on the genre is the way of feeling good about something like GODZILLA-FINAL WARS, which wasn't a parody but might as well can be. When it comes to directorial decisions, how do you deal with DEATH KAPPA's style? You try to make a live action anime evidently. That is what the direction seems to be like. An example of anime-esque direction which can be seen here as is the direction is not always logical, rather, acts to add dramatic substance. Sudden costume changes and the flying with the lance shots are evidence of this.

One has to wonder if this is something which was done to attract the audience. It would make sense.   DEATH KAPPA is so over the top like it's brother productions like THE MACHINE GIRL and TOKYO GORE POLICE. Maybe even more. Which brings to the next point to clear up (or maybe just wonder about), the American influence of this film. Of the three companies that worked on this film, the one which got top billing is Fever Dream Productions. Another company credited with producing the film is Tokyo Shock. Connecting these dots, it seems as if Americans cannot do kaiju right.

But you got to give it to Tomoo Haraguchi for going the extra mile in bringing us this film, seeing how he directed both the human drama and the kaiju action. He has experience directing both types of scenes, having been involved with the SFX of the Gamera and Godzilla series as well as a director of his own films (KIBAKICHI, which is a yokai film). If execution of certain styles shows the utility of a good director, then I guess Haraguchi did a good job. Just that the script which he was given... sucked. With the TWILIGHT ZONE and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE showing their heads of influence, one has to wonder.

DEATH KAPPA needs a bit, and only a bit, of praise for something though in regards to the SFX side of the production - the creation of Hangyolas. While the suit is meant to look fake, but the kaiju himself looks as if he could kick some major tail. Thankfully, for some individual shots, Haraguchi doesn't go for the documentary approach. It seems almost as if a crane was used for some sweeping shots (even though it could just be the camera moving on track). It is the bit of new wave which is welcomed wholeheartedly.

DEATH KAPPA isn't in need of much more discussion. It was a project to replicate the kaiju eiga of old while making fun of it. The score has to sound epic and Ifukube-like, the SFX has to show strings with all effort to cover them up thrown out of the window, and it doesn't need to be deep. This film, like most kaiju eiga, are products of a money making machine called the film industry, only DEATH KAPPA is more of this than the other products.

Death Kappa is a film which can be enjoyable to watch, but if you are not in a "Death Kappa" mood, forget about it. The bad just raises questions about how the poking fun/meta-physic aesthetic works with kaiju eiga and questions regarding the involvement of American companies involved with the production of kaiju eiga. At least the film can be fun though, with it's message of going back to your roots to save the world and in doing so becoming more spiritualistic (if I saw a Kappa, I'd convert to shinto) and crazy mix of anime direction of the human drama and good ole fashioned kaiju scenes (for the most part).



Guy Tucker: The Secret GODZILLA 2 Winner

Skip to 6:29 for the meat of this story

Those who were around for G-CON ‘96 and attended already knew this bit of information. Those newer to the fandom (the author’s generation) probably do not know this. As mentioned in the article about GUNHED (the last article published before this), there were techicaly three winners of Toho’s GODZILLA 2 contest. Jim Bannon, who ended up having his story turn into GUNHED, Shinichiro Kobayashi who wrote GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, and unofficially Guy Tucker.

I contacted a close friend of Guy Tucker’s, August Ragone, and this is what he had to say:

"What Guy said was true — I read a copy of the script right before Guy sent in it to Toho. I wonder if I still have a copy of this script somewhere...

The psychic girl in his screenplay had a direct connection to the antagonist monster — not Godzilla — and her motivation was similar to the girl in GAMERA 3. Revenge. Kind of like Katsura in TMOG, actually. The monster's name was Ankyron. The opening of his screenplay had Godzilla going white-hot from radiation overload — kind of like a meltdown — and attacking Hong Kong."

This is most interesting. Chances of ever reading this script is against us, but it does leave some to the imagination. Imagine if things turned out differently, such as Tucker’s script being the one chosen and that elements from Kobayashi’s script were stolen. Fate is interesting.


The Deal with GUNHED

GUNHED is pretty bad. Thus, this review of the film will be written in such a manner.

One can think of it as this: director Masato Harada is going through the news and Koichi Kawakita is talking about what is probably his greatest work: Gunhed. Harada would think, "Shut up Kawakita". Except for the production designer Fumio Ogawa, composers Toshiyuki Honda and Takayuki Baba, and special effects director Kawakita, Gunhed is probably a stain on the resumes of those who worked on it. It is an oddity of the type one rarely sees. A blunder which will make people critical of films like GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS think twice about what is an actually bad Toho film.

It seems GUNHED was to be released internationally in theatres.* We have some characters speaking fluent English, including Brenda Bakke from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and a black guy who falls under the stereotype that the black guy gets killed first. Turns out, GUNHED was based on one of the stories turned into Toho’s GODZILLA 2 contest. It seems there were three winners. You have Shinichiro Kobayashi, whose script lead to GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. Then there is Guy Tucker who was unaccredited for the creation of Miki Saegusa and would go on to have elements used in future Godzilla films (a la the intro to GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH). Finally, there is Jim Bannon. His script was turned into GUNHED. This is what his original script was basically:


What we got was Gunhed, directed by Alan Smithee (I thought that the use of that pseudonym was an American tradition). Alan Smithee is actually Masato Harada… which if you keep with credits, Harada is a Japanese Academy Award nominated director who we Americans most likely know as… the main antagonist from THE LAST SAMURAI with Tom Cruise (?). Guess there has been odder stuff out there.

The story of GUNHED goes something like this: In the year 2005, a whole island was used for the building of a super computer. Being used to make robots, the system KYRON 5 (Vista model) decides that humans are unnecessary a la TERMINATOR. Instead of risking war on a global scale, they fight the computer on its own island. What better to fight off robots than with more robots. Humanity brings in GUNHEDS, which are not too unlike Gundams or as some internet bloggers have likened too, Transforming tanks. Kyron 5 fights them off with biobots, which are robots made from humans put in a green liquid, and the Aerobot, which is a gargantuan leviathan of a robot. These little Gunheds are like David against the Aerobot Goliath. Two big outreaching claws and three "eyes" which shoot out explosive lasers. Even more ballsy, the Aerobot doesn’t even care about breaking through the compound’s walls and pipes (this island’s structure is like the Dante’s inferno of robot cities) just to get to it’s target. It is a truly bad ass robot. Long story short, the Gunheds were effective enough to make ongoing fighting of Kyron 5 unnecessary. These people nipped that Judgment Day in the bud.

Back in the outside world though, computer parts become scarce enough that they are more valuable than gold. Enter our heroes. Flying aboard the Marry Ann (might make you think of COWBOY BEBOP in passing. If anything, it will make you think of Lone Star‘s ride from SPACEBALLS), you have a bunch of bandits who scavenge to sell on the black market. You have the black guy, an Asian chick who can speak English, two Japanese guys who are going to get killed just as easily as the two aforementioned members, Bebe, and our main protagonist, Brooklyn. As in Brooklyn Dodgers. He wears a Dodgers uniform under his clothes (yet his character claims he doesn’t know what it means).

The bandits fly down to the island to grave rob the Gunheds (which, at least the one Brooklyn revives latter on in the film, have a real personality to them, so it is pretty bad). Already, they are off to a bad start. Not only will exploring for severed Gunhed parts going to be difficult, but they see that there is a (Walker) Texas Ranger Helicopter smoldering in the background. Something’s up.

As the Bandits go through the 200+ levels of the compound, they find some interesting things. Such as an advanced Pepsi dispenser. They also find a surviving member of the Texas Rangers helicopter, Nin (the Star Trek chick). Together, they go looking around. The bandits find what they want, but along the way they end up wanting what Nin was sent to the island to get, a vile of Texmexium (yes, ridiculous I know). Turns out, Texmexium has taken over Nuclear capabilities as the ultimate power source (imagine if Godzilla had some of what those super computers were smoking).

It seems as if the Kyron 5 system is still alive enough though. Out of the blue, a biobot knocks Bebe into a vat of green stuff which in turn turns her into a biobot (SUPERMAN 3 anyone?) who is out for one thing: the vile of Texmexium our heroes have. With the Texmexium, Kyron 5 will be back to being fully operational and after a hopeful clean up of the island, will start to rage war on humanity. I could stop now, but there is one other thing which needs to be mentioned in this summary - on the way, Nin and Brooklyn run into two kids - Seven and Eleven. 711. A gas station reference. God.

Manga by Kia Asamia

C’mon man… there is more cheese, but you’ll have to buy the film to experience it.

The direction on the human side of things is nothing spectacular. The writing is full of cheese. The editing (as many internet bloggers have attested to) is of the caliber that should have been bestowed onto Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM. Yet the SFX, the production design, and the score help. The film has a definite feel to it. Atmosphere of the type is something not easy to achieve (the opening sequence is really good at this). There is a feeling that you are watching a live action anime (not to make someone think of the craptacular G-SAVIOR). That helps. In fact, it might answer for some of the film’s oddities (such as Seven’s random mannerisms).

The important question is how could things like this get so messed up? Like said, the script was cannibalized into something else. What elements were added to the film? Midnight Eye interviewed director Harada and an interesting bit of information came up: "At one point, I wanted to do a sort of remake of SAHARA with Humphrey Bogart, and that kind of story was incorporated into the Gunhed story." Those who want to make comparisons can read what this page has http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahara_(1943_film)

On top of that, Harada seemed to have already known that Japanese post-production services sucked (At the time). In fact, Harada did some interesting stuff with this information, using it to involve an American company. "So I need the Lucasfilm people to work on the Gunhed sound effects. They agreed with that, so we went to the Skywalker Ranch, near San Francisco, and I had really nice discussions with the staff there. I had already designed all the different sound effects, like one hundred different tones, 10 different sounds for Gunhed alone." Then Toho comes into the picture. "…Toho, when we talked about the budgeting, just cut the post-production part. So although that was a basic condition between me and the producers, they just totally ignored it. And then I had to compromise with the sound people in Japan. So certain things I was promised didn't show up…"

But of course, the editing is something which we have to come back to. It’s been an American tradition that the director sits with the editor to edit the film together. Isn’t that the way it is in Japan? If not, it damn well should be, because director Harada seems to have a good head on his shoulders, he was just fucked with a good bit. Editing for GUNHED was done by Yoshitami Kuroiwa (probably doesn’t help to note that the first name has the word "shit" in it). GUNHED is plagued with bad editing. That is something which is not debatable. What is debatable though is weather this was the work of a bad editor or if it was an age thing. For my money, it is the latter. Looking up resumes, Kuroiwa - as it turns out - was a major editor. THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and BYE BYE JUPITER are little in comparison to titles like SWOD OF DOOM and KILL (both of which got Criterion releases). GUNHED was made the 55th year of Yoshitami’s being in the industry. He made his bones early on in the late 50’s and all through the 60’s. Either age was getting to him or Toho’s system changed or he didn’t have director Harada sit down with him. Point being, this is not the work of a bad editor.

On the thespian side of things, only one thing can be said: If acting was a priority in this film, then it would only be a priority to two people - Masahiro Takashima and Brenda Bakke/ Masahiro Takashima does a straight foreword job with his role. It is totally believable and isn't as bad as his Japanese or Asian co-starts. Brenda Bakke is an interesting actress though. She plays it all cool, calm, and collective. The fact she does it as much as she does makes it seem as if she is over-doing it. It works in some cases, but not all cases.

Now we can start talking about the good things with this film. Upfront is the soundtrack. Though called repetitive and such, it has a distinct Japanese feel to it. Synth heavy, the work by Toshiyuki Honda and Takayuki Baba gets certain moods out which help compliment the film quite well. Such as the main theme (the video above). It mixes the obligatory techno-feel that the soundtrack should have (due to what the film is about), but other beats in the piece help give the film the general feeling of a technological jungle (which Island 8J0 is).

The production design is the best aspect of the film. For $10 million, Fumio Ogawa really pulls it off. Except for some shots durring the main battle, the matting is great. Especially when paintings are used (hence why they are great in comparison to the aforementioned battle shots - paintings don’t move). Another simplistic effect are the wire frames. Considering this came out the same year as GODZILLA VS. BIOLANTE (which used wire frames for some of the pre-battle sequences), GUNHED blows the kaiju film away. Of course, they would be CG enhanced with Kawakita’s Japanese Academy Award winning GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH, but this is really a great exhibition of such a technique. There is even use of CG in the film which, considering the Godzilla series’ progression under Kawakita, was a surprise. A floating mine attracted to human voices featured in the film are rendered in CG are good looking. Why the wait till GODZILLA VS. DESTORYAH for some proper use of CG (this is not including things which can be interpreted as computer simulations a la some shots of SPACEGODZILLA and MECHAGODZILLA) via helicopters? Heck, if the CG used here was of the same quality as the alternate version of Mothra’s wing unfolding, I’ say Kawakita should have kept the shot. Not to mention that the Godzilla films had bigger budgets than this film.

Of course, Kawakita isn’t known for his matting shots and his wire frames. He is known for his in camera work. There is no suits, but rather models. But what models. The large canvas the matte paintings serve to illustrate the island with is replicated with models quite nicely. Of course, it is a no-brainer that the most famous aspect of the film - the 1:1 scale models of the Gunhed and Aerobot (made of fiberglass) - help a lot. Of course, these seem to be used only in close up shots (this is not a Ridley Scott film) and there are models (much smaller I’d assume) which do most of the job. But, when it comes to "most of the job" the models here succeed. Maybe because these mechanical monsters are much closer to the size of a human than Godzilla is or that these mechanical structures are more reality-based, but the effects like the Gunhed’s triple-barreled Gatling gun’s effect is one which the viewer would thin "I bed it’ll resemble the effect tanks have on Godzilla, tanks shooting flares". While it is the case, it is much improved thanks to the scale. Of course, of note is the intro to the film, which combines all of the above along with a nice clouds ‘n thunder shot. This really was Kawakita’s masterpiece. If one was to see this via the R2 DVD, one could argue that this should have been the film Kawakita was to have gotten a Japanese Academy Award for. It should also be noted that this film is a favorite of James Cameron. Any Terminator comparisons are warranted, but take note that the AMP suits in Avatar look a good bit like Gunheds.

In the end, GUNHED is just Toho’s equivalent of a Michael Bay film. Great visuals, crappy execution of the story. At least GUNHED has a cool story which deserves to be revisited (especially in this post-Matrix world). As for why the story is executed so poorly, it is all in the post production. It seems Toho just did not give a damn. Maybe because of changes within the entertainment industry at the time, things were being changed around and GUNHED was a victim of it. Maybe Toho is just poor that way. To note, turns out Kadokawa (who would buy out Daiei a decade plus some later) co-produced the film. Could this be a reason why a GODZILLA VS. GAMERA would not happen (speaking on a business level)? With Toho’s crooked way of doing things, I wouldn’t doubt it. I’m just happy that the score, along with some aspects of the film at least make the film undeniably Japanese (making it seem as if we follow one specific Gunhed the whole film through, and that Gunhed seems to have a kami, along with a very Japanese-felt soundtrack).

*Why I say that GUNHED was aimed for international distribution and that such things as the inclusion of an American actress is not something that was a limitation of the script - Toho could have changed that.

http://www.youtube.com/user/Gunhed2039 http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/masato_harada.shtml


Review: Mill Creek G3 Blu-Ray

Here we go again. Evan Brehany talking about Gamera 3.

Thanks to a series of fortunate events, I was able to own the blu-ray release of GAMERA 3: INCOMPLETE STRUGGLE which was released by Mill Creek. The Heisei Gamera trilogy has been a lucky one, looking back on it. All three films are great works for the genre, in particular the third one which is something of a milestone in Japanese cinema. More importantly, the films have been lucky here. Each and every release of the films here in America (on a digital format) has been a great product. Anamorphic widescreen (most of the time), fair picture quality, a wealth of special features which are from Japan (Save some embarrassing material ADV produced), all in subtitles.

Does Gamera’s luck continue into the blu-ray age?

Of course it does. Thanks to the insane cheapness of the blu-ray for GAMERA 3 and the double feature blu-ray of the previous installments, these films are not only among the first kaiju films to be released on blu-ray here in America but are also very accessible to even the most scrooge-esque of collectors. Because of such popularity, this particular product has been noted for it’s three hours worth of material to the trilogy as a whole. Such a package seemed out of the scope of my imagination. Mill Creek Entertainment has been known to bootleg crappy pan and scan prints of the Showa Gamera films for years now (though it seems it is only GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE is being done now in a multi-pack). This was definitely something out of left field. Almost as big of a turn around as what Classic Meidia showed back in 2007.

But how does the package handle itself overall?

VIDEO: 4.5/5
I cannot comment on the quality of the high definition transfer. I can only hope it is beautiful. The best special effects the kaiju genre has to show for and I am stuck watching it in 480p due to not owning composite chords or a HDMI chord. I can however speak about different aspects of the picture though.

In comparison to a copy that I own (sourced from the next to last printing of the R2 DVDs), I can say that the new transfer is better in terms of color. The colors are not as vibrant as what my DVD has, but in return that has something I haven’t noticed before - the amount of bleeding in the picture. It’s not a big difference, but it is noticeable. The bleeding might not even be bad, for it creates a more atmospheric appearance (like how one might like to watch films on VHS). For those who see bleeding as a problem with past releases though, you’ll like this transfer.

You are going to have to refer to other reviews for more specific and technical based analysis on the disc’s audio. You got two Japanese tracks and an atrocious dub track (I have never seen GAMERA 3 dubbed and I do not plan on it).I will say that even though I am using regular A/V chords to connect my player to my tv, there are some elements which I could hear better than what I could otherwise.

What should be mentioned here though is the subtitle tracks. No, I am not going to complain about them too much. Either they are too big or they are late. I’d personally have the latter. I can piece together what subtitles go with what section of the video. I will complain about the fact that this is a new subtitle track. I am complaining about it because some of the old mistakes the translation on the ADV DVD release had are made.

For example, when Nagamine finds out that Ayana has a magatama, we go over to the scene of a phone call in which one whole line for Asagi is, “Magatama”. On the ADV DVD, that is translated not as the proper noun it is “A curved black jewel” (a magatama is a magatama, to say “curved black jewel” is like replacing a proper noun with descriptive adjectives). It is worse on this commentary track in which the line is translated as, “You found one?”

There is also noun misusage when Ayana tries to prove herself to the female bullies at school by going in and trying to lift the rock out of the cave. Ayana asks what is in the cave only to be told “…a monster or something” (line is basically the same on both releases). The antagonist chick does not say monster, rather yokai. Yokai like gappa or one of those things from Daiei’s Yokai series (Great Yokai War anyone?) It seems Japanese terms are being ignored. That’s part of the charm of the Gamera trilogy, they are more Japanese than their Heisei Godzilla counterparts.

One improvement was better though. After Gamera’s attack on Shibuya, you have Ayana’s little brother calling her to come see what is on the television. On the ADV DVD, the subtitles translate what he is saying (which sounds like “ohniynjah”, clearly not “Ayana”) as “Ayana”. On the new translation, it is read as “Come quick!”. Easier to believe.

For you Gamera die hards and fans out there, this is the reason to get this one disc. In fact, because of this reason, every fan in every country - including Japan - should own this Blu-Ray. The answer is simple - the three hours of material on this disc is material sourced from the Japanese laserdisc box sets for all three films. That is a big deal.

The fact of the matter is this - three main companies handled the video releases of material pertaining to the Gamera trilogy. You had Amuse Video, Daiei Video, and Kadokawa Video. The model was like this: never copy something from one medium to another. If something was released on VHS, do not put it on laserdisc or DVD. If something was put on laserdisc, do not put it on DVD or VHS. Even in Japan, if something was put on DVD, VHS, or Laserdisc, it did not go onto the blu-ray. The Japanese blu-ray for the Gamera trilogy only had one special feature - a three part feature (just a whole bunch of interviews edited together and split into three parts). Unless you had a laserdisc player or bought materials from an illegal source, there was no looking at the special features in the laserdisc box sets.

Until now. Even more interesting, Mill Creek Entertainment has gone the extra mile to even subtitle the material for us. Not everything from the blu-rays are on here now. For example, the laserdisc box set for GAMERA 3 did contain the music video for “Tell Me Once Again”.

Rightfully so, most of the material on the blu-ray belongs to GAMERA 3. It starts off with a Gamera test which shows off the terrible sliding the back shell platelets were prone to. After this and the material for the first two films are over with, there is the “REVENGE OF IRYS REMIX”. To those who do not own the G3 LD Box set, this feature was actually supplemented with a book. The remix is basically the sound mix/track (sound effects, dialogue, ect.) for areas of the film that used SFX and instead of the scenes playing out like they do in the film, they are made up of corresponding B-ROLL footage. For example, with the atmospheric battle between Gamera and Irys, Gamera ramming himself into Irys would be shown via two guys holding shoulder and head props of the kaiju with the following attack changing to in-progress CG work. You see what computer programs and such the production team used. You can edit in each of these bits into their corresponding places within the film and you wouldn’t go out of the 108 minute running time (and if you do, it is just by a little). It is quite a unique feature.

There is also G3 trailers, which unlike the ADV DVD do not come subtitles (for the record, for those who didn’t get it, the vertical line of text at the beginning of some of the trailers is the same text that goes up the beam of light Irys is producing on the poster. It says “I will never forgive Gamera”, which is quite more hefty than “Godzilla dies”).They are not as plentiful as the ADV DVD either.

The best piece is the deleted scenes. Sure, the subtitles are out of sync for this, but at least they do not take up the entire screen. While some say the deleted scenes help answer things about the film, they actually (for me) form more questions than answers. While I can see why they would be cut out, the deleted scenes with Asakura Mito and Kurata Shinya should have been kept. Would have helped with the mythology. Such as further allusions to the I, CHING, the questioning of Nagamine’s theory that the Gyaos truly were biologically engineered, and such would have been so grand.

GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE gets the short end of the stick here, with just a short little tidbit. But what a tidbit! Talking about specific equipment the crew has to use and specific camera lenses and such really are great for those wanting to learn about the technical making of a kaiju film. Adds to a dictionary such as “oh, that prop is a kapock figure” or “those guys helping out the suit actor are Gamera kakari”.

GAMERA 2 has basically just a bunch of b-roll. With the material being sourced from a laserdisc, it should come as no surprise that there would be problems. The images on screen are too dark for a section. But, it is not all that bad. The making of the Legion suit, the b-roll with certain scenes and such really is interesting. Just too bad that some of the more important things, like the quick usage of motion capture in GAMERA 2 wasn’t in with the clips.

That being said, this is great when it comes to the actual making of the films. Yes, as it has been said, those who are completists should definitely keep their ADV DVDs. No doubt about it. But, both products together gives one quite the comprehensive insight. Again, if there has to be one reason to pick up this disc, this is the reason. With the Japanese laserdiscs going for over $75 (the GAMERA 3 laserdisc rising towards a $200 price ticket), it is wise to buy this blu-ray. This goes for fans in every country. Germany, China, Mexico, Iraq. If you are a kaiju fan who cares about seeing making ofs and such, you should get this rather cheap disc.

Originally, I was going to hold out for the Japanese blu-ray box set. Thanks to finding an unused gift card under the oven, I was able to buy this blu-ray from Walmart. To have thought I would have waited for such is inconceivable. The film is presented nicely, and probably greatly if I had a HDMI chord or composite cables. The extras are the selling factor of the release and are a must. Only bad thing to say it is with neither release the subtitles for the special features are perfect. Chances are, if you are as well informed as me in your research, you have been bits of the special features on youtube (They were uploaded on there before the blu-ray was release, sans subtitles), but the G2 material is new to me. And it is subtitled. It’s great!



Review: AKIRA

This is my AKIRA review for Tohokingdom.com. It seems that the reviews were ultimately not taken down, but in advent that the main site might go down due to unforeseen events, I want to go ahead and make a back up here. If I had anything to say about this piece, I have to say that it is one of my favorites. Along with trying to think of interesting ways to describe the film and be through with my review, I also (like the ONMYOJI review) drew inspiration from the late Guy Tucker. Particularly with his review for Matango, his inclusion of production notes and anecdotes was truly inspirational. Now, if I have any regrets of the sort about this piece, it might be the comparisons with the score description. I'm on the fence on weather or not I was over doing it, but it is one of my favorites.


By Evan Brehany, 4/5 Stars

Before anime became a national obsession for outcast teens, before most high schools had the now regular anime clubs, and before Toonami or Adult Swim or any of that, anime was next to unheard of. Only remnants of series like Gatchaman and Gigantor (aka Tetsujin 28) kept the memory alive. Instead of having something like Dragon Ball Z or Pok√©mon come into the general public’s mind when talking anime, there was one film which made the stylistic medium big and noticeable. This was it. With production processes that were unorthodox in Japan and with style and substance unorthodox to Americans, Akira shook the ground and garnered critical acclaim, while accumulating the first anime fans (who would screen VHS copies of the film at their local colleges).

Akira details the troubled mind of Tetsuo, who’s life gets turned upside down as he becomes the fifth person (that we see on screen) to develop telekinetic powers in the world. Tetsuo, who has an inferiority complex, is part of a biker gang run by Kaneda - a childhood friend who keeps putting him down. The biker gang, along with a rival clown gang, government rebels, and the general public live in Neo-Tokyo, a man-made island which takes up most of Tokyo Bay. Neo-Tokyo was born out of the destruction of Tokyo, which not only brought upon another world war but also public awareness of one of the original four individuals who had telekinetic power, Akira. Tetsuo struggles with his maturing powers along with a vengeance against a society that had always put him down as Kaneda, along with some rebel militants, try to save him. Meanwhile, discord in the government is afoot as corrupt politicians - prepping up for the 30th Olympics to take place in their city - try to cut off the military’s operation on containing individuals with ESP abilities.

Knowing full well that this is an adaptation of a notoriously large (2,000+ pages) work by Katsuhiro Otomo, things would be cut when written into a single film‘s screenplay. Hence, it is easier to talk about the film’s shortcomings rather it’s exceptional feats. There are many themes handled in Akira, but some that are surely underdeveloped would be the political side story. Obviously, we can see that the politicians are meant to be lampoons of their real life counterparts, but the theme is clearly underplayed. You do not feel anything one way or the other when one of the politicians (trying to escape Neo-Tokyo with millions in bonds and a mouth full of blood pressure medication) dies in the street. There could have been more substance with this aspect of the story. We are given Neo-Tokyo as a reflection of the Tiger Country-Era of Japan, but little is successfully accomplished.

The other aspects are handled well. Tetsuo’s inferiority is detailed in the cause and effect, though it is not terribly cerebral when it comes to getting into the mind of the character. It is a more original way to carry out what could be interpreted (in part) as a revenge film (and even larger, a film about an individual with ESP, more on that subject next paragraph). It should be said though that Tetsuo’s revenge against his oppressor and wanting to break free had indeed put him in the wrong, after all, great power comes with great responsibility. If you abuse it, you lose (i.e. too bad you had an inferiority complex, you've got a bigger job to do). The use of power is also used in a way akin to the Christian concept of sin - abuse it and it controls you instead of you controlling it.

Another theme the story tackles is the use of ESP, something executed differently than the norm. The take on ESP in general is different than what an American (or maybe a Japanese viewer) could expect. Not only is it more violent and graphic, but it also shows the effect it could have on human life - from aspects such as friendship to whole social orders in metropolises. Additionally, many critics have pointed out more undertones of the film though, such as the fact that Tetsuo developing his telekinetic abilities could be seen as an allegory for teens and their experiences going through puberty.

When it comes to anime though, one aspect of a film gets easy to review since directing, cinematography, set design, and other such areas tend to roll into one. That is the animation itself. Akira was, at the time, a groundbreaking production having involved animation techniques like pre-scoring the audio. Though expensive, it allowed for lip synchronization. Along with certain lighting techniques executed during the Asahi Production's transitioning of the art into film cells, this production has a lot more night scene than a normal anime of the time, and shows a lot of detail without having to go for the usual bluish colors normally used to signify night with definition.

Additionally, with the pre-scoring technique, the images of anime characters are no longer as stagnant as they once were. The lip movements are based on acting done before lip moments are animated, giving a new layer of reality to the already detailed and layered artwork which exhibits artistry and detail more common of the most experienced engineers. And to say layered, it means that multiple sheets of plastic containing images are placed over the other - giving a faux three dimensional look to the film. One of the great things about the animation is that it works for both the non-anime and anime cottoning peoples - the female characters are not overtly cutesy, the good guys and the bad guys are not overly obvious via the size of their eyes, and other such stereotypes for anime are avoided.

With the presence of pre-scoring, the portrayal of the characters by the actors and actresses are important here. The film is filled with voice stars to be, including Mitsuo Iwata as Kaneda (who tokusatsu/Henshin fans may know from the Japanese version of Power Rangers Samurai,Samurai Sentai Shinkenger and part of anime series such as One Piece), Nozomu Sasaki giving voice to Tetsuo (Sasaki would go on to voice the lead in Yu Yu Hakusho), Col. Shikishima being acted by Taro Ishida (famed Kingdom Hearts actor and part of Juken Sentai Gekiranger), and the good doctor Onishi voiced by Mizuho Suzuke (who has done the dubbing on such films as the original Star Wars Trilogy as Darth Vader and The Godfather as Vito Corleone). Akira is limited in regards to female characters that matter, but in that corner we have Mami Koyama (ofGiaking fame) voicing Kei and Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori being voiced by Yuriko Fuchizaki (Kiki's Delivery Service).

It is tough to grade voice work in that you pay much more attention to the vocal tones and amount of flamboyance in the vocal performance, unlike a traditional film performance in which body languages plays a good part of the overall act. It is easy to compare the original Japanese language audio compared to the 2001 Pioneer-commissioned dub track. The Japanese actors make the film seem more "real" - less stereotypic sounding than the American dub track (common of other anime dubs, as well). No over-exaggerated diction to over-clearly show "what's happening" between characters in the Japanese vocal track. That is the problem with American dubs to an extent - they are stereotypic to the situation. The Japanese acting is more soulful and really does the film justice as a whole, except for the "Discipline" scene in the beginning of the film (which the dubbing adds to a good bit).

The music is what gives the film it’s most (at-first) alienating quality. The music isn’t anything less than extraordinary. It is somewhat of a benchmark, as Akira Ifukube was not only brave enough to use ostinato but produce a more Western score than what was the norm at the time with Godzilla, or Nobuo Uematsu taking a song he had already written, making the sound more operatic with larger orchestration, and infusing a metal edge to it for Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. For Akira’s score, a musical group known as the Geinoh Yamashirogumi (lead by Tsutomu Ohashi) was given a demanding task for the score. Two things were demanded of their skill - for the score to sound futuristic while holding to a sensibility relatable to the (then) modern sensibilities, coupled with the request that the score be conducted before the film was even finished, much less without whole scenes being ready.

Variety is what makes this score a positive listening experience. With that edge, the score not only pushes away from the usual (and possibly all-too predictable) scores of cinema but also gives us something new to listen to (which is why the music may alienate first time watchers). Ohashi utilizes both organic and inorganic sounds for the soundtrack, with it’s futuristic sound coming from a source that is timeless - a 16-beat pattern which is said to be in the human DNA. The instruments made to comply with this musical framework are what seems to be somewhere around five hundred voices, the Indonesian Angklung (a bamboo instrument), the gamelan (which is played to the pelog and slendro musical scales which go along with a 16 rhythm), and more. In addition to the sound module method and the chanting of character names, the music captivates the viewer and of itself should be a reason to re-watch the film. When you listen to the soundtrack by itself, you find out that the piece entitled "Requiem" is actually played at the beginning and at the end. Its versatility makes it so that at the beginning it is what energizes the viewer into the film with a build up of momentum and when the more choral parts come into play at the end, it all comes together to make your viewing soar.

Akira is a film that went against the grain in terms of substance, style, and execution, and while it may not be as great in terms of story telling as it’s manga counterpart, the style and execution is something to still be marveled at. It was a ground breaker in Japan and what saved the anime fandom in the US. There are valid reasons why AKIRA was on Empire’s "100 Best Films Of World Cinema " list. Just keep an eye out for who else may be watching with you, the film does have mutation scenes more gruesome than John Carpenter’s The Thing, brief nudity, and animal death (two German shepherds).



This is something which shouldn’t surprise a lot of people - kaiju films (of either the scientific or fantasy genres) are not the main tokusatsu films anymore. Tokusatsu means special photography. So, of course, anything with special effects or visual effects can be considered tokusatsu (though now, it does have to come from the Land of the Rising Sun). Thus comes films like SHINOBI: HEART UNDER BLADE. The film’s SFX were such that Shochiku had a demonstration of the making of the SFX at the TFT Tokyo Fashion Town building (West Wing), done by Kazuhiko Mino (who IMDb doesn’t have an adequate page on).

It is also interesting that the type of film SHINOBI is has a good bit of appeal from many different cults. Not just Japanese cinema otakus, but also from anime fans (who can count the film as a sort of non-official adaptation of BASILISK) and a breed of fan quite their own, modern chanbara fans (people who would actually pair this film with Kitamura’s AZUMI, which I thought was interesting to say the least). What should we make of SHINOBI?

For those unfamiliar with the story of BASILISK, SHINOBI concerns the Kouga and Iga ninja clans (who you might have seen play very small roles in films like MAKAI TENSHO). Knowing that these two clans have skills which make them dangerous to “normal” society, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his advisors plan on wiping out both clans by having them fight each other (meaning having to break a bond the clans made with the Hatori Hanzo family). If this doesn't succeed, then the plan is to cannon ball both clans in an act of gross genocide. It is masked as a competition to decide the successor to Ieyasu Tokugawa. This isn’t too good of a thing, for there is somewhat of a Romeo & Juliette affair afloat - a young man from Kouga and a young woman from Iga love each other. But fate has it be that they are in charge of their clan’s representative groups.

Oh the drama.

Seeing that this film is admired on three fronts, let’s grade it from those first. Most importantly is the CGI. Using Maya and even creating new functions within it (Mesh Aniport), the result that Japan comes up with still look different than American, Korean (Younggu-Art), or German (Centropolis) CGI works. The look is just different. This concerns things like creating whole environments like the Kouga clan’s village's mountain side and crevasse which is set upon. Is it necessarily good? Well, if we were talking about the end result having to look realistic, Japan has only a bit more to catch up upon . The Japanese are getting better. One problem with films like GAMERA 3: INCOMPLETE STRUGGLE (which helped pioneer CG usage in Japan), matching a CG model to it’s analogue doppelganger, was a challenge. It is less of a challenge now, and unless you see making of documentaries which show off pre-visualization and in-progress shots, you wouldn’t know that the character Tak Sakaguchi (VERSUS) plays is for a good bit of time CG (knowing what the actor has been willing to go through (chipping of teeth), I would think he’d be alright with crane work). Knowing that this was a 2005 film, I can just imagine what Japanese CG looks like now (I have yet to see the latest film adaptation of BATTLESHIP: YAMATO).

From an action point, it can be considered one which trades dynamic direction for more interesting weapons. To continue a comparison with Kitamura’s AZUMI, Kitamura is a more dynamic director of action than Ten Shimoyama (maybe because this was Shimoyama’s fifth feature). The variety of angles, camera movements, and the flow created from such is something Kitamura should be commended for. SHINOBI should be commended for being more imaginative with what actually happens than how it is depicted (though the film does get more stylized as you go on, to match up with the abilities of the Shinobi). A variety of weapons from all over the place (not just Japan) are used (this is given detail in a behind the scenes tidbit on the DVD), even to the point that it compliments a character played by Kippei Shiina (who, in this films, shows that he could be a live action Sephiroth if a live action FINAL FANTASY VII film was to be optioned). Only thing to be criticized is that some of the chosen five die to quickly in the movie in too quick a fashion.

As for being an adaptation of the manga/anime… I have no earthly idea. Nor would I think most in America’s anime clubs would know either. Knowing that it is officially an adaptation of THE KOUGA NINJA SCROLLS by Futaro Yamada, I cannot speak of that either.

Speaking from regular film criticism, Ten Shimoyama does a good job with the film when it comes to everything having an elemental feel. Safe except from a questionable is-it-or-is-it-not-a-green-screen-shot, the feeling of nature is in the film almost as if Haruhi Kadokawa directed this. Of course, modern influence is helping the feel along with color filters (brown for the Kouga’s mountainous village and an aquatic blue for the Iga’s river-side village). That isn't to mean that the usage of such isn't as bad as it is here in America, where as natural colors cannot come out due to the filters. The characters that end of mattering the most are given the best shots while the other shinobi are introduced with their name on screen and everything (similar to Hugo Stiglitz's part in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS).

If anything should be criticized, it should be the writing. Even though there is a likely chance that SHINOBI was written in a way that it wouldn't be over 2 hours long, SHINOBI is a film which I would have wished they went all the way into a 2.5 hour film and I think it would have still succeeded in the success it has had. As mentioned, some characters die too quickly and the way which they are killed is just as swift. The only characters who are given development are the ones who can make it passed the 1 hour mark. The rest are dead meat. This is sad for some of the Shinobi on both sides sound like they could have some pretty interesting story arcs. Instead, one might think that they are used only to convey one ideal in a conformist fashion that our main two characters (Gennosuke and Oboro) do not seem to think it is right: since Shinobi are raised to do battle, that is what they must do otherwise, there is nothing. Take the characters either way you must, either undeveloped or used to flesh out a certain philosophy.

What we have when it comes to the film is a basic study of shinobi in the world. What is their place, and how will the outside world tolerate them? Forget that a bunch of the characters within the two ninja clans are having philosophical troubles about weather or not they should fight. There is a much bigger picture. It is a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED type situation we have. It is like that in which there is a breed of humans who have skills above that of the rest of the human population. Natural selection or artificial selection will occur one way or another. The chances of co-existence aren't existent. So, artificial selection seems to be the choice the lesser-skilled majority choose. Meaning, they choose to kill off the Shinobi.

What does the film do with this?

Just shows that regardless of the Shinobi being human also, the majority will still execute the genocide. That of course is brought to an end when the Shinobi seem to symbolically give up practicing their art (Oboro destroys her eyes at the end of the film). More could have been done with this theme, but to complain about it further would serve to only show off philosophical skills and such, which is not the point here.

The actors in the film are of a good quality. Jo Odagiri (who seems to have been under some fire from the Henshin otaku recently) plays Gennosuke. The multiple award winning actor has won Japanese Academy Awards for work he has done such as Bijomaru in AZUMI (the character Tohokingdom bashed for being too feminine (which I thought was actually a good thing)) comes back and does a more "manly" job this time around. He actually does as good of a job to let the audience know (when watching the film subtitled and in Japanese like it should be viewed) that what seems like over acting in the English language isn't when you can speak Japanese.

Yuki Nakama, gravure model and a person that the readers of this blog will probably remember as being adult Iris' first victim before getting her boyfriend in GAMERA 3: INCOMPLETE STRUGGLE. The use of models and such in films is something even America does (take a look at Michael Bay's work). The comparison though is one which makes perfectly clear that either the Japanese are just naturally better at the theatrical arts or their directors are a lot better. Nakama, along with Odagiri, shows full emotions and is a character that I felt some remorse for by the end of the film. She does a good job, but not as good as the rest of her cast, which except for one other person doesn't add up to much.

That person would be Kippei Shiina. The person referred to as a male Sephiroth earlier plays maybe the most interesting character of all - a nearly immortal Shinobi. Having foreign weapons and the insight of an old person, he actually ends up telling Odagiri's character certain aspects of the Shinobi's place in history. He even has a poetic death. Shiina is an award winning actor, but to think that he has not won an Academy Japanese award and Odagiri has is truly something to ponder about. He knows how to play wise. Just too bad we don't see more of this character.

All in all, SHINOBI is a film which if given a longer running time would have been a better film via more development and maybe more meaning. But for what it is, it is an enjoyable film which entertains and is distinctly Japanese in flavor and will please many the Nippon eiga otaku. Action is good, the basic study of the shinobi's place in the world is interesting, but it is just too much of a studio film to reach the horizons that it could have broadened itself to.