1.30.2012

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.

Enjoy!



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).

1.27.2012

Review: SHINOBI: HEART UNDER BLADE (2005)


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.

1.09.2012

State of the Blog 2012

It is 2012, thus it is called for to type up a sort of "state of the union" address to you, the patrons of this blog. 2011 was not a very good year, and this is not on the basis that the news feed was bad for the year. The amount of news being miniscule and less than that of 2010 was to be expected. What is bad though is that I have learned that as you get older, real life crashes down and burdens come up, only to show that you not only have priorities, but such priorities are going to tire you out more often than what you are used to. I used to pump out material, but not anymore.

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Of the misfortunes which have plagued me the last year (and those who know where to look know of what I speak), the most important to talk about would be the fate of my laptop. My HP Pavilion laptop (which I have had since summer 2008) is finally breaking down. Basically, my computer is literally dieing of old age. Long hours of use year around has taken it’s toll and the future of it isn’t clear. What is clear is that to fix whatever problem I seem to be experiencing, it usually calls for long periods of waiting followed by longer periods of restarting the poor laptop over and over again. It seems to be a weekly cycle.

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If I am on the net, I will hopefully get stuff done. I told a person, who I was forwarded to on good terms, that I would help promote a certain documentary which will excite kaiju fans who can speak English while also rekindling friendships which I feel bad for abandoning. More writing will be done, and hopefully better writing, even if I have to start doing it in longhand and wait to type it up digitally. The DAM DVD review was meant to be edited but due to certain problems it hasn’t been possible. By the time this is posted, it will have been edited. Writing will continue again, though to tell the truth, doing writing on Japanese films is hard without a reliable computer source (just the way things are).

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If there is anything which anyone wants, feel free to post a comment at the bottom. Remember, I have to approve all comments thus if you do not see it appear immediately, do not panic, it’s all cool. I just want to leave on this note: hope that a piece of SPACE MONSTER GUILALA I have been working on for some time will eventually get completed (anyone who can translated Japanese and would like to team up on this please contact me).