Tag Archives: Anime

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Oshii

FEATURING: Voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi (original Japanese); Mimi Woods, Richard George, Abe Lasser (English dub)

PLOT: In 2029, a government cyborg tracks down a terrorist hacker nicknamed “the Puppet Master,” who has the ability to “ghost-hack” to possess cyborgs and brainwash humans.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The plot is so intricately confusing that it approaches the surreal, and the visionary animation occasionally verges on the hallucinatory; but once you really dive into it, you’ll find that at bottom Ghost is nothing especially weird: just good, hardcore science fiction. Director Oshii has done weirder.

COMMENTS: Ghost in the Shell begins with a political assassination of an accused terrorist hacker after police who have just stormed the building under the direction of a secretive government agency are held off by a diplomat asserting political asylum. The naked female cyborg dangling tumbling past the skyscraper window blasts his head off so good that we catch sight of the victim’s spinal cord sticking out of his headless body. That’s the kind of story we have here: a complex plot punctuated by bursts of graphic sex and violence. (Smooth Barbie-doll cyborg crotches get around Japanese taboos against depicting pubic hair or genitalia, although its never quite clear why female agents need to do so much of their jobs in the buff). The mix of fantasy and fanservice are très anime, although to its credit, Ghost is less exploitative and far more thoughtful than most of its kin. In between firefights and car chases, conflicted heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi delves into questions of what it means to be human—or cyborg; whether, for example, resigning from Section 9, which would involve decommissioning her titanium-reinforced skeleton and augmented brain, would change who she was, or return her to who she is.

The plot involves diplomatic intrigues between countries that don’t yet exist, turf wars between underground intelligence agencies we don’t know (“don’t forget, we’re Section 9″ says one helpful Section 9 agent to another), and speculative cybernetic technology the viewer is largely required to figure out on his own. By design, the movie never directly explains the central concept of a “ghost” to us—is it a natural human brain, an “augmented” cybernetic brain, or a pure artificial intelligence? Or is it simply whatever inhabits and motivates a body (the “shell”)? Despite this obtuseness, the plot is ultimately comprehensible, with a couple of watch-throughs and a study of either the original manga (which contained thirty pages of footnotes explaining Ghost‘s sociopolitical and technological background) or an online wiki set up for this purpose.

Despite not explaining too much, Ghost keeps our attention. For some, it will simply be the beautifully drawn scenery, trippy Akira-inspired synthetic tribal soundtrack, and ample action breaks that enable them to float by without wholly grasping the plot. Others will be thrilled by the challenge to engage intellectually with the story and to deduce the nuances of a data-obsessed future setting that becomes more and more believable with each passing year. Regardless which camp you fall into, Ghost in the Shell is an invigorating animation for the mind and eye.

Ghost in the Shell has gone through numerous home video iterations, most of which failed to satisfy its picky fanbase. A “2.0” version released in 2008 updated some of the graphics and the soundtrack with the latest digital effects (and predictably alienated purists, which anime fans tend to be). The 2014 “25th Anniversary Edition” (questionable arithmetic there) Blu-ray release comes from Anchor Bay; the video remastering is praised, but there are naturally complaints about the complete lack of on-disc extras (it does contain a nice booklet with several essays). The 1998 Manga Video DVD release contained numerous extra features, but the picture was not as clear. Interested parties may want to shop around for the version that best meets their needs.

Dreamworks Studios has plans for a live-action adaptation of the original manga in the works, with Rupert (Snow White and the Huntsman) Sanders to direct.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer mind-expanding sci-fi strangeness this is hard to beat.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (2014 re-release)

Still from Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

TV CAPSULE: SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998)

NOTE: The pilot episode to “Serial Experiments Lain” is embedded for viewing (as of date of publication) at the bottom of the post. (May not be available in all countries).

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ryūtarō Nakamura

FEATURING: Kaori Shimizu, Bridget Hoffman (English dub)

PLOT: Timid junior high school student Lain receives an email from her schoolmate Chisa, who has recently committed suicide. Chisa states that she is not dead but that she has only abandoned her physical body, ending her email with the words “God is here.” After this event Lain develops an interest in, even an obsession with, “the Wired,” a worldwide communications network similar to the Internet. She discovers that there may be another Lain, identical to her in appearance but with a very different personality, inside the Wired, and that the boundary between the virtual and the real world may not be as sharp as it is thought to be.

Still from Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Set in a world where a global communications network is almost like a spirit realm, “Serial Experiments Lain” is undeniably weird and surreal, and it is also quite interesting and entertaining to watch. However, it is a (short) TV series, not a movie, and as such an exception would have to be made in order for it to make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made. The competition is very strong, with true classics such as Stalker and Nosferatu already on the List, and in this company “Serial Experiments Lain” is just not quite outstanding enough to warrant such an exception.

COMMENTS: Mind-bending and confusing plots are not uncommon in anime. A few of the more well-known examples are “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Paranoia Agent,” “Rahxephon,” Paprika, and the anime series considered in this review: “Serial Experiments Lain.” What all of these have in common is that they have mysterious plots that leave you wondering “What did it all mean?,” and in fact you can find many Internet debates about the meaning of “Lain.” But does “Lain” really have a true “meaning of it all”? I believe, based on some of his other writings, and his interest in the work of the well-known writer of weird horror , that series’ writer Chiaki Konaka is a weirdophile. It is likely that he chose to make some scenes weird-for-weirdness’-own-sake without having any particular interpretation in mind. In other words, “Lain” is among other things a work of surrealism. It does not necessarily always make complete sense and it does not need to. That said, it contains interesting philosophical and psychological themes that are well worth discussing.

“Lain” is not really attempting to be serious science fiction in the sense of trying to be, to any extent, scientifically accurate. It does, however, very loosely base elements of its story on real scientific theories, although only on theories that have been rejected by mainstream science. We could say that “Lain” takes place in an alternate world where fringe theories of some of the scientists contributing to the early development of Internet technology have turned out to be true. One of the episodes is largely dedicated to presenting excerpts from the scientific history behind the Internet while also presenting discredited theories of the same scientists, seamlessly mixing the fake and real ideas. This episode appears fairly late in the series and can perhaps to some extent be seen as a deus ex machina, but it does have the positive effect that the technology used in the series and some of the characters’ special abilities gain the appearance of having a scientific explanation within the fictional world. However, these explanations do not survive Continue reading

CAPSULE: EVANGELION: 3.0 YOU CAN (NOT) REDO (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Hideaki Anno, Mahiro Maeda, Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki

FEATURING: Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Yuko Miyamura, Akira Ishida

PLOT: 14 years after the cataclysmic events of the previous film, humans are barely surviving on a barren earth. Evangelion pilot Shinji Ikari wakes up from a coma to find himself at the center of a war for the planet’s future.

Evangelion-3.0-Big-Rei

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though this is the weirdest so far of the Evangelion reboot movies, it can’t really be recommended out of context of the other films. The series’ mixture of convoluted plotting, infuriating ambiguity, and biblical skewering is bizarre enough to make it recommended anime viewing, if not List-worthy on its own.

COMMENTS: In a gutsy narrative move, Evangelion 3.0 completely upends the established structure and tenuous stability of the first two films, introducing a host of new ideas and assigning new roles to major characters. It begins by immediately throwing the audience into the action, offering no introduction for the great space battle populated by Evangelion units, a massive experimental hovercraft, and horrific space angels. (Not that it matters, since the sequence is jaw-dropping even without context.) Shinji—and thus, the viewer—awakens to a confused, damaged world completely without the false sense of security found in the previous installments. Everyone is scarred, everyone is scared, and no one will give Shinji a straight answer, so he is batted about between these warring factions without any explanation as to what is going on. For the most part only newcomer Kaworu (a fellow Evangelion pilot with his own troubled past) seems interested in even talking to him, and the two quickly forge a deep bond that seems to replace all of Shinji’s questions as opposed to answering them.

With so many new plots and subplots and a steadfast refusal to explain almost anything, this movie is as infuriating a watch as it is compelling. For once I was sympathetic towards the whiny, ineffectual character of Shinji because his confusion and self-centered moaning were completely justifiable: for him, everything is terrible and nothing makes sense, plus everyone he’s ever loved is either dead or not speaking to him. Due to the utter lack of exposition, the visuals become paramount, and the animation and design are truly a sight to behold: colorful and kinetic during action sequences, broad and at-times painterly during still moments. The intricate technological design, impressively cinematic settings, and thoughtful character design are all at their height here, and the animation bests that of the first two films.

It is in many ways a disorienting experience, piling on so many strange ideas and characters, referencing events and concepts that are never given much elaboration, but Evangelion 3.0 manages to be intellectually engaging as well as emotionally intense. The events of the previous entries are necessary to understand the full impact of this film’s events, especially the characters’ relationships and, of course, the “Third Impact” that destroys most of the earth. While it is typically frustratingly obtuse, there are certain moves forward in plotting, certain mysteries solved. Of course, for every question answered a thousand more rise in its place, and there are still so many unresolved or untreated issues. Shinji ended the film just as much a self-absorbed brat as before, so involved with his own actions that he sort of neglected to notice how his new co-pilot had become a central, destructive figure in this whole mess. So the audience is left with as much knowledge there as Shinji himself, who never stopped to ask what was going on because he was too busy whining. As usual.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once upon a time in the ’60s, a critic would have known exactly what to say: that the gorgeous, cacophonous anime sound-and-light show ‘Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo’ should only be watched in an altered state. That would be a serviceable approach to a film that too often substitutes obfuscation for complexity, to relax and drift along on the often-spectacular, pulsating visuals.” –David Chute, Variety

158. AKIRA (1988)

“Otomo, who wrote and directed the movie, has told interviewers that he set out to ‘make a film that would be a jumble of images, instead of just showing the highlights of each scene’, and on that score, he succeeded.”–The Los Angeles Times, in a dismissive review entitled “High-Tech Hokum From Japan”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Katsuhiro Ohtomo

FEATURING: Voices of Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama (original Japanese); Cam Clarke, Jan Rabson, Lara Cody (1988 English dub); Johnny Yong Bosh, Joshua Seth, Wendee Lee (2001 English dub)

PLOT: Tetsuo, a delinquent and member of a motorcycle gang in Neo-Tokyo, crashes his bike after seeing a strange child; black helicopters sweep onto the scene and armed men seize the boy and the injured Tetsuo. Doctors in the military hospital discover that Tetsuo has strong latent psychic powers and begin performing experiments on him, but he proves more adept than they could have imagined. Using his incredible newfound telekinetic abilities, Tetsuo escapes confinement and ventures out into Neo-Tokyo searching for the secret of Akira, the original subject of the military’s experiment, which he believes will grant him ultimate power.

Still from Akira (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Akira was an adaptation of the director’s own six-volume manga (serialized comic) of the same name, begun in 1982. Ohtomo did not complete the written work until 1990, and it has a different conclusion than the movie.
  • Akira cost a reported 1.1 billion yen (or about 8-10 million dollars) to produce, making it the most expensive animated Japanese film made up to that time.
  • After becoming a cult hit on video, Pioneer Entertainment restored Akira and commissioned a new (widely considered superior) English language dub of the film, re-releasing it to theaters in 2001.
  • Voted #440 on Empire’s List of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time and 51 on their list of the Greatest Non-English Language Films, number 15 on Time Out’s 50 Greatest Animated Films list, and number five on Total Film’s 50 Greatest Animated Movies.
  • Warner Brothers acquired the rights to the film in 2002 and have been planning a live action remake of Akira; at various times , the Hughes brothers, and others have been attached to the project, which has reportedly been shut down and restarted four times.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select what may be Akira‘s weirdest moment, a bizarre hallucination where a teddy bear and a toy rabbit grow and threaten bedridden Tetsuo—while inexplicably leaking milk from their faces. Tetsuo’s transformation into a giant roiling blob of limbs, tissues, tentacles and malformed organs, however, probably tops all of the psychedelic imagery that has come before. He becomes a Nameless Thing out of an H.P. Lovecraft story; it’s a grandiose vision that could only be brought to us in animation.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In 1988, Western eyes had never seen anything like Akira: violent, profane, mystical, and a cartoon. It was a foreign assault on the eyes, ears, sensibilities, and the part of the brain that processes plot. With its pallid middle-aged psychic kids, psychotic toy box hallucinations and mutating telekinetic antihero ripping apart futuristic Neo-Tokyo, Akira still packs one hell of a punch today. The Japanese have been trying to recapture Akira‘s cyberpunk spirit for twenty-five years now, but they have yet to devise a hallucination delivery device to top Ohtomo’s original animated masterpiece.


25th Anniversary DVD/Blu-ray trailer for Akira

COMMENTS: Watching Akira again for the first time in over twenty years, it occurred to me that the plot was even more disjointed than I Continue reading

CAPSULE: SUMMER WARS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Hosoda

FEATURING: Voices of Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba

PLOT: Math and computer whiz Kenji battles a rogue artificial intelligence who is wrecking the virtual world of Oz and seizing corporate and government computer accounts, while simultaneously posing as the boyfriend of a classmate he has a crush on during her family celebration.

Still from Summer Wars (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only during the cyberdream scenes set in the disintegrating virtual world of pixelated mandalas that Summer Wars approaches the fantastical. The light show there inside the Matrix is worth checking out, though.

COMMENTS: The virtual world of “Oz” that makes up the backbone of Summer Wars‘ plot is not that far off. Essentially, it’s the Web 3.0, a 3-D, candy-colored virtual reality mashup of Facebook and Amazon, where everyone gets a cute avatar and all your banking and credit card accounts are merged under one convenient password. (If that sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, just consider what would happen to world commerce if the entire Internet went down for a week). Because Oz was designed by the Japanese, it looks like a constellation of spinning cloud/animal hybrids orbited by blue and pink planetary blobs, with virtual whales floating through the cyberether spouting fireworks from their blowholes. Corporations and government agencies have set up branch offices in Oz, and some folks even work via their avatars at virtual workstations, including our protagonist, high school math whiz Kenji, who has a part-time job as a “code monkey” doing routine programming. Visually, the sequences set in Oz are so psychedelic and startling—including a finale featuring a CGI cousin of the demon from Fantasia‘s “Night on Bald Mountain”—that the regular anime style used to illustrate reality seems thin and weak by comparison. That optical scenario is reminiscent of the Kansas/Oz dichotomy in The Wizard of Oz, and Summer Wars sports a similar “no place like home” moral; Hosoda’s story values the human above the technological, and champions the organic community of families sitting down to dinner together over the virtual community of atomic individuals connecting via keyboards. The movie is intensely conservative in its reverence for traditional Japanese family values. Kenji, an orphan, finds a sense of purpose when he is unofficially adopted into the Jinnouchi clan after posing as his crush Natsuki’s fiance. The clan proudly traces its lineage back to the feudal period, even keeping ceremonial swords from the period; they revere their elders (represented by matriarch Sakae) and band together to defeat the artificial intelligence’s assault on Oz, with dozens of characters each contributing to the effort according to their own skills and resources. They even enlist other local families into the struggle by reminding them of the historical ties between their clans. The emphasis on the family is so strong, in fact, with great-grandma delivering a heavy-handed inspirational speech on the importance of dining together before the final battle set online, that the movie might be accused of being Luddite in its implicit anti-social media stance. Still, much like L. Frank Baum’s Oz, the virtual Oz is so much more stimulating, fun and dangerous than either Kansas or Japan that the praising the virtues of home become a bit of a hard sell. The sentient program wrecking Oz is given a weakness for gaming, which gives Hosoda an excuse to animate sequences of human-manned avatars facing off against the rogue A.I. (who incarnates first as a grinning Hindu demon, then as a gigantic shadow composed of millions of hacked accounts) in a series of virtual duels. Of course, this is completely ridiculous, but this action conceit is a lot more watchable than looking at a couple of guys on keyboards searching for backdoors in the code or trying to crack hashed passwords; these epic spectacles are the most thrilling and memorable parts of the film. The social media/videogaming demographic for Summer Wars skews young, but the movie is thoughtful enough about the interplay of technology and tradition, and the potential disaster of a massive cyber-terrorist strike, that it can suck adults into its scenario as well.

Summer Wars was picked up and distributed by Warner Brothers in Japan, but failed to become a mainstream crossover anime hit, earning less than $100,000 in US theaters. Despite strong marketing and generally good reviews, even in Japan it disappointed, ending 2009 as only the 38th best performer at the box office.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An enjoyably trippy Japanese animated feature…”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, (Disney dubbed version)

PLOT: Two young girls befriend a forest spirit who lives in a tree near their new country house.

Still from My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat strange, like being dropped into the unfiltered imagination of a six-year old girl. Its kidlike oddness is not sustained enough to thrill adult weirdophiles, however.

COMMENTS: In My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki takes yōkai, Japanese traditional folk monsters, and literalizes them in the only way possible: by making them into real spiritual phenomenon that are only visible to children. None of the adults in the movie, even Satsuki and Mei’s university professor father, doubt the real existence of the yōkai; a grandmotherly character confesses that she could see them when she was young, but lost the ability with age. This strategy creates a pleasant truce between kids and adults as to the reality of these fairy creatures. Grownups can’t see or interact with Totoro or his friends, but they don’t denigrate or patronize kids for believing in them. The girls’ first encounter with the mythical creatures is in the form of “soot sprites” who huddle in the dark corners of the long-vacant country home. Later, Mei, the younger of the girls, will encounter a couple of miniature troll-creatures (these mini-Totoro’s are never explained); following them leads her inside a hollow camphor tree, where she finds the massive plush Totoro slumbering, and immediately befriends him. Later, at a rainy bus stop, Satsuki meets Totoro, too. Impressed by her offer of an umbrella, he introduces her to the film’s strangest invention, the Catbus: literally, a fuzzy bus with a tail and a Cheshire cat grin. Catbus is a fusion of the organic and the mechanical, a newfangled yōkai for the 20th century. Although there are magical nights when the girls soar above the treetops with Totoro and friends, not a lot of the movie’s running time is actually devoted to fantastical encounters with yōkai. Most of the time, we are engaged in the girls’ domestic life with their doting dad, and in observing the bucolic vistas of a Japanese country village. There is a distant stressor in the girls’ sick mom, but for the most part their days are spent happily, exploring the countryside and doing cartwheels among the flowers. Although some adults may find the lack of expected tension and conflict in the story perplexing and unfamiliar, Miyazaki’s technique strikes a chord with young children across cultures. What four- to eight-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a huge, friendly, protective teddy bear like Totoro as a friend to recline and rely on? Totoro doesn’t have bad guys or moments of serious jeopardy because its ultimate message to kids is that they don’t have to be scared by life’s challenges and changes; the unknown isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.

Although Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has long been intimately associated with its current distributor, Walt Disney, in the English speaking world, the fact is that Totoro‘s first American distributor was none other than the low-budget exploitationeers . The scant negative reviews for the film that can be found almost all relate to the Troma theatrical release. It’s not clear whether this is because Troma’s dub job detracted from Miyazaki’s magic, or whether Disney’s seal of approval predisposed critics to approve of the effort. Disney acquired the rights to this early feature in 2006 and re-dubbed the film with a better-known vocal cast. Meanwhile, Totoro himself became so popular that he was incorporated into Studio Ghibli’s logo, becoming Japan’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (Troma theatrical version)

146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

“I love the animation, ’cause it’s very magical and very… fantapsychological?”—12-year old Josh Hutcherson (who played Markl) on Howl’s Moving Castle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, , Billy Crystal, (US dubbed version)

PLOT: Sophie is an 18-year old girl who works in her mother’s hat shop in a kingdom where wizards exist alongside flying airships. One day a witch strides into the shop and curses the girl, turning her into an old woman. Sophie runs away from home and finds work as a housekeeper for the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical wandering castle powered by a captive fire demon.

Still from Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was loosely based on the children’s novel of the same name by English writer Diana Wynne Jones.
  • Miyazaki had announced his retirement from directing feature films after 2001’s Spirited Away, but stepped up to complete this project after the original director quit over creative differences.
  • One of the major changes from the novel is that the action is now set during a senseless war. Pacifist Miyazaki added the war subplot to express his anger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
  • In the Japanese version the same actress (Chieko Baishô) voices both young and old Sophie; in the English dub the duties were split between Emily Mortimer (young) and Jean Simmons (old).
  • Howl was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (losing to the Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s Howl’s moving castle, as clinking, clanking, collection of caliginous cartoon junk as ever animated. The castle is a random assortment of turrets, gangways, girders, smokestacks, and bat wing fins, with cottages attached at various points, lurching along precariously on mechanized chicken legs like some replica of Baba Yaga’s hut commissioned by a mad steampunk billionaire.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take witches and wizards and place them inside a world with low-tech Victorian technology, and you have a steampunk fantasy. Now, filter that peculiarly Western brew through Japanese sensibilities, and add in Hayao Miyazaki’s flair for spectacle and childlike surrealism, and you end up with a story containing so many strata of magic that it approaches the casual incoherence of classic folk tales.


Disney American dub trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle

COMMENTS: Although set in a mythical European milieu—the picturesque cobblestone streets and red-trousered dragoons with handlebar Continue reading

CAPSULE: KING OF THORN (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Kazuyoshi Katayama

FEATURING: Brina Palencia, Patrick Seitz (English dub)

PLOT:  A group of randomly chosen global volunteers are cryogenically frozen to escape a petrification virus, but wake up to a world overrun by monsters.

Still from King of Thorn (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Thorn falls afoul of the anime conundrum: because we expect every Japanese sci-fi cartoon to look like a nightmare we had after eating expired sushi and make as much sense as a script where William Gibson and David Cronenberg alternate lines of dialogue, “weird” is actually “normal” for this subgenre. We could technically fill up all of our 366 slots with these efforts, but we reserve spots on the List for animes that are either highly influential, are that go above and beyond in the craft of WTF-ery. King of Thorn is a weird movie by anyone’s standards, but it lacks that extra level of brilliant insanity necessary to stand out from the pack in its crazy genre.

COMMENTS: “What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense!” one character tells another near the climax of King of Thorn. “I don’t want you to understand,” responds the accused. “It’s better that way.”  By this point in the story, the first time viewer might assume that response is the screenwriter’s personal confession. For nearly two hours the script has been juggling multiple plot hot potatoes like a worldwide virus, an apocalyptic doomsday cult, an advanced bioweaponry corporation, intrusive dreams and flashbacks, super-powerful artificial intelligences, correspondences to the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” and complex, psychologically rich backstories for the main characters, but as we reach the dramatic showdown it appears that all of these balls have been dropped in favor of a psychedelic explosion of mumbo-jumbo mysticism. Anyone who saw the movie in theaters without the benefit of the rewind button would be totally flummoxed by the plot; rest assured, however, that this complicated story does ultimately make sense, although it may take you two passes through the story to parse it all out. Things start out simply enough: the world is threatened by a fatal virus, christened “Medusa” because its victims turn to stone. One hundred sixty infectees from around the world are randomly chosen to be frozen in a cryogenic chamber housed in a Scottish castle, to be awakened only once there is a medical cure for Medusa. The first big twist comes when the one hundred sixty awake; the cryonic chamber is overgrown with huge, thorny vines, the facility is abandoned, and the skies are full of mutant bats that make quick work of most of the crew. Seven manage to escape down a side tunnel, only to encounter larger and more bloodthirsty beasties prowling the interiors of the castle. The survivors are a heavily tattooed convict, a black American cop, an architect, an Italian senator, a Japanese teenager who left her identical twin behind, an orphan boy who’s convinced that the castle’s monsters come from his video game, and a nurse who quickly assumes a role as the boy’s surrogate mother. As the plot thickens, it turns out that almost everyone has a secret identity or a deep dark secret; whenever one of the characters turns out to be exactly who they seem to be, it’s a huge shock. One by one, the survivors die off during a midsection of the film that plays  as an almost nonstop chase/battle scene, interrupted by clues that only deepen the mystery. Where did the monsters come from? Why does the little boy instinctively know where to go? How long have they been asleep, and why did they wake up? What happened to A.L.I.C.E., the supercomputer that was supposed to be taking care of them as they slumbered? Rather than answering these questions, King of Thorn keeps piling on more and more as its body count mounts. Reality melts away as the survivors penetrate the castle’s inner sanctum and the director breaks out the lysregic eye candy with fantastic vistas of floating castles, thorny vines entwining like Jack and the Beanstalk with a bondage fetish, and hallucinatory sequences with characters doubled and tripled and giant faces peering down from the ceiling. The visuals are impressive throughout, from the opening scene of a doll-like petrified woman plummeting from a skyscraper and shattering on the streets of New York to picture postcard shots of the Scottish countryside, but the finale pulls out all the stops. No matter how confused you get, King of Thorn satisfies the eye; after a second viewing, or at least a review of some key scenes, you should find it satisfies the mind as well.

King of Thorn has everything a sci-fi anime fan could want: psychedelic visuals, non-stop action, a convoluted, mindbending sci-fi plot, and Japanese schoolgirls in ridiculously short skirts. And yet, the movie has so far failed to gain a huge cult following among the otaku. Unimpressed anime fans raise two objections to Thorn. The first—“the manga was better”—is predictable and inevitable. The second complaint is unexpected, coming from a class that generally worships at the altar of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira: Thorn is just too confusing. Of course, that criticism has no effect on us at 366 Weird Movies; to us, “confusing” isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “With a little tighter writing and a clearer exposition of the film’s central conceit, not to mention its somewhat bizarre climax, this piece could easily be ported over into a live action feature with someone like Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron or even Gore Verbinski at the helm… As it stands, you may be occasionally (or even more than occasionally) a little confused by King of Thorn, but it’s virtually guaranteed you won’t be bored.”–Jefferey Kaufman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

Tenku no shiro Laputa; AKA Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING (U.S. Dubbed Version): James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman

PLOT: A girl who falls from the sky and an orphaned boy search together for a legendary floating

Still from Castle in the Sky (1986)

city while being chased by flying pirates and a secret airborne government agency.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s an enthralling and magical children’s adventure, Castle in the Sky is also one of the more conventional fantasies in the catalog of a director whose work only flirts with weirdness.

COMMENTS: Castle in the Sky plays so much like an adaptation of a classic Western children’s book that it’s a surprise to learn that Japanese Hayao Miyazaki wrote the story basically from scratch. (The base concept of the floating city of Laputa is borrowed from Johnathan Swift’s Gullivers Travels, so a European literary connection does exist). Castle is epic in scope, featuring lost cities, magical artifacts, hidden destinies, and deadly giant robots; and yet, it’s all told from a child’s-eye view. After a lengthy earthbound prologue, most of the important action happens in an airy imaginary realm: not just in the floating city itself, but also in a stratosphere full of massive floating battleships, eternally aloft propeller-driven pirate vessels, and dragonfly-shaped personal aircraft. Its the kind of imaginary universe that doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief for kids, who simply assume that adventures like these take place over their heads and above the clouds every day. Although pint-sized, the boy hero, Pazu, is emancipated and on equal footing with grown-ups: he has a full-time job working in the mines and, as an orphan, he’s self-sufficient and lives on his own. Similarly, female lead Sheeta is also free of parents, and is perfectly capable of taking out those taller than she is with a well-placed wine bottle to the back of the head. The fact that there’s a hero for kids of either gender to identify with rates as a plus, though feminists who are keeping count may note that Pazu comes to Sheeta’s rescue a bit more than the other way around. Little girls will doubtlessly see Castle as the story of Sheeta Continue reading

CAPSULE: REDLINE (2009)

This review first appeared in a slightly different form at Film Forager.

DIRECTED BY: Takeshi Koike

FEATURING: Takuya Kamura, Yû Aoi, Tadanobu Asano

PLOT: Set in a distant future and moving between multiple planets, this is a fairly simple tale of

a major road race taking place on a militaristic planet that doesn’t want it there.  Racers “Sweet” JP, the big-haired underdog, and Sonoshee, a single-minded gearhead, are the main focus of the story.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Armed with an eclectic cast of alien characters and a host of over-the-top shenanigans, Redline might come off as “weird” to someone unfamiliar with anime, but I’d say the stranger humor and visuals fit in pretty squarely with other properties of the genre.  It’s an imaginative and enormously entertaining film, just not especially Weird.

COMMENTS:  The future laid out in Redline is certainly an intriguing one, if completely ludicrous.  Hot shot reckless racer JP makes it to the titular big interstellar race, held on a militaristic planet that hasn’t consented to be the host.  He cozies up to Sonoshee, a cute green-haired lady who is one of the most serious and intimidating drivers there, and together the two attempt to navigate a strange obstacle course against alien competitors (some with inexplicable magic powers) and large-scale weaponry.  Squeezing in ESPN-like profiles of various racers—from an experienced cyborg who’s fused himself with his machine to a pair of scantily clad pop stars hailing from a magical princess planet—there’s some room for satire, too.

This movie is essentially all spectacle and adrenaline, with very little comprehensible or meaningful plot holding it together, but it’s not like the filmmakers are operating under any pretense of depth.  They’ve created a gorgeously animated, pumped-up sci-fi thriller, and that’s all that’s needed!  The characters are slick, and the vehicle designs slicker, with plenty of exaggerated personalities and colorful attachments for an engaging race line-up.  Sure, there’s a silly romantic/secret-past subplot thrown in there, but it’s never taken very seriously.  Various secondary stories are introduced, such as the military planet’s worker resistance and JP’s involvement in race-fixing, but the race itself remains the focus and it’s easy to forget that anything else is going on (the script certainly seems to by the end).  The set-up can be confusing at times due to an influx of minor characters and limited explanation of the obviously complex political and environmental structures.

The strengths of Redline lie almost completely in its visuals and fast pacing.  The dark shading and bright color schemes, the over-the-top hair styles and imaginative alien creatures, the quick-cut-editing and crazy landscapes: it’s all fantastically sweet eye-candy, set to an ecstatic musical score.  It’s violent but fun, and there’s probably political commentary thrown in there somewhere.  The script is cheesy at points, but vaguely self-aware.  It’s just a very cool movie all around, rarely letting up for a moment in its quest to assault the senses with psychedelic imagery and revving engines.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the most visually spectacular toons in recent years, pic is a thumping ride for fanboys, but the script’s underdeveloped central romance and the fizzling out of intriguing plot threads will impede wider acceptance… [Plays] like a twisted combo of “Death Race 2000,” “Speed Racer” and a ’50s hot-rod movie on steroids…”–Variety (contemporaneous)