Tag Archives: Cyberpunk

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , , Naoto Takenaka; Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, Joey D’Auria (English dub)

PLOT: In a future increasingly dominated by half-human cyborgs, a pair of special agents investigate a series of murder/suicides committed by gynobots.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s some wild imagery and at least one mind-bending scene, but it’s essentially straight science fiction—though an accomplished example of the genre.

COMMENTS: Only slightly related to the original, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence actually exceeds its seminal cyberpunk namesake. The most obvious step forward is in the animation, apparent from the opening scene where futuristic helicopter approaches a glowing orange skyscraper, fluidly scaled by the camera (the massively vertical urban settings recall a brighter version of Blade Runner‘s world, a comparison heightened by the movie’s humanist theme). Appropriately assisted by computers, the visual onslaught never lets up, highlighted by a riotous midpoint parade sequence that, reportedly, took a year to animate. That pan-Asian smorgasbord features glittering pagodas, Buddhas and dragons, a carnival so detailed that you can follow every piece of flying confetti as it drifts to the street. The procedural plot is complex, but focused, and not as mystifying as the original. This one centers on Batou, the sidekick in the first movie; a protagonist who, again, has had most of his body and even his brain replaced with machinery, and who wonders about his remaining humanity. Although she is referenced and makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, we don’t miss the Major—it wasn’t her character we fell in love with in Shell anyway, but the setting.

As a genre, anime is often replete with characters who spew vague pseudo-philosophical dialogue (much as 50s sci-fi films would proffer pseudo-scientific explanations for their atomic monsters), usually to impart an air of mysticism. But the Shell series is the real deal, with apt quotations from everything from Rene Descartes to Buddhist parables. While it’s somewhat amusing to hear a couple of gumshoes on a case drop lines from Milton into casual conversation, the citations are always on point and never play as pretentious. These wired-up special agents can tap into world literature databases with a thought, after all.

Aside from the cyberdelic drawings, there isn’t much actual weirdness in Innocence, but the ability of characters to “hack” into each others’ cybernetic brains leads to at least one scene that will mess with your mind. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll notice it starting when the movie suddenly turns eerily quiet and slow. The film recovers from its bout of insanity, and despite its intricacy, the mystery at its core is resolved without lingering ambiguity. The bullet-flying action sequences and soundtrack (Akira-esque world music, and a closing ballad which puts lyrics to “Concierto de Aranjuez”) are also ace, leading to an overall package that flirts with “” status.

To cash in on the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell with , Funimation released a DVD/Blu-ray combo of Innocence in 2017. It features a commentary track by Oshii and animator Toshihiko Nishikubo along with a “making of” featurette (we’re not certain whether either of these features are exclusive to release).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like an anime made by Bergman or Tarkovsky… pure, wordless cinema, existing in a realm too deliciously mysterious to pull down.”–Sci-Fi Movie Page

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TESTUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: After receiving a mysterious injection and having his son killed by members of a cult, a man’s body starts to slowly transform into a weapon of flesh and steel as he tracks down the cultists and their leader, the “Metal Fetishist.”

Still from Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Body Hammer is a larger-budgeted, more conventional reinterpretation of the original Tetsuo that partially attempts to rationalize its world. By common standards, however, it’s still very much a weird movie, packed with bizarre images and occasional outbursts of the nightmarish industrial madness that defined the first. With the List’s increasingly limited slots and Body Hammer‘s more surreal predecessor already certified, there isn’t a lot of pressure to add this one.

COMMENTS: Shinya Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo, whose status as a landmark of weird cinema and one of the most defining representatives of the Japanese Cyberpunk film movement is contested by few, was a truly unique, aggressively hyperactive, feverish industrial nightmare set in its own immersive realm. To the dismay of some fans, the sequel is clearly a very distinct effort to craft a more accessible movie, with a structured narrative and a focus on its dramatic plot, and more nuanced and realistic characters along with their emotions and motivations (the protagonist even gets a name). The most obvious departure from the first film’s style is the cold, sterilized color palette (with an emphasis on blue and white) that sets up a robustly clinical and artificial world. Before the transformations kick in, it seems like the humans we see are already machine-like and dehumanized, moving lifelessly through an imposing urban environment that dwarfs and assimilates them. Inevitably, the main character’s metamorphosis into a man-machine hybrid mechanism later on may look like a natural evolution in such surroundings.

The first scenes after the opening credits show Tomoo, Body Hammer’s version of the “salaryman”, waking up and having breakfast with his wife and child while discussing a dream from the previous night. These initial moments would be almost casual if it wasn’t for Tsukamoto’s insistence on unconventional angles and a fluid camera that freely hovers and rotates. After the family is assaulted in a mall by a group of mysterious skinheads who kidnap the son and trigger Tomoo’s transformation with an injection, setting the main plot course in motion, we get the first glimpses of the original story. It’s easy to say that the more expository approach of the sequel robs it of the magic and low-budget charm that made the first so memorable and unique, but the sensibility behind it is the same. To describe it simply, Body Hammer feels like an intersection between our familiar world and the alternative, hallucinatory logic that governs the first Tetsuo universe. As such, it’s more accessible, but there are never any signs of the auteur’s vision being hampered by the imperatives of telling a coherent story.

In fact, Tsukamoto’s directorial tics shine through the film. Sometimes, he interrupts the narrative’s course with bizarre montages mirroring Tomoo’s grotesque mutation. It helps that the film grows progressively stranger and closer to its predecessor’s insanely energetic pace, with furious imagery of sprawling wires, cables, pipes and random metallic parts that overpower and merge with fragile flesh, with the difference being that here they are lightly mediated by a contextual plot. As the movie approaches the climatic confrontation between Tomoo and the fetishist, it even presents us an explanatory flashback that clarifies the antagonist’s motivations and introduces a final twist related to his relationship with the main character. This sudden device comes completely unexpected, mainly because we would never guess that Tsukamoto would show such a preoccupation with the narrative’s background. Even this passage, however, is infused with his surrealistic style, and it may actually contain the film’s ultimate surreal set piece, culminating in a murder scene that manages to be simultaneously gory, dreamlike and touching.

The additions to the Tetsuo mythology, possible through the bigger budget, are also welcome. It is, for example, nice to see a whole cult of metal worshipers operating, instead of a sole maniac like the original, as well as further inventive variants of the bloody and biomechanical mutations of flesh, steel and rust.

The consensus on Body Hammer is positive, but a number of fans show discontent with what they see as an ill-fated attempt at making sense out of the perfectly irrational fable that was the original. To a certain extent, they are correct. But the decision to flesh out the character dynamics and lend emotional weight to the chaotic events on screen, works because it passively accepts and coexists with the absurdity of the film’s plot. In the end, Body Hammer is immersed in its mix of alien atmosphere and cold, fantastical reality, making it both a satisfyingly strange movie and a distinct enough one from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tsukamoto’s preoccupations with meta(l)morphosis, body horror and unchecked masculinity remain firmly in place, as does the writer/director’s way with outrageous images and ideas.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Atsuko Tanaka, , 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 it’s 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)

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 158. AKIRA (1988)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: RUBBER’S LOVER (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Norimizu Ameya, Yôta Kawase, Mika Kunihiro, Sosuke Saito

PLOT: In the midst of bizarre and intricate top secret drug research, four mad scientists run

low on test subjects and use one another as guinea pigs. Their equipment malfunctions as the team succumbs to the drug’s psychotic effects. The entire experiment spirals horribly out of control, turning the final test subject into a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster—with a unique twist.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The bizarre story, unconventional filming, and shocking imagery in Rubber’s Lover make it a weird viewing experience, even by the standards of the Japanese cyberpunk genre.

COMMENTS: Kinetic editing and dark, shocking images define this unusual, experimental Japanese horror film. In a modern update to the Frankenstein plot, a team of rogue scientists conduct experimental drug, sensory, and mind control research on abducted human subjects in a secret government torture lab. The results are promising, but they can’t seem to get the dose right; the subjects keep dying. (Who might have predicted that?) Worse, they are running out of hard-to-obtain “patients” and time is running out to conclude experimentation. Their horrifying lab is full of eerie black iron devices and electronics, all maddeningly grotesque in appearance.

Threatened with impending shut-down and loss of grants if they don’t achieve viable results soon, the crazy quartet decides to give their last living human guinea pig a mega dose of their weird drug cocktail. His brain explodes, dosing an assistant by spraying blood on him. Now the assistant is instantly addicted, semi-psychotic, and useless for being anything but, you guessed it, the next test subject.

The researchers fight over which of their two drugs they should test on him, as both have developed competing formulas. One decides to test his drug on his partner, turning the hapless associate into a mad sex offender who then marathon-rapes a female executive sent to shut down their lab. To prevent her leaving and making a bad report (why would she want to do that?) Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: RUBBER’S LOVER (1996)

CAPSULE: TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eric Bossick, Akiko Monô,

PLOT:  A salaryman with “android DNA” turns into a metal monster when he gets angry.

Still from Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009) is a virtual English language remake of the same auteur’s original (Certified Weird) Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1985) that’s inferior in every respect except for budget.  See the original instead.

COMMENTS: Besides the basic man-becomes-mineral motif, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man contains several explicit nods to Tetsuo: The Iron Man.  The salaryman’s spastic dance over the opening title is recreated.  The metal transformation is once again set in motion by a hit-and-run accident, although the implications are quite different this time.  And Tsukamoto’s trademark high-speed zoom effect, where he edits a series of stills together at breakneck speed to take the viewer on a roller-coaster ride, is again in play.  But whereas in Iron Man the technique was used to create the cheesy but effectively unreal illusion of the Salaryman and the Fetishist racing through deserted city streets, here the rapid-fire cuts don’t lead us on a journey, but reveal only random, unconnected shots of skyscrapers skewed at various angles.  The editing creates movement and pace, but it doesn’t go anywhere.  Therein lies your metaphor for comparing the two films.  Tsukamoto tries to endow this 21st century Tetsuo with more plot sense, but the movie ends up making less artistic sense.  There is a basic (though logically unsatisfactory) b-movie schema to “explain” things this time out.  Half-Japanese Anthony (the archetypal Salaryman is given a name for this outing, as part of the half-hearted attempt to relocate Tetsuo in our reality) has the misfortune of having inherited “android DNA” that will cause him to mutate into a man/killer machine hybrid if he gets angry enough.  A paramilitary group is intent on assassinating him before he can learn to harness his power, while director Tsukamoto plays a mysterious figure whose goal is to goad Anthony into transforming into a human arsenal, both by threatening his family and by calling him “cowboy.”  The result is many confusing, dimly lit battle scenes; missing, sadly, is the Continue reading CAPSULE: TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009)