Tag Archives: Japanese

CAPSULE: PORCO ROSSO (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Susan Egan (English dub)

PLOT: A bounty-hunting pig-man (a victim of an unexplained curse) flies his seaplane through the Adriatic between World Wars, battling air pirates and a hotshot American rival.

Still from Porco Rosso (1992)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has its strange, and its sublime, moments, I would rate this as flying pig oddity as relatively minor Miyazaki—which, of course, means it’s still well worth seeking out.

COMMENTS: Porco Rosso is set in a precise, but unreal, historical place and time: the Italian Adriatic, in between the great wars. But its pig-man hero isn’t the only fantastic element here. In this alternate history, the Adriatic sea is its own far-flung multi-island kingdom with its own political intrigues, a realm where seaplane pilots are legendary demigods, like the mythologized gunfighters of Westerns. The local hot spot is a floating hotel only accessible by watercraft, with a valet to parks seaplanes. There are Italian fascists and references to WWI, but this universe evolves out of old movies rather than history: it’s a mixture of Casablanca and romantic aviation movies like Wings or Hell’s Angels, a world where you expect to see the Red Baron and Mata Hari sharing a drink in the corner of a flyboy saloon.

Although with its Humphrey Bogart-esque antihero Porco Rosso often seems more adult-oriented than Miyazaki’s usual fare, at other times the drawing style and caricatures are more indebted to Saturday morning cartoons than his later work. Observe the big-mouthed, howling anime schoolkids, and the cartoonish, kid-like antics of the pirate buffoons, who are drawn as goggles and pillars of teeth surrounded by bristles. Despite the flying duels and machine guns, the danger level here is minimal: no one dies onscreen, and the abducted schoolgirls treat their capture by pirates as a fantastic adventure, hanging out in the gun turret with their captors and screaming “whee!” as they dive off the stranded plane into a giant life preserver. The mixed tones are odd, but Miyazaki makes them harmonize well.

Clearly, the weirdest element of Porco Rosso is its hero’s porcine curse, which is never fully explained and is scarcely even wondered at by the movie’s denizens. Perhaps his piggish visage only reflects the way Porco sees himself. Perhaps the curse is the result of a mystical vision he saw after he was the only survivor of a massive dogfight, where he saw dozens of fighter pilots soaring upwards to heaven. Whatever the cause of his condition, symbolically, his bestiality sets Porco apart from ordinary citizens: “laws don’t mean anything to a pig,” he explains. Still, his snout and porky complexion can’t keep this charismatic pig from having two love interests, and there is an ambiguous suggestion at the ending that he may regain his humanity. I doubt Miyazaki was aware of the English-language idiom “when pigs fly,” meaning something so exceedingly rare as to be impossible, when he conceived Porco Rosso. Still, it’s probably safe to say you’ll enjoy this movie when pigs fly.

In 2015, Disney upgraded Porco Rosso to Blu-ray.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“That a pretty great adventure movie can rest comfortably alongside a strange tale of identity and morality that is itself set against the rise of Fascism is proof enough that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller…”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

CAPSULE: FUDGE 44 (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Jones

FEATURING: A series of interviewees, each of whom speak for less than a minute

PLOT: Dozens of residents of a Japanese suburb are interviewed about a series of sightings of little men, in a story that gets progressively wilder with every new detail that is revealed.

Still from Fudge 44

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd experiment in how to make a film with almost no money down, but there’s not really enough texture or action here to merit a general recommendation.

COMMENTSFudge 44 might have made a good short story; it’s almost entirely composed of narration by talking heads, with very little cinematic illustration to catch our interest beyond the faces of the interviewees. There is occasional music, but far more noticeable is the audio tape loop which runs for about 10 seconds, ending in a pair of clicks, which accompanies the entire film. This hard-to-explain audio affectation could give the film either a hypnotic or an annoying aspect, depending on your outlook. (I sort of liked it). The plot-heavy nature of the project makes it difficult to discuss without spoiling it, but it’s safe to say that it begins with reports of sightings of tiny little men in a Japanese suburb, and a backstory is gradually revealed that is as consistent as it is bizarre, bringing in a bank robbery, a puppet show, and a gang of “multicultural assassins.”

The story of Fudge 44  is far too absurd to fool you into believing it’s true; rather, it tries to fool you into believing that other people might believe it’s true. And why not, in a world where people believe in Bigfoot and alien abductions? Despite its minimalist format, Fudge 44 has a lot on its mind. It’s a parody of cryptozoological documentaries, and the opening quote suggests that it’s a criticism of the way Western media views Japan through a series of stereotypes. At its core, it’s a whopper, with the trappings of a hoax; and, by the end, it becomes a sort of melancholy elegy for the passage of our childhood ability to believe in such tall tales. “She knew the difference between imagination and reality, but maybe this didn’t fit into either category,” muses one interview subject when describing a child’s reaction to an encounter with the little creatures. It also could be a slogan for Fudge 44, an oddity that doesn’t really fit into any category.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story becomes more and more convoluted as it unfolds by including a bizarre tale of a pair of boys who came up with a secret recipe for fudge and later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”–Matt Exile, “Japanese Hollywood File”

LIST CANDIDATE: POM POKO (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (Disney dub) voices of Maurice LaMarche, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, , Tress MacNeille

PLOT: A community of shapeshifting “racoons” struggle to deal with suburban encroachment on their forest homes, inventing schemes that range from arranging hauntings to all-out war.

Still from Pom Poko (1994)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: To Westerners, much of the weirdness in Pom Poko comes from their unfamiliarity with Japanese folklore; however, there is a far deeper and more affecting strain of strangeness here than can be explained simply by culture clash. The hallucinatory “monster parade” sequence alone could be enough to put Pom Poko over the top.

COMMENTS: Written by and directed by Isao “Grave of the Fireflies” Takahata, Pom Poko was an all-star effort from Studio Ghibli. It’s also one of their most Japanese productions, made with no eye for how it might play for Western audiences, and it’s richer for indulging its indigenous roots. The epic story tracks the struggles of a band of tanuki (translated in the English dub as “racoons,” although the species is more closely related to dogs than to racoons) against the deforestation of their homes by the suburbs expanding outward from Tokyo. The tale embodies Miyazaki’s environmentalist concerns, although the mood is not so much one of activism as it is of melancholy. Since tanuki are spirit creatures, ancient tricksters who transform to play pranks on humans, their decimation symbolizes not only the degradation of the natural world, but also of the spiritual world, whose frontier continually recedes in modern times in the name of progress. The eventual fate of the tanuki is reminiscent of the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as they cede their turn as the dominant culture to Men with reluctant dignity.

The tanuki are famous shapeshifters, and Pom Poko‘s creatures come in at least three forms: the quadrupedal state that we humans are familiar with; the anthropomorphic bipedal form in which they spend most of their time for exposition purposes; and, when they’re in a partying mood, the animals spontaneously shift into happy-faced teddy bears. That’s not counting the infinite variety of shapes gifted tanuki can take with practice; the best of them can even pass among us as humans. Watching their transmogrification training regimen, as young male tanuki show an unflattering aptitude for shifting into female forms, provides much of the comedy in the first few reels. Tanuki, though noble creatures, are also the buffoons of the spirit animal world. The helpful narration explains that they are basically lazy and hedonistic, somewhat gullible (Japanese children are able to trick them into revealing themselves by singing songs), and that they find hamburgers irresistible. Obviously, not all of this is strictly folkloric, but the mixture of legend and anime tropes makes for a surprisingly rich milieu: comic, tragic, and alien all at the same time.

Of course, it’s difficult for Westerners to discuss Takahata‘s tanuki without addressing their oft-prominent testicles, depictions of which have infamously given rise to the movie being described by immature sorts as “that raccoon ball movie.” Even worse than seeing the cartoon testicles is the fact that male tanuki occasionally stretch their scrotums to enormous proportions, large enough to serve as a parachute or a welcome mat for dozens of their fellows. That’s the perfect example of the film’s culture shock value. Other sequences from the film show cross-cultural weirdness, however, like the tanuki’s Nintendo presentation on their shrinking habitat, or the time they lured corporate functionaries into their Escher-esque flying cat shrine to steal a million dollars worth of yen. And the five-minute phantasmagorical “monster parade” of skeletal horses, fire-breathing tigers, and various misshapen yokai must be seen to be believed. Overall, Pom Poko is a remarkable adventure in Japanese mythology that is all the more involving because it makes no concessions to Western audiences.

Disney upgraded Pom Poko to Blu-ray in 2015. The film can be watched in the English dubbed version or in the original Japanese with subtitles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Quite frankly, if you’re over the age of 12, you’ll be impressed with the animation and creativity, and howling at the weirdness.”–Norm Schrager, AMC (DVD)

191. GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (1968)

Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro

“A fiendish vampire from a strange world in outer space drains his victims’ blood and turns them into weird corpses!”–U.S. tagline for Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell

DIRECTED BY: Hajime Satô

FEATURING:Teruo Yoshida, Tomomi Satô, Eizô Kitamura, Hideo Kô, Kathy Horan

PLOT: A Japanese airliner crash lands in a remote mountain area after a close encounter with a UFO during a hijacking attempt. On the ground, the hijacker flees but is drawn to the glowing flying saucer, where the blob inside splits open his forehead and possesses his mind. Meanwhile, on the crashed plane the survivors squabble in a power struggle between an arms dealer, a senator, and the take-charge co-pilot.

Still from Goke Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)
BACKGROUND:

  • Goke was the most notable of four horror/science fiction films made by Shochiku studios (previously best known for Yasujirō Ozu’s award-winning chamber dramas) in the late 1960s to attempt to replicate the success of rival Toei’s smash hit Godzilla.
  • Goke wasn’t shown in the U.S. until 1977, when it played on a drive-in double bill with 1965’s Bloody Pit of Horror.
  • This movie is a favorite of , who paid tribute to Goke‘s blood red skies in an airplane scene in Kill Bill: Volume 1.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to pick the scarlet heavens the airliner cruises though in the opening scenes, which makes it look the the clouds are saturated with hemoglobin and about to rain blood. After all, this was the image Tarantino chose to homage in Kill Bill. Instead, we’ll go with the vertical slit that forms in the assassins forehead at the climax of his psychedelic encounter in the alien spacecraft, a look affectionately know to the film’s fans as “vagina face.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Goke is a run-of-the-mill alien-blobs-in-glowing-orange-UFOs-turn-airplane-crash-survivors-into-vampires-by-crawling-inside-bloody-slits-they-carve-into-their-foreheads flick, but with a delirious psychedelic twist.


Japanese trailer for Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro

COMMENTS: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is frequently described Continue reading 191. GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (1968)

LIST CANDIDATE: WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

DIRECTOR

FEATURING: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaidô, , Hiroki Hasegawa, , Gen Hoshino

PLOT:  A renegade amateur filmmaking crew encounters Yakuza mayhem and exploits it for cinematic value.

Stil from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  There’s some veritable, unambiguous oddness here—a buffet of sorts. The absurdity, of the cartoonish, chaotic variety, comes in the form of sweeping gesticulations of jokey but sumptuous violence and sardonic romanticism.

COMMENTS:  Singing kids on television ads give us a chuckle, but maybe there are some creative minds in the world, busy talking about movies, possibly having a laugh from time to time. Introducing: “the Fuck Bombers,” a Cecil B. Demented-type of film crew hell bent on the art form as its own explicit end. They value DIY ethics, dedication, and sacrifice for the greater artistic good.  Just keep going and you will be cool, lead director Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) implies while shooting lifelong stunt actor and Bruce Lee aficionado Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi) during an opening street fight sequence. Hirata says he’ll die for movies, but what if he was faced with that ultimate sacrifice in real life, cameras rolling?  Enter roller-skating Miki, king of dolly shots, and his partner in crime Tanigawa, a handheld camera expect, to accomplish Hirata’s filmic needs. After a prayer to the movie gods, it’s time for action.

Now there’s that asininely charming ad for teeth-brushing that keeps coming up; gnashing, gnarling, smiles wide. Everyone knows the song because it’s sung by little Mitsuko Muto, whose dad (Boss Muto) is now in a feud with Ikegami’s Yakuza over an attempted bloodletting, ending with a surprise retaliation from Muto’s crazed wife Shizue. Blood squirts in gallons onto the faces of onlookers.  Hirata looks through the camera:  “It’s just like a movie. Really? Is it cool?” Ikegami sees Mistuko in a living room full of blood, let by Shizue’s hand, and he asks for her autograph while wounded on the ground, but she has no sympathy. Meanwhile, Shizue yells at the presiding officer now holding her in custody over her murderous rampage, infuriated over the possibility that her daughter’s acting future might be halted.

Boss Muto’s plan for his wife’s release involves making the “greatest movie of all time,” starring his daughter Mistuko. It’s kimonos for all once Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) snaps to it and readies for the final blows coming from his nemesis Boss Muto. Meanwhile, the Bombers release “The Blood of the Wolves,” an amateur samurai movie, and are inspired by an aging 35mm projectionist. Muto, the pin-striped, gold chained Yakuza boss, is now at war with Ikegami, whose obsession with Mitsuko has now taken odd ends, as she’s on the run with naïve Koji as he pretends to be her boyfriend for the day. More strife with the Bombers comes when action stars clash with visionary directors, but Sasaki in his yellow jump suit finds redemption in his ultimate performance, a bloody Yakuza battle filmed by Hirata and Koji. The latter humorously projectile vomits (with excessive force, mind you). A script sent by the movie gods saves him from yakuza henchmen and their intensive beatings. “Make it 4 HMI screens,” says Koji to his new film crew, ordered by Muto himself to commemorate his history as a yakuza. The action is the real life battle between gangs, choreographed by Hirata, starring Mitsuko, Sasaki, and others.  “Life’s more fun on the shady side,” says Hirata.

There’s a bounty of violence and gore . Hirata insists to an excited Muto that, to honor Japanese culture, only swords should be used during fight scenes.  “Only swords?  How can I say no?” responds an eager Muto. The limitation is called off in the heat of battle when guns blaze– but why the hell not in this suggestively carnal environment? Just do it now, because there’s no time for a script.  And cut, reset, now action! At some point Koji is inebriated, and limbs are flying everywhere. Mitsuko whispers, in another line of what has become an ongoing series of tender moments during chaotic killings, “if I met someone I love, maybe acting wouldn’t be important to me.” The moments of gore-filled hilarity compare to an Evil Dead movie. Is this 13 Assassins with movie gods, yakuza, and meta-fanatical, filmic martyrdom?

The intimacy is broken up by cops, but there are some twists. Hirata ends up on the run, and in one of the most indelible scenes he melts into pure meta-fictional glory. With the eagerness of a young mind picking up a camera for the first time, Sono’s Hell is a fast-paced, bloody, and humorous romp through the deranged world of the filmmaker as an artist. Just pick up the camera and do it, seems to be the message.

CAPSULE: THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Isao Takahata

FEATURING: Chloe Moretz,  (English dub)

PLOT: A bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl in a bamboo shoot; he raises her and trains her to become a noble, and eventually a princess, although she has other ideas about life.

Still from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a gorgeously animated fantasy film, but not exceedingly weird until a final act push that’s too little, too late.

COMMENTS: Kaguya is an extremely beautiful film. At times it looks like it was drawn on rice paper scrolls in cherry blossom ink. A serious, reverential, and yet generally light-hearted treatment of Japan’s oldest written narrative, it will not appeal to young kids, who will stick with it through the opening but get bored long before the credits roll after 137 minutes. Girls setting out on their teenage years may identify with poor Kaguya, pressured to be a lady against her own heart; but, despite its fairy tale structure and youthful protagonist, this is reflective animation aimed at adults.

The tale can be broken into three parts. The opening describes how a humble bamboo cutter discovers tiny Kaguya nestled inside a bamboo shoot. The miniature child grows at a magically impressive rate, and even induces lactation in her surrogate mother (who declares “I’ve got milk!” in a breastfeeding scene that I’ll wager will be cut from the U.S. release). After discovering more treasures in bamboo, including fine silk robes, the cutter is convinced the girl is a gift from heaven and destined to become a princess, which sets the second act in motion. Here, Kaguya is taken from her rustic friends and trained to be an Edo-period lady. Despite chafing at the regimented lifestyle, her instantaneous mastery of the koto is taken as further proof of her divine origin and noble destiny. Conflict arises when a series of noble suitors seek to win the girl’s reluctant heart, and she sends each of them on a series of seemingly impossible quests. After escaping this trap, Kaguya’s true celestial origins are finally revealed, and the tale wraps up on a melancholy note.

Kaguya embodies a longing for things past, starting with the nostalgic preference for nature over culture. Kaguya’s days romping through the bamboo forests with her friends are an idyllic paradise, while she submits to the pressures of civilization morosely and only to please her status-climbing parents. A scene where the foundling sheds a single tear as her natural eyebrows are plucked out so they can be replaced by painted smudges reveals all. Thematically related is the film’s sadness over forsaken childhood; Kaguya’s assumption of the responsibilities (absurd as they may be) of a noblewoman represents the loss of innocence. From nature and childhood to civilization and adulthood, and last, the final trip home back from where she came: Kaguya spends a lifetime in her tale. The finale is a dreamlike elegy, with flying lovers swooping over meadows of wildflowers and a cloud-borne procession of krishnas and buddhas obliterating consciousness. The ultimate message is surprisingly humanistic and anti-religious; “life” in the heavens, cloaked in forgetfulness and free of grief and care, is a pitiable state compared to being alive on Earth and feeling both joy and pain. And yet there is also resignation beside the rage: “the waterwheel goes round,” the final choir sings. “Lifetimes come and go in turn.” Princess Kaguya may have been born of the moon, but she’s an earthling at heart, and her fate is the same as ours.

‘s retirement left Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) as the star of the Studio Ghibli stable of animators. His works have always proved popular with Western critics and connoisseurs, but he has yet to have the sort of crossover success with popular audiences that Miyazaki made look so easy. Kaguya won’t change that pattern, and it could be the last film the 79-year old Takahata makes, leaving Ghibli looking for fresh blood. (There are sad, sad rumors going round the Ghibli may close up shop permanently).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is screening in very limited venues across the U.S. The DVD/Blu-ray release date is not yet set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cryptic in story and minimalist in form, this brave new offering from Studio Ghibli quietly dazzles… an embarrassing flop in Japan… [i]t may be better received by Western audiences, who will appreciate its strange qualities as innately Ghibli.”–Andrew Blackie, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BUSHIDO MAN (2013)

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles

DIRECTED BY: Takanori Tsujimoto

FEATURING: Mitsuki Koga, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi

PLOT: A martial arts master eats meals based on the diet of his next opponent so he can better understand and defeat them.

Still from Bushido Man (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The fights are good, but it’s annoying that the movie has no hunger to pursue its kung foodie premise, giving us instead six courses of contextless seriocomic battles and a meaningless final boss for desert.

COMMENTS: “Plot” is too strong a word to describe Bushido Man‘s story. The film is just a series of incidents connected by the thinnest noodle of a premise, almost an anthology of fight scenes. The bouts themselves are energetic mini-stories that should entertain fight fans. The comedy, not so much—although the campy English dubbing adds a level of humor that would not be present in the original, and I did like the gag with the Master’s obviously fake mustache. Toramaru, our putative hero, is touring Japan, battling the paragons of six different martial styles: kung fu, stick fighting, nunchaku, swordfighting, yakuza knife fighting, and pistol. According to the movie’s premise, before each battle he eats a meal to better understand his enemy, but this unsustainable idea quickly breaks down: by the second battle, the meal is already nothing but an excuse for a dumb pun (munching on cheesesticks = upcoming stick fight). Why we should care about this unofficial tournament is anyone’s guess; the movie is disinterested in exploring characters’ motivations or generating sympathy for them.

Each of the fights, on the other hand, offers an extra tidbit of interest, whether it’s an interloping turtle or a Zatoichi tribute. Things get weirder after the hero defeats the pistol master (who dresses as a Hollywood cowboy) and a side plot develops. Toramaru decides to go after a legendary weapon: wristbands rigged to fire bullets when you throw a punch. The original footage with the fist-guns, featuring a female fighter who is not one of Toramaru’s opponents, looks like it was taken from a different (unfinished?) movie. Koga wears a Van Dyke in the scenes before and after this one, but he’s mysteriously clean-shaven when he watches her dispatch a gang of generic badies. His customary facial hair returns for the rest of the movie. That’s an indication of the careless way Bushido Man is assembled from leftovers, which might strike you either as insultingly shoddy, or endearingly unpretentious, depending on your mood. The acquisition of these pugilistic firearms sets up a truly crazy, bloody finale, however, which “ends” with a closing credits gag that’s sure to catch you off guard.

Bushido Man lured me in with the promise that it would mix food porn with classic kung fu fights, sort of “Iron Chef” meets The Man with the Iron Fists. The actual experience was more like watching MMA bouts interrupted by Ramen noodle commercials.  Of course, sometimes you’re in the mood for junk food entertainment, and Bushido is heavily salted with absurdity. Just expect that you’ll be hungry for something a little more substantial a few hours after downing this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film as a whole tosses in enough ‘off the wall’ ideas that stick, producing a rousing good time. Inventiveness,  even when the concepts are at their most absurd, add a lot of character to the picture and keeps the viewers constantly guessing what might happen next.”–Edgar Chaput, Sound on Sight (festival screening)

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 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)

LIST CANDIDATE: YOKAI MONSTERS: SPOOK WARFARE (1968)

AKA Big Monster War; Yokai Monsters Vol. 1

DIRECTED BY: Yoshiyuki Kuroda

FEATURING: Chikara Hashimoto, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Akane Kawasaki

PLOT: Japanese folk spirits (yokai) unite to fight off an ancient Babylonian vampire who has assumed the form of a local human magistrate.

Still from Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Spook Warfare makes the List it will be for the bizarre monster designs (including a floating umbrella with a lolling foam rubber tongue) and for the way it tosses in random genres so that it ends up like the work of a Japanese filming a Hammer horror script in the style of a samurai flick. One thing that’s holding it back from making the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies, however, is that it’s part of a series of three films, and we haven’t considered its two siblings yet. (A clip from the second movie, 100 Monsters, made it into Sans Soleil, which seems like it should earn that installment bonus points).

COMMENTS: After a scary, serious opening involving the accidental disinterment of an ancient evil from a Babylonian ruin, Yokai Monsters seems primed to turn into a children’s movie when fifteen minutes in we meet Kappa, a delightfully Muppet-esque duck-turtle hybrid clown with darting ping-pong-ball eyes and a lillypad head. But as the film continues, we get truly frightening images of vampires feeding on victims with gouts of flowing blood, dog assassinations, pantsless children chased by armed guards intent on feeding them to demons, and arrows to eyeballs. Interrupting those bloody sequences are the uncanny/cute yokai (mischievous supernatural creatures who roughly analogous to Western fairies or goblins) doing slapstick gags and paraphrasing scenes from Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Japanese children must have been terrified and enthralled by the spectacle; American kids, who didn’t know yokai from yogurt or Buddha from Buddy Hackett, could add bewildered to that list of adjectives.

The pastiche of tones and styles on display here results in memorable moments ranging from the deliberately delightful to the completely WTF. The cinematography is very good, whether we’re dealing with a storm at sea or quiet shots of Edo-era tea ceremonies. The special effects involving colored lights and kaleidoscope lenses are psychedelic-era standard and date the movie in a delightful way. Of course, since each yokai is uniquely conceived, the film’s most noteworthy feature are the dozens of monsters; here, the designers’ creativity exceeds the production’s ability to realize it. The monsters slide from the heights of imagination down a budgetary slope into the uncanny valley. The stiff rubber masks used for most of the creatures allow no expressiveness; the yokai’s leader, a heavy-lidded, football-headed green gnome, is incapable of blinking. The yoaki end up looking otherworldly, but that other world isn’t a spirit realm so much as it is a bizarro-world of discarded  first drafts.

Although the production values are generally high, many of the film’s other features verge on earning a so-bad-it’s-weird designation. The demonic antagonist’s entire plan, after slumbering for millennia, seems to amount to little more than a scheme to eat a few Japanese children (though in his defense, perhaps to him a province full of kids is just part of a healthy breakfast before embarking on his real mission of world domination). The yokai’s motivation for saving humanity from the Babylonian interloper, on the other hand, is blatantly jingoistic: “If we leave the likes of him alone, shame will be brought on Japanese apparitions!” The strange plot machinations also result in some unusual dialogue that clashes against Western notions of sense: “you suck, Buddha!” cries a yokai imprisoned in a vase. The dizzying dialectic between good and bad filmmaking, disturbing horror and childish comedy, and Eastern and Western notions of storytelling give Spook Warfare the weird vitality to make it worth your viewing time.

In 2005, Spook Warfare was loosely remade with modern CGI as The Great Yokai War, in a rare family-friendly offering from Mr. “Ichi the Killer” himself, . That film is somewhat entertaining, but lacks the gonzo madness of the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird combination of bloody horror and comic kiddie movie.”–Hollywood Gothique (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who said he was “blown away by its insanity.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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 TV CAPSULE: SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998)