Tag Archives: Cyberpunk

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURE OF DENCHU-KOZO (1987)

Denchû kozô no bôken; AKA The Great Analog World

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: N. Senba, Nobu Kanaoka, , , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: Young Hikari is bullied because of the electric pylon growing out of his back, but he’s got a time machine; after using it to impress a girl, he finds himself twenty-five years in the future in a land plagued by cybernetically enhanced vampires.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Seeing as how Tetsuo: the Iron Man is Certified and this film has all the same weird ingredients–and then some–it would be remiss if this did not elbow its way into the growing Apocrypha crowd.

COMMENTS: For those with a smattering of Japanese, the title explains the premise: this movie is about the adventure of “electric rod boy”. Within the movie, he is given the more formal (and heroic) title by a mysterious servant of the time-tunnel: The Electric Pylon Boy! (“The” added for saga-worthy emphasis.) When the most normal character in a time-travel-cyber-vampire story has a metal rod growing out of his back, you know you’re in “weird” territory.

Of course, we’d expect nothing less from Shinya Tsukamoto. Two years before he graced the world with his chef d’oeuvre, Tetsuo: the Iron Man, he put together this pint-sized sci-fi epic that, visually at least, laid quite a bit of groundwork for his more famous tale of technological transmogrification. Not content to merely be the writer, director, and nearly every other role behind the camera, Tsukamoto puts in a turn as one of the doomsday vampires with a performance that fully develops his “fetishist” character in Tetsuo.

Back to The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo. Our hero, Hikari, is the butt of jokes—not just because he’s a nerdy weakling, but also because of the strange, prominent (and totally, totally non-phallic, I swear) growth on his back. He’s beaten up, because “boys will be boys,” but said boys get thwacked themselves by the protective Momo, ever armed with her stick. Thanking his savior, Hikari says, “I’ve got a time machine”, and before you can say, “Are you sure this is a good idea…?,” he zaps himself into the future!

What ensues after that involves a lot of wires (growing and otherwise), some highly self-consciously silly montages, and vague allusions to the explosive substance “Adam Junior” (not to be confused with “Atom…”) whose explosions block out the sun sufficiently for the Shinsemgumi vampires to emerge from hiding and conquer humanity. There’s also the first glimpse of the notorious drill-bit penis that everyone knows and loves from Tsukamoto’s follow-up, as well as plenty of that stop-motion/high-speed character movement that I personally can’t get enough of. And just in case you didn’t think this movie was serious, it also takes La Jetée-esque logic into consideration.

But no, this movie is not remotely serious. Denchu-Kozo‘s respect for coherent time loops is fused with so much random crazy metal junk (figuratively and literally) that any pause for intellectual or emotional reflection is almost immediately derailed by synthesizer-backed action platitudes, pylon bonking humor, or Tsukamoto’s character hamming things up even beyond the main course of Ham with Ham. Incidentally released the same year as science fiction classics RoboCop and Bad TasteThe Adventure of Denchu-Kozo nicely bridges their respective tones of cyber-science-fiction and silly-savage-slapstick.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“….[an] insane forty-six minute short… For such a brash and often perverse effort, it is curious to note that it is sweetly naive: it’s really a child’s story, a superhero origin story, wrapped up in a post-Apocalyptic nightmare, only with violence, nudity, and a woman turning into a doomsday machine.” -Mark Cole, Rivets on the Poster (DVD)

4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

Erekutorikku doragon 80000V

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Sogo Ishii [AKA Gakuryû Ishii]

FEATURING: , , voice of Masakatsu Funaki

PLOT: A boy who survives electrocution while climbing an electrical tower grows up to be “Dragon Eye Morrison,” a human battery and “reptile investigator” who tracks missing lizards and who can only control his violent impulses by playing his electric guitar. Meanwhile, “Thunderbolt Buddha,” a half-man, half-metal being who was also struck by lightning as a child, hears of our hero, and wants to test his electrical superpowers against his counterpart’s. The villainous Buddha provokes a high voltage showdown with Morrison on a Tokyo rooftop.

Still from Electric Dragon 80000V

BACKGROUND:

  • Sogo Ishii was an established director whose work was influenced by punk music and style. He was an influential figure for Japanese underground filmmakers, but his work is seldom seen outside of his homeland.
  • Industrial/noise band MACH-1.67, an occasional ensemble that included director Ishii and star Asano, provided the music. They subsequently performed concerts with this film playing in the background.
  • Composer Hiroyuki Onogawa said he had never written rock music nor worked much with the electric guitar before this project.
  • The movie was a cult success in Japan, running to packed houses in one theater for two months. Plans for a Part 2 were discussed, but never materialized.
  • Reports suggest that the film was shot in three days (other accounts say three weeks, and obviously post-production took much, much longer) and largely improvised.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’re going to go with the visage of the movie’s villain, a half-man, half-statue. (Beyond the fact that he was struck by lightning as a child, his alloyed origins are never explained.)

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Thunderbolt Buddha, TV repairman; pre-rage noise solo

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A team of Japanese industrial punks decide to made a surrealistic black and white superhero noise musical. If this sounds awesome to you, we won’t argue.

Original trailer for Electric Dragon 80000V

COMMENTS: We can dispense with any sort of search for deep Continue reading 4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

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)