8 out of 12 minutes survive of the earliest filmed adaptation of “,” restored (as well as possible) by the BFI.
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DIRECTED BY: Toshiyuki Kato
FEATURING: Voices of Takahiro Sakurai; Landon McDonald (English dub)
PLOT: Manga artist Kishibe Rohan recounts macabre tales he has encountered while researching material.
COMMENTS: Although this macabre miniseries stands alone, a small of amount orientation may be helpful for those (like me) unfamiliar with “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure,” the manga/anime from which “Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan” is a spinoff. “JoJo” is a series about… well, I’m not quite sure, but it has been running for about 30 years through various incarnations. My research suggest that, other than Rohan and perhaps a few other character cameos, there are no real links in this one to the main series. There is at least one thing it’s helpful to know: like many characters in the series, Rohan has a superpower (or “Stand”): “Heaven’s Door,” which allows him to pause time and turn people into books, whom he can then read to discover personal secrets (and, occasionally, to jot his own notes inside them, altering their history or behavior). Bizarre, huh?
Originally released as standalone manga, the stories here were made for the Japanese OVA (Original Video Animation) market, then picked up by Netflix. The order of the tales is arbitrary, and the episode sequencing Netflix uses is different than the order of the OVA release (but the same as the order they appeared in the original manga, although, confusingly, the episode numbers in the manga titles are assigned randomly). You can watch them however you’d like, but if you want a suggestion, I would start with either “At a Confessional” (Netflix’s first episode, the third OVA release, and my personal favorite) or “The Run” (the wildest and final story which, based on IMDb ratings, is the fans’ favorite). The entire series is short enough to watch through without feeling like you’re wasting your time, but sampling one of those two first may help you decide whether you want to continue.
The Italy-set “At a Confessional” is a Poe-like story of callous indifference, guilt, and revenge from beyond the grave, with a demonic tongue, a popcorn-eating trial, and a twist ending. “The Run” has a more straightforward narrative; it’s a satire of male narcissism, as an actor/model takes his workout regime to unhealthy, supernatural extremes. It also features the series’ most ambitious animation, with abstract, wavering backgrounds in crazy color schemes; split screens; almost obscene, anatomically incorrect musculature; and surrealish scenes like the one where the protagonist climbs down an apartment building, Spider-man style. The other two stories are equally fantastic: “Mutsu-kabe Hill” features an eternally bleeding corpse, and “Millionaire Village” begins with an interesting premise about an ultra-exclusive suburb, then incorporates local Japanese demigods and an extremely intricate test of etiquette. Some of the stories have ironic subtexts, but the psychology never gets too deep; the stories are dark in subject matter, but light in delivery.
I have to confess that, after watching all four episodes, I’m not sure why Rohan is such a popular, breakout character. He frankly seems a bit superhero-dull to me. With his “Heaven’s Door” power, he’s too omnipotent; there is seldom much sense of him being in jeopardy. His major character trait seems to be mild arrogance and haughtiness, which comes through in his fey, aristocratic voicing (in both the original Japanese and the English dub). This makes him seem a bit unpleasant to be around, although other characters fawn over him regularly. Perhaps Rohan doesn’t get a chance to shine here, since he is only a narrator for two of these stories, and not really the focus in any of them. Still, because he’s mostly a framing device, Rohan’s lack of charisma didn’t effect my enjoyment of the series, which is not bad, and at less than two hours to take in the whole thing, worth a shot for the curious. It didn’t make me want to explore the wider JoJo universe, though—and if you want some freaky Japanese animated horror, I’d suggest checking out “Jungo Ito Maniac” (also on Netflix) instead.
(As an odd aside, the major characters in this series always have crazy hairstyles: once has four giant bent spikes of red hair, one has random bow-like protrusions growing out of his scalp, and Rohan himself wears a strange circlet that looks like an inverted crown and is mostly covered by greenish locks that jut several inches off the side of our hero’s head.)
We may not be done with Kishibe Rohan: there are plans for a live-action adaptation of the same material.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…retains the straight-faced absurdity of its parent show… Its most tense and tragic stories hold a grim sense of humor—such as the various strange (bizarre, even) rituals throughout, tests of the mind and the body all tinged with otherworldly, life-and-death stakes.”–Kambole Campbell, Thrillist (contemporaneous)
Wanderers in the Darkness
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DIRECTED BY: Shigeyoshi Tsukahara
FEATURING: Voices of Hakuzan Kanda, Tomoyo Kurosawa, Raikou Sakamoto
PLOT: Ne’er-do-well detective Sotaro is hired to investigate a series of disappearances coinciding with a touring carnival, and descends into “the Dark,” an undercity plagued by gangs and, it is rumored, supernatural concerns.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Jazzy steampunk, circus evil, and eldritch mystery shroud this animated action/noir gurgling with easy-going humor, and its big top finale makes for a wild ride of Caligari-style wonderment.
COMMENTS: There is a lot that makes sense about our protagonist, Sotaro. He’s a detective because his father was one, he’s disheveled because business is slow, and he’s got something of a sidekick in the form of a scrappy street urchin named Saki—because, frankly, a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic detective would. He also has two qualities to his credit, at least in the eyes of a newspaper man who wants an investigator: he’s broke, and takes a relaxed view of his own well being. This makes Sotaro (after some booze and cajoling) the perfect candidate to take a dive into “the Dark”, an underground labyrinth and cave system teaming with ancient shrines, modern hoodlums, renegade law enforcement aganets, and ghostly, carnivalistic evil.
Kurayukaba‘s visual style is reminiscent of a dog-eared, old comic: watercoloring bleeds, and a papery quality renders the image tactile at times. The hero’s world-weariness does a dance with his deep-seated vivacity: while he’s only shown drunk or hung-over, his quick wits and powers of observation make him the ideal “reactive protagonist” (contradiction in terms that may be). As he explores the glorious, cluttered mess of “the Dark,” the pastel-steampunk world below the surface comes alive in a confusing maze of train cars, gears, bridges, and colorful characters. The case concerns the recurring disappearance of random victims, with a chaotic muddle of black markings the only trace of evidence. Conspiracy is in the air, as these events are typically hushed by the powers-that-be. And Sotaro is on the case because—well, he’s on the case because he needs the money; he was hired because he has a long history with “the Dark.”
Rarely, if ever, before have I had the pleasure to witness this particular visual fusion found amongst the mysteries of Kurayukaba. Among the oddities to enjoy are an armored demon train reputed to haunt the labyrinth; a Greek chorus of clockwork birds on a merchant’s display stage (which reminds me of the strange behavior of our dear detective’s office parrot…); and Sotaro’s various flashbacks. His explorations continue his father’s work, culminating across the generations in a fantastical centerpiece. Kurayukaba is inspired by ’20s-era visuals and sound, with a particular bent toward German, and the film meanders along its tracks with an ongoing rota of eccentric characters and phenomena, de-layering an age old conspiracy until a vibrant, hallucinatory climax that ties the case together while resolving Sotaro’s difficulties with his father. After the explosion of light, sound, and spectacle, our tired hero can finally go top-side and have himself a well-earned drink.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There’s never a dull moment in this animation from Shigeyoshi Tsukahara, which mixes a detective story with an exuberant tale of a city’s mysterious underbelly all presented with steampunk verve.”–Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film
The Devil fights Cupid for the hand of Death in a fast-paced animation that makes little theological sense.
DIRECTED BY: Claude Chabrol
FEATURING: Sylvia Kristel, Charles Vanel, Fernand Ledoux
PLOT: After leaving her husband, Alice Caroll’s travels leave her stranded during a storm; she ends up at a mysterious mansion populated by odd characters, discovering that she can’t leave.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Your present author stumbled upon Alice or the Last Escapade on Tubi, and I could not shake the feeling that “366 Weird Movies should have this one already.” That’s because Alice or the Last Escapade brings to mind several movies already in our canon. First, the sparse “ ” elements give the story a thin fairy tale flavor. French director Chabrol (himself often described as “the French ”) dedicates the film to the memory of Fritz Lang. We have a classic ontological mystery in which a character is trapped by strange forces without explanation. A few reviews of this movie even compare it to ‘s The Exterminating Angel. I can see that, but more importantly, there is one specific movie on The List, a seminal cult classic, which I dare not mention lest I spoil the movie, because Alice or the Last Escapade has the exact same plot and ending.
COMMENTS: If you ask me, the best comparison for Alice is an hour-and-a-half long “Twilight Zone” episode. Alice Caroll (Sylvia Kristel) leaves her annoying bore of a husband to set out on the road. Driving at night, she finds herself in the classic Euro-Gothic plot: stranded at night with car trouble during a storm, forced to seek refuge at a strange mansion. The inhabitants of said mansion welcome Alice and insist she stay overnight, even offering to fix her car for free. But in the morning, Alice tries to leave, only to be confronted by reality-warping events that prevent her departure. There’s a “broken” clock which starts up at odd hours and seems to control other events in the house. The same view is visible out the front door and the back. She tries to trace her way around the property wall only to discover that the gate has vanished. When she does drive around, all roads lead back to the mansion. Meanwhile the mansion is populated by oddball characters who speak in riddles and have odd rules about conversation, such as not responding to any direct question.
The “Alice in Wonderland” elements are kept to a minimum. We have the protagonist’s name, of course; the checkered floor tiles in some rooms suggest a chessboard; a gentleman dressed all in white confronts Alice in the surrounding woods. Alice’s meals and tea are left prepared for her by an unseen entity, but aren’t specifically labeled “eat me” and “drink me.” The wake/dance party she encounters stands in for a “mad tea party.” Among elements definitely not drawn from Lewis Carroll, we get a single nude scene, when Alice gets lectured by a ghostly voice in the bath. (This blink-and-you-miss-it scene is there just to remind people that Sylvia Kristel used to play Emmanuelle.) Otherwise, there are no hints of sexuality to the proceedings; this movie seems designed as a vehicle for Kristel to demonstrate her advanced acting chops—which aren’t much to write home about, truth be told. But at least her character is no pushover. Alice quickly learns the arbitrary rules of her captivity, and even turns the mansion inhabitant’s own conversational rules back at them, as she schemes to figure out the situation and find loopholes.
Alice or the Last Escapade did not fare well at the box office, and is seen today as a one-off venture for director Chabrol, who had an extensive and otherwise successful career. Actress Kristel stated in interviews that she thought the movie would have fared better with more nudity. I disagree; the movie would have fared better if it took more chances and pulled out the weird stops. For being made in 1977, it feels like a much later movie made from parts of other popular weird cinema. As it stands, this is more of a slow-burn “comfort weird” movie, to be enjoyed in the good faith that it treads ground already familiar to those who have extensively explored our canon.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“In the incredibly varied oeuvre of director Claude Chabrol there are few films as bizarre as Alice ou la dernière fugue, a dark, hallucinatory fairy tale in which fantasy and reality become intertwined to chilling effect… a haunting excursion into an Escher-like dreamscape from which there is no possibility of escape.”–James Travers, FrenchFilms.org