Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu)

Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu) 2012

I thought I’d try to avoid a long, rambling preamble for a change and instead take a shot at summing up my response to the show in a few words – disturbing, fascinating and mostly compelling.

While it actually took me months to finish Psycho-Pass (usually watching one or a few episodes at a time only) that’s not an indictment on my enjoyment of the series and I think it’s easily one of the best cyberpunk/futuristic dystopian shows around.

Obviously on several levels it’s a procedural/mystery/thriller with all the conventions that go with them but the setting really elevates Psycho-Pass beyond and it was probably the most engrossing aspect to me as a viewer. The characters ranged from utterly engaging to tedious and even criminally under-used I feel – but I want to stay with the setting a touch longer before I get back to the characters 🙂

To understand the Japan featured in the series, which falls into the ‘dystopia masquerading as utopia category’, I want to quote from the wiki entry:

Psycho-Pass is set in a futuristic era in Japan where the Sibyl System (シビュラシステム Shibyura Shisutemu), a powerful network of psychometric scanners, actively measures the minds and mentalities of civilised populations using a “cymatic scan” of the brain. When the calculated likelihood of an individual committing a crime exceeds an accepted threshold, he or she is pursued, apprehended, and killed if necessary by police forces.

A consequence of this system that I didn’t quote above is that while people generally tend to lead safe and calm lives, it is at the cost of much autonomy in terms of deciding the path of those lives. The tension there tends to be the cause of most crimes the characters must solve in the series, and it’s probably the main theme for both the heroes and the villain – so, classic stuff, which I was really happy about.

Psycho-Pass also definitely kept me guessing at times and while it is equal parts thrilling and interesting, I’d like to warn folks that some episodes can be seriously disturbing. And it’s not just the violence, but the way society reacts to violence – and without spoilers, I’ll just say that part of what makes it chilling is the seemingly very real possibility of a similar society rising in the future.

Now, finally to the characters – for me, a few pawns used by the key antagonist were a bit dull but leads Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami more than made up for it, with the tension between idealistic and cynical playing out in an interesting way by the end. The supporting cast were great too, but now I want to circle back to my ‘mostly-compelling’ comment and pair it with my ‘criminally under-used’ comment.

Yayoi Kunizuka.

For whatever reason, she was hardly used despite being one of the more interesting supporting members of the team – and yet, the series took time to devote an entire flashback episode to her punk rock past… but then just never came back to it. Even by the end of the first season there’s no sense that she’ll be given a chance to get the closure other characters were afforded. It thus became a kind of odd detour that interrupted the pacing and dissolved perhaps too much of the building tension.

Of course, there’s two more seasons of the show but here’s where I finally get around to ‘mostly-compelling’. I kinda have no desire to keep watching – which sounds odd, because I enjoyed Psycho-Pass. BUT enough of the main plot threads were resolved so that for me, there’s not enough to keep going. Well, that and the fact I want more from another certain other character not featured in the next seasons!

Still, season one had a really satisfying finish on many levels – but I want to quickly mention how much I appreciated the colour and light in the wheat fields; it really stood out compared to the night and neon that dominates the rest of Psycho-Pass, so I thought that was a great contrast.

Brilliant science fiction but probably not for everyone, I reckon.

5 Stars

As a tiny postscript, at times I felt like a few action sequences were a little less fluid than I was expecting and I’m not sure if that was due to the temporary studio switch or a desire for more realism in combat.

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai)

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai) 2015

I definitely enjoyed this film, as I tend to gravitate toward stories that are about artists of just about any form, but this was bright and memorable for me in terms of visuals and characters too, if not the storyline, precisely. More on that below however.

Obviously I’m hardly qualified to discuss the source material in terms of its balance between historical fact and drama, but I wouldn’t say I was surprised to see Hokusai often relied on his daughter to finish commissions and so Ōi’s work probably went unrecognised fairly often.

Though that wasn’t precisely the main source of tension in the film for me, I think the family relationships and Ōi’s efforts to help her younger sister took up a bigger portion – that and Ōi’s personal struggles with her work and identity. I know some folks didn’t enjoy the episodic nature of the storytelling and maybe I personally would have preferred a more conventional approach in some ways, because I think I’m somewhat conditioned to expect that when a film is biographical.

And yet, asking and expecting that would kinda be a bit reductive of me… because in a way, I think the film now rests in my memory as a collection of impressionistic moments that aren’t necessarily connected to the cause and effect of a traditional linear narrative, and that’s probably just as impactful anyway!

Overall, I think I was most excited to be offered a look at the lifestyles of painters during the Edo period and ended up really enjoying the detours into mythology, along with the actual artworks themselves of course.

Definitely recommended if you like somewhat meandering family dramas or biographical films that don’t precisely play out in a typical fashion.

4 Stars

The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no Ko)

The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no Ko) 2015

Before Makoto Shinkai was dubbed ‘the next Miyazaki’ that (possibly unwelcome) title was given to Mamoru Hosoda. I can’t remember exactly when it was that such claims started but maybe around 2006 when The Girl Who Leapt Through Time first made waves?

Obviously Hasoda wasn’t the first director to be compared in such a way to Miyazaki nor will he be the last but it’s understandable why it happened. Both directors have a real knack for blending the fantastical with very real human characters and both (though obviously not always) stray toward the ‘family-friendly’ spectrum of anime.

For me, they probably have more differences than similarities but I won’t try and delve into that but instead, finally get to the film itself The Boy and the Beast.

I wanted to start with that comparison to establish something of the reception to and tone of Hasoda’s films – but with The Boy and the Beast I think it’s one of the more obvious examples of where he’s further away from Miyazaki than usual. Maybe it’s the shonen feel to the training or master-student storylines here, or maybe it’s just the fact that family is dealt with as more of a ‘sight of conflict’ rather than being something somewhat absent, as is often the case with Miyazkai’s more adventure-based films.

Here’s a tiny idea of the plot:

Young runaway Kyuta stumbles into a fantasy world where he is raised by a cantankerous bear-man, Kumatetsu – and is soon forced to struggle for control of both his emotions and abilities, as he is drawn into the politics of succession in the Beast Kingdom.

The story proceeds much in the classic ‘coming of age’ manner but with a couple of welcome surprises and as to be expected with a great director and a giant budget, some wonderful animation and great integration of CGI. I especially remember really enjoying the whale in Shibuya scene actually, that and the travel montage or the way the seasons are depicted in the film.

Although, on the note of the travel montage I remember being kinda disappointed when Kyuta and Kumatestsu set out, as I was expecting a new adventure to start – but it was heavily compressed and instead, the film switched back to the focus on the politics of the fantasy world and more importantly, the strained master-student, father-son relationship between the two lead characters.

And it’s obviously a struggle for both of them so that’s where a lot of the film’s comedic moments (and heart) comes from, and so if you’re familiar with Hasoda you’ll know that the dramatic elements are given as much weight as action or fantasy.

Looking back on the review, I’ve probably spent a bit too much time on comparisons, on genre and general statements… but I actually want to quickly mention that so far, The Boy and the Beast is my least favourite of the Mamoru Hosoda films I’ve seen.

For me, it didn’t match the heights of Summer Wars or tension in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, nor the emotional rollercoaster that was Wolf Children. I’ve not been able to put my finger on quite how or why I didn’t enjoy it as much – but having said that it’s really a question of degrees: I really liked it, as opposed to, I loved it.

4 Stars

Sword of the Stranger (Sutorenjia Mukōhadan, Stranger Mukōhadan)

Sword of the Stranger (Sutorenjia Mukōhadan, Stranger Mukōhadan) 2007

As I’ve probably made clear here on the blog before, I’m most likely going to automatically warm to a series or film if it’s set in a historical period. That does blunt my capacity for critical review of course, but I hope I can still at least outline what I enjoyed about Sword of the Stranger without presuming to claim that it is the best thing ever.

Even though it is quite good 😀

So, Sword of the Stranger has Feudal Japan as its setting and all the fighting and costuming that goes with it, so I was already happy upon learning that for one. It also features a wandering Ronin/quiet hero protecting others, beautiful scenery and a little bit of mysticism too AND Unshō Ishizuka in a supporting role, so once again, the film ticks a lot of boxes for me.

There’s a plenty of action in the film but enough in the way of breaks for character introspection or to build up tension and intrigue again, especially in regard to the servants of the Ming Dynasty who find themselves searching Japan for our hero’s charge, the plucky Kotaro.

No-name (the wandering Ronin) has a typically troubled past and the themes around obedience and honour from that past do spill into the main storyline at times, but I didn’t find the film heavy-handed in that respect. To some extent, the fantastic sword fights and action sequences are probably the stars before the storyline itself, though that aspect of the film was by no means deficient.

And while there are only few characters that act with honour in the film, this fact really sells the desperation of the time period, I reckon. Even the large cast of villains are memorable, along with a lot of the scenery and settings that they battle throughout. Despite a really big finish too, I actually found the duel used to introduce No-Name’s skills to be my favourite – hopefully I can find a clip to paste at the bottom of the review.

Part of what I think I enjoyed so much was that here, Bones worked once more on an original story – and by ‘original’ I mean that the story isn’t an adaptation of an existing manga, as opposed to a samurai film that is completely groundbreaking. Now, I know that a studio will want to mitigate risk by going with trusted works, but sometimes I find myself craving more totally new stuff as a viewer.

That’s probably a bit of a side note though, so I’ll instead finish by saying that I really enjoyed Sword of the Stranger and have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of the genre.

4 Stars  

Abandoned #3 (The Rising of the Shield Hero, Inuyasha & Kabaneri of the Iron Rortress: Battle of Unato)

  1. The Rising of the Shield Hero (2019)

Portal fantasy is a classic genre and can be perfect for a writer to deliver exposition – naturally, the visiting character needs most things explained and at the same time, the viewer gets the info.

That’s why I like such shows in a way, because they’re up front about what I need to know and the pacing of a story tends to be fast(er) as a result of that, but despite all the good, tension-building angst at the beginning, I didn’t finish episode one here.

I think I’m just not precisely in the mood for this one, so I can see myself coming back to it.

2. Inuyasha (2000)

Sensing a theme? 😀

I got a few episodes in and was enjoying Inuyasha, which is definitely a classic, but despite me liking the characters and the world-building, I felt kinda crushed by the weight of the rest of the series.

It’s not the longest out there of course, but with nearly 300 episodes I just knew I’d never make it. Maybe one day I’ll go up to a certain arc’s resolution but for now, I’m glad I’ve actually seen at least a few episodes of this one.

3. Kabaneri of the Iron Rortress: Battle of Unato (2019)

This one is probably my mistake rather than any particular deficiency that I noticed – slick animation, vivid colours, some compelling tension and an interesting world that I’m curious about – but I’m half-way through the film and well aware that I’ve missed enough from the series that the character interactions should be carrying more weight.

So yeah, that’s my mistake – I started the film on a whim, knowing I shouldn’t watch it before the series, but I was drawn in enough even without the wider context of the show.

Will finish after I’ve seen the series.

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) (2)

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) 2019

As with my last post on this series, I’ll quickly mention up front that this won’t be an ongoing ‘episode review’ kinda thing, but I will mention bits and pieces from episodes as I go (although I don’t have a schedule in mind either.)

So! This time I watched episodes two and three and they continued to hold my interest quite easily. Both eps were pretty heavy on the expository dialogue, so while it was at times clunky, my knowledge of the society is expanding nicely at least.

It’s also nice to meet some more characters who will eventually make up Juzo’s team – Mary seems interesting and I think she’ll operate beyond ‘fan-service side-kick’ so that’s great too.

So far, for me the stopping the train scene is the peak – dramatic and as Juzo later admonishes himself for, pretty cool. I really like the way the cigarettes have become a little more than the clear ‘I’m a detective’ prop and I’m interested to see if they’ll have any further plot relevance.

And while I was warming to Tetsurou nicely, his little stunt in episode three (which certainly makes sense and drives the story forward) didn’t impress me and I’m hoping he actually faces some consequences from Juzo soon 😀

I’ll quickly note that while I’ve seen a bit of disappointment around Juzo’s ‘face’ becoming hyper-comical so he can blush, I’m of two minds about it myself because I get it – you have to do something to change his expression in order to express things other than steely determination.

Keen for episode four.

Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa)

Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa) 2013

If you’re a Makoto Shinkai fan and for some reason you’ve overlooked Garden of Words I reckon you should rectify that and take a look.

The movie is shorter than a feature film but that compressed the storytelling and worked really well for me, so it felt like the perfect length. Garden of Words also plays to all Shinkai’s strengths with beautiful backgrounds, wonderful attention to detail, a dramatic love story and coming of age themes.

I also feel like there are echoes of films like Whisper of the Heart within, along with a clear nod to Cinderalla and the fairy tale genre in particular. Like a lot of film, it presents an idealised story, a romanticised one, but one where the beauty doesn’t mask the real fears the problems the two main characters face.

As is my way with these write-ups, I won’t spend much time on the plot but Garden of Words could be called a ‘first love’ story with the coming of age aspects not limited to the main character, perhaps. I’ve spent a bit of space here trying to define it via themes or genre but perhaps a single word is better – I think the movie is sweet.

And maybe that’s ‘sweet’ but spiked with a moment or two that’s more bittersweet, although that won’t be a surprise for fans of Makoto Shinkai, though the film is certainly no ‘downer’ either.

Even if you don’t end up gripped by the story the visuals will probably transfix you – the garden and the characters’ homes, the weather, it’s all pretty stunning. In fact, I’ll watch it again for the rain alone, it’s sublime. And yeah, I’ll cut back on my quest for a superlative now and try and wrap it up by saying that I think this is a sweet, intimate film made all the more so by slow* pacing, by lots of close-ups and nature-based framing, by silences and earnest dialogue.

4 Stars

As a fan of haiku and renku, I really enjoyed the appearance of classic Japanese poetry in the story too, via the tanka that features as a plot point 🙂

*And this might be redundant, but just like the word ‘sweet’ further above, I don’t mean for ‘slow’ to be a negative here.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)
(2004)

Miyazaki and the Ghibli team are almost always stellar at adaptation. Very occasionally, I wish they worked a little more with original stories over the course of their run, but I’ll set that aside for this post 🙂

Howl’s… was first (and still is) a fantastic, semi-satirical and wonderfully imaginative book by English writer Diana Wynne Jones, who first published it in the 1980s. For the film adaptation of Howl’s, Miyazaki created what some reviewers feel was a visually stunning film but one that suffered from a dense plot, from what I remember reading around the time of release.

For once I have some knowledge of the source material, since I’ve read the novel, and so I’d argue that Howl’s the film actually uses a simplified plot, where characters in the book might be combined into one for the film (Sophie has two sisters in the novel for instance), or where subplots are either left out or melded.

(And I personally have no problem with this approach (by any filmmaker.) A film is not a book. They are meaningfully different and attempts to attack one for failing to reflect the conventions of the other is tedious.)

But back to Howl’s Moving Castle!

Because the castle itself will probably enchant you as much as the characters or story, if you’ve never seen the film by chance, pay extra attention to the castle because it’s an amazing piece of work, blending CGI and cel animation in a very fluid manner.

Living in the castle is the mysterious Howl, a wizard who enchants (not literally – someone else does that) the main character, Sophie, early on in the film, establishing the strong romantic plot. Woven between their developing relationship, is magic, war and domesticity all offset by a curse placed on young Sophie, aging her to a 90-year old woman.

As with many other Miyazaki films, there is a familiar anti-war theme, but he’s not heavy handed – even if some of Howl’s dialogue might been seen as such. More value for the viewer will probably come, once again, from characters’ relationships – take fire-demon Calcifer for one, whose relationship with Howl is not only complex and amusing, but vital to the plot in more ways than one.

Once again, Joe Hisaishi provides such a memorable soundtrack, with lush waltzes and heartfelt themes, many of which are kinda key pieces in a few of my writing playlists. Now, today, rather than link to the OST, I thought I’d share a great cover of one of the signature pieces from the film, as performed on acoustic guitar by Sungha Jung:

To finish, I do admit that maybe the second half of Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t quite as magical as the first but for me, that would have been a big ask, as I remain utterly enchanted by the first hour; there’s just so much to love 🙂

5 Stars

Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba)

Demon Slayer Kimetsu no Yaiba (2019)

If I reduce shonen (at least in a partially tongue-in-cheek way) down to “shouting and fighting” then I’ll end up side-stepping the range of genres, storylines and characters that occur within the boundaries of the age bracket – although with Demon Slayer you’re definitely going to get those things in heavy doses, so if you’ve never come across the series then GET READY!

Still, just as important to shonen tends to be the idea of resilience and self-improvement and again, Demon Slayer has a focus there too. In fact, much of our hero Tanjiro’s appeal comes from that archetypal hero: he hates the idea of giving up, is principled, loyal and also kind. It’s a nice mix when you’re tired of morally grey protagonists and his quest to save his sister reveals that side of him fairly often, even if the show sometimes seems to get distracted by ‘upgrading’ our hero (and yeah, we need to see that stuff for sure but I missed that core motivator sometimes).

The main draw for folks who’ve seen a heap of shonen anime is probably going to be the visual elements, since they’re pretty wonderful and at times, dazzling. And not just the fighting, the costuming is pretty ace too – right down to Tanjiro’s hanafuda earings. Obviously the ‘great wave’ style of his swordplay is also pretty vivid, along with the reds and golds throughout. The show uses a lot of muted backgrounds to nice effect here too, giving those fight scenes effortless high contrast. (The early parts set in snow are just as effective too.)

As usual I haven’t mentioned much of the plot but it drew me in quick enough and while it didn’t keep up its tautness the whole way through, my main gripes tended to be with characterisation (and to a lesser extend, what felt like a bit too much recapping). Anyone who has seen the show probably knows exactly where I’m going with this too: Zenitsu.

Cripes.

I really wish there was a way to trim out some of his incessant screaming. That (and his cowardly nature) is usually played for comedic effect and to contrast when he does do something impressive (like his spider fight) but woah, it wore thin pretty quick for me. It’s not a deal breaker though – I’ll still watch the movie and any other series, but it does negatively impact the pacing for me and add little to his arc. Having said that, I think it’s clear there’s a chance of him having a character-development path at least.

Finally, it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the main antagonist* Muzan is essentially Michael Jackson circa Smooth Criminal. Okay – costume-wise, at least, rather than mannerisms etc but I found it fascinating and odd, even though I was still able to put it aside and enjoy the show.

4 Stars

(*And for now, I’m including most of those damn puffed-up hashira in that category.)

Cool opening too

The Pagemaster (1994)

The Pagemaster (1994)

This was a fascinating look back at something I was certain I’d seen as a kid but when I watched it recently, I realised I had very few memories of it whatsoever.

While The Pagemaster is definitely an animated film it does have some live-action bookending, and while there’s obviously a purpose to the scenes, I’m only gonna focus on the animation of course.

I feel like there would have been high hopes for this one, landing neatly in the middle of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ as it did. Some of the production team included ex-Disney folks and some big names from Hanna-Barbera, who had formed ‘Turner Feature Animation’ which as an entity, only lasted a few years after the release of The Pagemaster.

Now, that might sound like I’m pointing the finger at this movie as a reason for that failure but the film certainly wasn’t bad. I didn’t find it wonderful either, and it’s clearly pitched at a young audience but I think no matter your age, you can feel when certain elements are ‘off’ even if you cannot articulate them at the time. And so it seemed audiences weren’t blown away either, if I look at only the box office.

But there’s some stunning animation in certain parts of the movie, contrasted with some very lifeless HB-looking backgrounds in certain scenes too. The pacing felt uneven to me and despite a big-name voice cast (Macaulay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd, Patrick Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Welker, Leonard Nimoy, Jim Cummings and Phil Hartman among others) I only really feel like Stewart and Cummings nailed it (Lloyd more features in the live action).

Again, it’s not a bad film but the adventure feels little disjointed and choppy in terms of pacing, and to some extent perhaps – the reliance on existing intellectual properties for plot and setting gave it a ‘tired’ feel to me watching it now. Maybe as a kid I liked it a lot more?

But the scenes at sea looked great and the motif of books themselves appearing often as both characters and part of the backdrops was a nice touch I rekcon. I also enjoyed the character design of the pirates as they were clearly by the same hand that made the Sultan’s guards in Aladdin.

The dragon was another stand out but the transformation of Hyde and the Moby Dick scenes were the two highlights with some truly dramatic lighting, easily the most interesting visuals in the movie – and probably worth watching alone, instead going for the whole film if you’re curious.

…and because of these scenes, I’m guess I’ve boosted the film up in the star rating, otherwise I’d be going with 2:

3 Stars

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