Perfect Blue (Pāfekuto Burū) 1997

Perfect Blue (Pāfekuto Burū) 1997

Not for kids, obviously.

As a side note, I found it surprising that here in Australia my DVD release (the uncut version) is rated MA rather than R, which would be more in line with the rest of the world.

Which I guess is meant to be a segue into a point about content – Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller featuring early internet culture and horror elements, a fair amount of gore and sexualised violence. There are other films out there that are more full-on but this is still a confronting adaptation*.

It’s also compelling on every level; from the intertwined elements of narrative, character, and sound to the visuals and the script and acting – I feel like it’s hyperbolic of me to say, but it’s probably a masterpiece.

I know that’s a loaded word but I can’t give everything I review here a rating of 3 or 4 stars, can I? 😀

So, preamble aside – I should mention the premise finally:

The film follows Mima Kirigoe, a member of a Japanese idol group, who retires from music to pursue an acting career. As she becomes a victim of stalking, gruesome murders begin to occur, and Mima starts to lose her grip on reality.

And that blurring of reality and fantasy when I first saw the film was so immersive, and I love it now too, even though I know what’s going on when it comes to those subsequent viewings.

I was definitely wrong in my prediction about who was responsible for the murders when I was younger. But if you’re quicker than me, you won’t need any second or third screenings to see all the clues, because they’re nice and clear and so the truth doesn’t seem like it comes from out of no-where. There’s no cheap, empty twist.

Lot

But I hope if you have never seen Perfect Blue that you still experience a bit of surprise at the ending.

And if you were inclined to watch this film more than once, I hope you also get a chance to focus on the mechanics. I won’t go deep into the production and story elements but I want to use just two classic examples, editing and camera/point of view, to discuss how effortlessly Perfect Blue establishes that feeling of unreality and positions the camera as an unreliable narrator.

[From here, I think it’s possible to see and/or infer spoilers, so tread with caution]

Editing first.

Onscreen, we are shown Mima as the following over the course of the story:

  • Idol turned actress/centrefold
  • A character on drama Double Bind
  • Blogger from ‘Mima’s Room’
  • Murderer

However, the intercutting between scenes, locations and roles is often done without viewer cues for time or space.

This is one way that Perfect Blue visually represents that blurring between real and unreal. And when the cutting-rhythm between picks up its pace to show Mima’s state of fear and disorientation, the same effect is cast onto the viewer too.

Here, I’m thinking especially of a long sequence in Mima’s room where she’s waking up over and over when the frequency of cut becomes fast as 2 to 3 seconds compared to maybe an average of 5 or 6 seconds elsewhere. Obviously, it’s not a strobe effect (not yet) but the audience doesn’t get a lot of time to interrogate what they see. Instead, you’re dragged along, just as unsure as Mima is about exactly what’s real.

On to camera!

Camera (and its role in creating point of view) when it comes to storytelling is clearly a very versatile tool.

But I want to focus on when it presents as ‘objective’ and ‘omniscient’ by nature of its ability to see and show things beyond what a main/point of view character perceives.

Again, as with the editing** what I’m always thrilled to notice here is how unreliably the camera operates in the film.

Kon takes advantage of our assumptions. Firstly, if we are shown something on screen that Mimi is not aware of then it is true. This is definitely a feint but it’s aided by the storyline and the idea that the camera is objective – the idea that it shows us, the audience, truth.

We see what Mima cannot see/remember, even if Mima is not involved in events because we need that extra information to think that we’re ‘ahead’ of Mima, that we might know who the killer is and why they kill.

Secondly, we assume that we’re generally riding along in Mima’s point of view during the film. This is another natural assumption. It’s her story, her struggle, and we spend the most amount of time watching her, invested in her life. When the narration moves beyond Mima and her immediate surrounds, it’s almost always to show how other folks are interested in Mima.

These assumptions help the camera to operate in that sly way of the unreliable narrator.

In a movie asking us ‘what is real?’, the scenes it chooses to show us are often clothed in Mima.

When we witness Mima murdering the sleazy photographer and right after see her inability to recall how bloody clothes appeared in her wardrobe, we accept that what we’ve seen is truth. After all, Mima has been having trouble keeping track of reality and we know she deeply resented filming the rape scene at the club. Of course Mima is somehow involved in the murder! And yet… just because the camera showed us something from ‘her point of view’, doesn’t mean we must accept any of that at face value.

I hope I was able to explain what I saw in those elements, as it stands that’s probably giving a bit much away re: spoilers, if you’ve never watched the film. If you have seen Perfect Blue, then you doubtless know what I’m talking about there.

Okay, so moving on from production and story elements now, I want to write about one of the major themes, and also quote Kon’s related remarks.

The exploitation of pop idols is one theme that runs through the movie but perhaps not in a didactic way – at least, not via dialogue. Perfect Blue is still a psychological thriller rather than being a drama or documentary, but the entertainment industry and related obsessions are key to everything that happens.

I suppose you could argue that putting a naive singer through such horrors is in and of itself a heavy-handed comment on the industry but it doesn’t strike me as a lie either. Pop idols (world-wide, not just in Japan) are certainly regularly exploited. (Here’s a much better article on the film and topic).

And Horror can not only function to illuminate the evil that humans are responsible for, but become cautionary too. For me, the story of Perfect Blue has that effect.

Getting back to my opening comment, I want to repeat the idea that this film isn’t for kids. Sexual violence is a significant part of the plot. It’s used as a weapon by the entertainment industry, almost as a way to tarnish Mima’s reputation and inflict self-loathing and doubt (and thus, presumably, later make her much easier for the industry to control).

In fact, the writing of the rape scene into Double Bind isn’t really considered a decision worth involving Mima in, the scriptwriter and director are more worried about her agency’s reaction.

The same violence is also both a threat (and action) from a certain character and shot in such a way that definitely evokes terror. (And so if you know that’s something you don’t want to see then skip Perfect Blue.

Satoshi Kon himself seems to be of two minds about the club scene from Double Bind especially. The special features on my disc include interviews and lectures and in one part, he is looking back on the film from years later, which I found very interesting:

“At the time, it was supposed to be an OVA. We didn’t know it was to be released in theaters. So we thought we had to make it stand out as much as possible. OVAs don’t get a lot of publicity. So I thought we should have a graphic scene, but I went too far.”

and

“But this scene was too graphic. When I saw this blown up on a threater-size screen, I ended up looking down.”

These quotes make me wonder exactly how much pressure the industry and OVA-era forms put on creators, as well as performers? Is Kon suggesting that he might have made a different version of the same story if he directed it during a different time, after becoming so well-known?

Impossible to know, of course.

Now, I can’t miss an opportunity to mention Darren Aronofsky.

You might know his films, two of which are Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. In the same interview/lectures I mention above, Kon mentions that Aronofsky wanted to remake Perfect Blue and you can see here a famous homage(?) from Requiem for a Dream and if you are familiar with the premise and tone of Perfect Blue then you’ll be right at home with Black Swan.

I’m not as well-read on this issue as others out there but Kon didn’t seem to be too impressed himself.

And finally now, I should mention that nostalgia plays a roll in how much I enjoy Perfect Blue. Both for a time when the internet was young and for something I first saw long ago. (In terms of the technology aging, I think it’d be fun to update things with today’s technology if this film were ever remade).

To my eye, pretty much everything looks top notch from Madhouse in terms of the animation and backgrounds etc but if you’ve been raised on modern, bright anime then the colours here may feel a little dull (which adds to the realism of course).

I don’t want to forget mentioning Masahiro Ikumi’s disturbing score, which will probably echo in your head for a while after watching the film – especially Virtual Mima. Some parts evoke a real clash of analogue and digital and it’s all drenched in tension 😀

This has turned into one of the longer reviews I’ve written for quite a while and so I think it’s time to wrap things up, otherwise it’ll never end.

I think this might be Kon’s best film although my favourite of his is probably still Paprika, but if you’re seeking something equal parts confronting and compelling, then Perfect Blue is probably worth seeing at least once.

5 Stars

*Pāfekuto Burū: Kanzen Hentai as written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi.

**Costume plays a really big role here too.

There are

WordPress is (for whatever reason) not letting me add captions to the images but I want to note a couple of things – the ‘anime billboard/poster’ is funny and I noticed that like in many other films from Satoshi Kon, film-making itself is once again referenced in the story.

The recurring reflection motif is sometimes very ‘upfront’ like in the first image, and other times a little more subtle like in the image two above.

The amount of clutter in a lot of the rooms really adds to the sense of claustrophobia that develops in some scenes.

I also eventually noticed just how often the camera shows us Mima from behind, hiding her face and expression, maybe obscuring her relationship to the Mimi who torments her?

Thanks again to everyone who voted for this one back here 🙂

Pet Shop of Horrors

Pet Shop of Horrors (1999)

I definitely would have watched more of these.

Pet Shop of Horrors is a great example of ‘episodic’ storytelling, with its sombre tales contained neatly within each episode. There are two links between stories – Count D and his LA pet shop, and detective Leon, who is trying to uncover the truth about the place.

Aside from the cautious friendship between the two characters, the mysteries here focus on Count D’s customers and their folly.

Perhaps in time, maybe Madhouse could have built successive OVAs into a series – but that was probably never the plan. I guess also, this show isn’t ‘horror’ enough for folks who want gore and shock? And sometimes when a show doesn’t easily fit into one genre, it’s hard to sell. I dunno, I should research its reception!

But my point is (finally!) that this Pet Shop of Horrors is more like supernatural mystery more than full-on horror, and even at times, tragedy.

And while there’s a clear structure to the episodes – meet a customer to see what dangerous creature D sells them, then watch that customer struggle with their choices, there’s enough variety with mermaids, rats, serpents and kirin, and the characters, that I enjoyed each tale.

It was also fun to see what felt like a nod to Gremlins (but may not have been, of course) re: Count D’s rules about his caring for his pets.

Finally, the question of whether and/or how the customers invariably broke those rules was where most of the horror came into play, and depending on whether they were meant to be sympathetic characters, so too, the tragedy.

This feels like a somewhat forgotten OVA from the late 1990s now, but I liked it a lot.

4 Stars

The Promised Neverland (Yakusoku no Nebārando)

The Promised Neverland (Yakusoku no Nebārando) 2019

As I’ve said before, I don’t mind being a year or two behind the pace when it comes to new shows because I tend to miss both the hype and the reactionaries.

However, I did catch on that a lot of folks enjoyed this when it came out, and I can now add myself to the ranks.

The Promised Neverland is edge-of-your-seat stuff, with memorable characters and formidable villans indeed, with a largely dormitory setting that manages to have enough variety to keep things interesting visually, but also, retain a heavy sense of claustrophobia, I reckon.

While it’d definitely be safe to say that this is a horror anime, and that it has a few other genres mixed in, I think psychological thriller/suspense is probably the one that jumps out at me. Very few characters have clear motives and it seems like everyone is, at one time or another, keeping secrets.

It was nice not to know exactly how something would play out, as well as be surprised a couple of times too. I can see how ‘Mom’ was voted as a fav villain and while I was hoping for a different resolution to her storyline, I remain excited for the delayed second season early next year.

I don’t want to write too much more, in fear of spoilers or hints, in case anyone is planning on watching The Promised Neverland but I will add that if you’re not keen on seeing kids suffer – a lot – then maybe give this a miss. Having said that, it’s not relentlessly grim… but it’s no walk in the park, that’s for sure. Cool opening theme too!

5 Stars

(Mamoru Kanbe also directed ‘The Perfect Insider which could be said to be in the same ballpark re secrets, mystery and suspense).

Note: I should have mention before, but Sister Krone’s design is not great. She’s an actually character with a mini arc but design-wise, yeah, too evocative of minstrel shows.

Blood: The Last Vampire

Blood: The Last Vampire (2001)

Vampire fiction often brings an erotic sub-text along with the horror but Blood: The Last Vampire focuses on the dread. Not only because here, our vampire is a fury-filled avenger, but because the creatures she hunts are more like demons, perhaps. And not handsome ones, either.

Still, whichever name these bat-like fiends have, they’re to be hunted, and it’s up to Saya to do so. She’s sent into an air base and the nearby school for her hunt, posing as a student in part for maximum costume effect, I think. (Not in a fan-service way, but more to contrast between the look of a typical victim and hunter).

(In a different vampire story, Saya would probably be a first victim and then a villain – but this is more of a Buffy approach).

Anyway, getting back to this story; I loved every minute and was disappointed that the following ‘Blood’ movies and shows are not particularly related.

But if you like the genre and you find this OVA somewhere, then I reckon what you’ll be watching is bit of a seminal work.

For me it is, anyway.

Or maybe that’s just my tendency to lift up something that I probably first saw in high school as a paragon (as can be all too easy to do)… but either way, Blood: The Last Vampire seems like a masterclass in lighting alone.

The whole thing is quite cinematic, really. The CGI too, is incredible, especially considering the release date of 2000. Now, lately I’ve been taking shots at older CGI left, right and centre, and sure, you’ll see a few moments here and there that don’t seem perfect, but the team must have worked so, so hard on those visual elements.

Like other examples of the genre, this short film is very much set in ‘night’ and the shadows reflect that, but it’s not an inky mess of low-key lighting that will have you squinting for detail; there’s plenty to see and heaps of variety in colour too, including a great, sickly green at times.

What also had me transfixed, aside from tantalising hints about Saya’s past, was the setting, both the time period and the location. I can’t say I’ve seen many anime films or series set in a US air base on Japanese soil, on the eve of the Vietnam War in 1966. During Halloween, no less!

In terms of the plot, there was at least one little twist that I didn’t see coming, and I thought it was pretty perfect. Aside from the visuals, what I remember most at this moment, is how sullen, angry and cold Saya is. And yeah, that’s a pun that I could have avoided 😀

But I bring her disposition up because I was interested to see whether (or to what extent) she’d warm to poor Amino, the school nurse who is, to some extent, as much a main character as Saya herself.

Connected to their reasonably brief time together is the realisation that Blood: The Last Vampire is definitely a prologue. It was envisioned as the first in a three-part tale, but perhaps because Sony was involved with Production I.G for the funding and production, the rest of the story is made up of sequel video games (and a manga too).

Having said that, this is a self-contained OVA with a resolution, but it very clearly sets up expectations and interesting hints, and functions as an excellent first bite of a longer story. And yeah, again – I couldn’t help myself with the silly pun!

5 Stars

(With an eye to please international audiences, this film has a lot of English audio and not a whole host of subtitles, also allowing some of the cast to show skills in both languages 😀 )

A-Z Challenge: “L” is for Lily C.A.T

Lily C.A.T (1987)

I definitely enjoyed Lily C.A.T but I think if you want terror in space, then you will invariably be more satisfied by the film it owes the most to, which is of course Alien.

However, that doesn’t mean this longish OVA is not worth checking out if you’re interested in the genre. Or that it doesn’t have moments of tension. And for me, there were also parts that definitely ‘explored the human condition’, to borrow a phrase from literary fiction circles.

And as a bonus, I actually wanted some of the characters to survive!

As an aside that is actually a couple of paragraphs long, when I use the ‘Toys in the Attic’ episode of Cowboy Bebop in my classes, we talk a lot about the influence of Alien on the ep (and 2001: A Space Odyssey among others) but I think Lily C.A.T should get a mention too.

It feels like part of that famous homage episode (especially the blob itself and the blowtorch) are close enough to what you’ll see here, to warrant a mention at least. Certainly, my obsession with connecting texts to one another is something I might one day cut back on, but it’s out of my system for the rest of this review at least!

There’s plenty about the film that uses the typical ‘crew dies one by one’ structure, but the menace itself is something a little different. And when you do catch glimpses of a certain thing, you might recognise creature design by Yoshitaka Amano, with a Vampire Hunter D style, if a little more muted perhaps.

Actually… it turns out that I lied about the intertexual references, as I do have one more that I’ll get to in a moment:

So, there’s a nice layering of mystery in Lily C.A.T that I also enjoyed.

Generally, the crew is trying to figure out what went wrong to interrupt their ‘hypersleep’ flight. However, at the same time they learn of imposters aboard, and so while folks are trying to determine who they can trust amongst the humans, they’re also having to deal with increasing threats from the non-human.

It does add an extra dimension to the suspense, which I really enjoyed but if you’re looking for a really slick, vividly animated film then you might find Lily C.A.T a bit dated. However, that’s not to say it’s bad – for instance, the hanger door sequence was ace.

But back to the reference I mentioned – parts of that sub-plot seemed to echo They Were Eleven (an earlier space flight themed manga/anime) though obviously the idea of false identity is not new.

Worth it if you’re interested in ‘retro’ anime, I reckon.

3 Stars

[This is the first entry in a challenge (that I hope to one day finish), where I have set myself the goal of watching something for each letter of the alphabet – you can see the list over here if curious].

Tokyo Babylon (1992-94) Collaboration Review

By Ashley Capes & Curtis Monroe

Tokyo Babylon (Tokyo Babylon: A Save Tokyo City Story) 1992-1994

Hello! Today I’m hosting a collaboration with Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews – our second, actually! We first reviewed Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers and today we’re going into the supernatural and the occult with CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, which can be seen as a bit of a prequel to X but still stands alone.

Thanks again to Curtis for watching this with me and also for jumping around from topic to topic in the write up, as I seem to do 😀


Ashley: Curtis, I wanted to start perhaps in an odd place, with genre or even tone – and see where you thought the OVA landed? I found this note on wiki (wish I could get to the source actually): 

Producer Yumiko Masujima remembers how difficult it was to recreate the manga’s atmosphere in the OVAs.

And I thought the episodes were highly atmospheric, strikingly so, but part of me feels that the comedic moments didn’t quite fit with the occult/supernatural, darker tone of the rest of each story. Of course, I’m not a fan of any single tone or mood being ‘unending’ in a work, I love variety, but I don’t know if the sillier moments brought levity or actually undercut the mood.

I should have used the other cat ears moment here 😀


Curtis: I would’ve never guessed that about the Tokyo Babylon OVA. While I haven’t read the manga, I do think the mysterious atmosphere does show up quite frequently. You even have the darker color palettes going on with the character outfits and the backgrounds. Certainly lots of black and red coloration on so many things. The mix of Gothic and occultic aspects did work more often than not in the visual presentation.

I thought the sillier moments in the first episode seemed out of place like the random jokes, brief comedic facial expressions, or the scene where Seishiro tells Hokuto to go on a diet just seemed off to me. That was a tonal clash with the murders here. They do dial it back in the second episode, but there were also some random moments like Hokuto dressing up in a pink cat girl outfit and briefly meowing. I don’t need to see some prototype Tokyo Mew Mew stuff in Tokyo Babylon, please.

A: Yep, I haven’t read the manga either but I’m certainly curious. Especially to try to learn more about that tonal imbalance. I thought that Hokuto was meant to be a fashion designer, and maybe that helps explain the distinctive outfits for her and her brother, and given the production period I can see a lot of Michael Jackson in Subaru’s first episode outfit. In fact, the costuming really stood out for me – that distinctive CLAMP look with the huge, square shoulders etc


C: Of course. Not to get too ahead of myself, I can see why this particular OVA would be an attempt to get some readership for that CLAMP work. I wonder if those same readers stuck around for X when it came out later.

Okay, I can see that making sense with Hokuto. I didn’t even think about Michael Jackson with Subaru’s outfit in the first episode. Wow, I can’t un-see that. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Thriller” popped on if he was walking around. How appropriate since he does deal with the supernatural. Haha!

Those are typical of some of CLAMP’s darker works from what I’ve noticed such as xxxHolic, the aforementioned X, or some of their manga series such as Legal Drug to name a few.

A: Me too! And I don’t really remember seeing Subaru in X but I’ll have to rewatch it now 🙂

What struck you as a highlight or a strength across the episodes?


C: The atmosphere was certainly a strength. The second episode felt more consistent with the more serious tone. Since it’s Madhouse, they certainly deliver in the animation department. Sure, it’s not as impressive as a lot of their later works and has aged some, but it holds up as far as some of their early 90s projects are concerned. There were some creative elements in the fight scenes such as those bird spells, the dog spirit in the first episode, or Hokuto creating a magic circle on the ground with only using lipstick.

I thought a lot of the voice acting was good in the Japanese version. I was surprised to find out that Subaru was voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi of all people whom I didn’t recognize. He’s known for playing far more energetic characters such as Usopp from One Piece, Inu-Yasha, or Monta from Eyeshield 21 to name a few. The delivery of him being timid and overly polite to a fault was certainly against type compared to Yamaguchi’s other characters. Okay, there is a bit of a hilarious in hindsight aspect when you consider Subaru isn’t the only detective to be voiced by him with Shinichi “Jimmy” Kudo from Cased Closed/Detective Conan as well as L from Death Note. Most of the other characters had voices that worked for them even though I found Hokuto to be a bit shrill for my liking even if it made sense for her having comic relief moments. One of my favorite voice actors Takehito Koyasu shows up as Seishiro. Granted, he talked in a bit of a higher register than most characters he typically plays, but he had the right mix of having a deadpan sense of humor, being very calm, but also a sense of creepiness about him (the flashback at the beginning of the 2nd episode being a major example).


The usage of magic seemed to be grounded. The mix of Japanese paranormal elements was certainly fascinating as it’s infused with more Western magic. There were creative usages with the spirits, scrying, and the concept of post-cognition was quite unique. I did like a bit of the symbolism with the Sumeragi twins. Both of them are named after stars with Subaru being a reference to the star cluster of Pleiades (Notice how the car company of the same name has stars in their logo?). The symbolism of that part of the universe comes from a dual meaning in Greek words for sailing as well as a flock of doves. That’s brilliant because he uses white birds in some of his attacks and one can argue that he tries to sail through paranormal seas to make sense of anything when not many can. Hokuto’s name is the Japanese term for the North Star. Despite how wacky she can be, she is able to help encourage her twin brother and navigate him towards the right direction if he feels down or too hard on himself. That was a brilliant correlation with the twin siblings’ interactions with one another.

A: Agree on all of this, yeah – I really liked that detail with the lipstick too, it gave her a bit of extra dimension too, beyond shrill comic relief.

There was also some really dramatic (and effective) direction during the confrontation at the end of the first episode – and this big kinda ‘hero shot’ of Seishirō that I loved. In fact, reading up a little about his role in the manga/having now seen a key scene in episode two as well, it seems a touch menacing just as much as it suggests ‘avenging’ too.

I guess it all feeds into that atmosphere we’ve talked about – all those reds and black, and those stills in the opening to episode two seemed to be composed so well. And I missed the naming and mythology, awesome – love the idea of ‘guiding’ and with the twins’ relationship it seems spot on.

Related perhaps, the Tokyo Tower/Babylon and folly of the villain in episode one made me wonder about the production time, right around an economy burst in Japan, and so it seems fitting then to have a developer as the bad guy. And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised when that sort of thing repeats in modern times, both in fiction and real life.

C: Nice! I was worried that she would be just some filler character that’s just there to take space, but it was great seeing her actually do something to aid others. Although to be fair, this is CLAMP being an all-female manga group, so I know they would never make Hokuto some useless character and they have a good track record with a lot of their heroines.

Definitely. Seishiro certainly had his big hero moments in both episodes. He certainly seems to be the most capable of the trio while also being the most dangerous which he lampshades when he fights against these criminals. I looked up a little bit about the character in the manga and in X, and it really gives another dynamic of why he does things as there are some ulterior motives.

No problem. It was something I wondered. I thought about the Subaru logo when seeing his name even though he’s not the only anime character with that name I’ve seen before (.Hack//Sign, anyone?). I heard of the name Hokuto because of Street Fighter EX, but I also realized afterwards that the anime Fist of the North Star’s Japanese name is “Hokuto no Ken”, so that made some sense with the star imagery with both twins.


That’s right. Several Asian countries did face a recession in the 90s, so that was fridge brilliance on the creators’ part. Given the current global economic situation, this makes the undertones even more resonating in hindsight especially since in America, the unemployment rate is equivalent to the Great Depression.

A: It’s like being hit from all sides right now, huh?

Anime can feel… maybe a touch frivolous at times, but on the other hand – I’ve really needed the distraction (maybe like most folks) over the last few months.

I’ll try to clumsily segue back toward where we’ve touched on the villain(s) of the OVA, which actually leads me to Seishiro again. I know we’ve already chatted about the flashback scene where he appears to be kinda grooming or at least starting off a pattern of manipulation with Subaru, but given the two episodes only reveal hints of this, I’m left feeling like I won’t get much of a resolution there. Obviously, I think you can still enjoy this OVA without taking the funnel into the manga, but that unfinished thread makes me wish more episodes were produced.

It’s a bit unfair of me perhaps to call that a ‘fault’, but I thought I’d ask what flaws or issues you found with Tokyo Babylon?


C: Yeah. History can really re-contextualize so many things in numerous arts. I’ve certainly noted how this happens in my other reviews with some things being better, different, or worse in hindsight.

I can definitely see that point. While I haven’t watched as much anime as I have recently, I did need to have some kind of escapism in between work and trying to stay informed of the current state of this world (COVID-19, the racial climate, US politics being an election year, etc.). Trust me, I really needed something like that lest I become irritable or paranoid. Okay, moving on…

That is certainly an issue with Seishiro since he has all of these subtle dynamics. Without getting any more context from the manga and/or X, I would have no idea why he has those kinds of interactions with Subaru. The unfinished aspect of the anime would be the biggest flaw and I’ve certainly noticed it with other OVAs of the 90s and 00s that felt like glorified trailers for the manga series they’re based on (Fight!! Spirit of the Sword, Angel Densetsu, and even the Battle Angel anime come to mind). Going back to Seishiro, I thought he had a habit of Tuxedo Masking the situation if that makes sense. Actually, it might be even more excessive than Mamoru’s/Darien’s alter-ego because he makes the final attack while Subaru is licking his wounds. This undercuts the main character and he should have at least made that coup de grace in at least one of the episodes. That was such bizarre characterization that did the medium no favors.


Besides the unfinished nature of the OVA or how Seishiro was portrayed, I had some issues with some of the audio and certain characters. I was not a fan of that insert song that was also the ending theme in episode one. It sounded like a really cheesy visual kei ballad that went nowhere and was chock-full of random English lyrics even by anime standards. I couldn’t take the schmaltzy nature of that song. While the main trio certainly have their own clearly-defined personalities, I had some trouble getting into some of the supporting characters. The detective felt generic to me even if he did have purpose in the plot. The villain in the second episode was way too shallow. Murdering people over a seat on a subway? That is one of the most petty things I’ve ever seen a villain do and it just made him way more cartoonish even if he was threatening.

There was also an unintentionally funny scene where he tells Mirei to run as he gives her a ten count before he chases her. Really? You’re going to rip off Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (yes, the Disney version)? The only thing that would’ve made this even more egregious would be if he told her that she’s “trying his patience” in the middle of said countdown. In addition to those things, this OVA felt like a case-of-the-week format, but never follows through because of the two episodes. Looks like I’ll have to watch the live-action sequel, read the manga, and watch X TV to find out everything that happens in that part of CLAMP’s universe.

A: Yes, great point about the villain from episode two – it felt incredibly flat, or at least a lapse in the characterization maybe, because the seat motivation spoke of zero rationality, like they were going for supremely ‘out of control’, but otherwise, there was time taken to show that he was quite functional.

To pivot back to something I really liked – Satoru Miyatake, who collected and catalogued stone and the attached memories, from building sites was fascinating. I really liked that idea and wished it could have been expanded somehow. It really fired my imagination though he was really just kinda plonked down into the storyline there in a way!


C: Thanks, Ashley. That episode’s villain felt like some generic and shallow “evil for evil’s sake” caricature. Killing people over a seat has to be one of the most superficial villain motivations I’ve ever seen. As much as the Joker can be chaotic (the severity of such depending on which iteration being shown), even some of his reasons go beyond “because he’s evil and/or insane”. Come to think of it, he did seem functional albeit extremely violent which hurts the narrative even more.

That was a great idea and I definitely agree with Satoru Miyatake. It gave a new dynamic that I’ve never seen before with the concept of scrying which really works in an occult detective context. That’s a superpower you don’t see too often even in a psychic or supernatural context. This could’ve been explored much more like finding out a character’s personality or past by what they own or that power being used to solve more crimes. 

A: I love to see more of that too – actually, I’m re-watching The Vision of Escaflowne at the moment and the Tarot stuff gives me a slightly similar vibe. I miss that sort of thing in supernatural storytelling too!

So, I feel like I’m going to end up ‘shooting for the middle’ here with my rating – and say that I think 3 out of 5 stars suits how I feel about it. Worth a look but not essential for me, despite how much I enjoyed it for the most part.

C: Nice. It’s such a unique power and it would’ve been so perfect for Tokyo Babylon. Escaflowne is definitely one series I would like to see again. I still think it’s crazy how this got played on Fox Kids briefly alongside Digimon, Power Rangers, and X-Men reruns back in the day.

Using your rating system, I would give Tokyo Babylon a 2.5 stars. There were some good things in that anime which I don’t deny, but I thought it was average as a whole. I could see CLAMP fans digging this more than me especially if they know things about the manga, X, and/or Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. Thank you so much for collaborating with me on another anime review!

Demon City Shinjuku (Makai Toshi: Shinjuku)

Demon City Shinjuku (Makai Toshi: Shinjuku) 1988

I swing back and forth on how much I enjoy the works of Yoshiaki Kawajiri (and Hideyuki Kikuchi) due to their tendency to drift into territory I’ll describe as crass at best.

Other times, the team-up creates things which are sinister and stylish from start to finish – with plenty of action to go along with the horror elements. Demon City Shinjuku mostly fits under this description for me.

And if you like the supernatural genre or films with great action sequences or with low-level lighting, stylised reds, pinks and blues for the palette of a city in endless night, and a city filled with mysterious characters and seemingly insurmountable odds for the hero(es) to tackle, then you’re in luck with Demon City Shinjuku.

To contrast, I’m certainly aware that some of the criticisms aimed at this film (and which can also be applied to many films and genres, especially fighting shonen) are certainly valid. Character development is not missing precisely, but the storyline is mostly built around getting the hero from one battle to another. And those battles tend to be exciting or surprising and are clearly so well directed, and thus the trade-off is definitely worthwhile for me.

On the other hand, Sayaka Rama doesn’t have much of a role beyond damsel (but she’s pretty brave, forging ahead in her high-vis pink dress) and so that issue with the characterisation being a little thin plays out elsewhere too. Again, I think there is a trade-off – which is the mystery behind a lot of figures (and the setting itself) especially for someone like Mephisto.

I also found it interesting to see the shinai from Kendo being the hero’s weapon of choice, which is something I think modern martial arts anime has maybe moved away from a little. As tends to be the case with me, I really enjoy Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s character designs – and even though his role is mostly confined to the prologue, the character of Genichirou strikes me as a cool mix between Clint Eastwood and Jet Black, or maybe he just has a 1970s vibe in general.

In terms of audience, I’ll mention that Demon City Shinjuku has far less sexualised violence compared to say, Wicked City or even Ninja Scroll, and the violence is somewhat more restrained too. I wonder if at this point in his career (right after Wicked City) there was an urge to make something (potentially) more commercial and suitable for distribution in the US, as Bloodlust perhaps was.

4 Stars

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Kōtetsujō no Kabaneri)

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Kōtetsujō no Kabaneri) 2017

Action-packed and grisly at times (perhaps gratuitously so, and I understand that descriptor won’t match everyone’s opinion of course) this series is pretty fast-paced, building quickly to a finish that maybe could have been ‘bigger’ but was by no means a let-down, either.

In a way, the tagline writes itself and I can’t remember whether I’ve seen it used officially – but basically, if you can imagine zombies on a train then you’ve got it to some extent.

Obviously there’s a more to Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress than that, but not as much as I’d like in terms of world-building and any wider context appearing in the story. To a small extent the film that followed mitigates that feeling but overall, I think this could have easily been 24 episodes with a lot more exploration of how the world came to be the dystopia it is shown to be in the series.

The settings usually had lots of detail.

Still, I’m always willing to give a chance to a story that isn’t an adaptation and knowing that Wit Studio would produce something that (at a minimum) looked impressive led me to give the show a shot after stumbling across the film on Netflix last year.

Okay, time to jump in to some dot points:

  • Yukina and also Kurusu were underused in the story, I reckon.
  • The villain was the ‘handsome evil’ type and he really was a piece of work – clearly pretty much everything about him was a lie used to manipulate others, some good characterisation there.
  • I enjoyed the conflicting idea of being trapped – but trapped in moving thing, so whenever a train was attacked by the kabane, there was a sense that flight was both happening but also kinda useless. Having said that, maybe too many zombies were ‘shamblers’ so not always very threatening.
  • I didn’t buy the viewer resentment toward Ikoma I think I remember reading. If you’ve seen this series you’ll know he’s a classic underdog so I was on board with him pretty quickly. Most of all, he was almost always right about pretty much everything, and had to suffer fools almost constantly.

On a related note, one great thing about being so far behind everyone else with new shows, is that I often miss both the hype and the naysayers. It seems that at least to some extent, Attack on Titan fanatics piled on Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress a bit, considering it too similar or just a money-grab, somehow?

For me, the two shows are plenty different even with some clear similarities, and I think I’ve argued before a little on the important role of the cash-cow – without said cow, the more ‘risky’ or original shows just don’t get made. (And here I mean ‘original’ as compared to a show that is an adaptation of an existing manga etc).

Yep, he’s a villain.

Overall, I enjoyed Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress without being over the moon. If you’re a horror or dark fantasy fan (even a steampunk fan perhaps) you’ll probably find at least something to enjoy here, beyond the beautifully coloured art.

3.5 Stars

Hero shot 😀

At times, the show paused for what seem almost like glamour-shots, switching to a little extra detail while also adding an almost soft focus, as if they were setting up future stills for trading cards or other merch? There’s more than I’ve noted here of course, but I tried to snap a couple. (First is a better example).


The storyline is continued in a follow-up film that I actually abandoned last year, at the time knowing that I should probably watch the series first.

I definitely enjoyed the movie; it continued the main themes and struggles, advancing some character development too. I do wonder whether the relationship hindrances thrown up between Ikoma and Mumei were always natural?

Still, if you enjoyed the series you’ll like the film, I reckon.

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Three: Visual Comparison

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Three: Visual Comparison

I don’t have a particular plan or structure for this post – it’ll mostly just be me pointing out what I think are interesting differences in art styles and approaches between the two series.

Not every scene is an exact one-to-one comparison either, though more than a few are. There are a couple of instances where I’ve found a panel or two from the manga as well, just to illustrate a point. At times, I might broaden the rambling a little but I’ll mostly try and keep it focused on the comparison.

(And a final note – I’m obviously not an artist so I won’t always know or use the proper vocab).

Actually, here’s the real final note – this has turned into a crazy-long post!

Meet Tora (and the Beast Spear)

Here’s a quick comparison of one moment in the scene where Ushio meets Tora: the first thing I noticed was the shot choice – the OVA goes with a side profile but the 2015 series introduced a slight angle, probably to give the Spear more prominence in the frame. As fans will know, ‘Tora’ is named so by Ushio due to his tiger-like appearance but I think in the OVA he’s a little more dog-like in the face? I like the blue of his eyes matching the cellar’s light. Both scenes go with darkness but the extra detail of blue blood appearing purple in the dim light is a nice touch in the new series.

Family is the most important thing, right?

As I mentioned in the reviews, Ushio and Tora plays to its demographic. That means, as with most YA/shonen fiction, the parents kinda need to be absent to let the adventure begin. In a lot of shonen featuring martial arts, there’s a pretty stern approach to discipline – and both OVA and 2015 play that aspect pretty similarly though 2015 is usually more dynamic with is composition.

Ushio forgets to return Asako’s notebook but homework is not the only trouble he’s in here.

The storyline difference in the way the scenes play out is how Ushio’s ability to transform and use the Beast Spear is hidden from his friends – the OVA builds up differently, whereas the 2015 has the girls barricade themselves quickly but I think what’s similar is interesting. Obviously, the designs are really close but basically ‘cleaner’. Mayuko’s eyes have become almost grey rather than kinda golden brown from the OVA. The poses are different enough but also evoke the same character shorthand – Asako looks like the hot-head and Mayuko is obviously more happy-go-lucky.

… I think this is going to be a longer post than I first thought 😀

So, I’m going to jump around between episodes now (as the above all came from episode 1) and perhaps close with some things that aren’t directly comparable but are still something I wanted to highlight anyway.

First flashback – and for the 2015 series, one that establishes the visual style to be used thereafter.

Here there’s a flashback from the creepy Nukekubi episode, which in the OVA is a fair bit more violent than the 2015 series, actually. But let’s get focused back on the visuals – I liked the costume match between the two but the low angle shot from the OVA is a little more dramatic, I think. The blood-tinted flashback in the new anime is really effective too, that and what seems to be a film grain effect.

These Nukekubi jerks are bad, bad news.

Above, the Nukekubi have an interesting shot that is essentially mirrored, and both versions of the series have them appear in similar ways but I prefer the OVA simply because it has the nice bonus of appearing to ‘melt’ into view.

Below, a quick comparison of a scene near the end of the episode where Tora discovers the joy of hamburgers – I was a little disappointed that in 2015 we don’t get to see him take a bite but the OVA uses a heavily stylised look, almost a ‘pencil strokes’ visible moment. In both, there’s still those ‘comedy-eyes’ visible thought 🙂

Ushio and Chinese exorcist Hyou talk – also an example of the way the OVA gives Ushio more of a ‘uniform’ but the 2015 branches out more re: costume.

Again the OVA presents the scene in a more stylised look that’s almost Impressionistic but here I really enjoyed the inverse symmetry between the characters. In one, Ushio has his back to the audience and in the other, Hyou is facing away. I also thought it was interesting that both artists framed the shot in similar ways – OVA with shadowy plants and in 2015 with the shadows of plants.

It does make me wonder whether the MAPPA team at least watched the original before storyboarding, so as to put such little references within, or whether one studio simply went closer to the manga’s blocking? I should check, actually – because I suspect this is at least somewhat true, since other scenes are often replicas of panels from the source.

Hello, Hyou

In this case I know the 2015 plays this moment (and the entire scene) far closer to the manga but I have a soft spot for the depth of field in the OVA, the blue on blue, the classic ‘half-shadow’ face so you know the character could be a bit morally ‘grey’. Also, his jacket looks better here 😀 The light in the new U&T is great too but it doesn’t have the same menacing, low-angle shot from the POV of the ‘street trash’ that Hyou is hunting.

Select scenes from the memories that haunt Hyou.

Now, I’ve been a bit selective here in what I choose to lift from each sequence and both are great, though I tend to prefer the OVA’s work for the most part. The 2015 sequence is subtler (which can be a real plus for sure) and darker in terms of the lighting, no doubt to fit in to the overall and previously established flashback-aesthetic but the OVA really spotlights his anguish with the stark red, white and black palette.

The beginning and end of a quarrel between Ushio and Asako.

Let’s lighten things up a touch – here the two scenes are pretty similar but in terms of character, I noticed the 2015 version had Ushio come to the realisation that he was being a fool while looking ‘off-screen’ to nothing but in the OVA he’s looking after Asako. Obviously, both scenes used romanticised colour and lighting but while the OVA features a bold gradient, the detail and lighting effects in the 2015 show are softer and offer more depth. You can also see again that while the new series keeps the hatching, it’s reduced.

Tora’s snack

So, apparently Tora gets bored and hungry enough to just bite the face off a shark in one of the ‘beach’ episodes? 😀 However, the 2015 series doesn’t have him get snacky before he encounters the monster of the week but again, the modern lighting techniques really sells the idea of a nice sunny day at the beach.

(Maybe this monster of a post should have been two? Oh well, I feel like I can’t stop now!)

The first four shots I use here are a little misleading because they suggest disunity via colour – the OVA will appear more unified at first glance but it’s not so pronounced in 2015. But the OVA does show that clash in detail common to older works, where the extra detail of something (the sea creature Ayakashi here) gives it the look of a static background piece, especially when compared to Tora and Umizatō. Later in the episode, there’s another ‘flipped’ moment and I like the way we’re told via the visuals, by the ‘muting’ of other holiday makers, that only Ushio can hear/see Umizatō.

Asako lays down the law.

The same episode also had some other interesting changes, this time in fight choreography. When Asako gets stuck in to some bullies it’s far more dynamic in terms of camera, cutting between close-ups, tilts and wider shots. Obviously I’m focusing a little ‘micro-level’ when I say the colour balance is great with the lifesaver. In the OVA it’s a bolder orange to contast with the paler background, whereas it becomes paler orange to contrast with the blue sky but also to pop against her swimsuit and his shirt in the recent adaptation.

Watching

Near the end of the OVA’s run is where Ushio and Tora meet the Kamaitachi Siblings. Their character design is tweaked among the most I think, especially Kagari – who in the 1990s has the ‘big hair/tiny mouth’ thing going on. A key scene near the end of the Kamaitachi arc is very similar but the hatching has actually increased in the 2015 version:

Ushio protects the siblings from being crushed. Tears feature in the 2015 one too but I have this screenshot instead, for some reason. I noticed his eye colour has changed too.

Okay!

That’s about it for the actual comparison part, hope there was some interesting bits in there, despite the long post (which hasn’t ended either!).

The next two sections are mostly just an appreciation of the character design and visual style of the villain, after a quick detour to check in with Hyou from the manga. I nearly screen-capped this fight as the final panel appears in 2015 but not 1992.

Here’s a few images, all but one from the 2015 Ushio and Tora, of the many disturbing faces of villain Hakumen – the effect of utter, utter unhinged weariness is achieved so well by the cross hatching and disproportionate eye and teeth, or the mass concentration of lines elsewhere. Enjoy – if you can!

(If you got through this post, congratulations – I am impressed you were able to put up with me for so long, but also thanks, since these last few posts took me three days :D)

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Two: 2015

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Two: 2015

Let’s jump forward 23 years (to what is now nearly 5 years ago actually) and land in 2015 for the proper adaptation of Ushio and Tora.

And I say ‘proper’ not due to any perceived importance placed on the notion of fidelity to source material, but because this adaptation is a complete story. There’s a beginning with increasingly mysterious set ups offered to the audience, a middle with a few dire moments where the hero seems defeated and also an ending, where plot threads are brought to a conclusion.

Ushio and Tora in 2015 is also far prettier and the action sequences more satisfying, benefiting greatly from modern animation techniques and palettes (though I do have a soft spot for the more muted colours often found in the 1990s). The 2015 version also dials up the ante when it comes to pacing, humour and vastly expands the scope of the saga that’s being told.

What it does maintain from the past is what I guess you’d call an ‘old school’ feel to not only the story beats and characters but also the visual style – you’ll doubtless notice that the hatching is often retained, which I thought was really interesting.

While at first the story focuses on getting to know characters within the framework of the ‘monster of the week’ it quickly expands the scope and the episodes begin to reveal arcs. As with the 1992 OVA, the strengths are the classic things that won’t convince folks who aren’t fans of shonen – action and humour.

But again, the interplay between Tora and Ushio as they gradually become friends is why you keep watching, I reckon. A lot of the humour is also derived from their relationship, which is very ‘buddy-cop’ in many ways, with Tora being the grumpy one.

Ushio one the other hand is a quintessential shonen hero, determined and kind, and like with most YA fiction, there’s a lot of ‘absent parent’ stuff going on at the start to give him a chance to land in hot water, though his father and mother both have significant roles to play. (Speaking of fathers, the screen time and tone of Asako’s father is pared back this one).

Due to the 39 episode count (compared to only 10 in the OVA) there’s a lot more time to get to know the secondary characters and sub-plots too, and while I really enjoyed 90% of them I think the best thing was probably being given time with the main villain – without which, an action text/heroic journey can too often fall flat.

If only you could hear the creepy sound in this scene 😀

And Hakumen no Mono is a memorable and menacing villain indeed – not in the least due to the voice acting of Megumi Hayashibara (no doubt recognisable as the voice of, among many others, Rei Ayanami, Faye Valentine and Atsuko/Paprika). Here, she delivers a rasping, unhinged performance that is miles away from the smooth tone of characters like Faye. It was a real highlight – though in terms of voice acting I occasionally heard Ushio as ‘older’ than his character, which pulled me out of the universe momentarily.

To wade a little further into the aspects that didn’t work for me I have to mention Nagare Akiba – I suspect compared to the manga, his storyline was compressed too much. This meant that his motivation for some actions seemed a little underdeveloped and then, his defining moment maybe didn’t play out so well.

Similarly, I found myself growing impatient with a ‘no-one’ remembers sub-plot because it broke momentum and bugged me a little, not in the least since it erased a whole lot of important character development but also because it felt like an unneeded way to extend the series.

However, when the show took time to step away and reveal back stories of other characters I was usually on board 100% –  especially with Hyou, his was one of my favourite aspects about the series. It’s probably only topped by Tora’s history too, his flashback episodes really land at a great time and provide extra emotional impact.

So, what’s left to say?

Well, I guess I’ll try a recommendation – Ushio and Tora should be a hit with fans of shonen and/or seemingly ‘oddly paired’ heroes, along with people who dig shows that go for (and achieve) a retro-feel.

Ushio’s ‘classic’ outfit doesn’t appear for a good while from memory

The supernatural themes are a really big part too, but at least for the first two-thirds the comedic parts are also important. I guess if you like light harem aspects then you’ll enjoy Ushio and Tora for that focus also. (And to sneak back the OVA – maybe, give it a shot if really want to compare the two).

5 Stars

Oh, I couldn’t leave the review without sharing this – Tora has to operate as Mayuko’s doppelganger at one point and it’s a highlight 😀

Part 3 (the comparison) is due tomorrow!