Spriggan (Supurigan)

Spriggan (Supurigan) 1998

So! I was stunned to learn that Netflix is creating a series for Spriggan and that it’s due next year.

I think you could argue that it suits their action/sci-fi-heavy anime catalouge, but I guess I’m still surprised that Spriggan, which seems kinda ‘forgotten’ maybe, would be picked. In any event, I’m definitely looking forward to it because I think there’s room to expand the story, as compared to this 1998 film adaptation of Hiroshi Takashige’s manga.

And this is most certainly a film for action fans.

Spriggan is packed full of blistering, superhero-style battles and action sequences (even a touch of DBZ in there at times) and before you (maybe) groan at the idea of another schoolkid with unrealistic abilities, Spriggan does address that seeming oddity.

To very quickly talk premise: the story features two powerful groups vying for control over a world-altering artefact, with young hero Yu taking the lead as the top agent tasked with preventing misuse of said artefact.

For Studio 4°C this is quite opposite in tone etc to a latter film like Children of the Sea (which is the most recent comparative text I’ve seen) but the same level of care and attention to detail appears onscreen, with some cracking action sequences, as I mentioned above. Among the best I’ve seen in any anime.

Now, most folks seem to have problems with the story, and it does take a backseat to the action but it’s not like the plot is wildly swinging from one idea to another. Instead, maybe it’s just that a few important things (like Yu’s past, perhaps) don’t get a whole lot of screentime.

Katsuhiro Otomo was involved as a supervisor, and maybe you might then think of Akira in superficial ways (mind powers and sci-fi in general) but Spriggan is definitely closer to an American action film, fast-paced, violent and even far-fetched.

All the things that made it fun, perhaps.

4 Stars

You can’t quite tell here, but this guy is about to throw that helicopter.
Watch out, dude

Short Peace (Shōto Pīsu)

Short Peace (Shōto Pīsu) 2013

The most recent anthology-style project from Katsuhiro Otomo is Short Peace. It was released a few years back now and it’s conceptually a little different from previous ones (like Robot Carnival or Memories) in that it includes a PS3 game released in conjunction. But since I’ve never played Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day I’ll have to stick with the short films here.

Okay, so this collection is made up of four shorts and again, not every piece will suit every viewer but generally speaking most critical response has focused on the excellent Possessions and Combustible. That doesn’t mean that the remaining two are bad however. I’ll quickly talk about each but drop a little warning now that I’ll have a spoiler in regard to the final short: A Farewell to Weapons.

Opener Possessions was nominated for an academy award and I can see why – heavy with atmosphere but not without humour, it has fantastic use of colour and the CGI is generally super-cohesive. The lead character is a traveller caught in a storm and the empty shop he takes refuge in is kinda infested with tsukumogami. Yet the way he solves the problem is interesting, as it’s not a typical response to fear. At times, I wasn’t sure he moved through the setting in a wholly integrated way but this is still my favourite of the four.

Next up is Combustible which continues with the historical settings via a story that is probably a smaller-scale view of the Great fire of Meireki. The visual style evokes woodblock printing too and appears perhaps muted at first… but doesn’t stay that way. I think you could argue that this one is also an abbreviated love story though I think what interested me most was the way fire-fighters were represented: I hadn’t realised that tattoos were common for the era when it came to labourers and fire-fighters. And while my country burns as I type this now, I realise Combustible hit home a bit more. (I was aware that tattoos in Japan have not always been welcome but I found this link explored some specifics, and I thought it was really interesting).

Now to the final two (latter para has the spoiler) starting with Gambo, which also uses a historical setting. Gambo explores a classic samurai trope – that of the terrorised village in need of help. Yet the hero is not a swordsman, and beyond that tweak, there are some other surprises too. It’s also the far more graphic and disturbing of the four.

Finally, A Farewell to Weapons which is a detailed, tense war-story that visually made me think of Western warfare in the Middle East. But it is a futuristic setting in terms of the robotics and so that aspect kinda puts the last short at odds with the rest of the anthology. For me, the only real downside to it was that within a few moments I knew exactly how it would play out and how it would end – with all the characters dead, of course (I think some of the team even talk about retirement in the beginning and if that’s not a narrative invitation to death then I don’t know what is), but I wouldn’t skip this one, that’s for sure.

I’ve definitely said this a few times before here but my vote is always for Memories as the stronger anthology helmed by Otomo, though I probably prefer this over Robot Carnival.

4 Stars

Note: I shouldn’t overlook the fact that Hajime Katoki directed A Farewell to Weapons actually, as he is one of the key mecha designers in the Gundam universe 🙂

Robot Carnival (Robotto Kānibaru)

Robot Carnival (Robotto Kānibaru) 1987

This anthology really started something great and while for me, it’s not as strong minute-to-minute as one of Otomo’s later anthology-releases Memories, it’s still a must-see for fans of anime history, or science-fiction anime.

Just like with all anthologies out there, not everyone will enjoy every single short in the collection, but out of the nine here you’ll definitely find something to like if you dig robots. For most people, a short called Presence tends to be the favourite but I’ll come to that in a little while.

Instead I’m going to quickly mention (with spoilers for shorts 4 and 8) something from each of the other pieces, some of which basically focus on the exploration of the medium and technique, rather than narrative (but that’s not necessarily a negative at all):

1 Opening

At times, the Opening (and Ending) evokes a demented, terrifying Fantasia and as impressive as it is, it’s a kinda depressing first note.  

2 Franken’s Gears

Obviously a mechanical Frankenstein – like many of the pieces here it reveals a fantastic level of detail. And, like a few of them it’s played a bit like a silent move in terms of dialogue at least.

3 Deprive

This one feels like a straight up action sci-fi (and it is) – short and to the point, I’d have loved dialogue but all the storytelling is still there and there’s some great character designs.

4 Presence

See below 🙂

5 Star Light Angel

Watching this today it kinda feels like the perfect film-clip to a city-pop love song, and the existing music in the episode already gives off that vibe, actually. Elsewhere, musical giant Joe Hisaishi ranges from action-synth or haunting piano pieces.

6 Cloud

Occasionally folks report this animated series of illustrations as their least favourite and sure, it’s not action-packed but it has the most intense visual representations of a storm; it’s worth seeing for that passage alone.

7 Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion

This one plays as a kinda goofball comedy or parody of a propaganda film (and most of the cast is amusing) but the lead hero is pretty tedious, as his answer to every problem or question is essentially to shout “shut up”.

8 Chicken Man and Red Neck

This is fairly harrowing and again evokes a more sinister Fantasia as robots in a futuristic city rise up to party during the night – it’s incredibly complex and often frenetic, and another highlight.

9 Ending

(As above :D)

4 Presence

And finally the most compelling of the stories, for me and many folks over the years it seems, which is Presence by Yasuomi Umetsu.

Now, there’s lots to like the fourth short film, from the clever introduction to the world and its robotics, to the lush colours and distinctive character design or the memorable storyline, but I think a lot of reviews miscategorise this one as a tragedy.

For me, it’s more of an extended vignette of a villain and a coward.

The protagonist is an ungrateful sap who has refused to accept the things which should make him happy, and attempts to replace his loneliness with a robot companion. Whether the girl (whose design is reminiscent of Holiday-era Madonna) provides companionship, sex or both, becomes almost incidental as the story takes a turn.

Once she dares to request a life of self-direction, he freaks out and attacks her. After this act, he seals his creation away and just returns to his life, continuing to ignore all the things he has and worse, things which he denied to the girl he built.

At the end, after a couple of time jumps, he commits his final act of cowardice and cements his role of villain, as someone truly worthy of the viewer’s contempt.

And that’s part of what makes it such a great short film – it evoked a strong response 🙂

Okay, there we go – spoilers over! And can you believe that I set out to make this a short review? I suck at that lately!

4 Stars

Memories 1995

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Memories (1995)

Katsuhiro Otomo had been involved with two other anthologies (and one afterwards) prior to Memories, and while I’m still hunting down Neo Tokyo, I’m pretty confident in saying that Memories will remain my favourite.

And maybe there’s a certain amount of nostalgia in that – some of the stuff we see as teenagers seems to cling to us for decades after, right? Well, this is one of those titles but I think most anime fans would enjoy at least two out of the three shorts in this anthology regardless of the production context or their age.

Actually – let me re-phrase, if you like science-fiction and a bit of light horror, maybe some dark comedy or allegory, then Memories has you covered.

The anthology is made up of three pieces – all based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s short manga works, and features three directors. For me (and for most folks it seems) the stand out is Magnetic Rose (dir. Kōji Morimoto), which is as haunting as it is beautiful. Everything about it is top notch and I’d recommend seeing Magnetic Rose if you had to choose just one. Now, I’m definitely biased as there’s a lot of involvement from some of my favourite industry figures – there’s the Otomo source material and a screenplay by Satoshi Kon and music by Yoko Kanno, but the nightmarish search of the ruined ship and its decaying memories really is mesmerising.

The other two stories, Stink Bomb (dir. Tensai Okamura) and Cannon Fodder (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo) are just as well put-together but for me not quite as good as the opener – Stink Bomb has some moments of dark comedy but it’s closer to a tragedy in the end, and features some great animation too. The final short is easily the more distinctive when it comes to art style, but perhaps due to its allegorical nature the message seemed stronger than the story; it came closer to being a vignette actually.

I actually would love to see more of the anthology format, as it seems to have resurface only occasionally across the last twenty years. Or maybe it’s more that I’ve missed them? Obviously I remember Short Peace from 2013 and I was also excited to see that Studio Ponoc’s second work is also an anthology (Modest Heroes) so the anthology approach isn’t ‘gone’ but it did seem like it was no longer in fashion for quite a while there.

4 Stars

Metropolis (Metoroporisu)

Metropolis (Metoroporisu) 2001

Metropolis was fascinating and I know I’ll watch it again – mostly for the visuals and direction rather than the story perhaps (which is kinda conventional but not boring by any stretch).

But setting that aside for a moment, another aspect that I found really interesting was the many links to one of my all-time favs: Astro Boy.

Now, obviously I’m writing about a 2001 adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga – so his style is all over the film and the ‘look and feel’ of these 1949 heroes and villains are one day developed further when he creates Astro Boy, and then of course, used again in the 2001 film. It was nice to see a lot of those hallmarks really faithfully recreated by the Madhouse team actually, and maybe not unsurprisingly considering Tezuka’s successor/collaborator Rintaro was at the helm.

So what I got to see was something enjoyably out-of-step with the chronology; it was really fun to see a host of familiar faces – like Skunk, that seemingly immortal jerk! And of course he’s not the only one, you’ll notice Ban/Daddy Walrus, Kenichi/Astro, Duke Red/Temnu+Dr Elefun among others too (and for those like me who crave some comparison images, I’ve put a few shots below).

(I tried and failed to find a gif showing Kenichi’s bulky/Astro-like legs and even kinda Popeye arms, but you can see the development/reiteration of characters here.)

The other aspect that Astro/Tezuka fans who might not have watched Metropolis yet will notice is the way the heroes seem to be striving for robots to be treated fairly – and a common theme to sci-fi; that the villains are quick to blame robots for all the ills of society. I won’t go into the plot here, but that’s one of the key motivators for villain Rock, who is a pretty nasty fellow.

Another somewhat recurring theme I think most folks will have noticed across a certain amount of anime (and one which appears here too) is an attraction to Christian themes and symbols, and so in Metropolis there is a Tower of Babel/pride element to the film which is pretty effective and makes for a big finish too.

While I’ve been sorta rhapsodising a bit about some of the irregular things I liked, I want to say again that while the level of animation and setting detail is stunning, the story isn’t as strong. For example, I felt like the main characters (esp Kenichi and Tima) didn’t really get enough time to interact and build their relationships. Or maybe I just wanted more dialogue and a touch less CGI?

And maybe I was a bit disappointed in the story balance because Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) is credited with the screenplay – so on paper, it sounds pretty ace, huh? Rintaro directing an Otomo-penned adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s manga! With just those elements alone the film should be Out of This World Good – and in many ways it is but I dunno, maybe if it had been a little longer? Had room for just a few more scenes between characters here and there?

Still, despite my gripes – it’s a modern classic, no arguments from me, and one that brings together that Golden-Age* Science-Fiction feel, social issues and a Film Noir aesthetic (right down to its jazz OST) really well.

5 Stars

Quickly, I’m mentioning again how much I enjoyed the direction – I’m really curious as to how much storyboarding was inspired directly from the manga actually, but in any event, here’s one aspect I loved: compositions like these really show the immense scale of the city and add to the kind of latent menace to the place too, and the idea that the characters are really facing something mammoth.   

* Maybe I’m a little off re: the exact era/influence here, but it doesn’t feel like New Age sci-fi of the 60s and 70s and it’s doesn’t feel like 20s/30s pulp either.

Steamboy (Suchīmubōi)

Katsuhiro Otomo’s next film after the monster that was Akira took ten years to produce and the staggering care and attention to detail clear in the Victorian-era settings and its marvellous machines is undeniable (along with a lot of the action sequences) but the film is not so beloved as Akira.

Steamboy (Suchīmubōi)
2004

Obviously, different genres, different times – but I also think that there’s something missing from the storytelling in Steamboy and I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until all these years later.

In a way, the film really whips main character Ray from one calamity to another at a brisk pace.

It might sound like I’m claiming that there’s no time to catch your breath at all, and that’s not my intent, but what I think I wanted as a viewer was more time for reflection from Ray. On both his situation, and in terms of his confusion in dealing with the people surrounding him.

I found myself seeking that time for character development because Steamboy explores inter-generational conflict (in an action film, which feels somewhat rare) – and I was thrilled to see that.

All the way through, poor Ray is torn between trusting his grandfather and his father – both mechanical geniuses, and both seeming to have noble goals. Of course, there the audience faces similar doubts, but for such an important conflict, I wanted more of it on the screen.

Where I wanted more from that aspect, the film gave me a lot to enjoy when it came to the visuals and the animation itself. Even with a reasonably muted palette, the detail on the setting and machines was beautiful, and the large scale of the inventions are just as striking.

Steamboy really does feel like a triumph, visually and I don’t think I can do it justice in the review of course, since the stills can only tell so much.

But if you like classic steampunk (or have always wondered about Katsuhiro’s other major works) and haven’t seen this one yet, I think it’s worth finding for sure.

4 Stars