Un-Go (2011)

Un-Go (2011)

This series was fascinating.

It’s hard for me to accurately describe why I found it so – probably because of the contradictions within.

On one hand Un-Go feels like an uneven detective series and on the other it feels like an uneven philosophical text… and on the other hand it’s aesthetically pleasing, even stylish at times. On the fourth hand that I apparently have, it’s one of those shows that appears not quite able to add up to more than the sum of its influences, yet manages to become compelling.

Now, maybe I’m in a bit of a minority here with Un-Go but by the end I was ready for more cases and more of the interplay between detective Shinjuurou and his ‘boss’ Inga. The series is short (eleven episodes), with one double-episode length OVA as a prequel. I’d like to come back to that OVA actually, but for now I’ll mention that there is an overarching story that I preferred to some of the episodic parts.

While some cases felt rushed into single episodes, once Un-Go passed beyond that establishing phase the multi-part mysteries let the storytelling breathe a little, especially the final half dozen. In addition to what I consider an uneven start I feel like the pacing encourages the viewer to gloss over some plot holes or uneven character beats but the mysteries of the setting, the cases themselves and most of all, the exact nature of the contract between Shinjuuro and Inga were the main draws for me.

Secrets upon secrets

Un-Go is pretty good at drip-feeding it’s secrets too, and that’s another aspect that kept me watching – as did the oddness of Inga, who is basically a mix between Ed from Cowboy Bebop and Harley Quinn but it kinda worked. The anime takes on some big topics (albeit too briefly) around autonomy, privacy, war and finding purpose, and is far more adult in nature than say, Full Metal Alchemist. How’s that for a segue? I mention FMA because Un-Go is helmed by Seiji Mizushima and features Shō Aikawa in the writing chair.

However, I hope I haven’t misled anyone into thinking I believe FMA shies away from difficult themes, but its tone is a fairly different to Un-Go. And related to the question of tone – if you’ve seen this series and notice a reasonably pessimistic streak running throughout, then it might come from what is (to some extent) the source material.

Ango Sakaguchi was a post-war writer who seems to have been understandably struck by strong disillusionment, and one of his works Meiji Kaika Ango Torimono-chō, is the base for Un-Go’s lead, Shinjuuro who can appear to have lost hope at times. (But I think that’s about all that’s used from the source, since among other differences, the novel is set in the Meiji era and the anime is futuristic/alternate Japan.)

The show often gives little name flashes as reminders when we first see a character in an episode.

Finally now, I’m returning to the prequel I mentioned earlier.

The prequel is the most compelling of all the episodes in the series and perhaps even has slightly higher production values too, if that sorta thing matters to you. It also adds a bit of clarity to some of the Buddhist hints throughout.

But more important for me, was that Inga Chapter offered a lot of answers. Earlier I mentioned how I thought the show did a great job of maintaining my curiosity and it was pretty high by the time I saw the prequel. However, there’s a bit of debate out there as to when you should watch it – either before you begin the series or after episode eleven. On my DVD the OVA is on the final disc and so that’s how I saw it, and I liked that approach because it was enjoyable to finally get some back story for the lead characters and solve a few mysteries that had been hinted at since that tiny glimpse at the beginning of episode one.

(As a quick aside, the air date of the prequel was actually during the series itself, which is interesting.)

It’s clearly too late for me to watch Un-Go any other way ‘for the first time’ now, but if you’ve decided to hunt this show down then I guess consider what kind of viewer you reckon you are.

If you don’t mind having secrets held back for a long time, so as to build anticipation, then watch the prequel last.

If you suspect you might be a bit annoyed by a series that takes its time to return to the main concern, or if you like being one step ahead of the main characters and catching all the little hints they sometimes miss, then maybe watch the prequel first.  

Okay, another ridiculously long review! Next time, I’ll aim for a shorter write up 😀

3.5 Stars  

Armitage III (Amitēji Za Sādo)

The late 1980s up to the mid 1990s represented a real peak of cyberpunk in anime, with the obvious giant that is Ghost in the Shell joined by Bubblegum Crisis, Appleseed and Battle Angel etc but one OVA that can go overlooked seems to be Armitage III.

Armitage III (Amitēji Za Sādo)
1995

I think I can see why that might be so – Armitage just doesn’t seem as consistent overall, though the original four episodes are still pretty good; there’s mystery and tension, some nice reveals and great designs/scene setting with just enough character development for what I was after.

However, it’s still worth seeing if you’re a fan of the genre.

The classic ethical questions around Personhood are all there and in this series there’s some (not a heap) of political turmoil as a backdrop too, it’s a nice extra element to what is essentially a murder mystery at its heart.

The fight scenes are satisfying and the villain is pretty good too and Naomi herself is a great heroine though for me, her punk attitude comes across a touch forced(?) at times, I think she works better as a ‘conflicted’ rather than ‘cocky’ hero. Maybe it was some of the dialogue?

The OVA was edited down to one film and given a new English dub with some Hollywood folks (Kiefer Sutherland, Juliette Lewis) so I feel like the team behind the international release put some real effort into the series but Armitage III still seems to have more of a ‘cult classic’ status, rather than being as widely known as GITS.

As an aside, I did occasionally find her visual design to vary a little too much across promotional images/dvd art/episode/films, so much so that at times Armitage almost appears as two different characters (well, maybe not that different).

4 Stars

(Nearly ten years later a sequel film was made (Dual Matrix). You can see a jump in animation quality and the introduction of some CGI (mostly vehicles). And while I thought the story started a little slow (and Armitage behaves quite out of character at one important point) it was pretty good too, some of the fight sequences especially were great).

Paprika (Papurika)

If you’ve seen and enjoyed Inception, you’ll probably like the film that inspired it in so many ways – Paprika, though obviously both movies tackle themes and ideas that have been well-explored in the past.

Paprika (Papurika)
2006

And while Paprika is an adaptation, I think you could almost call Inception the same thing, though between the two, one text adapts a novel and the other kinda adapts the aesthetic and some central concerns of Kon’s movie.

All the films directed by the late Satoshi Kon are superb, I reckon – and yep, I’m obviously a fan – and Paprika is no exception.

I tend to think that this one, a surreal psychological thriller, is maybe his peak as a director, even if Millenium Actress is perhaps more heartfelt and I personally enjoy Perfect Blue the most.

But as an adaption of the 1993 novel (a novel I did read but only after seeing the film), I found the movie to be a much more consistent work from top to bottom. I’m unfairly comparing the two mediums here, but sometimes surrealism works better in the visual.

Here’s a synopsis:

In the near future, a revolutionary new psychotherapy treatment called dream therapy has been invented. A device called the “DC Mini” allows the user to view people’s dreams.The head of the team working on this treatment, Doctor Atsuko Chiba, begins using the machine illegally to help psychiatric patients outside the research facility, using her alter-ego “Paprika”, a sentient persona that she assumes in the dream world.

Generally, the use and mis-use of the DC Minis are the crimes that the Doc (and my fav character, Detective Konakawa) must investigate. And because reality and dream is blended so often in the story, they certainly have a tough time of it – stumbling after uncertain clues and unclear adversaries.

But I was hooked for every moment, never quite sure what the characters would face next. And due to that uncertainty around reality, there was heaps of room to bring in something you’ll probably notice me mention more than once on the blog, Intertextuality.

Since Konakawa studied film-making, and his recurring dream relates to that, there are plenty of allusions to classic Hollywood cinema and other texts throughout the film. (And there’s a Monkey reference too!) but I it was also fun to see the art of cinema and film-making itself referenced too.

There’s more to Paprika than its allusions of course, from the themes of identity, obsession, love, memory and the fear of technology – it’s also equal parts creepy and touching (at times).

While you can expect a certain amount of classic anime tropes to appear here, just as many are subverted really well – especially via the supporting cast.

When compared to Perfect Blue (which most folks consider, probably rightly, as Kon’s masterpiece) I think Paprika is not so relentlessly dark. There are more than a few light moments during the film, especially thanks to Paprika herself, but also in part due to the surrealism, which can be equal parts comedic and disturbing.

In terms of a recommendation, I think the R rating (or ‘M’ if you’re in Australia) is still fitting even if they tend to change over the years, so Paprika is not one for the youngest of teens but should impress if you’re into psychological thrillers.

Now, I feel that I haven’t spoken too often about specifics for this review, but that’s quite on purpose – as I don’t want to spoil one of my fav movies too much!

4 Stars

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Inosensu)

Following up a landmark work like Ghost in the Shell (1995) surely would have been daunting – and maybe exciting too – even for an ace team that worked on the first film.

And if you’re thinking of watching Innocence, I reckon you’ll quickly see where this one takes a lot of steps to both differentiate itself from its predecessor while at the same time feature enough links to the past to satisfy most viewers.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Inosensu) 2004

The first thing I noticed was the colour palette – while GITS used lots of blues, greens and white throughout, Innocence relies on browns, orange and yellow quite often.

The other obvious thing fans of the original will notice is that CGI is fairly heavily integrated to the 2D animation here. For me, this is a bit of a deterrent actually, as I feel too much of that early-2000s CGI just doesn’t gel as smoothly, at times looking a bit like game graphics rather than feature film visuals.

Of course, that’s a little unkind – it’s still arresting imagery. And often the shadow and lighting are fantastic from scene to scene, and while things like the super slick cars stand out, the parade scene is truly stunning.

However, since the storyline didn’t grip me as I thought it would, I found myself more inclined to focus on the visuals and thus notice when they didn’t always feel ‘right’ compared to what I’m used to with newer film.

Still, it was fun to see returning characters – like Togusa (Kōichi Yamadera – who you may know as Spike from Cowboy Bebop) and of course, main character Batou (Akio Ōtsuka, who I recognised as Captain Nemo from Nadia).

And where the story falls down a little for being a somewhat like collection of impressive scenes rather than a driven cyberpunk/thriller narrative, there’s still something compelling about Batou’s morose determination – though I wished we’d seen a little more of him post the climactic scenes.

If you’ve never seen Innocence maybe consider doing so; because while I don’t think it’s a classic, there really must have been a lot of love and labour put into this ‘stand alone sequel’ (as Mamoru Oshii intended), and not just due to the budget.*

3 Stars

*You might notice Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki in the credits – I believe he was contacted to help finance the film’s giant budget 🙂