Saturday, August 26, 2006

Love action

I did have a brief break from animation this week when I saw Harsh Times (good), but then I went and watched loads of fresh, hot anime as it's starting to clog my hard drive...

Black Lagoon is one of my favourite series from the current anime season, but unfortunately it's ended its 12 episode run.
Based on a group of smugglers I the seas of Southeast Asia, it follows Dutch, Revy, Benny and Rock as they deal with neo-nazis, triads, mercenaries the Russian mafia and a dangerous Colombian maid.
Full of nonchalant glimpses into the underworld and intense bursts of violence, whilst BL can'’t help glorify it also looks at the other side, that of regret and emptiness felt by those who lead these lives, Revy at once being the shit-kicking no-nonsense crack-shot and a woman with a horrible past that has helped fashion a cold hearted murderer.
We see through Rock'’s eyes; he was an everyday Tokyo salaryman until he was abandoned after a dodgy smuggling mission went wrong and he decided to throw in his lot with the Lagoon Company on their ship, the Black Lagoon.
In her uniform of tiny cut-off jeans and a midriff-baring tank top, you could be forgiven that Revy was designed to appeal to the typical male audience, but while she does technically tick the right boxes appearance wise it's hard to argue that there are artless aims at titillation when you see how scary her character is, how she has got to the point where human life means little and is easily dispatched if it makes the job easier.
Mostly it's a gung ho actioner but there is a little meat to be had on its bones.

But as every anime must come to an end, new anime will come to fill the gap.

A new series that has just started airing is called Flag. I would give a plot outline, but instead I'll quote from the Wikipedia one as I'm too tired to do a decent job. I did get almost 8 hours sleep last night, but this luxury has made me even more tired. Less woozy, more tired.

"Saeko Shirasu is a 25 year wartime front-line photo-journalist who became a celebrity after taking a picture of civilians raising a makeshift UN flag in war-torn Uddiyana. The image then became an instant symbol for peace. However, just before the peace agreement is achieved, the flag was stolen by an armed extremist group in order to obstruct the truce. The UN peacekeepers decide to send in secretly a SDC (pronounced as Seedac - Special Development Command) unit to retrieve the flag. Because of her connection with the "Flag" photo, Saeko Shirasu was offered the job of following the SDAC unit as frontline journalist. The SDC unit is equipped with a HAVWC (pronounced as Harvick - High Agility Versatile Weapon Carrier) Mecha robot tank."

The story is told through the viewfinder, so we seeShirasu lining up shots and the resultant still image, movies shot on video and via digital cameras and clips of websites and streaming movies, so it's safe to say that the presentation is unique, adding an extra dimension to the act of watching, experiencing a story second hand.
Whilst the focus would be on the perspective of a photojournalist, we also have that mecha element which is always popular in anime. Here, though, in just two episodes we glimpse hints of the psychological toll of piloting hardware that is so efficient in 'neautralising' the enemy.
It's pleasing to have another 'grown-up' anime with protagonists out of their teens, and even if it ends up as a glorified robot suit tale. There is certainly potential to develop into an engaging show, so I'll be keeping an eye out.

My only quibble would be that the innovative perspective and mostly successful CG integration shows up the basic character design even more, which err on the side of realism but still descend into physical caricatures that don't seem to suit the tone of the show.

As for Night Head Genesis, it is duuuuuuull.


I went for a check-up at the dentist on Thursday and was happy to learn that my teeth are okay. It was pretty alarming to hear that "8 is fully erupted" until I realised that meant my wisdom tooth has come out properly. Yay.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Elliptical fantasies

Sometimes I find myself getting my existential fear on about the fragility of consciousness.
That our identity, the very essence of our being, is tied up in memory and inextricably linked to our spongey brains.

You don't need to look far for evidence of how easy it is to alter consciousness - any number of drugs including the over-the-counter caffeine and alcohol, along with the cheap and easy option of sleep deprivation, all provide a skewed perception of the world, and therefore change the nature of our interaction with it.

The way we process information and choose to react to it also contribute to our perception of reality - is it a world to be embraced? To be feared? Is it mundane and lifeless or are there sparks around every corner?
Essentially you can boil it down to the hoary old nature/nurture debate when considering what most influences our own dealings with external reality, but it is undeniable that nature - in the form of altered brain chemistry be it with coffee, LSD or a smack in the head - provides a significant potential for perceptual changes.

Today I find myself skirting around pools of this fear thanks to my current psychological instability, brought on mainly via sleep deprivation and the resultant ingestion of caffeine. A wooziness in my world that isn't always there, strange thought processes that I can't seem to finish. I keep waking up in the middle of the night seemingly in the middle of some complicated challenge; I think on Sunday night it had something to do with plastic cards...

In addition to my abnormal mental state is the heightened awareness of the issues - watching A Scanner Darkly was an adequate kick-start, but then last night I went to see Mind Game, a recent Japanese Animated film (and thus extending my Animated Weekend). The plot, such as it is, sees four protagonists stuck in a whale but is relatively unimportant.
It is about ambition and possibilities, about creativity and invention. A breakneck ride that reminded me of the hysterically fast-paced anime Dead Leaves, though with less scatalogical humour and far more ingenuity.
A burst of art styles, it's hard to pin down and certainly doesn't conform to any traditional narrative structures, it's hard to explain and in this state I'm not going to attempt to.

Still, this morning I went to see Thunderball, which reminded me of how charismatic Connery can be. An altogether different sort of film and signifying the end of the current animated cycle, I wonder if this and the possibility of catching up on a bit of sleep will bring me back to more normal perception?

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Last night I spent about an hour typing up my thoughts on the film Renaissance as part of a big post about the animated films I've seen recently. I was very pleased with it, it had big words and everything, but when I decided to upload an image of the film at the end it crashed my browser and all was lost. So I went to bed.
Trying again today, attempting to upload pics still crashes the browser, so I give up. I am disheartened. Shall I bother to try and remember what I wrote, start afresh or just do something completely different? Technology can be so disheartening sometimes.

I went to see some films in the last few days. All of these films were animated rather than live action. I saw Renaissance on Thursday. It's a joint UK/France/Luxembourg co-production, and I think there's a French dub as well as the English one that's been released in Blighty.
Renaissance is a dystopian sci-fi police thriller. There have been many similarly themed films, and this is not one of the better ones. The futuristic touches of the evil corporation, the advanced technology and the look of 2054 Paris seem like disjointed impact moments, they shout "look at this!" rather than forming a logical and cohesive future world. And much of the spectacle on offer comes from ideas recycled from many of the other films in this genre anyway, so it all seems a bit ho-hum. The plot only takes a slight departure from the norm, involving a bit of immortality intrigue with it's progeria research conspiracies, but the telling is all so very predictable and there is little here to distinguish it from a bazillion other dystopia flicks.
The main selling point is the visual style, as not only is it fully CGI it also uses a different style, going for a blocky monochrome rather than the usual attempts at photo-realism in a way which no doubt sounded like a perfect fit for the hard-boiled noir element of the film. It's a shame, then, that these visuals don't really elevate the film.
I'm sure a number of viewers haven't before seen particular video game cut scenes that have used this style for years, and indeed the sales for Capcom's Killer 7 in this country (which uses the same visual technique throughout) can't have been very high, but even without the benefit of having seen these already I found I was never fully immersed into the story as the harsh blocks of black and white allow for no grey and throughout the film it feels unfinished, as if there is depth and texture waiting to be added. Shadow no longer becomes a mask of fear, threatening possible menace, but instead offers up a pitch black void in which nothing seems to exist.

In any case, even if the visuals worked the story itself is a little too ho-hum to rise above average. This is not a bad film, don't get me wrong, it doesn't plumb the depths of Casshern's style-over-substance roadkill with a nice coat, but it just isn't anything special, and in the dystopian science fiction genre there is so much competition that it's not good enough to offer little more than a nice smile.
On reflection I think it suffers from similar problems as Final Fantasy:Spirits Within and Sky Blue - trying so hard to produce something with state-of-the-art visuals but not paying as much attention to ther story, Renaissance will be found lacking as the visual bar is raised.

I'd like to put in a picture here, but instead I'll just have to link you to some on the official site. Updated link to trailer: 04.09.13

On Friday I saw A Scanner Darkly. I've been a fan of Philip K Dick's writing for a few years now, so I'd already read the book it's based on, Scanner being the latest in a long line of adaptations including Bladerunner, Screamers, Total Recall, Minority Report, Impostor and Paycheck.
As adaptations go this is very faithful, and does a great job of presenting the world of the druggy, a mixture of bullshitting fun and paranoia. Keanu Reeves is Bob Arctor, an undercover agent trying to infiltrate the drug underworld and find the source of a potent and highly addictive substance named 'D'. The film follows him as he deals with his dual identities, his addict housemates and the distance of his sort-of girlfriend and dealer, Donna.
Dick is a master of the whole dystopia theme, and does Paranoia like no-one. With a fully-formed story, it's left to the actors and director Richard Linklater to bring the film to cinematic life, so happily they've all done a great job.
Keanu's spaced-out and distant delivery perfectly fits a character who is confused about his own identity and increasingly about the world in general thanks to his D habit, woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr. and Rory Cochrane are all note-perfect as Arctor's friends, having substance addled conversations and getting The Fear, particularly Cochrane as the twitchy Freck and Downey's Barris is excellent as the deluded yet self-styled expert on many subjects.
Linklater brings the animation to the table, using the Rotoscoping technique that he first utilised to create Waking Life, covering the live action shots in a layer of paint and allowing for the animation to be simultaneously life-like and yet seamlessly introduce the more bizarre elements such as the D hallucinations or the sci-fi elements such as the scramble-suit. The scramble suit is a device that agents wear so that they cannot be identified by anyone when reporting in to the Sheriff's department, as a method of limiting damage from the endemic corruption within the police force. It works by projecting the images of millions of people of multiple ages, races and sexes and altering the voice, and it is this scramble suit that first presents problems for Arctor as he is assigned, as Agent 'Fred', to investigate Arctor, worsening his identity crisis.

As well as the spot-on acting, interesting story and the inevitable conspiracy that is unfolding underneath, the Rotoscoped visuals produce beautiful shots throughout the film.
Where A Scanner Darkly differs from Renaissance can be seen in how the visual style completely fits the story and feel of the film, and the futuristic elements of surveillance tech and the scramble suits and such are totally integrated into the world, they are part of it and not just special effects to marvel at.
A Scanner Darkly is an accomplished film and a faithful adaptation, something worth seeking out.

Then Friday night I went over to the NFT to see a couple of short films as part of their mini-anime season.
First up was Yonna in the Solitary Fortress, a 34 minute 3D CGI effort created by Kengo Takeuchi.
Yonna and her brother Stan both have special powers or something, which has made them outcasts. Stan has moved them to a remote castle to keep to themselves. The Imperial government want to make use of Yonna's powers and so send a young agent to retrieve her, but Stan isn't happy at the intrusion and another devious Imperial agent, Piggott, is already on the scene.
Kengo Takeuchi used to be an animator for the Square Enix Final Fantasy games and it shows. The visual style looks just like a Final Fantasy cut-scene, the plot is weak and the character designs are uninspired. While it is an impressive acheivement for one person to produce, it doesn't stop Yonna being plain boring.

Luckily for the audience then that Negadon : the Monster form Mars was up next. Also a 3D CGI short (of 25 minutes) that took the creator Jun Awazu over two years to make, it is an affectionate homage to the Japanese monster movies of the 60s and 70s.
After making a mess of the Earth, mankind sets about terraforming Mars. A cocoon-like structure is found and brought back, but the ship crash lands and the cocoon hatches, unleashing the levitating crustacean-ish monster Negadon, who sets about on a rampage in Tokyo.
Luckily for Earth the scientist Ryuichi Narasaki began a robot programme years previously. He stopped work a decade ago when his daughter was killed in a robot-related accident, but with the threat of Negadon Ryuichi decides it is finally time to take his giant robot creation for a walk.

Negadon is fantastic, at once knowingly cheesy when aping the style of the old monster movies, it also has a great deal of respect for them and this shines through in the painstakingly detailed look of the film. The future as seen from the 50s is faithfully represented in everything from spaceships to computers, and the CGI work is so good that Negadon looks just like a model from a 70s Godzilla flick. In one scene we see a frog which is so realistic that it's breathtaking, only for the colours to bleed out and take on a sepia tone as the legend "ten years ago" informs us of a flashback.
The film was apparently worked on ten hours a day for two years by Awazu using off-the-shelf computer programmes, and it is an astounding achievement, managing to be funny without descending into parody and providing a neat little self-contained story that completely fits with the old-school sci-fi feel.
I'm not sure if Negadon has been picked up for distribution here but it is currently available on DVD in the US and includes Awazu's two previous student short films.
You can see the trailer on this site.

And that was my weekend of animated tomfoolery.

Update! (04.09.13) That trailer link no longer works but you can go and watch Negadon on Youtube here. (Part one of three)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Jesus Is Magic Is Magic

I've just watched "Tell them who you are", a documentary about the Oscar winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (imdb entry) made by his son, Mark Wexler.
I admit that I'm not all that knowledgeable about cinematographers, I recognise a few names and consciously recognise fewer styles so it's no surprise I didn't immediately click. He worked on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Limbo, the fantastic John Sayle's picture.
Where I had heard his name before was from directing the 1976 documentary "Underground", about the Weather Underground Organisation, a radical Left Wing activist group who bombed a number of targets in protest of the US government.
When I initially read about the Weathermen I was surprised at how I hadn't come across their existence before, it was as if violent dissent didn't happen in the US outside protests until the Unabomber and Timothey McVeigh. But that's another story.

Haskell Waxler is quite a character, confident to the point of seeming arrogance, and at first it would seem that the film would focus on his career in movies. It becomes a different beast when Haskell implores his son to make the film about the person, not the career, and we gain an insight into the relationship between Mark and his father, and that of fathers and sons in general.
At once full of glitz with the appearances of dozens of high profile actors and film-makers, the film is down to earth with Haskell's continual reminders of the illusion of cinema - how the angles and editing are all affecting how we are shown the story, and he is anxious of the image that the film will portray. This reminder helps pull you out of the film and think about its construction, the aims which Mark as the creator imbues in it and the fact that its flow is artificial - the events are not merely unfolding in front of the camera while the cameraman passively records it.
It's a very interesting picture and I highly recommend it. Brought a tear to my eye, I can tell ya.

So why is Jesus Magic? Because Sarah Silverman says so.
Jesus Is Magic is a mix of filmed sketches and stand up show, all showcasing Sarah as Funny.
She is funny, it is funny. You may have seen her as the irritated girlfriend in School of Rock or from her version of the Aristocrats, but possibly as "Raving Bitch" in The Way Of The Gun.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Night Head Genesis

New anime shows regularly appear in Japan with the frequency of regular TV series here in the West.
Shows can cover a broad range of subjects for a number of different audiences, but predominantly shows are produced for the young.
Night Head Genesis is one such show, aimed at the Shonen or male teen audience.

A sci-fi show, NHG sets up with an introduction about our brains. We don't use 70% of it, you see, and this is where human beings keep all their special powers. And these special powers are called Night Head Genesis, apparently, as if the name was put up in a competition and won by a 15 year old.
Stupid name aside, NHG takes itself seriously, rigidly sticking to its bleak outlook without recourse to comic relief or the fantasy of tight lycra.

Naoto and Naoya are brothers who seem to have developed psychic powers. Naoto manipulates objects (though destructively, with little control) when agitated with telekinesis, whilst his younger sibling Naoya reads minds via touch. Through brief flashbacks we see how these powers have caused trouble, and how their parents resort to sending them away (at ages 10 and 8?) to what I assume is a government facility 'out in the woods' to look after and study them.
The bleakness of the show manifests in the method of their move from home - the parents drug their children's' melon juice, but Naoto wakes in the car before leaving and terrifies his tearful mother by blowing out the street lamp when he realises what's happening, then being gassed before he can do more damage.

Waking up in their new home, Naoto is angry, taking it out on the canteen of scientists and then the director of the facility, before running off with Naoya into the forest. Before long they reach trees bound with rope, and find themselves trapped by a mysterious forcefield. After a scientist brings them food and asks them to return 'home', the fear she can't help show makes the brothers realise they aren't meant for the outside world.

Flash forward 15 years and we meet Shouko, a strange schoolgirl who we gather predicts the future thanks to her life-saving advice to a friend about canceling a trip that would have involved a road accident. Shouko entrusts a notebook of strange writing to her friend, saying that Elder Misaki (who we glimpse as an animal perch in a Snow White manner) has gone, so now the brothers are free. We then see the brothers, now young men, in the woods once more only this time there is no barrier. They drive away, but after a flat tyre Naoya persuades Naoto to visit a diner, thus ending episode 1. The episode 2 preview, called "Contact", points to things going a bit badly when the brothers are back in public.

NHG seems far too formulaic to go anywhere, the main characters-the brothers-are woefully underdeveloped, sticking with the stock stereotypes of the elder brother trying to be strong whilst the younger is more timid, traits that also fit in with their respective powers.
Strange powers developing in the young and treated as dangerous is such an old idea that it's odd they haven't given an inkling of invention in this episode, but I suppose the target audience of pre-teen boys is less demanding.
There are a number of confusing moments, such as why are the boys left free to walk about the facility if they're dangerous enough to be there in the first place and where did the car come from let alone the question of how they know how to drive it.

On top of these little niggles is the opening scene, where we see the boys in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, including a sequence of a nuclear-like explosion, which when added to the mention that the boys have been told that they will unleash "minus energy" if they go into the world and that Shouko seems gravely worried about the situation, seems at odds with the fact that Shouko tells her friend that she will live a long and happy life married with kids. A scenario in stark contrast with the possible destruction of a city of 60 million people, but there you go.

At the end of the day Night Head Genesis doesn't seem to offer anything out of the ordinary or more interesting than the many other psychic-power themed anime films and shows, with Akira doing the confusion, isolation and frustration better decades ago, and Elfen Lied handling it with more OTT panache as recently as a couple of years back.
Of course in later episodes NHG may offer hidden depths and there are obviously the hints at a wider plot, but with this first episode there is little incentive to see it through.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I went to college but all they found were rats in my head

How do we remember our past? Do we see it as it was or relative to how we are now? It's inevitably tainted by the experiences we've since had, and the way our lives now are, so the past is truly a foreign country.
Smells and songs trigger memories for us, give us flashbacks. But do we recall scenes or feelings?
The way a summer day felt back in the mid-80s, in the attic with the dust streaming in the sunlight and the radio struggling up the stairs, on a lazy Sunday afternoon back when I had the time to be bored. Is it what I did or the ambience that I remember?

It's these feelings that come back to us, these are our recollections whilst the facts are another type of memory altogether. I remember getting a 'B' for my Psychology A-level-I remember what the building looked like and the weather and chatting outside with friends I no longer see, but I don't remember the paper, the questions. The facts are separate and have been whittled down to the grade.

Where does the past go and why is it that bits of it get stuck somewhere inside us and bits of it drop out or decay? Every moment is the past, once you have the time to think about it. Every fleeting second watching us age. We yearn for unpleasant or arduous experiences to fly by, but the fun never lasts, always over before we know it and soon we are 20, 30, 70.
Time certainly appears to pass more quickly as I get older, perhaps because of the growing realisation that the time really is finite - then it drips through the cracks.

Is anyone ever satisfied at what they do with their time? Whenever I enjoy what I'm doing, I get a gnawing at the back of my mind, an anxiety about how this enjoyment is only temporary and will be replaced with other, less appealing engagements. And then it's never as enjoyable. Which is a right pain in the arse.

Still, you gotta laugh, eh?