Monday, 18 April 2011

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki Part Two (1990- Present)

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki Part Two (1990- Present)
Welcome back to my Hayao Miyazaki filmography ‘breakdown’. If you haven’t already read  Part One, the link is here:

Today we will focus on the 1990s, and the new millennium where Miyazaki gained his true global recognition in animated cinema. 
Porco Rosso  (紅の豚)(1992)

Another lesser known Miyazaki film is Porco Rosso. Instead of the usual magical approach to story, Miyazaki tells a much more historical and cultural drama. Set around the Adriatic Sea, the time frame of the film is somewhere between World War I and II, and focuses on the developing world of aviation. The film balances the fast-paced nature of flight, whilst telling an engrossing story and introducing us to entertaining characters, all in a beautifully rendered setting. 
The plot follows a humanoid pig fighter pilot (you figure that one out!) called Porco Rosso. Nicknamed the ‘Crimson Pig’, he was originally a pilot for the Italian Air Force, but now is a bounty hunter defending ships against pirate gangs. Now with a bounty on his own head, the only thing lying between this conflict is the presence of Madame Gina, owner of an island resort. Gina and Porco’s romantic relationship remains strong from childhood, yet Gina fears for the loss of another love. However, the intrusion of an American pilot, Curtis, threatens this romance and Porco’s own life. The plot is relatively simple but compelling, as it carefully blends action, comedy and drama. All the characters are well developed and hold unique personalities and emotional characteristics. Porco, though stern and cheerless is plagued with guilt and mysticism. His physical condition has led to his isolated self. But his growing romance to Gina and the newly-formed friendship with a peppy engineer, Fio, brings out a newly formed and confident ‘man-pig’. 
Overall Porco Rosso is a departure from the magical landscapes and characters, expect for the talking pig thing. Instead here we focus on a much more historical drama piece. The film brings a lot of inspiration and atmosphere from Miyazaki’s early work in the Lupin III series. The characters are well structured, the animation is glorious and the sound is fabulous. You truly gain a proper cinematic experience. 
Princess Mononoke  (もののけ姫)(1997)

Princess Mononoke, is a much more mature animated film when compared to the likes of My Neighbour Totoro and the most recent Ponyo. It was fourth highest grossing animated film in Japan, and gained a substantial following in America. Again, Miyazaki has implemented a historical setting to his film; the Muromachi period (14th-16th Centuries) of Japan’s history. Yet, it still pertains the traditional imaginative and magical essence of Miyazaki’s cinematic ideology and themes. The result is an epic and intense adventure film built on Japanese myth and folklore. 
The plot is complex, but here goes. A young warrior of a small village, Ashitaka, is stricken with a deadly curse after being attacked by a bore-god/ demon. He must journey to the west in order to save his life. Along the way, he is caught in the middle of feuding war between Lady Eboshi and the ‘gods of the forest’. Princess Mononoke, a brave and strong-minded women who has been raised by the wolf-god, fights alongside the spirits of the forest. However Eboshi, Mononoke and Ashitaka realise that they have to unite to defeat a vengeful Forest Spirit that threatens humanity. 
The plot is constantly intense, and to some extent is complex. Even I had trouble following the story until watching it a number of times. The writing is intelligent and sophisticated when compared to previous works. The animation is fast and furious, and is probably the most violent Miyazaki has ever gone. The killing of wolfs, the shooting off of limbs, its quite shocking to see a director that produced Totoro, use such imagery. However it never goes overboard, instead it serves to show the horrifying consequences of hatred and hostility. Princess Mononoke’s plot is truly crafted for a more adult audience, but with the magic and action, it will certainly entertain everyone. 
The characters are well-voiced and engaging. Ashitaka, a true warrior, builds into a character that plays the mediator between the human forces and the spiritual ones. Working for both sides, he tries to preach that co-existence and peace is the way forward. Princess Mononoke or San, is an almost primitive individual, basing her actions and human contact on that of her ‘forest spirit’ guardians (in the form of wolves). She is aggressive and committed to defending her lands and forest spirits from the invasion of human activity. Laby Eboshi is built up to be the film’s antagonist with her stern personality and devotion to firearms and technology. However, she harbours intentions no more evil than her opportunistic ideology; trying to make it in the world. 
Overall Princess Mononoke is a much more complex and challenging film than Miyazaki’s usual works. The plot has a barrage of unique and deep characters and personalities, and constantly excites and amazes. The animation is fantastic and manages to portray the action-packed, epic nature of the film. Entertaining and intelligent, its well worth a watch for those who like adventure films. 
Spirited Away  (千と千尋の神隠し) (2001) 
Spirited Away will be known by many, due to it winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The film has been highly praised by the general consensus of film critics, and has been featured in many ‘Top Animated Film’ Lists. It has been his critical reception that has seen Spirited Away enter the Western world of animation. This was also the time when Hayao Miyazaki started to be recognised by film lovers and other studios. Sure many of his films such as Princess Mononoke had been released in cinemas across the globe, but not to the same extent as Spirited Away. 
The plot focuses on a 10 year old girl, Chihiro Ogino, as she moves to a new town with her parents. After getting lost, they stumble upon a tunnel and decide to explore. They discover a deserted town where Chihiro’s parents descend into greed, and transform into pigs. From then on we experience a colourful and magical adventure as Chihiro has to rescue her parents, in a world of gods, witches and dragons. Unlike the previous 3 films on this list, Spirited Away sticks to its Japanese roots, offering more of a traditional culture of bathhouses, ceremonies and mysticism. We meet a barrage of strange and colourful characters, who help and hinder Chihiro’s progress. Miyazaki manages all the characters and plot points skilfully never creating a dull moment or blank individual. The animation and Japanese voice-work are amazing as usual, both brilliantly match the personalities and scenes. Its simple spectacular how Miyazaki is able to create such unique and complex ‘world’ from his imagination. 
Whilst not as straight-forward to understand as Kiki’s Delivery Service, overall, Spirited Away is fantastically animated, structured and acted. Its very much a lively, magical, ‘coming of age’ atmosphere that plays well to the younger members of the audience. However, hidden is a deeply philosophical and moral message, questioning modern Japanese society’s greed and its disconnection from traditional culture and values. Its a mystical and magnificent film. 
Howl’s Moving Castle   (ハウルの動く城)(2004)
Very much using the same ideas of witches, war and conflict between human and magic societies, Howl’s Moving Castle is loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel by the same name. Originally to be directed by Mamoru Hosada (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) he soon left, resulting in a production with no director. Miyazaki, who was retired at the time, took up the project and completed the film. It would have been interesting to have seen Hosada’s interpretation of the novel and final ‘product’. However, we are left with a film that has the consistently beautiful magic of Miyazaki. 
The plot follows a young hat maker, Sophie Hatter (creative?), who leads a boring life with no inspiration or excitement. Her life is changed when a young, handsome yet mysterious wizard sweeps her off her feet, named Howl. However, now involved in ongoing war between magicians and humans, she is cursed by the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’. Transformed into an elderly women, Sophie seeks a return to normality, while gaining sanctuary at Howl’s moving castle. Plot-wise, Howl’s Moving Castle uses the various themes of Miyazaki’s work; magic, war, and the human condition are all commented on. However, it is all brought together masterfully and remains engrossing.
The characters are well constructed and delivered. Sophie, although initially shocked by her curse, soon builds a stronger-willed character that is absolved of fear and anxiety. Howl’s character is one of mysticism and ‘split personality’. From the kind, strong hearted wizard, to a fearful monster, he is constantly changing with the evolving situation. Markl, Howl’s child apprentice, brings humour and charm with his witty, innocence. Beautifully visualised and acted, all the characters remain interesting and special. For the majority of my reviews for Japanese films, I have been unimpressed by the English dubbing. However, Howl’s Moving Castle was the first Miyazaki film where it has actually been good. Christian Bale offers his voice for the magician, Howl, and plays the part realistically. However the standout is Billy Crystal voicing the ‘heart of Howl’, Calcifer (a talking flame that is the ‘soul’ of the moving castle and of Howl). Crystal plays the comedic relief for the film, and does very well to balance humour with drama within his performance. 
Overall, Howl’s Moving Castle is great, yet fails to top Spirited Away. Personally, I felt more of an initial and stronger connection to Chihiro in Spirited Away rather than Sophie. However, comparing the two is impossible, both are excellent films and have their own individual atmospheres and charm. Howl’s Moving Castle has a scale that is much larger and a premise which is a lot more complex. However, it pulls it off spectacularly well. The characters are imaginative and have interesting personalities, and the animation is great as usual. Its a great film to follow an Academy Award winner. 
Ponyo  (崖の上のポニョ) (2008)
The most recent Miyazaki work is Ponyo. Ponyo is essentially Miyazaki’s own depiction on the ‘Little Mermaid’ story. Gone, are the explosions, strange characters and intense plot. Instead, Ponyo is a much more light-hearted affair when compared to his last 2 films, aiming for a much more younger audience. Ponyo is colourful, cute and a joy to watch. 
The story surrounds on a magical fish, Ponyo, who desires a life beyond the sea. These ambitions are frowned upon by her former-human father, Fujimoto, who is has gained a distaste for the human race due to their polluting ways. Yet Ponyo manages to escape and is eventually rescued by a young boy called Sosuke. After a short meeting between the two characters, it soon ends with Ponyo returning to her father’s lair. However, she longs to be human and to be back with Sosuke. Her dangerous use of her father’s magic, transforms her into a real girl, however it also causes an imbalance in the sea. Tidal waves flood the coast and see the sea taking over the land. Thus it is up to Sosuke and Ponyo to save the locals and fully complete Ponyo’s transformation.
The plot is simple, yet effective in entertaining and charming the audience. As always Miyazaki comments on social issues, especially the damaging relationship between man and nature. Here, the focus is water pollution with the various depictions of rubbish filled coastlines. However the main focus of Ponyo is the relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo. Initially a friendship between a fish and a boy, it soon develops into a charming, cutesy, children’s romance between a girl and boy. Ponyo’s introduction to human life is genuinely funny, as she repeats what others say and fails to understand household objects. The language and dialogue is that of children, and is easy to understand and appreciate. 
Overall Ponyo, whilst primarily targeted for children, is still bloody brilliant. I feel that the plot takes a much more ‘backbench’ approach, with the brilliant animation becoming the focus. Don’t get me wrong, the story is great but the animation is spectacular with the colours really jumping out. The characters are full of emotion and are likeable, and the ending is satisfying with a humour to it. 
So that’s my round up of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography, and as you can see his films are all spectacular. Famous actors like Liam Neeson, Michael Keaton and Gillian Anderson, have lent their voices to his films, showing a growing and popular interest in this prestigious filmography. (Or they want to be linked to a ‘good’ film). From his amazingly detailed imagination and creativity, to his careful and precise ability to structure and manage his productions, it all leads to a director that is just simple magical. While snazzy special effects and £D (3D) have unfortunately become increasingly popular, Miyazaki’s creations remain beautiful to look at and have consistently engrossing and entertaining stories. I have failed to mention the musical input by Joe Hisashi, the infamously talented Japanese composer. His powerful scores and dramatically musical presence help to reinforce the visual nature of each of Miyazaki’s work. All these features add to an amazing cinematic experience, that pleases all audiences. I think there has been a reluctance by many to access the world of Japanese ‘anime’. This predominately due the stereotypical image of the excessive violence, pornography and embarrassing themes. However, I praise Miyazaki for portraying true story, true characters and true animation. He is Brilliant!!!!!

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Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki: Part One (1979- 1989)

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki Part One (1979- 1989)
My ‘Japanese Cinema Month’ is nearing its end. And after flicking through my reviews, I have failed to write about the most inspirational and prolific directors of Japanese cinema and animation, Hayao Miyazaki. While many will be aware of his award-winning Spirited Away and the recent Ponyo, his filmography goes back to well into the late 1970s. Now at the age of 70, his capacity and ability to craft films that continuously gain critical acclaim and awards, is simply amazing. In the animated world, and general cinema for that matter, I don’t think any director has managed to dish out so many fantastic and unique films. Thus I give you my take on his filmography: 
The Castle of Cagliostro  (ルパン三世カリオストロの城)(1979)

Most definitely the least known Miyazaki film is The Castle of Cagliostro. This film was part of the Lupin III (Lupin the 3rd) franchise, which was based on a manga, based on Maurice Leblanc’s fictional character; ‘Detective Arsene Lupin’. Prior to his work with Studio Ghibli, he had been a co-director of the ‘anime’ series of Lupin III.  And thus The Castle of Cagliostro was his first feature length film, and it is awesome. 
The plot follows Lupin III, a masterful and professional thief. After successfully completing a heist in a Monte Carlo casino, he realises that the money is fake. He traces the notes back to a small country called Cagliostro, where the sinister Count is counterfeiting money and sending it worldwide. Thus we follow Lupin and his crew as they investigate the conspiracy, eventually leading them on a search for a national treasure. Meanwhile, they also attempt to rescue the Princess from marrying the duke. The plot consists of everything from intense action to tasteful romance and humorous comedy, thus keeping the audience truly interested and engrossed.
The characters are all well developed and the voice work is great, matching the personalities relatively nicely. Animation-wise, while showing its age now, it still remains a beautifully detailed and colourful picture. You easily forget these slight issues when the story is constantly entertaining and gripping. The European setting is amusingly created, complete with Fiat 500s and extravagant palaces. 
Overall this is a great animated film which tones down the crazy and outlandish tones of the Lupin III television show, and presents an interesting and engrossing plot. Though not the most memorable of Miyazaki’s creations, the animation is great and the characters are well crafted and engaging. 
Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ) (1984)

Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s "first" film together, Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind is a fantastic start to a prestigious run of animated films. Following the 1980s era of post-apocalyptic genre, the film has a very Dune influence to it in terms of subplot and atmosphere. Giant insect creatures roam the earth, seems very similar to the sand-worms of Frank Herbert’s novel. However, it reduces the various philosophical messages into a child-friendly film that is filled with action and proper story telling.
The film is set after numerous centuries of war have devastated the planet. A conflict between feuding clans and forces continues to be fought, whilst a race of giant, intelligent bugs, Ohmu, poison the Earth’s atmosphere. Princess Nausicaa leads the people of the ‘Valley of the Wind’ as they suffer at the hands of the civil conflict and growing environmental danger. The plot holds contains the moral statement between man and the environment, and female heroism. War and technology have led to a lack of compassion and understand of the planets ecology, and thus ‘mother-nature’ is retaking her lands.
The characters are wonderfully created and expressed on the screen, visually and audibly. Princess Nausicaa is a true female heroine and leader, quite similar to protagonists like Pocohantas. Yet, she is driven by the will to protect her people, and bring harmony between everything living. Strong-willed and compassionate, her character is remarkably memorable and likeable. The animation is good, but definitely looks dated now. The characters all look unique, however the desert backgrounds certainly lack the imagination and detail of Miyazaki’s latest creations. However, its the story that is the main focus and this very much comes through. 
Overall, Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind is a brilliantly constructed film. The animation, characters and plot have all been carefully managed to form a story that is epic and balanced. 
Castle In The Sky (天空の城ラピュタ) (1986)

Using similar themes of conflict and war, Castle in the Sky is a engrossing adventure story influenced by Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels and by the miner strikes in 80’s Wales. The European-esque setting and mining communities clearly show these influences in Miyazaki’s film. However, Castle in the Sky trades in strong moral messages for a streamlined yet deep, children’s adventure story filled with action and mysticism.
The plot follows the newly formed friendship between a young orphan, Pazu and a beautiful girl Sheeta, as they protect a sacred pendant that is the key to an ancient civilisation in a floating castle called Laputa. Our main characters are chased by sky pirates and evil government agents, as they try to find this lost city. Whilst, Nausicaa was a much more mature animated film, Castle in the Sky’s child protagonists bring a much more accessible experience to younger audience. Miyazaki reframes from his usual ‘coming of age’ drama, to portray an adventure from the perspective of a child. Again, morally the film focuses on the greed of the human race, in which force and mercilessness are used to gain riches and power. And the fact that friendship always prevails. However this undercurrent isn’t as abundant or as visible as that of Nausicaa.
Pazu and Sheeta’s journey doesn’t result in an over-complex or drawn out relationship, but focuses on the sudden nature of their meeting. Sheeta simply falls from the sky at the beginning, sparking off the two’s adventure. And its this manner in which we are introduced to the characters that enables a much more childhood spirit to come through. Their immediate friendship strengthens and overcomes dramatic events during the film. I think it’s this simplistic nature that allows for a much more nature and sudden attachment to the characters, rather than being bluntly shown the two’s relationship. 
The various action scenes in the air are beautifully portrayed and intense, with the animation being dazzling, vibrant and detailed. The sense of height and depth is fantastic, as you stare down at the ground from gliders and the mystical Laputa. Laputa, itself is beautifully realised, with influences from medieval castles and gothic architecture. This subsequently creates an even more magical impression to the ‘Lost City’. 
Overall, Castle in the Sky is an entertaining adventure film. It isn’t as memorable as Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind, but it is well worth a watch. With a strong mixture of drama and action, this is a tense and compelling animated production. 
My Neighbour Totoro (となりのトトロ)(1988)

The character of Totoro recently appeared in Toy Story 3, and has become the icon of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. Seen very much as the Japanese ‘Winnie the Pooh’ or Mickey Mouse, this one character has had a massive cultural impact. (I have to admit, I have a Miniature Totoro plush in my room). Whilst the most child friendly of his works, My Neighbour Totoro is stunning, charming and has been carefully crafted by Miyazaki and his team. 
The plot focuses on Satsuki and Mei as they move to their new home in rural Japan. Their father is currently looking after them, whilst their mother is in hospital. Curiosity, and adventure soon sees Mei and Satsuki forming a friendship with their neighbouring tree/ wood, ‘rabbit-like’ spirit: Totoro (Keeper of the Forest). Gone, is the conflict and threat that were predominate in Miyazaki’’s last two films. Instead, My Neighbour Totoro, pushes for a much more pure and heart-warming experience, suggesting that imagination is the sole ingredient for a cute and engrossing adventure. 
The characters are all fantastic and lovely. Mei, about 5 years old, is the realistic young girl, full of energy and adventurous. Satsuki, about 11 years old, attempts to balance her own childhood, while acting as mature adult in place of their ill mother. We care about these realistic characters, as they remind us of ourselves at that age; playing hide and seek, climbing over hedges etc. However, the real impressive feat, is the character of Totoro. The large, egg-shaped, rabbit-esque creature’s name is in the title of the film, yet he never says a word. He sports a blank expression or a big-ass grin and is a bit of a sloth. However, Totoro is just delightful. The lack of audible character development, leads us to craft our interpretation and understanding of the character through Totoro’s physical appearance and movement. From, holding a child's umbrella in the rain, to flying around the landscapes, we build a comedic, cuddly and innocent relationship with Totoro. 
Overall My Neighbour Totoro is whimsical and enchanting. The child-like innocence and colourful imagination, certainly brings a smile to the faces of mature audiences as they reminisce about their child-hoods. It’s this emotional reaction that Miyazaki is countlessly able to induce from his audience that is astonishing. It also has a flying cat bus, what’s not to like. 
Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便) (1989)

Only completed a year after My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service is my personal favourite of all Miyazaki’s productions. Originally developed in 1987, the film only gained Miyazaki as its director after the success of his previous features. Based on the novel by Eiko Kadono, Miyazaki adds his charm and detailed imagination forming a film that is spectacular, heart-warming and delightful. 
The story follows 13 year old Kiki, who is a witch-in-training. Following the traditional values of witches, she leaves home for a year to establish herself in a community and gain  true experience. Equipped with a radio and her talking black cat, Jiji, she soon fits into a picturesque coastal town. She experiences setbacks, makes friend and must confront her maturing difficulties and adolescent worries. Setting up a delivery service, she soon makes integrates, and begins to realise her position in the world and appreciates her own talents. This is very much a traditional ‘coming of age’ drama that Miyazaki tends to portray in his films. Its simple premise allows for a greater focus on character development and therefore means an increased emotional attachment to the memorable characters. 
Kiki is adorable with her big red bow, and remains charming throughout the film, creating a character that the audience finds likeable and stays attached to. We feel her worries as she enters the real world, her problems and her eventual jovial experiences as she slowly settles into her surroundings. Jiji offers ‘moral’ support, and provides the main laughs as he complains and reacts to other people. Its this pure and everyday portrayal of a child’s day to day life that brings a change of pace from the usually intense nature of Miyazaki’s work. No robots, no villains or explosions, its simple story-telling, almost reminiscent of a nursery rhyme.
The European influences play a massive part in constructing the world that the film is set in. Essences of Swedish and Danish culture and society are clearly visible from the architecture to the landscapes. The animation complements these influences, and creates a realistic atmosphere with a detailed and colourful look. 
Overall, Kiki’s Delivery Service is thoroughly enjoyable and has been carefully crafted for a wide audience. The animation is beautiful, and the story is much more relatable when compared to his previous works, even with witches. I personally felt a greater attachment to this film, than any of the other Miyazaki features. Everything is balanced so perfectly that you can’t help but shed a tear at its brilliance. 
This concludes Part One of the Hayao Miyazaki filmography ‘breakdown’. The next part is here:

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Zatōichi (座頭市) Review

Zatōichi (座頭市)
Director Takeshi Kitano has directed some of Japan’s best cinema, with his award winning Hana-bi being one of my favourite films of all time. His manner of directing is one that includes strong violence, drama and dark humour. He also has tended to stay with the Yakuza/ gangster genre of cinema, but has recently out-stretched to drama and comedy, which he was originally infamous for (stand-up comedy). However, here he attempts to retell the ‘Legend of Zatōichi’ which has been continuously portrayed in films, books and television. Though along way away from his ‘comfort zone’, this attempt at a period piece still sees his notorious use of violence and dark humour. The result is a film that is bloody and entertaining. 
The plot follows Zatōichi (Takeshi Kitano), a blind masseur who secretly wields the way of the samurai, and the sword too. Following a traditional ‘samurai genre’ structure and theme, Zatōichi uses his swordsman skills to the defence of local townspeople who are caught up in the local Yakuza war. Meanwhile, two siblings pose as geishas seeking revenge for the massacre of their family, who are the same Yakuza causing the local disarray. The two stories eventually converge, leading to a pulsating showdown with a high and bloody body count. Overall it’s a solid plot that is easily accessible by western audiences, but has no originality.
The acting is a mixed bunch. Kitano’s performance offers nothing memorable or engrossing. Instead he remains the quiet, yet brutal individual who we have seen in most of his films, which probably suits the character. Another famous face from Japanese cinema is Tadanobu Asano. He plays a hired rōnin for one of the Yakuza bosses, and though playing a ‘bad-ass’, falls short of his usual performances. The tragic nature of his character; unemployed, dying wife, never comes through in his acting. The one who stands out is Gadarukanaru Taka playing Shinkichi, the comedy relief of the picture. Providing much of the jokes, his character is well developed and offers a break from the serious dialogue, heavy action and blank characters. 
The cinematography and fight choreography are both well done, and complement each other well. However the CGI’s cheap production values really hinders the scenes and the overall film. Bad CGI has been implemented instead of practical effects; blood splatter, sword impalement etc, which really takes the audience out of the experience. The Japanese have never been able to master computer graphics, which is astonishing with their technological feats in animation and gaming. However, the sound is fantastic. With the plot focusing on a blind samurai, Kitano has clearly focused on the sound and tuneful aspect of his picture. Everything seems to have been amplified, transforming simple fights scenes into epic battles. Various scenes of peasants and workers ploughing fields and hammering nails, create a melodic beat to the picture. Even the last scene, which seems out of place, is a large tap-dancing show with the various surviving members of the supporting cast and numerous extras. 
Overall, Zatoichi isn’t Takeshi Kitano’s best, yet remains entertaining. The samurai genre of Japanese cinema has been over-saturated due to its historical and cultural implications, and Zatōichi offers nothing new to this. However, what it does offer is an enjoyable, brutal and competently acted take on the famous legend. 


In light of the events transpiring in Japan, I would like to make the following links visible: 

Monday, 11 April 2011

Summer Wars (サマーウオーズ)Review

Summer Wars (サマーウオーズ)

By the same director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosada, Summer Wars is a delightfully quirky and beautifully animated film that rectifies the mistakes of his previous feature. The story has been made more accessible for Western audiences and is much more rounded and balanced. The animation is stellar as usual, and the characters have been well crafted and well written. This all amounts to an animated film which is charming, engrossing, and humorous. Summer Wars is simply wonderful and challenges the Miyazaki-dominated genre of Japanese animation.
The plot focuses on the world of ‘Oz’. Essentially, ‘Oz’ is a virtual network that incorporates social networking, gaming and browsing, with the important infrastructures of society; military, government and finances etc. So basically, a sort of Facebook meets Skynet. Kenji Koiso (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a maths wizz at his eleventh grade school, and acquires a part time job working in Oz with his friend Takashi Sakuma (Takahiro Yokokawa). However, when the most popular girl in school, Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba), asks him to help out at her great-grandmother, Sakae Jinnouchi’s 90th birthday, he jumps at the opportunity. During his first night at the massive estate of the Jinnouchi family in Ueda, he receives an anonymous text message consisting of random lines of code. Kenji automatically solves it, not understanding the consequences of his actions. He wakes up to find, that ‘Oz’ has been hacked into using his own account and is in disarray. Japan’s infrastructure such as water, traffic and emergency services are now under the control of the hacking A.I known as ‘Love Machine’. 
The story is well structured and balanced with an ending that is memorable and satisfying. Critics have challenged the film’s plot, stating that it’s too conventional and offers nothing new or original. The idea of a computer system going haywire has been done by films like The Terminator and Tron. Many have drawn similarities to the 1983 War Games ,which is understandable. Both films have teenagers who unwittingly help an artificial A.I or computer system, which subsequently leads to Armageddon. Both also have a youthful romantic essence to the story. However, others critics have attacked the complexities of ‘Oz’ and a ‘convoluted’ narrative. So, whose right? I personally feel that the plot as been well-crafted. Hosada has been professional in his approach to the story. Whilst we have teenage ‘coming to age’ story, the colourful characters and the world of Oz, ensures that Summer Wars is enjoyed by all. Sure, the story is conventional, but its done perfectly with a balance of action, romance, drama and comedy. It doesn’t disappoint. The only small problem I had with Summer Wars is the reference of the traditional Japanese Hanafuda game of ‘Koi Koi’ in the story. This will confuse many Western audiences, but Hosada implements this well into the film without making it crucial to the plot. In fact, I actually feel compelled to investigate this aspect of Japanese culture right now.....
The characters are fantastic and have very unique personalities. The film focuses on the interactions between Kenji and the large Jinnouchi family, which is portrayed superbly and with so much depth. Kenji is our typical teenager; socially awkward, addicted to technology  and shy around girls. But throughout the course of the film he opens up to the family and Natsuki, forming a stronger and engrossing individual. Natsuki is cute, charming and likeable. We feel her sadness, joy and toughness throughout the film, therefore building a strong emotional attachment to the character. The Jinnouchi family itself consists of a barrage of colourful characters. From the wise and strong-willed great-grandmother, Sakae, to the ‘fighter’ and hikikomori (‘an individual suffering from social withdraw, who confines themselves to their room’), Kazuma, each character has a unique personality that is expressed and handled masterfully. This is also helped by the impressive Japanese voice-work that comes across natural and matches the various natures of the characters. 

The animation is similar to the The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, yet manages to feel refreshing. The backgrounds are fantastic as always with Hosada’s creations. They are lush and very detailed; from the busy streets of Tokyo, to the scenic landscapes of the Nagano Prefecture. Again the traits of Japanese manga and ‘anime’ are present; constant nose-bleeds due to embarrassment, anger causing a sharpening of the teeth etc. But these don’t distract from the overall animated aspect of the film. In fact, they add a lot more visual personality to the each of the characters. However the ‘World of Oz’ is where the animation steps up a gear. The internal workings of this virtual infrastructure are so intricate and perfectly animated. Its quite amazing how many ‘Oz avatars’, subjects, and objects are carefully implemented onto the screen. The ‘fighting scenes’ between ‘Love Machine’ and ‘King Kazuma’ are expertly handled and are intense. Its simple jaw dropping to watch, yet remains charming and engaging.
Overall, Summer Wars is fantastic and does justice to the ‘anime’ genre of Japanese cinema. While The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was fantastic I felt this Hosada creation was a much more rounded experience, and certainly rectified the issues I and many others had over his previous work. The magic is Hosada’s ability to structure and manage each character in the film, and still allow each of them to be fully expressed. The story has been crafted to be accessible to Western audience, but remains very Japanese,  engrossing and enjoyable. The animation is superb and very well detailed, and the voice work is great. Mamoru Hosada has crafted a film that truly challenges the strong Miyazaki -dominated genre of Japanese animation cinema, and surpasses the recent works of Studio Ghibli. 

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Friday, 8 April 2011

Personal Favourites: Cure (キュア)

Cure (キュア) 1997

Released in 1997, Cure was director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first major international breakthrough piece. Most noted for his cult horror film Pulse and the brilliant Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa has shown a flexibility in his directing. However, Cure sees the director take the simple premise of a ‘serial killer’ story and turn into a psychologically challenging picture, touching on the themes of hypnosis and memory loss. Kurosawa’s use of sound, and great cinematography create a disturbing atmosphere which many thrillers fail to achieve. Whilst it will leave the audience in a state of shock and confusion, the film is a masterpiece of thriller cinema. 
The story centres around a wave of grizzly murders, in which the victims have an X brutally carved into their chests. However, each body has a different killer, who is usually found near the scene of the crime. They hold no motive and have no recollection of the event that have occurred. Detective Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho), husband to a wife who suffers from short-term memory loss and mental fragility, is struggling to deal with the endlessly frustrating case and his wife’s problems. However after arresting a strange young man, Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), near a murder scene, he believes he has his man. But now the challenge is connecting him to the deaths, explaining how he kills ‘his’ victims. and finding out WHO THE HELL HE IS?
Cure will inevitable be linked to David Fincher’s Seven (1995). They both have similar basic principles of a 'serial murder' story, as well as the dark/disturbing atmosphere and interesting characters. Kurosawa has a unique grasp and willingness to portray the realistic brutality and unsettling nature of the plot. But he also has the bravery to venture into the difficult themes of psychosis, while challenging the boundary between reality and the imaginary. Evil and villainy are not independent entities or forces in relation to Kurosawa’s portrayal and thinking. Instead, Cure sees them as ‘ideas’ that spread and ‘infect’ the human mind, creating a hesitance to trust anyone, and crafting a society where anyone is a potential ‘killer’.
The ending plays very much towards this ideology, and will confuse many due to its lack of a definite conclusion. But it’s perfectly orchestrated to allow the audience to question, debate and interpret. As explained in my review of Source Code, modern cinema has been meddled with by executives and the ‘heads’ of Hollywood. Instead of twist endings or memorable cliffhangers, directors have been ‘forced’ to formulate happy and conclusive final acts. Therefore it is quite refreshing to go back to the 90s and witness a film in an era of great cinematic endings (Usual Suspects, Sixth Sense) and Cure's is another one to add to that list.
The acting is excellent, believable and does well to support the challenging story. Koji Yakusho, plays the frustrated detective and gives a fantastic performance. The growing intensity of the case, results in a dramatic change in Takabe’s personality and humanity. As Mamiya enters his world, we slowly see his descent into ‘madness’. His imagination merges with his sense of realism, created hallucinations and a breakdown in his mental stability. From the confident and collected detective, his mind slowly decays, eventually leaving him in a state of emotionlessness. Masato Hagiwara also puts in a stunning performance as Mamiya. Whilst initially being quite irritating because of his short-term memory problems, he really comes to life when communicating with the murderers, prior to their crimes. He portrays a calm, soft-toned individual (he reminded me of a Japanese James Franco), who constantly questions the various characters, giving little about his own character. Yet it is through the interactions between Mamiya and Detective Takabe, where both characters are truly crafted. These scenes incorporate the intense and unsettling atmosphere, whilst the acting remains powerful and manages to symbiotically encompass these settings. 
Cinematographically, Kurosawa is very clever in his use of imagery and general direction. He allows his atmosphere and characters to portray his plot rather than bluntly 'force-feeding' it to the audience. Lighting, sound and camera work all play a predominant role without creating a film that solely relies on dark tones and a dreary pallet. He isn’t afraid to use obscure but simple camera techniques to frame his production. Our introduction of Mamiya is one long tracking shot across a beach which though simple, manages to create a sense of mystery towards him. This is helped by Kurosawa’s use of sound which is powerful and contributes superbly to the unease and tension created by the scenes.  While the score is sparse, the film uses amplified everyday sounds, such as a tumble dryer, to create bellowing tones that resonate throughout the film. These also contribute to the psychological and hypnotic atmosphere and themes. Trickling water, to the crashing waves on the beach, it is hard to ignore that Kurosawa focused on turning these noises into a sinister and disturbing ambience. 
Overall, Cure is horrifyingly tense, insane, but immense. Many will be left in a state of confusion after the ending. But with all great thrillers and films in general, this is left to the audience to fully conclude and determine. The psychological aspect to the film is well played out, with the fantastic acting and cinematography contributing heavily to the impressive picture. Cure has been well received by audiences and critics even with the limited release back in 1997 and subsequent lack-lustre DVD release. It’s 'thriller' cinema at its best, and leaves you with a sense of angst towards the human condition, which could turn at any minute. 

Check out my other 'Personal Favourites' in the Features section. 

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Sunday, 3 April 2011

Source Code Review

Source Code

Director Duncan Jones’s Moon was released back in 2009, and gained positive reaction from critics and audiences globally. Its story and character(s) were well developed in a setting that created an atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia. It was an example of the science fiction genre done well. Therefore, I was quite excited and intrigued in his new film, Source Code. After reading various high praising reviews by film critics at the South by Southwest festival (SXSW), and having a story that seemed to be ‘Groundhog Day’  meets science fiction, it seemed to be a ‘must see’. And with the good impression I gained from Moon, I was expecting something special. However while Source Code, is an inventive and entertaining exploration of the ‘sci-fi’ genre, it suffers from underwritten characters, questionable plot routes and has an ending that ultimately ruined my initially positive impression of the film.
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train heading to Chicago, but appears to have taken the form of a teacher, Sean Fentress. A period of confusion occurs as he tries to make sense of the world he’s in, who the hell he is? and what he’s doing? After 8 minutes of uncertainty, a bomb detonates which kills everyone on board and destroys the train. Stevens wakes up to find himself locked in a capsule where he is greeted, via computer screen, by Officer Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She explains that the bomb he experienced had occurred that morning, and that there have been threats of another attack in downtown Chicago. Steven’s mission, subsequently, is to find the bomber on the train by using the ‘Source Code’ technology (a sort of simulation). He therefore repeats the last 8 minutes of Fentress’s life over and over, frustratingly dying each time, in an attempt to find the bomber. However he soon starts to build a romantic relationship with a teacher, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). He also begins to believe that he has the ability to save the lives on the train, against Dr Rutledge’s (Jeffrey Wright) ‘questionable’ explanation of his own invention. 
The story feels unique, and is interestingly constructed. The initial tension during the 8 minutes before the inevitable explosion is exciting. However like the rest of the plot, it quickly fades and falters. The final act really reveals the film's problems and it soon losses its focus and ‘stability’. The build up of the ‘total destruction’ of Chicago, which is the main focal point of the film suddenly ends, switching for Stevens’ desperate attempt to change the past, typical of ‘time-meddling’ flicks. Yet, what is inexcusable is the ending to Source Code. I am not going to spoil it, but I feel that the executives in ‘Hollywood’ had a massive say in Jones’s plot. What I mean is the tendency of major films to finish on a ‘happy’ and rounded conclusion that leaves the audience with a sense of gratification, pleasure or bliss. While, it works in some films, Source Code gives various and obvious instances at which Jones could have ended the film, whilst still having an upbeat ending. In fact, the actual ending, rather than tying up the ‘loose ends’, just adds more questions that are left unanswered, and doesn’t make sense in relation to what has been explained during the film. It’s a real tragedy and definitely hurts Source Code.
The acting is just average, with no one standing out. After Sam Rockwell’s excellent and strong performance in Moon, I got the impression that Duncan Jones had an ability to gain the best from a limited cast. However with a relatively good set of actors and actresses, they seemed to be dramatically underplayed and been painfully underwritten. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the protagonist, and initially impresses after his dry performance in, the similarly time altering picture, Prince of Persia. He brings an intensity into the character, while adding a hint of humour to the serious nature of the film. Gyllenhaal keeps the film on track until the later stages, where he is unavoidable dragged into the problems of the plot. 
Vera Farmiga’s performance is by far the best. However, there isn’t any back-story to her character, thus we gauge our understanding and impression of her from her actions throughout the film. While, this may be a hindrance in character development, Farmiga provides a well rounded performance to a underwritten character. Michelle Monaghan simply serves as the ‘romantic’ interest that Stevens builds up during his time in the ‘Source Code’. She adds nothing memorable or dramatic to the film, primarily because she plays along with the repetitive nature of the plot. 
Jeffrey Wright also fails to impress. His stereotypical portray of a mad scientist, bent on gaining millions in investment from governmental institutions is laughable. While Wright’s acting is rushed and soulless, there’s no attempt to explain anything about his character. His dialogue is boring and full of technical ‘jargon’, creating an under-developed douche. Adding to this under-performing cast is Russell Peters cameo. Who’s he? I didn’t know until researching him after watching the film. Turns out he’s a relatively famous Canadian stand-up comedian/ actor, in which his film character is a comedian from a talent show.  And unfortunately, he starts performing stand-up on the train, where he isn’t funny and the scene seems completely out-of-place. This scene is at the end of the film and I got the forced impression that the train commuters' laughs were supposed to symbolise ‘humanity?’ or ‘life?’ blahblahblah, which plays a philosophical/moral part in the last act. However it’s awkward and painful. 

But, Duncan Jones has created a film that looks great and clearly has a high production value. With many films that use a ‘repeating’ structure such as Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run, there is always the risk of boring the audience with continuous repetition. However, Source Code manages to keep the audience entertained with exciting action pieces, good editing and special effects. But snappy CGI and post-production can’t make a great movie. Overall Source Code is entertaining, but it is far from perfect. While it has an interesting plot, it soon falters under various flaws. This isn’t helped with characters that aren’t memorable and an ending that really ruined the film. After all the hype and positive reaction to the film, I left the cinema disappointed and confused by the ending. However, Duncan Jones remains relatively ‘young’ in his directing career, and I have high hopes for his next directing project. He is certainly 'one to watch' in the future.