Monday, January 30, 2012

My Favorite Directors: Hayao Miyazaki

“What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don't just bombard them with noise and distraction.” – Hayao Miyazaki (excerpt from 2002 Roger Ebert interview)

It’s no accident that I decided to kick off the inaugural My Favorite Directors feature with Hayao Miyazaki.  Besides the obvious connection to my month-long Japanese film retrospective, his name was on my short list of directors whom I consider to be the best of the best.  No other living director has produced a body of work as consistently brilliant as Miyazaki, and few have been capable of evoking a visceral film-going experience with each successive work.  “Living legend” gets casually thrown around to describe any artist who has reached a certain age and stature, but in Miyazaki’s case this reputation is well earned.

Miyazaki worked as an animator and writer on various TV and film projects in the 60s and 70s, including early collaborations with Isao Takahata as Taiyou no ouji Horusu no daibouken and Panda kopanda.   In 1979, he made his feature film directorial debut with Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro, taking an established character in a fresh direction, and firmly establishing his inimitable style.  Miyazaki later co-founded Studio Ghibli with Takahata, where he would continue to hone his craft, and create films that embodied his unique vision. 

It’s one thing to create amazing imagery and render tightly paced action scenes; it’s quite another thing to have stories and characterizations that match the visuals.  Miyazaki has gained a loyal following by doing just that.  He’s directed some of the highest-grossing films in Japan, but his movies are anything but a slick commodity or a cynical, soulless cash grab.  They possess a timeless quality that almost seems out of step with the rest of the animation world.  His films are refreshingly earnest, free from the reliance on the type of ironic, self-referential humor that’s become a de rigueur staple of most modern animation.  His characters rarely exist for mere comic relief, but have a place in the grander scheme of things.   

Miyazaki’s films have always imbued a deeply personal touch.  His animation is extremely fluid and expressive in their depictions of motion.  His characters are equally dynamic, often displaying more complexity than many of their live action counterparts.  They can alternately make me smile or feel sorrow.  Miyazaki’s also not afraid to slow things down, to dwell on life’s quiet, reflective moments.  Some of his most poignant scenes have involved little to no dialogue, as when Satsuki and Mei are waiting at a bus stop in the rain with their magical companion Totoro.  His keen attention to detail, multi-layered themes and artistic integrity appeals to both sides of the brain, providing food for our intellect and our appreciation of beauty. 

So, what makes a Miyazaki film a Miyazaki film?  There are a number of recurrent themes that run throughout his work, but here are some of his most prevalent:

  • Strong ecological themes.  Man has somehow upset the balance of nature.  The world is not in harmony and nature retaliates.  Some prime examples of this motif can be found in Princess Mononoke, where the imminent threat of war and industrialization has doomed the old gods.  In the future land depicted in Nausicaä, deadly spores are nature’s reaction to a polluted world.  Something has been lost as a result of our failure to care for our environment.  When we damage our habitat we only hurt ourselves
  • Strong female protagonists.  The examples are too numerous to cite here, but Miyazaki has frequently utilized headstrong, frequently adolescent female characters as his central protagonists, before Disney made it a trendy practice.
  • Rites of passage.  Many of Miyazaki’s central characters are on a quest of self-discovery.  The selfish, impetuous Sen (aka: Chihiro) must accept personal responsibility.  In Castle in the Sky, Sheeta comes to terms with her ancestry.  Kiki goes off to the big city to become a full-fledged witch. 
  • Things are not always as they seem.  Characters are rarely black and white in Miyazaki’s world.  Few are completely good or completely evil.  Castle in the Sky’s Dola lives in a perpetual shade of gray, as a matriarchal pirate.  In Spirited Away, No-face appears to be an unstoppable monster – and in the hands of a less-capable director that’s all he would be.  But Sen can see through his exterior and appreciate his true self. 
  • Flying.  An integral part of Miyazaki’s signature style stems from an early childhood fascination with aviation.  Whether it’s his depictions of amazing, elaborate flying craft (Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso) or flight via more organic means (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service), Miyazaki captures the thrill of flight and motion.

Ranking the Miyzaki Films:

Miyazaki’s next project is supposedly his last, although this wouldn’t be the first time that he’s made that claim.  Perhaps the most painful thing about assessing his present body of films is that I love them all (something I can’t say about any other director).  The worst (and that’s a strictly relative term) Miyazaki film is still better than 99% of anything else that’s out there, animated or otherwise.  For what it’s worth, here’s my ranking of his feature films.  If you haven’t watched a Miyazaki film (And why wouldn’t you?), any of these titles would be a good place to start:

  1. Sprited Away (2001) The material and immaterial worlds intersect.  We follow Sen as she grows up, discovering how we don’t appreciate what we’ve lost until it’s gone (with apologies to Joni Mitchell).  All of Miyazaki’s motifs are on display here, and never have they been integrated as well.  Rating: *****
  2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) A sentimental favorite.  Miyazaki captures the joys and fears of being a child, exploring attachment and loss.  Sweet (but never saccharine) and endlessly imaginative.  Who wouldn’t want a ride on the cat bus?  Rating: *****
  3. Castle in the Sky (1986) Never fails to ignite my sense of wonder with its wonderfully rendered flying machines and the magnificent floating city, Laputa, created by an ancient, long-dead civilization.  Rating: *****
  4. Princess Mononoke (1997) Quite possibly Miyazaki’s most mature work.  The eponymous Mononoke stands amidst a clash between the natural and artificial.  The birth of a new way of life and the death of the old ways represents an end and a new beginning.  Rating: *****
  5. Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) Chronicles the adventures of the lovable rogue Lupin the Third in what might be Miyazaki’s most frenetically paced film.  It’s a thrill ride from start to finish.  Rating: **** ½
  6. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) It’s a simple tale of growing up and fitting in, set amidst a sprawling old-world cityscape.  While lighter in tone, compared to many of Miyazaki’s other films, the tension-filled climax proves that he’s an artist at the top of his game.  Rating: **** ½
  7. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984) This is the prototypical Miyazaki film, with its strong ecological message and story about the consequences of a pointless war – the result of human selfishness and arrogance.  All the elements are in place that would serve as a test run for even bigger and better projects.  Rating: ****
  8. Porco Rosso (1992) This is probably the most blatant culmination of Miyazaki’s fascination with flight.  The laconic title character is charming and somewhat sad. The action sometimes borders on the cartoonish, but it’s pure fun all the way.    Rating: ****
  9. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) While it’s not the most original of Miyazaki’s films, it hits all the right notes.  Like the eponymous castle, Howl’s Moving Castle works like a well-oiled, magical machine with its colorful characters and tragic heroine.  Rating: ****
  10. Ponyo (2008) The most striking aspect of this production is its gorgeous watercolor appearance. Miyazaki’s retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid displays his most unabashedly innocent and playful side, demonstrating that he still remembers what it’s like to be a child.   Rating: ****

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Japan-uary Quick Picks and Pans

Fish Story (2009) This lively and inventive comedy weaves its convoluted plot through four decades.  You might feel a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, after watching this movie as it jumps around from 1974, to 1982, to 1999, to 2009 and into the (relative to the film’s present) near future of 2012.  A series of coincidences (Or are they?) follow the recording of a punk rock album by a Japanese band that predated the Sex Pistols.  One of the joys of director Yoshihiro Nakamura’s (with a screenplay by Tamio Hayashi) film is watching how a bizarre chain of events plays out.  It all somehow leads up to a climactic struggle in 2012 to stop a comet that’s on a collision course with Earth.  Fish Story is funny and captivating to the very end, with an infectious title song to boot.  Can an obscure punk rock single from 1974 really save the world?  Watch and find out!

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Redline (2009) There was a great deal of buzz generated about Redline over the past year, which prompted me to bump this sci-fi/action anime flick to the top of my Netflix queue.   I don’t think it quite lived up to the hype, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.  The film’s hyper-kinetic style (thanks to director Takeshi Koike) is visually stunning, providing more information than you can take in with one viewing.  It’s worth pointing out that Redline consists entirely of hand-drawn cell animation (CGI need not apply), representing the culmination of seven years of work. 

It’s a shame that the breathtaking imagery is complimented by paper-thin characterizations that do little service to the story.  The film’s central character is JP (sporting a foot-long pompadour), who participates in no-holds-barred, and illegal, interplanetary car races for big money and bigger stakes.  He faces several human and alien opponents who are introduced with all the depth of a typical video game.  It might seem odd making this observation in a racing-oriented movie, but I wish the film had taken the time to slow down once in a while, to allow the audience to get more acquainted with the characters and situations.  The virtually non-stop bombardment of the senses with eye candy gets a little tiring after a while, but it’s still worth watching.  I just wished it had tried to reach a little further.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sky Crawlers (2008) A pervasive sense of fatalism hangs over Mamoru Oshii’s aviation-themed film, set on an alternate reality Earth where corporations stage aerial battles.  We follow a squadron of young pilots, the latest in a long line of individuals used as cannon fodder in a pointless, interminable war engineered to keep the world’s populace entertained.  This brooding, melancholy film employs an uneasy mixture of cel animation and CGI resulting in inconsistent visuals that range from great to mediocre.  The computer-rendered dogfights are full of energy, capturing the perils and excitement of air-to-air combat.  In contrast to the dynamic aerial scenes, the conventionally animated characters seem almost expressionless.  Most of them are shallow and unsympathetic, content to wallow in their own misery.  The basset hound (Oshii’s trademark that serves as the air base mascot displays more genuine emotion.  Sky Crawlers is mostly good to look at, but the whole exercise seems to be missing something vital. 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming.

Warning from Space (1956) This Daiei production plays like a cross between The Day The Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide.  Starfish-shaped aliens called Pairans (Okay, I’m not gonna lie – goofy looking starfish-shaped aliens) visit Earth.  People flee in terror from them until the aliens decide to change strategies and come disguised in human form.  Eminent Japanese scientist Dr. Kamura has discovered a formula for a force that’s more destructive than any existing terrestrial weapon.  The alien emissary attempts to convince the scientist that his discovery could be a threat to everyone’s existence.  There’s an even more imminent threat, Planet R, which is hurtling through space and about to crash into Earth.  The two species must work together to confront this threat.  Outside of the ridiculous alien costumes, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, but it’s still refreshing to see a science fiction movie from the 50s where an alien species wants to cooperate with, instead of conquer, humankind.  Warning from Space has the distinction of being the first Japanese color science fiction production, but that attribute was difficult to appreciate with the scratchy, washed-out print that was used for the DVD transfer.  It might be worth a look if you’re a tokusatsu completist or just have a soft spot for very unconvincing creature effects.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (aka: Toki o kakeru shôjo)

(2006) Directed by Mamoru Hosoda; Written by Satoko Okudera; Based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui; Starring: Riisa Naka, Takuya Ishida and Mitsutaka Itakura;
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: **** ½

Sometimes, the best film finds are the ones you’re not expecting.  One of the great things about this month-long exploration of Japanese cinema has been discovering new favorites.   The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was initially released with little fanfare in its native Japan, but gradually gained an audience.  The angst-riddled teen relationships at this sci-fi/fantasy anime’s center seem superficial only on the surface, but underneath are layers waiting to be explored.  The film starts out as a lighthearted coming-of-age slice of life, and turns into a thoughtful exploration of choices and consequences. 

Springtime is rapidly coming to an end.  The sound of cicadas fills the air, signaling the arrival of summer.  Three high school friends, Makoto, Chiaki and Kousuke play ball on the baseball diamond, blissfully unaware that their lives are about to change forever.  Makoto Konno comments that she’s not particularly intelligent or stupid.  In her diminutive, self-effacing way, she considers herself just an average girl, but she’s the perfect template to experience the unusual.  The fantastic always seems more believable when experienced through the eyes of an “ordinary” individual. 

Makoto reads the aphorism “time waits for no one” scrawled across a classroom blackboard, foreshadowing her adventures to come.  The phrase also serves as a fair description of the film’s underlying theme, involving the limitations and perils of time travel.  After a disconcerting experience in an adjacent science lab, she rides on her bike to deliver peaches to her aunt Kazuko.  Her brakes suddenly fail while approaching a commuter train, but she emerges alive and completely unharmed from what should have been a fatal accident.  It slowly dawns on her that she has the ability to travel backward, to re-experience, and ultimately change the course of events. 

Traveling back in time to manipulate things can be fun, at first.  She initially enjoys her newly acquired advantage to change the past day’s events.  It feels good to get the pudding that her younger sister Miyuki originally took from her, or anticipate her friends’ every move on the baseball diamond.  She soon learns, however, that changing the incidents in her life doesn’t come without a price.  When Chiaki asks her to go out on a date, her moment of indecisiveness leads her to replay the point in time, changing the outcome – resulting in him asking another girl out.  With each subsequent leap back in time, the burden of knowing what’s going to happen before everyone else weighs heavily on her conscience.  As her little changes begin to turn into bigger problems, the stakes begin to rise.  Her poor choices might have life-or-death consequences.

Makoto relates her time-traveling adventures to Kazuko, who seems to have a sixth sense about this sort of thing.  Her aunt doesn’t judge or dismiss her stories, but serves as a moral compass.  She questions if Makoto is using her ability responsibly.  Are her motivations for altering events driven by purely selfish reasons?

One of the most pivotal scenes occurs when Makoto and her friends are literally at a crossroad.  The scene is replayed later, but with different results.  It reflects Makoto’s inward struggle, and symbolizes the choices that we all make.  For most of us, we don’t have the ability to go back and do something over again.  Depending on our choices, the repercussions will branch out in completely different ways.  Through Makoto, we get to examine some of the myriad permutations that can occur when one small, seemingly insignificant decision is made.  

If we could go back and do things differently, would it really be for the better, or are we simply deluding ourselves?  Probably everyone wishes he or she had a reset button to right some of our more egregious wrongs.  The problem resides in how we isolate that moment when things turned sour without changing something else.  Exploring this dilemma, and demonstrating the direct and indirect results is what this film does so well.   It almost slipped beneath my radar, and that would have been a shame.  The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a funny, bittersweet, and a surprisingly cerebral time travel story that will stick with you long after you’ve watched it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Classics Revisited: Gojira (aka: Godzilla)

(1954) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Ishirô Honda, Shigeru Kayama (Story) and Takeo Murata; Starring: Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada and Momoko Kôchi; Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming

Rating: *****

What’s It About?

Gojira, or Godzilla as it’s known in the States, is an indisputable landmark in monster films, and serves as a sobering condemnation of the atomic age.  Until fairly recently, the original version wasn’t widely available outside of its native country.  For several decades, most American audiences were only aware of the heavily edited 1956 version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!  New footage starring Raymond Burr as a reporter was inserted into the American cut, which was also significantly shorter.  Another major difference was that references to the atom bomb and its effects were omitted from the 1954 version.  This only served to dilute Ishirô Honda’s original subtext-laden cautionary tale into a standard popcorn flick.

While it’s easy to accept that the name “Gojira” is a combination of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale,” it’s not so clear who came up with the name in the first place.   Different stories have circulated about the monster’s name, attributing Gojira to a studio contest, or a nickname for a burly Toho stagehand, or even the head of the film company’s advertising department.   In the early planning stages of the film, it wasn’t even certain what type of creature would be labeled Gojira.  The filmmakers went through numerous conceptual drawings until settling on the dinosaur/dragon-like monster that’s so instantly recognizable today.

Although the title monster is prehistoric, its awakening and subsequent rampage were clearly modern in origin.  The exact cause for Godzilla’s appearance is not explicitly stated, but all signs point to atomic testing.  In the opening scene, a small ship is destroyed by an unseen force.  According to DVD commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, this scene was likely influenced by an unfortunate 1954 incident involving the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon #5), which was in the vicinity of an American nuclear test on Bikini Atoll.  One of the biggest influences for Gojira, however, is undoubtedly the devastation that Japan experienced at the end of World War II, as the direct result of atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Prominent zoologist Professor Tanabe (Fuyuki Murakami) visits Odo Island to learn more about a legendary creature that has been sighted in the vicinity by members of the indigenous population.  He detects radioactive contamination in the village – a direct result of the monster’s appearance.  In the next scene, he catches a first-hand glimpse of Gojira.  The other major players in Gojira are a love triangle consisting of Tanabe’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), her childhood friend Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), and her new boyfriend Ogota (Akira Takarada).

Serizawa carries an enormous burden on his shoulders in the form of a dangerous new invention, the oxygen destroyer.  He’s compelled to keep it under wraps, troubled by the implications of letting his secret fall into the wrong hands.  The oxygen destroyer might be the only weapon capable of defeating Godzilla, but it could also potentially doom humanity. He entrusts his friend Emiko with his secret, but as Godzilla continues to leave a wake of destruction across Japan, their friendship, and his resolve to keep his invention locked away, become strained to the breaking point. 

Godzilla is brought to life, thanks to Eiji Tsuburaya’s groundbreaking effects work.  He admired the stop-motion work in American films such as King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but deemed this technique too expensive and time-consuming to duplicate for Gojira.  Instead, Tsuburaya employed a combination of suit effects (His first attempt at creating a latex rubber suit was far too rigid to walk in.) and puppetry amidst detailed miniature buildings to create the illusion of an immense reptilian creature wreaking havoc on human civilization.  Many of the effects appear primitive by today’s exacting standards, but they reflect a different aesthetic that values artistry over realism.

Akira Ifukube’s memorable score is appropriately somber.  In one of the most haunting segments of Gojira, we hear a plaintive girls’ chorus, accompanied by images of the human toll exacted by Godzilla’s wrath.  His main theme, initially used to signal the arrival of the military, would continue to appear in one form or another throughout the many subsequent films in the Godzilla series.  Ifukube also contributed greatly to the film’s sound effects, with the innovative use of musical instruments (Godzilla’s distinctive roar is one notable example.).

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Gojira not only stands favorably in comparison to its 1950s American contemporaries, but surpasses many of them in terms of social relevance and allegorical storytelling.   Simply put, Godzilla is an unstoppable force of nature.  Only our hubris makes us think that we hold all the cards, but the natural world always has the stronger hand.  The terrible devastation brought on by Godzilla reminds us that the threat of nuclear obliteration is still a salient concern.   The original film achieved something that none of the other sequels managed to do – transcending pure entertainment and becoming emotionally engaging.  There are no generic crowds here.  You’re right down on the ground with the population as their city crumbles in front of their eyes.  No other Godzilla film has made the wholesale destruction appear so personal.  Honda has successfully linked human faces to the ensuing tragedy.  In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, a mother tells her children that they will soon join their (dead) father.  In another scene, Emiko weeps as she surveys the casualties in a disaster relief center.  These moments, and many others, help lift Gojira above many other genre films of the period, and establishes it as a significant work in any genre.

The Japanese import Godzilla has become a ubiquitous component of American culture.  In William Tsutsui’s amusing book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, the author observed how Godzilla has entered our popular lexicon to denote something of gargantuan proportions.  Godzilla has become so embedded in our collective unconscious that most people are probably aware of him on some level, even if they haven’t seen a single Godzilla movie.

When he completed Gojira, Ishirô Honda couldn’t foresee that he would be creating a legacy that would continue many decades later (The original film has spawned 27 sequels to date.).  It’s surprising to note that Honda, whose name has become synonymous with the Godzilla franchise, was actually not the first person chosen to direct Gojira, or that the film was not planned as the first in a series.  Perhaps Honda and Godzilla were just in the right place at the right time.  Whatever the reason, the Godzilla movies (much like the title monster) refuse to go away.  Plans are in the works for another American film (hopefully better than Roland Emmerich’s misguided attempt).  It’s also unlikely that Toho has closed the door on future productions.  If there’s one thing that’s certain; we haven’t heard the last from the big “G.”

Saturday, January 7, 2012


(1968) Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô; Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi and Kei Satô; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Rating: **** ½

Kuroneko, translated as “black cat,” is a somber, lyrical tale of devotion and sacrifice.  Poetic and beautifully haunting, it’s akin to glimpsing a faded photograph, observing the shades and attempting to enter its unique, inaccessible world.  By employing Japanese theatrical conventions and painting with an expressionistic canvas, the film represents a skewed interpretation of reality, rather than an attempt to duplicate reality itself. 

The screenplay for Kuroneko was partially based on an old folk story, “The Cat’s Revenge,” which was combined with old samurai legends.  According to Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, writer/director Kaneto Shindô often depicted the samurai as oafish and arrogant, in sharp contrast to their typical heroic status in pop culture.  The samurai in Kuroneko (with one notable exception) are anything but brave or honorable, looking down on the same peasants they’re supposed to protect, and taking whatever they desire.  Shindô’s populist sympathies are plainly aligned with the commoners, who only exist to be exploited.

Shige and Yone (Kiwako Taichi and Nobuko Otowa, respectively), a young woman and her mother in law living alone in a rural hut, are raped and killed by a roving band of samurai warriors.  The samurai leave the flaming house like a swarm of locusts that have scourged a field of sustenance.  In the following scene, a black cat traipses through the smoldering wreckage, walking over the bodies of the slain women, signaling their ascendancy into the ethereal world.  They re-emerge as vengeful spirits (yokai), intent on killing all samurai and drinking their blood.  Shige lures any samurai who happen to wander by into a spectral house, which appears out of a shadowy bamboo forest.  Yone performs a mournful dance as Shige methodically seduces the mesmerized warriors one by one, and delivers a killing blow to their throats.  It doesn’t take long for news of the bloody deaths to reach the local warlord Raiko (Kei Satô).

Yone’s son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), who was forcibly conscripted into service for the tyrant Raiko three years ago, emerges triumphantly from the battlefield.  Gintoki is an honorable man, haunted by his allegiance to Raiko, and reluctantly accepts his assignment to seek out the root of the unseen assailants, and rid the samurai of this threat.  In his quest, he returns to his home village, only to discover that his home (along with his wife and mother) has been burned to the ground.  He encounters two women who resemble his dead wife and mother, and concludes that he must be the recipient of some ghostly trick.  He resigns himself to the truth that they are not what they seem, but he is compelled by his grief to pursue them.  Shige might not be the same person, but their love endures.  Their memories are enough to revive the bond that existed between them.  They engage in a brief, intensely passionate, but ill-fated tryst.  Re-igniting their love comes only at a terrible price.

In contrast to Gintoki’s allegiance to love and family, Raiko admires power above all else, believing that he’s entitled to do whatever he wants.  He’s blinded by the delusion that the peasants admire the samurai, and that they should be grateful for the protection that’s afforded to them.  He sees nothing honorable about the peasants, viewing them as something less than human.  He reminds Gintoki that he was once a lowly farmer, and wouldn’t be admired by women if not for his samurai status.  When informed that malevolent spirits were the cause of the murdered samurai, Raiko is incredulous that they would defy his order.  

Stark lighting, fog and shadows herald the intersection of the spiritual and tangible worlds.  Kiyomi Kuroda’s beautiful black and white cinematography creates an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere.  The film’s stunning appearance is accompanied by Hikaru Hayashi’s eerie score, with musical cues that ominously signal impending doom (leading me to speculate if Hayashi’s score could have influenced some of the cues for the ghostly occurrences in The Shining). 

Kuroneko’s horror is refreshingly subtle, propelled by tone and ideas rather than cheap scares.  It reminds us that our hearts and imagination are the best tools for perceiving whatever lies beyond everyday reality.  Shindô guides us through a nightmarish realm that lies within the domain of the spirits.  Kuroneko is a film not only to be watched, but experienced.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mushishi (aka: Bugmaster)

(2006) Directed by Katsuhiro Ohtomo; Written by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Ohtomo; Based on the manga by Yuki Urushibara; Starring: Jô Odagiri, Nao Ohmori and Yû Aoi; Available on DVD

Rating:  ***

Mushishi was based on the fantasy manga by Yuki Urushibara, which spawned the brilliant 2005 anime series by Hiroshi Nagahama.  The live action feature film was directed by Katsuhiro Ohtomo, known primarily for his anime films, including Akira and Steamboy.  As a fan of the anime version and an admirer of Ohtomo’s work, my expectations were unusually high.  Similar to the other incarnations, the film emphasized a reflective, ethereal tone rather than showcasing fast-paced action sequences.  The date is never explicitly mentioned, but it’s set in an earlier, simpler time when big cities didn’t exist and people were closer to the land.

The concept of mushi, which is central to the story, is one of the aspects that would likely be confusing to those not familiar with the manga or anime series.  Mushi are vaguely defined in the movie as organisms living parallel to us, but not readily perceived by all but a few individuals.  It’s not explained in the film, but mushi spring from the same elemental energy as plants and animals, and exist as a different form of life altogether.  Most of the time, they do not present a problem to the human population, but in instances when humans and mushi intersect the result is frequently discomfort, illness, or even death.  The film’s alternate (irritating) title, Bugmaster, is something of a misnomer, considering the fact that mushi are not really bugs.  It also implies that the main character Ginko is an overglorified exterminator, rather than the more nuanced role that he inhabits.  

Ginko (Jô Odagiri) is a mushi-shi (or mushi master), and serves as something between a doctor and a shaman.  He leads an itinerant lifestyle, roaming the countryside and aiding those who have experienced run-ins with the mushi.  He and other mushi-shi have accumulated folk remedies over the years for the mushi-induced maladies.  His endeavors are not entirely altruistic, however.  His interactions with the villagers he encounters are reciprocal in nature, helping him to learn more about the mushi and himself.  Ginko is an enigma.  His childhood remains a mystery, and he’s actually much younger than his gray hair would suggest.  Flashbacks in the film gradually reveal his sad story.  One area where the live action film improves on the animated version is with the characterization of Ginko.  Odagiri personifies Ginko as sage and distant, but also approaches the role with warmth, subtle humor, and a general joy of life.  Compared to his live-action counterpart, the anime version of Ginko seems a little two-dimensional (pardon the pun).

The most tragic figure in Mushishi is Tanyu, skillfully played by Yû Aoi.  Tanyu is confined to her home, bound by a family curse that involves a debilitating mushi infection.  She listens to the stories of the various mushi-shi that stop by, chronicling their experiences with mushi on scrolls, which are in turn archived for other mushi-shi to read.  Her scenes with Ginko and her long-suffering caretaker are the strongest in the film.  Her affliction prevents her from fully engaging with the outside world, as symbolized by her unrequited relationship with Ginko.

One of Mushishi’s deepest flaws is that the original stories are episodic, rather than linear.  Deciding which tales to fit into a two-hour-plus feature must have been an arbitrary process.  The opening scenes when Ginko confronts two different types of mushi are not directly related to the plot in the rest of the film, which evolves into a variation of the road story.  Considering Ohtomo’s animation roots, the visuals are disappointing.  Compared to the beautifully rendered imagery in the anime series, the effects in the live action version are fairly humdrum.  We only get to see a few different types of mushi, and their depiction is mostly underwhelming.  Only one scene rivals the anime version, when we see words leaping off of Tanyu’s scrolls.

Ultimately, Mushishi left me feeling conflicted.  On the one hand, I appreciated the film’s gentle sensibilities, deliberately told at a slower pace to maintain a quietly reflective tone.  We’ve been afforded the opportunity to get to know Ginko and his unique circumstances, and feel invested in his character.  Unfortunately, the story lacks the depth or coherence that the source material demanded, appearing somewhat unfinished and unsatisfying.  I was also left with the distinct impression that casual viewers who are not acquainted with the manga or anime series might frequently wonder what’s going on.  The film definitely would have benefited from the inclusion of additional details about mushi, more compelling visuals and a tighter story line.  Unfortunately, I can only lament about what could have been, rather than what was displayed in the finished product.  This is not to say that Mushishi is without its moments – it’s just too bad that those are only moments.