On the eve of its 20th anniversary, one of the most popular animé films of the early 90s finally reached UK cinemas, ahead of an HD release on Blu-ray. Ninja Scroll was originally released in the West on the back of the success of Akira, as both US and UK distributors fell over themselves looking for the next big Japanese animated film that could cash in on the success of the cyberpunk classic, while ignoring for another decade the non-violent, but superlative work of Studio Ghibli.
The film suffers from the excesses that gave much contemporaneous animé a bad name. These include pans over still images to save the animators some time, as well as the more unsavoury scenes of rape, excessive female nudity, ultra-violence and the ubiquitous tentacled monsters. But none of these elements should be a surprise, as the director also animated more egregious examples in the form of his Wicked City pair of films (ôôjû toshi, 1987) and Monster City (Makaitoshi Shinjuku, 1988). However, in Ninja Scroll at least, these elements are offset by some beautiful renderings of landscapes, weather and the costumes of feudal Japan. The film’s bookends are also excellent: a surprisingly subtle fight scene on a bridge and a climactic battle on a burning ship full of molten gold.
That the film excels more in individual compositions than overall direction and storytelling is indicative of the fact that the director worked better as an animator on other people’s projects, rather than his own, most notably on one of the finest examples of the medium, Rintaro’s Metropolis (Metoroporisu, 2001) and the Satoshi Kon/Katsuhiro Ôtomo anthology Memories (Memorîzu, 1995).
While not based on manga like many of its contemporaries, the story in Ninja Scroll is still episodic to the extent of feeling like video-game plotting. The lead character – a wandering ronin called Kibagami Jubei – goes on various missions: retrieving gold, protecting the weak from being beaten and subjugated, and fighting a variety of creatures that transform from human personas into monsters. Some of these seem overfamiliar, such as those with the aforementioned tentacles, but others are terrific hybrids of man and nature, including a swarm of hornets that live within a hunchback’s vertebrae and demons that transform into rocks and shadows. Reminiscent of American super-villains, these characters and the rendering of rain and snow suggest the director also looked to the West for inspiration, to heroes and villains in Marvel Comics, as well as the then recently started Sin City comic by Frank Miller. Indeed, Kawajiri would look to Miller for inspiration again in his 2003 The Animatrix samurai episode ‘Program’.
Elsewhere, the inspiration is purely Japanese, with the wandering ninja relocated from a series of novels by Futaro Yamada, and placed in front of compositions reminiscent of paintings by Hokusai. This cultural mash-up is entertaining and often memorable, and the legions of adolescent males who have watched the film over the last generation ensured a thematic sequel in 1997’s Ninja Resurrection (Makai Tensho: Jigoku-hen), a spin-off TV series in 2003, and an official sequel in pre-production.
However, the rape scene, which borders on cannibalism and necrophilia, leaves a bad taste in the mouth (no pun intended), and one wonders if the BBFC actually made the right decision in 1995 when they originally cut it from the film. The other 93 minutes are a reasonable introduction to the genre for gamers and animé fans, who would be well advised to follow this with the superior animé series Samurai Champloo (Samurai chanpurû, 2004–05). However, for those seeking the best ninja/samurai action on screen, there are dozens of live action movies either directed by Akira Kurosawa or based on manga by Kazuo Koike that are much better films than Ninja Scroll.
Manga veteran Yoshiro Tatsumi is probably best known, if he is known at all, to Western readers as the creator of The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, two translated volumes of his 60s and 70s gekiga stories, and A Drifting Life, a fat and fascinating, if frustrating, graphic biography. Gekiga (‘dramatic pictures’) was a genre created by Tatsumi and others in the late 60s, as they began to write and draw darker, more adult tales about contemporary Japanese life, departing from the children’s fantasy adventures that dominated the medium. Tatsumi’s classic tales, created while Japan was going through a period of rapid economic growth, reveal a downside to the boom, usually concentrating on the alienated and ground-down, the anxious and desperate beset by warped sexual obsessions, degradation at the workplace and humiliation at home. Tatsumi gleaned story ideas from grim tabloid shock stories and turned them into sweaty, angsty little dramas of unwanted foetuses and unrequited desire in brushy, grubby black and white.
Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s animated feature takes five of these stories and brings them to life with admirable fidelity. ‘Hell’ tells of a photographer whose shot of a moment of familial tenderness amid the horrors of Hiroshima brings him fame and admiration, until the horrible truth catches up with him. ‘Beloved Monkey’ details the downward spiral of a factory worker. The gentler, wryer ‘Just a Man’ deals with an ageing company man on the verge of retirement trying to blow his money on women rather than let his lousy family get to it. ‘Occupied’ almost comes as light relief as a desperate manga artist brings about his own ruination through an obsession with bathroom graffiti. And the devastating ‘Goodbye’ tells the sordid tale of a prostitute and her deadbeat dad in the aftermath of the Second World War. All are computer-animated lifts from the original art, augmented with scratchy, grainy filters, a black blizzard of dot tones and shaken and shocked camera effects. They have claustrophobic soundtracks and vocal work (most Tatsumi tales are dominated by male monologues) from Tetsuya Bessho and Tatsumi himself.
The five tales are appropriately scuzzy in places, recalling the forceful, hard-boiled crudity of Phil Mulloy’s cartoons (this is a compliment!), and recreate the original manga’s atmosphere of downbeat delirium most effectively. They serve as a pretty fine introduction to the man’s work, which I love, but I have to say I’d understand anyone who felt after this that they’d seen all they want to see. Tatsumi’s work was originally consumed in periodical form, in magazines surrounded by other varied material. Read or watched en masse by itself, it can seem a little overwhelming, too many songs in the same doomy chords.
Perhaps this is why Khoo decided to break up the stories with material taken from the autobiography A Drifting Life, wherein our titular creator, feeling glum after the death of his lifelong inspiration Osamu Tezuka, reflects on his impoverished childhood and the struggles he had progressing as an artist in the rocky world of pulp publishing. This is mostly fascinating stuff (well, it is if you’re a cartoonist), but it feels inadequate to explain the singular nature of the tales it’s interwoven with. A Drifting Life was an 8oo-page monster, which has been filleted here for little scraps, fractured moments that are entertaining enough but feel like far less than the full story. Worse, all the linking stuff looks bloody horrible in washy, blobby colour; where the story sections made a virtue of their roughness, their monochrome limitations, the colour stuff just looks cheap and nasty.
There is also a growing, crunching mismatch between the wistful, sentimentalised autobio stuff and the transgressive confrontational tales. We see the young Tatsumi have an awkward, fairly innocent, erotic encounter with a girl as a callow youth in the big city, and later witness the twisted sexual minefield of ‘Goodbye’ and wonder what the hell happened. A gulf opens up between the extraordinary tales and the simple workaday life as depicted, a gulf Tatsumi and Khoo seem to have no interest in filling in either book or film. A scene near the end of Tatsumi has the ageing manga-ka walking past characters from his tales and waxing nostalgic about all the worlds he has created while a pretty melody rings out on the soundtrack. The scene seems to belong to a film about Disney, or Tolkien, or Tezuka, a creator of Narnia rather than a chronicler of incest and existentialism. He smiles as a familiar monkey climbs up onto his shoulder, maybe we’re supposed to smile too, but we’ve just seen what happens to that monkey, and it’s far from pleasant.
Highly recommended for the graphically inclined, worthwhile viewing for the curious, now check out the books.
Suitably for a film written by Mamoru Oshii, Musashi is alternately beautiful, intriguing, enlightening, impenetrable and frustrating. As with his earlier film, Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast-Food Grifters (2006), it’s a type of animé unlike any I’ve seen before. While Tachigui was a fictitious drama made in the style of a documentary and animated in a unique way, Musashi is an animated documentary with dramatised scenes, mainly narrated by a Chibi-style CGI professor. Occasionally, the narration is sung and the animated set-pieces taking place in the 16th and 17th centuries are contrasted with live-action footage of the same locations in modern times.
In addition to the simplistic style used for the narrator, reminiscent of early Pixar short films, the animation style varies from chapter to chapter as we are told the story of Miyamoto Musashi, writer, artist and samurai who lived from approximately 1584 to 1645, and given lessons in the history of sword fighting in the East and the West, army tactics and the development of chivalry. You might have guessed that a film trying to cover all these topics and more in its brief 72-minute running time would feel a bit rushed, and as an educational tool, it would possibly work better as an extra on a box-set of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-1956), which starred Toshirô Mifune as Musashi. The excellent animation used for the various scenes of the samurai at battle only leaves the viewer wanting more, as while we’re told how brilliant and innovative Musashi’s tactics were on the field of battle, it’s better to show rather than tell - particularly in animation - and excised from a greater narrative, the fight scenes don’t give us particular insight into the character as a real person.
Allowing for the frustrating nature of the film, there is still much to enjoy on screen. For a film made by a single director, it’s intriguing how many different animation styles are used, from monochrome, sepia-toned pencil work used to evoke silent movies, to stark black and white with a splash of red, and more caricatured line work depicting the cruelty of some of the foes Musashi meets in the field of battle, rendered in the style of Peter Chung. This anthology approach recalls an earlier Studio I.G. production, Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), which assigned a different director to each segment, and given the number of commentators and disparate films on Musashi’s life there have been, suits the material well. The film’s director, Mizuho Nishikubo, is an old colleague of Oshii’s. They both started their careers on the TV series Gatchaman II (1978-79), the sequel to an earlier show, better known in the West as Battle of the Planets (1978-85). This makes me wonder if the two men now use opportunities like Musashi and Tachigui to make films that are experimental and willfully obscure, their bulletproof reputation built on three and half decades in the industry permitting them to take on projects that wouldn’t be commissioned otherwise.
The film’s excellent visuals are accompanied by a terrific soundtrack that mixes Rôkyoku singing, funk, ambient and Western classical music, let down only by a dreary power ballad that accompanies the end credits. Although the film is short, a 45-minute edit without the CGI professor would be better still. But while not quite a good enough project in its own right, Musashi is a great introduction to both the character on screen (10 films so far, plus cameos elsewhere) and animated samurai cinema in general. If nothing else, this film made me want to track down Mizuho Nishikubo/Project I.G.’s TV series Otogi Zoshi (2004-5), about five folk heroes who save Kyoto from destruction during the Heian period, and their reincarnations in the modern day, which at a total running time of 626 minutes, unlike Musashi, presumably won’t suddenly be over just as it feels like the plot has begun.
In the mid-80s, the pop culture apocalypse was back in fashion. Previous decades had already seen sci-fi and fantasy reactions to the threat of nuclear war in both the East and the West - Japan favoured giant irradiated behemoths on screen such as Godzilla (1954-2004), America had incredible shrinking men and scientists with insect heads, and both countries had alien visitors warning us about the danger of ultimate war. By the 1960s comics got in on the act, with masterpieces of Japanese manga such as Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix: Future, predicting a machine-driven apocalypse in the 35th century, while Marvel Comics became a force to be reckoned with in Stan Lee’s indelible wave of irradiated teenagers with superpowers in the pages of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk and many others.
However, these two aspects of post-(modern) apocalypse - the irradiated teenager and the irradiated environment - didn’t combine notably until the 1980s in comic books, and later in their cinematic adaptations. Again, Japanese and Western takes on this combination differ wildly. Japan has never taken to costumed heroes with the same enthusiasm as the West. In Japan, supernatural powers were more common than super-powers in late-80s print manga, most notably in Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, where telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world.
Based on Otomo’s serialised comic, which ran for over 2,000 pages between 1982 and 1990, the film of Akira necessarily condenses the plot of the manga to fit it in a running time of just over two hours, and is mainly based on the first third of the comic books. Akira is set in 2019, 31 years after explosions have devastated 20th-century Tokyo for a second time, now renamed Neo Tokyo. Violent street gangs terrorise the city on motorbikes, with the police and the teenagers’ educators having little influence on their behaviour. In the middle of one three-way fight between two gangs and the police, a scientist and his young ward, apparently suffering from progeria, escape from a research facility into the melee before the former is killed and the latter fades before our eyes. Witness to this are two of the gang members, Kaneda and Tetsuo, and Kaneda’s interaction with the mysterious child awakens his psychic powers, leading to the creation of another potential weapon of mass destruction, while an apocalypse cult pray for the return of Lord Akira. In Akira, the apocalypse has a human face as first, lead character Tetsuo, and then the resurrected Akira himself, have the power of a nuclear explosion at their fingertips, something the military and government want to curtail. But it is only the interaction of the super-powered with ordinary, albeit anarchist, humans that stops the (complete) destruction of Tokyo for a third time.
Several enjoyable scenes struck me on re-watching the film: the corrupt rat-faced politician who seems to have wandered in from another movie, the attack of giant patchwork demonic toys with skin that’s bleeding milkshakes, a chase through the sewers that is a mixture of the climactic scene of The Third Man (1949) and the opening credits of Batman: The Movie (1966), Tetsuo’s Superman-inspired red cape (particularly in long shot, punching a space station) and the Warner Bros-style animated slapstick as Kaneda dodges falling boulders prior to the arrival of Akira from below. Akira the film, like Akira the character, is a form of rebirth, reconstituted from the elements of what went before; it’s not quite as cinematic as later animé - except a terrific close-up on Kaneda at the start of the film’s final battle - but the skill and dedication of the animators in bringing an unwieldy epic to the screen shines through. It’s a shame that in both subtitles and dubbing, even the more recent translation is still lacking, including such Pythonesque gems as: ‘He’s a false messiah! This isn’t the rapture!’ and ‘That’s Mr. Kaneda to you, punk’, a line that only Clint Eastwood or Sydney Poitier could get away with.
Akira is a smorgasbord of influences and references: Fritz Lang had his protagonists in Metropolis (1927) witness prophetic visions and have psychic links with their dopplegängers as did the subterranean mutants in Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); and Akira’s imagery of childhood toys battling with technology had first appeared in Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland in the first two decades of the 20th century. But Akira combines so many disparate elements from comic books and films that the resulting collage results in something startling and new. While the renowned English-language comic books of the time had to mainly resort to superheroes to narrate their tales (Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Watchmen), Akira didn’t exist in isolation: in Europe, the absence of capes led to a similar mix of science fiction, satire, psychic powers, false messiahs and apocalypse in Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius’s comic book The Incal, which ran concurrently with Akira in the 1980s (Jodorowsky even supposedly advised Otomo on the ending of his manga).
On its release in 1988 (Japan) / 1991 (UK), Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film as it presented concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation, and even then there were only a few live-action films that captured a similar neon-lit world, including Blade Runner (1982) half a decade earlier. Animé broadcast in the UK had previously been restricted to TV series that were international co-productions with France (Ulysses 31 / The Mysterious Cities of Gold), Spain (Around the World with Willy Fog) or America (Transformers / Thundercats). In the 80s and early 90s, little of Hayao Miyazaki’s charming fantasy animation was available in translation other than the odd episode of Sherlock Hound and his unremarkable debut film The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Against this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that the arrival of Akira seemed like the birth of an entirely new art form, and it was unfortunate that post-Akira, distributors didn’t look for the finest examples of the medium they could bring to the West - i.e. Miyazaki’s films - but rather brought other movies similar in tone, which led to a deluge of violent, undemanding animated manga that gave the word a bad name. Akira does contain many of the clichés of bad manga - ultra-violence, techno organic tentacles and bucolic flashbacks - but it was one of the first to include these elements. It started a sub-genre that includes the work of Mamoru Oshii - particularly his Patlabor (1988-1993) and Ghost in the Shell (1995-2008) animé franchises - and Satoshi Kon - Paprika (2006) - who worked as an assistant to both Otomo and Oshii.
Otomo has the distinction of being involved in two of the finest Japanese animated films of the last quarter-century, Akira and Metoroporisu (Metropolis, 2001), which both share a brilliantly rendered futuristic city, which is a terrific example of the retro-(fitted) futurism as seen in Blade Runner. Both films also use the entire palette of the animator’s (digital) paint supply, with lurid reds on clothes and motorbikes contrasting with the pallid green/grey skin of the aged psychic children. As with Blade Runner‘s iconic Vangelis score, this retro-futuristic (apparently, 1980s sweatbands and Hawaiian prints are still big in 2019) city is also accompanied by a terrific soundtrack: Tsutomu Ôhashi’s mixture of Gamelan percussion and woodwind instruments, added to an eclectic voice work that includes a male choir whispering the names of the characters and Noh-style chanting. Otomo only wrote the screenplay of Metropolis (which is a loose adaptation of both Lang’s film and a 1949 manga of the same name) but did not direct it, and his other two feature-length animated films - Roujin Z (1991) and Steamboy (2004) - while fun, don’t live up to his urban cyberpunk classic.
While some aspects of Akira have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art.
I’m not the first critic to compare A Town Called Panic to the Toy Story franchise and I dare say I won’t be the last, but in a year that has seen the third instalment of Pixar’s saga released, the (probably unintentional) similarities between the two films are fascinating.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the Toy Story films are about the secret lives that toys lead when no one’s watching: when held by kids, their movements are unrealistic and jerky, but when alone, they move with all the convincing perambulation of live beings (with the exception of the vacuform toy soldiers, with their immovable feet). The lead characters of A Town Called Panic, Cowboy, Indian and Horse, move unrealistically like toys controlled by invisible children, but unlike the characters in Toy Story, they are not self-aware toys, simply living creatures in the Panic universe.
A Town Called Panic therefore is a film that could have been made by the human characters in Toy Story moving their toys about on stop-motion camera and dubbing on silly voices in post-production. The byzantine plot, with its non-sequitur twists and turns, shows a charming childlike approach to the storytelling, which reinforces the impression that the film was made by invisible children - by contrast, the Toy Story films feel written by nostalgic adults pining for their lost childhoods.
The film starts like any charming but simplistic children’s TV show: three characters share a house and have inoffensive misadventures. In this case, it’s Horse’s birthday so Cowboy and Indian, wanting to buy him a birthday present, choose a brick barbeque online, but press the wrong button on the keyboard and accidentally buy a million bricks, which eventually swamp the town, with hilarious consequences. However, after this initial half-hour of plot plays out, the film becomes gradually more fantastical with the arrival of underwater mermen (whose vast subterranean world exists beneath the town, accessible through ponds and puddles), mad scientists, a trip to the North Pole and a giant robotic Penguin… With these increasingly outrageous developments, the film turns into a surrealistic fantasy with roots in the Victorian silent era - recalling Mélií¨s’s adaptations of Jules Verne - as well as Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit series.
The world and characters of A Town Called Panic first appeared in a series of 5-minute short films of the same title from Belgium, which have since been dubbed into English by Aardman animation (who produced the Wallace and Gromit series), screened on Nickelodeon and have been further disseminated on YouTube and other internet sites. The movie has been taken on by music video creators Hammer and Tongs and just like with Aardman for the shorts, this seems like a perfect fit as director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith were responsible for a Disney film, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Although it had CGI as advanced as Toy Story‘s, some scenes used simple effects such as the lead characters turning into knitted toys after a reality shift, or one planet’s defence system involving cinema’s oldest joke, a rake that hits characters in the face as they stand on it. Hammer and Tongs’ second film, Son of Rambow, took this interest in simple filmmaking one stage further, dramatising the attempts of a boy to remake Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood on video camera with schoolyard special effects.
Jennings and Goldsmith weren’t involved in the production of A Town Called Panic and, unlike Aardman, have decided to keep the original soundtrack, subtitled, for the UK movie release, and the film has already demonstrated its viral appeal on the internet. This is low-fi, fantastical story telling for the ADHD generation, who want to change genres and situations with the speed of the TV remote control. The unpredictability of the plot, which remains engaging as it lurches from one unlikely scenario to another, makes it perfect viewing for young children as well as adults who have ever thought of making movies with their children’s toys. In some respects, this makes A Town Called Panic more honest than the Pixar franchise as it uses tools available to kids and tells its story in a way that makes it feel collaborative with the target audience. This feels like a new kind of storytelling (which has also turned up recently in the field of comics with the web comic Axe Cop and in viral YouTube videos made with Lego), which as well as being fun to watch for all ages, has the tactile aesthetic that might inspire a new generation of filmmakers, particularly those who are savvy with internet marketing.
A Town Called Panic may be cheap and somewhat disposable in its storytelling and production, but it has enough unexpected qualities and joie de vivre to turn into as much of a cult hit as the shorts that preceded it, and hopefully it will be successful enough to warrant another cinematic adventure for everyone involved.
What if the British army was stranded at Dunkirk and we lost the Battle of Britain? What if the Nazis thought of the Channel Tunnel 50 years before we did? What if Hadrian’s Wall was still intact and no one had heard from the Scots in 100 years? This is the alternative Second World War England of Jackboots on Whitehall, the epic stop-motion animation debut from brothers Edward and Rory McHenry. When Nazis invade London it’s up to farm boy Chris (Ewan McGregor) and vicar’s daughter Daisy (Rosamund Pike) to rescue Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and lead him to the safety of Hadrian’s Wall, marshalling an army of villagers along the way.
Jackboots is a film for anyone who played with Action Man, Barbie, Airfix kits or Hornby model railways as a child. The animation is excellent, with large-scale battles, plenty of plastic gore and only the bare minimum of computer manipulation to help with the lip-syncing and facial expressions on the dolls. Similarly, the sets are incredibly detailed and anyone familiar with London will appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating the model versions of real landmarks.
The brothers McHenry have done a great job attracting a cast of big British names (even American volunteer Billy Fiske is voiced by great British export Dominic West), but this cannot have been based on the strength of the script, which is sadly lacking. Because there are just not that many mainstream stop-motion films, Jackboots invites comparison with films like Team America: World Police. Indeed, it shares the same simplistic dialogue and immature sense of humour. But whereas in Team America the childish jokes provided an ironic counterpoint to the serious subject matter, Jackboots doesn’t have that excuse.
There’s something in our received culture, be it from our grandparents’ war stories, or the war films we’ve all seen, that means we’re still happy to watch the Nazis being drubbed even in an alternate version of history. In this way Jackboots can be said be to be British both in terms of production and spirit, and it’s wholly appropriate that it was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Raindance Film Festival. This British spirit should carry Jackboots a long way, and in spite of its flaws it is an impressive debut feature. However, it will be interesting to see how its subject matter and technical achievement fare against the similar, child’s toy based Belgian stop-motion animation A Town Called Panic, which is released the same day, and while less technically accomplished, is more original, surreal and has a superior sense of comic timing.
Jackboots on Whitehall opened the Raindance Film Festival on September 29. Raindance runs until October 10, for more information go to the Raindance website.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews