Tag Archives: anime

Belladonna of Sadness

Belladonna 1
Belladonna of Sadness

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of the East End Film Festival

Screening Date: 23 June 2014

Venue: Red Gallery

Director: Eiichi Yamamoto

Writers: Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto

Based on the novel La sorcière by: Jules Michelet

Original title: Kanashimi no Belladonna

Japan 1973

93 mins

As a critic with an interest in the history of Japanese animation and manga, it is refreshing once in a while to come across a film that is like nothing you’ve seen before. While some animé films save money by using limited animation here and there, before Belladonna of Sadness I’d never seen a movie where around 40% of the running time consists of the camera panning across still drawings and paintings. By using this technique so extensively in-between the more traditionally animated sections, it avoids appearing like a cost-saving exercise (which is not to say it wasn’t, as the film actually bankrupted an animation studio) and creates a very different kind of storytelling that seems to hark back to older forms of Japanese entertainment such as Kamishibai or Emaki-mono. Kamishibai storytellers would travel from town to town entertaining children with a box that had an opening at the front, in and out of which different painted scenes could be moved, like a 2D version of paper theatre, with a soundtrack performed by the storyteller. Revived in 1920s Japan during the global economic depression, Kamishibai had its roots in an older form of pictorial narrative, that of Emaki-mono scrolls, which display a story to the viewer as they roll the unfolding image from one end of the scroll to the other.

The EEFF screening will be accompanied by a live score from Charlie Boyer and The Voyeurs.

By containing filmed versions of both Kamishibai and Emaki-mono and mixing the style of older visual narratives with more modern animation (which in this case lifts imagery from 1970s fashion magazines and even a brief homage to The Beatles’ 1968 Yellow Submarine), Belladonna of Sadness almost feels like a tour of Japanese visual storytelling culture. All of this may sound charming – and indeed it often is – but the film is certainly not suitable for children, as the starting point for the screenplay was a 19th-century book called Satanism and Witchcraft (La sorcière) by Jules Michelet, and the film contains many scenes of rape committed against the central character. Although these scenes are thankfully tamer than hentai animè from a decade later, such as the risible Urotsukidôji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), or even live action cinema at the time – for example Lady Snowblood released the same year – the imagery of a woman split apart by a river of blood that splinters into bats is still the stuff of nightmares.

Belladonna 2

The plot is a somewhat misogynist tale of a poor couple who try to raise the tithe needed to get married on their local Baron’s estate. When he demands 10 times the amount, the fiancé has no choice but to let his bride spend a night with the Baron instead. Deflowered and full of shame, the next day Jeanne welcomes a penis-shaped demon into her bedroom (and body) so she can be empowered with the forces of evil to fight the corrupt regime they live in. The fantastical and erotic elements of the film are sometimes an uneasy mix, and perhaps only the use of scrolling images to replace much of the animation prevents the film from being a gruelling experience, as the focus of the plot is often on the repeated abuse of the female protagonist.

The third in a trilogy of animated ‘pink’ films made under the supervision of Osamu Tezuka, the most revered creator of Japanese manga, Belladonna of Sadness followed two light-hearted erotic fantasies by the same director, which contained animation that was recognisably by Tezuka himself – One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). However, this film swaps the child-friendly artwork of Astro Boy (1964) and Kimba the White Lion (1966) for a striking style influenced by fin-de-siècle European artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt. The soundtrack is also exemplary, and like the globetrotting visual aesthetics, mixes sleazy Euro-pop – of the kind that might grace a 1960s film by Roger Vadim – with Japanese jazz. Only the subject matter leaves a bad taste in the mouth, which the filmmakers clumsily try to belatedly justify with a coda comparing the events of the movie with the sacrifices made by women who died during the French Revolution. But the many unique elements that make the film stand out from its peers, including the art on screen, combined with the Emaki-mono presentation, make Belladonna of Sadness a must-see for fans of Japanese animation.

Alex Fitch

Watch the trailer:

Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 November 2012

Venues: Key cities

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 26 November 2012

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Writer: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Original title: Jûbê ninpûchô

Japan 1993

94 mins

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.

Alex Fitch

Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood One

Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood One

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 23 August 2000

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Yasuhiro Irie

Writer: Hiroshi &#332nogi

Original title: Hagane no renkinjutsushi

Based on the manga by: Hiromu Arakawa

Japan/USA 2009

90 mins

The second serialised TV adaptation of the manga series Full Metal Alchemist starts in media res with cyborg brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric helping the military stop a super-villain with ice powers from terrorising a city. Almost immediately, the brothers find themselves fighting ‘Isaac the freezer’, a fight that reveals Edward’s metallic arm plus his power to create lighting and objects out of seemingly thin air. They subdue Isaac, but he escapes, and the brothers find themselves being debriefed at HQ before being invited back to the house of their commanding officer for quiche and a place to sleep as he’s a fan of their work. Meanwhile Isaac disguises himself as an officer to sneak into the Central Prison to give another rogue sorcerer the offer of work…

The above plot précis only covers the first nine minutes (including the long opening credits) of the first episode and makes it clear that this series is one aimed at fans of the franchise rather than newcomers to the experience. While the plot may be bewildering, there is an alluring cinematic style to the fight scenes, with the street lamp and moonlight penumbra of its city setting giving the animation an evocative feel that suits its ‘steam-punk’ aesthetic. However, while casual viewers who have enough experience of both Western and Eastern (super-hero) comics may take the script in their stride - expecting correctly that the back story and the thrust of the ongoing narrative will be revealed shortly enough - the odd schizophrenic animation style is much more off-putting: every engaging ‘camera’ angle and beautifully rendered scene that intrigues the viewer is offset by strange childlike drawings that accompany comedy moments and scenes where Edward reveals the more immature elements of his character.

If you haven’t seen any extract of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, the best way of describing this is as if the animation was suddenly handed over to a 10-year-old who was asked to do a more cartoony rendering of what’s going on in the scene, before the animation process was handed back to the professionals, a couple of hundred frames later. This is a style of drawing called ‘Q-version’, which isn’t unknown in dark fantasy animé, but is usually reserved for extras on DVD collections and not inserted into the main animation except where the entire endeavour is meant as a post-modern parody of the genre, such as Production IG’s mini-series FLCL. Production IG’s animation in general seems to have been the model for this series: the dark Gothic flavour of the art plus the enigmatic opening credits, which suggest various layers of reality and include a cameo by a hound, are all reminiscent of IG’s various Mamoru Oshii productions (Brotherhood narrator Iemasa Kayumi was also the voice of ‘The Puppetmaster’ in Ghost in the Shell). But unlike the animation produced by IG, this series takes more of a scattershot approach, including as many references and heightened emotions as it can to produce an overall effect that is neither one recognisable genre nor another.

I haven’t read the Full Metal Alchemist manga, but I did watch the first two episodes of the 2003 animated series to compare the new adaptation with, and found the previous version a lot more watchable than the new series. The animation of the 2003 series suffers in comparison by being a little less Gothic and cinematic, but while it shares the notion of having more comedic expressions integrated into the characters for moments of heightened emotion, these are shorter in length and limited to their faces - more akin to an actor pulling a comedic expression than the actor being replaced by a cardboard cut-out for a scene. The original Alchemist also begins with the tragic accident that turned Edward into a cyborg and Alphonse into a talking suit of armour, before jumping ahead to the present, and this is a more intriguing opening than the fan (only) friendly start of the new series. So, while the animation and score of the original series are more generic than that of the remake, the storytelling is more confident and endearing, and made this casual viewer want to watch more.

Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood treads an odd path: it could easily be a continuation of the first series, as it includes the same characters and narrative, and the same actors voicing those characters, but by remaking some of the same plots, it’s likely to put off fans who saw the 2003 version, when ironically they are the audience who will appreciate it most. The justification of this new series is down to both the lucrative nature of the franchise and presenting a more faithful adaptation of the manga, as the comic only finished recently so the previous animated series had to continue with new plots that diverted from creator Hiromu Arakawa’s strip when they ran out of instalments to adapt. That being the case, since Brotherhood drops viewers into the middle of the story, before revealing the characters’ origins in flashbacks, the animators could have started with the first issue of the comic not adapted the first time around.

Although the disruptive ‘Q-version’ interludes calm down by episode five of Brotherhood, other negative elements of this series still outweigh the positive: long, self-indulgent ’emo’ scenes, while possibly suitable for the story of an orphaned teenager with great power and responsibilities, bring the plot to a halt, and the over-dramatic score, though more memorable than the first series’, often distracts rather than supports the storytelling. At the risk of suffering Full Metal fatigue, I watched the first two episodes of the original version in-between the first two discs of the second series, and another element that wasn’t (yet) present in the original Alchemist but which blights the remake was the character of Alex Louis Armstrong, a caricature of a circus strong man who likes to strip off his shirt and profess his affection for Edward. This might be an example of Japanese humour that doesn’t translate well, but it adds a weird homoerotic element between a grown man and a young teenage boy.

The various elements of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood that I found distracting from the ongoing narrative may be due to the series’ greater adherence to the manga than its predecessor; if so then this shows the problems in translating one medium too accurately into another. These elements may be unique to Brotherhood alone, but either way this seems to be a serial that exists mainly to satisfy an existing fan base. Newcomers to the range who may be intrigued by the early 20th-century setting and the mix of magic and technology on screen would be well advised to give the 2003 series a watch and only return to this if they’re then desperate for more.

Alex Fitch