Thursday, October 15, 2015

Attack on Titan II: The End of the World


As the old saying goes, “If you thought you saw some crazy-ass titans busting shit up and eating people and then a bunch of spunky kids kicking their giant, mutated asses, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!” — OK, there isn't an old saying like that, but if there was, well, I sure as hell would be saying it here (OK, I just did say it. Ah jeez, this is getting off to a rough start. Anyhow, please see the previous post for clarification).

Yes, this is part two of what was clearly one big, long epic flick they had to break in two a la Kill Bill (another film featuring veteran character actor Jun Kunimura). And, just like Return of the King, all the huge, grande finale battle action is packed into this one. Daikaiju (big ol’ giant monster) fans will rejoice as they once again see men in rubber suits doing spinning head kicks on sets of miniature cities — but this ain’t no cheap, 60s Toho affair. Yes, it’s still Toho, but the production values have gone up. Way up. Computer effects have transformed what was once a somewhat gigglesome genre into a truly awesome experience of David-and-Goliathesque combat guaranteed to send a tingle up your spine and a thrill through your heart.

Since I put up the spoiler sign, I guess I can go ahead and reveal that Eren’s big secret is that he can transform into a titan (along with one or two other members of the team I won’t mention). This adds an intriguing wrinkle to the proceedings, as now the rag-tag, teenage, human army (of half a dozen or so at this point) has a couple of different options; they already had their ODMG (Omin-Directional Mobility Gear), a body-mounted system of wires and pulleys allowing them to fly and maneuver in Spiderman fashion. Add to that a cache of old-school weapons like automatic rifles and RPGs (remember, this is a dystopian future where nobody’s ever seen stuff like that) plus the old town nuke everybody thought was a dud but is, in fact, quite operational, and it looks like our young crew is ready to mix things up with the lumbering, people-eating giants (who barely appear in this film — go figure).

Obviously, if you liked the first film, you’re going to love the second. Everything picks right up where the last one left off, but the story takes a darker turn, as the political allegory gets deeper and more profound. Seems the totalitarian government has been manipulating the titans, using their terroristic potential to keep the citizenry in line (sound familiar?). A resistance force has arisen, and plans to use the titans against the government — they’re as batshit crazy as the guys in power, and it all adds up to an extra layer of awful that our young heroes really didn’t need but hey, war is hell.

Fans of extreme Asian cinema are definitely going to want a copy of Attack on Titan (again, not the moon orbiting Saturn but a lot of bloody great, groty gorks). Director Shinji Higuchi and special effects man Katsuro Onoue have created a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic kaiju craziness, an epic manga adaptation right up there with Akira (although that was an anime) — anyway, I’m just here to say it’s great.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Attack on Titan

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of live action manga adaptations (see the sidebar In Praise of Manga Movies, Asia Shock, p. 105). Bringing the vision of a particularly OTT manga to life in the real world, when done well, is far more fascinating to me than merely animating it (in the same, decades-old style as Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion).

So when they finally got around to making a manga-to-live action adaptation of the hugely popular Attack on Titan, I was all attention. Imagine a genre mash-up of kaiju and zombies with lots of cute, angsty teenagers fighting the lumbering behemoths (known as titans — the kids aren't attacking one of Saturn’s moons) — it’s pretty great. Top-notch special effects and production values put you right in the action, and there is a certain earnestness to the presentation that reminded me of Battle Royale (except instead of killing each other, the kids are going up against a bunch of gigantic, naked, disgusting people-eaters).

The story centers around Eren, an angry young man living in a walled-off, post-apocalyptic community (you can tell it’s post-apocalyptic because everyone wears coarse, baggy knitwear in hues of beige and gray). In this case, the apocalypse was a bunch of titans who laid waste to everything 100 years ago. Since then, humanity has lived in a big settlement comprised of three enormous, concentric walls; this configuration operates as a handy class analogy, with the unwashed masses dwelling in the outer ring.

And wouldn’t you know it, that’s right where the titans come busting back in. Now Eren, his foster sister/love interest Mikasa and best friend Armin must join the local armed forces and fight the gargantuan degenerates — these titans are filthy, mutated and naked, although sans privates. Nobody knows how they reproduce, but when they’re killed, they disintegrate. Killing them is no easy task and requires special equipment with which each kid is kitted up. And there’s no time to waste, as all these massive assholes seem to do on arrival is gobble up humans by the handful. In one charming scene we follow a victim down a titan’s gullet into his stomach, where the partially digested remains of his comrades bob beside him.

The pace sags a bit during the serious, personal drama bits, but only due to the sustained outrageousness of the action sequences. The horrendous behavior of the titans and the spunky nerve and verve with which the kids fight back against them, it’s all quite breathless and mind-blowing and wonderful.

There’s a second installment, Attack on Titan: The End of the World, which I have yet to see. Looks like they made one big movie and broke it in two, so I’m looking forward to more of the same killer stuff. At the end of the first film, Eren undergoes a transformation that looks to take the second film in a whole new direction (what we in the business call a “plot twist”), so keep an eye out for that. Meanwhile, you can learn more about these amazing films here and check out some game play footage from the forthcoming PS4 game here.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tokyo Ghoul

The good folks at Funimation were kind enough to send along a copy of the manga-to-anime horror fantasy Tokyo Ghoul (12 episode blu-ray and DVD pack). While conceptually a thing of beauty and a true original, there are nevertheless certain issues that may or may not be alleviated by further installments. Let me explain.

First off, I’m always on the lookout for a new monster. Vampires and zombies have been done to death, and even witches are starting to get on my nerves. So Sui Ishida’s Tokyo Ghoul manga (2011 - 2014) provides a welcome addition in the form of the contemporary Japanese “ghoul,” a complex, quasi-shapeshifting individual in humanoid form that feeds on human flesh.  The term “human” gets bandied about to distinguish from the ghoul types, but psychologically and emotionally, these ghouls seem pretty human to me. Nevertheless, they live in their own subculture, walking among humans by day and preying on them by night. Sometimes they don special, custom-made masks which make them look very menacing and cool indeed.

Ishida provides a rich lore and taxonomy pertaining to the ghouls, with local factions inhabiting the various wards of the city and a government organization, the CCG (Commission of Counter Ghoul) dedicated to exterminating them with extreme prejudice. The most compelling aspect of your average ghoul is the presence of a kagune, a retractable spectral appendage sprouting from the ghoul’s back, that can either protect or attack depending on its Rc type (yes, it’s all very involved). The boys at the CCG have developed their own synthetic version of the kagune, called a quinque — imagine a light saber, but the beam is huge and fanciful and can resemble anything from a gigantic baseball bat to an enormous, fanged tapeworm.

The central character is a guy named Ken Kaneki, and here, in the anime at least (I confess I have not read the manga), is where we start to run into trouble, story-wise. You see, our boy Kaneki is a drip, an utterly uncharismatic milquetoast of a college student whose infatuation with a beauty at the local coffee shop ends badly. Yep, she’s a ghoul, and through a characteristically over-the-top series of events, she winds up dead and he winds up with some of her organs implanted in him, rendering him a “half-ghoul.” This makes him a very unique individual in the ghoul community, and a fixation for several particularly unsavory ghouls.

As with most manga adaptations, there is an ever-growing and varied cast of characters. Too bad more wasn’t done with them. Even Kaneki’s best friend Hide, an irrepressible class clown type full of possibilities, is left to languish on the sidelines.

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of action and drama, because there is. It’s just that it’s rather uneven — it feels like director Shuhei Morita was unable or unwilling to really explore the material and instead just whittled it down to a few specific characters and plot arcs (none of which are really resolved — I get it, more on the way, but still … ).

Things get all torture-porny in the last three episodes, and it is here where the whole affair truly goes awry. I was already fairly annoyed by Kaneki’s incessant whining and screaming at the outset (he doesn’t acclimate well to his transformation and subsequent violent encounters with ghouls and the CCG). His physical abuse and torture at the hands of the sadistic ghoul Jason (anyone for a wire cutter toe treatment?) is beyond gratuitous. I’ve seen my share of Japanese exploitation cinema, I understand the formula: lots of torture makes the revenge all the sweeter. But c’mon, guys, 99% torture and 1% revenge is, well, like I said, extremely uneven.

Perhaps I’m just getting old and this is what the kids are into these days. In any case, I can’t fault the animation quality or voice work, and the whole Tokyo Ghoul universe is overflowing with potential. A second series, Tokyo Ghoul √A, scripted by Ishida, was released this year so look for that on disk some time soon. Meanwhile, both the manga and first season are available now, so if you’re in the market for a new and original monster genre, Tokyo Ghoul might just be the ticket!