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!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Godzilla (2014)

So the kid from Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is all grown up and buffed and in the Navy, doing bomb stuff (he either diffuses them or blows them up or something — it’s unclear). His crazy old dad (Bryan Cranston) has figured out that the Japanese are keeping a giant monster at the nuclear disaster site where he lost his wife 15 years earlier, and soon enough father and son are poking around where they shouldn’t be.

As it happens, the monster isn’t Godzilla (nee Gojira). It’s rather an awesome, Lovecraftian bug-like thing, quite wicked and HUGE. (Godzilla himself, when he finally shows up, is about five times the size of the original.) That’s the greatest strength of this otherwise mess of a movie: the gigantic monstery goodness of it all. The filmmakers have embraced the essence of kaiju, the sheer terror of being attacked and, most likely, crushed beneath the tonnage of a really, really big monster. We’re talking the horror of scale here, and this one element, done quite well, is what saves this film.

Unfortunately, our young male lead isn’t much cop at looking up at 500 feet of horrific monstrosity and communicating the brown trousers moment with anything like visceral terror. His reminded me of the similarly blank expression on Naomi Watts’ gormless mug in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake. Both these actors should look up the boy and girl from the original Jurassic Park — those kids knew how to sell it! Even a spoonful of quivering jello wasn’t lost on them — they got the “holy shit!” moment and ran with it.

Either the screenwriter or the editor are responsible for a storyline that jumps from convoluted to nonexistent — don’t bother trying to keep up. Just know that, like the original, there are scientists and soldiers and giant monsters, and somehow Godzilla, while causing untold destruction and death, is really on our side. Never mind the atomic bomb our human hero’s team is trying to detonate in the middle of San Francisco to destroy the giant evil insect things. In the light of such operational logic, ol’ Godzilla doesn’t seem so bad after all!

So my advice: lean upon this movie gently, don’t expect too much in the way of acting or storytelling, just get into spirit of the thing and you’ll have a good time. Or conversely, you can follow Anthony Lane’s advice: “Skip Godzilla the movie. Watch the trailer.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End

I’m a big fan of manga movies. I’ve reviewed a bunch of them in my books, calling them out as among the most outrageous and deliriously enjoyable films you’re likely to encounter in the remarkable world of Asian (particularly Japanese) cinema.

However, sometimes the manga in question is so monumental and beloved, the film adaptation turns out leaden and lugubrious by comparison (see Watchmen). So intimidated is the filmmaker by the original work, so eager is he to please the fans that he becomes preoccupied with the authenticity of his rendering. He forgets that while comics are uniquely suited to film adaptation (hey, it’s a fucking storyboard), still, there are considerations to be made in regards to the medium of film. You can’t shoot every friggin’ frame! You’re better off running the risk of pissing off the purists for the sake of a good movie (see The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

So it is with 20th Century Boys, a manga by Naoki Urasawa that ran from 1999 to 2006 (later published in 22 bound volumes). It’s about a gang of snot-nosed kids who get a notebook and fill it with a fanciful story about the end of the world. Flash forward 30 years and somebody is causing the story to come true. The somebody is Friend, a mysterious cult leader who appears to have a childhood connection with the original group. The whole premise is a little half-baked if you ask me, but what do I know. The thing was huge in Japan.

The resulting film trilogy (7+ hours) met with mixed reviews but nevertheless made heaps of yen. Unfortunately, the first installment, 20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End (2008), didn’t really do it for me. It was quite slow to get going, only developing a decent head of steam about an hour in. The pace reminded me quite a lot of Watchmen, but I happened to have read that epic tale of post-superhero intrigue and angst, so it was far more enjoyable. For those unfamiliar with the original of either film, the experience is much diminished.

I’ve got the second film here, 20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (both films courtesy of my friend and fellow Asian film fanatic Dr. Stan Glick) and I’ll watch it, as I’m somewhat invested at this point. But unless things pick up dramatically, I doubt I’ll pursue the third film; that would involve a cash outlay, and I’ve got so many flicks in the to-watch pile, it’s better I just move on to the next one. Looks to be  something called Chambara Striptease

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is known primarily in the West for his horror films. Tokyo Sonata (2008) represents a departure; ghosts and serial killers give way to the domestic horror of the shit-canned salaryman. Seems the company is moving his division to China, so our man Ryu Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) does the usual thing: He keeps putting on the suit and pretends to go to work every day. Really, he heads down to the park where the homeless guys hang out and lines up for a bowl of bad rice porridge. How long can he keep up the charade?

Tokyo Sonata revolves around a familiar theme in contemporary Japanese cinema, that of the disintegrating family. And very often, the family is seen as a microcosm of the country. The sense that the society is falling apart at the seams is palpable in this film, it’s ultimate representative being the inept housebreaker played by Kiyoshi Kurosawa mainstay Koji Yakusho. Elsewhere, Sasakis’ teenage son, who wants to join the U.S. military, is another example of a lost soul; to the Japanese, such a life choice would be considered extremely bizarre. Throw in a disillusioned mom and a troubled yet musically gifted son, and we’re off on our harrowing downward spiral toward redemption.

Tokyo Sonata isn’t a particularly profound film; frankly, it starts to lose its way around the 1:10 point. But the subject matter, characters and quality of filmmaking keep you involved to the end, and for anyone who likes films set in the gritty, unflattering reality of Tokyo, it’s more than satisfying.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Way back in 1985, German filmmaker Wim Wenders made a pilgrimage to Tokyo in search of Ozu. Not the physical personage, mind you (Yasujiro Ozu died in 1963) but rather some element of the master still extant in the great city in which his films were set. Were the trains still running? Were any of the old cast/crew still kicking around? Yes on both counts, it turns out, and the resulting film is a delightful blend of documentary and arthouse meditation.

This being Wenders, you’ll experience long, lingering takes and soft-spoken narration. Dial back your immediate expectations and just let the imagery wash over you. After all, this is Tokyo in the 80s; the sheer density of information in each extended, dreamy shot is worth a good, long look.

Interspersed between the moving portraiture are segments featuring unique aspects of Tokyo culture, such as life in a pachinko parlor or Asakusa craftsmen making display case replicas of restaurant food out of wax. In city parks we find old ladies laughing, children at play and cherry blossom viewing parties with lots of beer and sake all around. At one point we meet up with Werner Herzog at the top of the Tokyo Tower. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

The real gems of the film, however, are the interviews with two Ozu fixtures, actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta. Both men open up about their experiences with, and feelings for, the great man, Atsuta to a degree uncommon for Japanese men of his generation (moved by his recollections, he breaks down and cannot continue). Ryu is predictably self-effacing, and gives all credit for his career and achievements to Ozu. Atsuta hauls out the original equipment, including the 50mm camera and tripods he used on all those films, and demonstrates Ozu’s unique, low-level “tatami shot.” It’s a real treat for aspiring filmmakers and fans alike.

Tokyo-ga is one of those how-the-hell-am-I-just-hearing-about-this-now pictures, like Teshigahara’s documentary about Gaudi (at least in my case — I’m sure there are plenty of far hipper film folks who’ve long known of both). Needless to say, I’d heartily recommend Tokyo-ga to anyone interested in Ozu, Wenders, and/or Tokyo itself. And seeing how they make that phony food is a major bonus!