Tuesday, June 29, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Ghost in the Shell / Innocence

What other nation in the world annihilates its own capital as much as Japan tends to?

Think of all the times Tokyo's been trashed, caned, victimized and atomized - from the big bang at the beginning of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988) to nearly every single Godzilla flick etched out by Japan's workhorse production house Toho Co.

Both the manga and the first anime interpretation of Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊, Kokaku Kidotai) continued this trend, setting the scene some time after World War 5.

The twist here was that Tokyo was a city that had revived itself and embraced a slick, somewhat violent sci-fi futurism. Yet while the manga pages drawn by Masamune Shirow were also quirky, a good chuckle and occasionally hentai (perverted), the first anime movie of Ghost in the Shell, released in 1995, was darker, a tad more cerebral and the most innovative post-cyberpunk anime since Akira.

Some, like me, say it’s even better.

Ostensibly the story of a public security anti-terrorist squad (Section 9) coming to grips with an unknown force who is "ghost-hacking" into cyborgs' brains and souls, Ghost in the Shell drifted into a philosophical treatise on the nature of humanity and its relationship with technology.

If any one movie was responsible for impacting upon the latent psyches of the Warchowski brothers before they produced The Matrix, this was it.

The movie may have been drafted by manga-ka Shirow and co-scripted by Kazunori Ito, but the director here was one Mamoru Oshii.

While Hayao Miyazaki (of Spirited Away, Ponyo and The Castle of Cagoliostro notoriety) juxtaposes concerns with the environment over a strange blend of whimsy, humour, adversity and triumph of the spirit, Oshii's films are often dark, bleak and caustic with a resounding reliance upon technology; even so there is humour here if you look closely enough.

“I've always liked humorous movies and gags,” Oshii told me in 2006 for an interview in the Daily Yoimiuri after he unveiled the zany Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters.

“But in Japan it seems that the audience prefers serious movies. I'd love to make a big budget comedy movie, but the current Japanese film industry would hardly allow such a project.”

What Oshii and Miyazaki do share is a predilection for tales in which there is no specifically "bad" character – even the perceived villains often struggle for something they think is right.

But whereas in Miyazaki's realm this means good intentions, in Oshii's it's a need to know the unknown, to succeed at any costs, and often inspired by baser qualities.

In Ghost in the Shell
and its equally powerful sequel Innocence (2004) Oshii is at the height of these subversive, mind-bending powers. They’re as as visually stunning as they are philosophically bewildering. After all, characters in Oshii’s movies have a hankering for citing Jean-Paul Sartre as much as they proffer up obscure references from the Old Testament.

“I think that Innocence will remain a movie understood by a very limited number of people,” Oshii said back in 2004 when I interviewed him about the sequel.

Even so he had the benefit of two superb scores by Kenji Kawai for both movies.

“I haven't thought about using any other composer but Kenji," Oshii confided in a tone that was somewhat reverential.

“I like the Ghost in the Shell movies basically because I like sci-fi animation,” says DJ/producer Ko Kimura. “The story behind Ghost in the Shell is really intriguing and the graphics are gorgeous – if you see it a second or third time, you'll find new facets within the two movies again and again. For its graphics I’d say Innocence is one of the best anime movies made in Japan.”

Renowned fellow Japanese DJs Tatsuya Oe (aka Captain Funk) and Jin Hiyama agree.

“The first Ghost in the Shell may be an old movie, but this is our future, our world. Innocence took it further: we taste life but have no choices,” Hiyama muses. “I think this has always been my own theme too.”

Ghost in the Shell is the magnum opus of my master Mamoru Oshii,” anime director Kenji Kamiyama quipped in deferential fashion when I asked him for his favourite movies a couple of years back.

Kamiyama is no slouch himself, having directed the spin-off TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, along with another essential Production I.G series, Eden of the East. He was also an animation and sequence director on Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1998) and wrote the script for Blood: The Last Vampire (2000).

“The first Ghost in the Shell movie is the movie that depicted the big bang of that new infrastructure that we now know as the Internet, from an almost prophetic standpoint,” Kamiyama explains, “and for this reason it should be regarded as a monument in the whole sci-fi genre.”

Ghost In The Shell
© 2006 Shirow Masamune / Production I.G / KODANSHA

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Asae Onishi

A disparate mix of rural kabuki performance art, wartime tragedy, star cross’d romance and post-war recovery unfolds throughout Beauty, the movie by Toshio Goto that debuted at the Tokyo International Film Festival in November 2007.

While capable Japanese actress Kumiko Aso (Casshern, Red Shadow) is the undoubted female star of the film, there’s an apparently aspiring relative newcomer - named Asae Onishi - included in the mix, and she makes a remarkable impression in her abridged amount of screen time.

As it turns out, the 26-year-old Kyoto native is hardly a novice. Rear-vision about four years then cue press release.

“Diagnosed with an incurable degenerative brain disease in junior high school, a young woman resolves to live her remaining years to the fullest,” waxes weepy Toei’s propaganda notes for the 2004 bio/drama/tearjerker 1 Liter of Tears (1リットルの涙, Ichi Ritoru no Namida), directed by Chikara Okamura.

“Her effort pays off as she manages to advance to her desired high school, but as her physical condition gradually deteriorates, she finds herself facing surmounting adversity.”

Get the picture?

1 Liter of Tears was a disabled-kid flick so calculatingly winning in its emotional grip on the unsuspecting Japanese audiences who fell for the yarn that it also spawned a spin-off series on Fuji TV the following year.

The original film’s success was due, in no minor part, to its star: Onishi, the actress cast at age 19 to fill the (immobile) boots of real-life scribe and reluctant Spinocerebellar Degeneration victim Aya Kito, whose diaries were incorporated into the shooting script.

“It was my first movie,” Onishi says, “and coincidentally the first time I was cast as a leading actress.”

Which is one of the probable reasons that said tale remains an ongoing favorite for the actress, alongside the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors, and Japanese movies like Garusu no Kamen (Glass Mask, 1997), and the recent hit comedy/drama Hula Girls (2006).

Her choice for favored Japanese director parks itself beside Shunji Iwai (Fried Dragon Fish). “I love his movies, as they have this unusual view of the world,” she says.

Onishi made her TV debut in 2001 - “It was in a drama called Kiminomamade, and later I was in Heavenly Forest (ただ、君を愛してる, Tada, Kimi wo Aishiteru 2006) directed by Takehiko Shinjo” - and she’s also been busy doing asides in commercials for the likes of the illustrious sake brewer, Hakutake.

All in all, Onishi attests, it’s been a relatively pragmatic career path despite her age and earlier uncertainties.

“At first, I didn't know what I wanted to be,” she admits in retrospect.

“I found acting to be a lot of fun, though I thought it wasn't for me. Then I realized that I like it when I can do things I didn’t dream of doing before. It’s difficult to work and earn money - but it would be the same even if I chose another job.”

Onishi also has one pure acting motivation that she’s keen to share: she’s just as curious as the rest of us.

“I love finding out what's going to happen to the characters I play.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hackneyed Record Crate

Well, I have a brand new album out but some of it is not so new at all, while other bits are recent ploddings; basically it's a collection of personal eclectic nuggets that scrape around electronica, sampling, industrial moments, and whatever else I could throw into the mix.

The LP is titled Hackneyed Record Crate and it's my third release through US experimental label Auricular Records.

Here's what Auricular themselves have to say about the release - probably better than anything I'd try to conjure up here:

"Point the remote control at the Andrez Bergen digital Victrola of doom and scan the airwaves of all time and space and join us for the last waltz of the mechanodroids on the event horizon of the Slash Cut and Loop universe. Or sip a cup of tea and sing along quietly to yourself with the curtains drawn. All samples have been sanitized for your protection."

Anyway, there're 16 tracks all up and you can listen to sample sounds of these right HERE if you're still somehow inspired to do so.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tokyo Marble Chocolate

Right before it made its debut at the 20th Tokyo International Film Festival 3 years ago, Tokyo Marble Chocolate whipped up a wee bit of a local cinematic feeding frenzy and sold out all seats to the show within one day. I know, 'cos I missed out on that screening.

It's no surprise, really, when you take into account the caliber of talent and the subtle ingenuity behind this two-part animated sensory banquet masquerading as a contemporary Japanese love story.

While that might sound kind'a sappy or dangerously teary, think again - you can tuck away the Kleenex. EMO territory this waffling blog ne'er will touch or at least never ever actually admit to.

Besides, the director is Naoyoshi Shiotani, who previously worked on Blood+ and did the key animation for The Prince of Tennis.

Even more impressive is that fact that the anime production studio behind the experiment is Production I.G, famously responsible for the animated sequences in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and Mamoru Oshii's superlative Ghost in the Shell movies.

Scripted into an appropriately love-lorn recipe by Masaya Ozaki, Tokyo Marble Chocolate's pre-baked inspiration was cooked up by two resident BMG Japan musicians (Japanese rapper and hip hop artist SEAMO, a.k.a. Naoki Takada, and J-Pop duo Sukima Switch, lesser known as Takuya Ohashi and Shintaro Tokita), and the brew put together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of BMG – just after I.G had celebrated its own double-decade.

The anime was awarded the Grand Prize in the Feature Film Category of the 12th Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival (SICAF 2008) held in Seoul, South Korea, in May 2008.

“It's a bittersweet love story,” Shiotani told me back when he'd just made the 2-part feature, prior to winning the award.

At that time I was involved in the English translation of the subtitles with Production I.G, but these do not grace the Japanese DVD release of Tokyo Marble Chocolate - unfortunately there're no English subs on same, and the depressing news is I'm one of the few with a DVD-R of the version that was screened - with the finished English subtitles - at SICAF.

The story, a deceptively simple one at that, revolves around two protagonists named Yudai and Chizuru who are involved in one very bizarre love triangle.

“It's one story told twice, meaning that you see the events from Yudai's perspective, and you can follow the very same story seen from Chizuru's eyes in the second chapter. Despite the fact that the two characters are standing in the same place at the same time, what they see and what they feel turns to be quite different. I wanted to show all that.”

This is set to be the couple's first Christmas together, yet the duo end up spending it stressfully apart - thanks in no small part to a hyperactive miniature donkey wearing a nappy (or diapers, as the Yanks call 'em).

“It's probably the most funny and absurd creature appearing in the movie," Shiotani admitted. And he's absolutely right – it's brilliant.

I like Shiotani. When I was doing a story on the Japanese all-consuming fad for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties a few years back, he was the most down to earth and amusing respondent.

In March or April, depending on when precisely the nation's cherry blossoms (sakura) decide to unfurl, millions of people unfurl their own blankets in crammed public spaces, ostensibly there to watch the delicate, snow-like shower of flowers. Yeah, right. Mostly they want to catch up with friends, impress the boss, drink vast quantities of sake, carouse, get drunk, sing, and be raucous in exceptionally un-Japanese ways.

These parties often stretch from daytime into the night (when the name is changed to yozakura), and lanterns hung up to drink by and warble prolific.

“We Japanese enjoy the different feelings and peculiarities of each and every season,” Shiotani deadpanned.

“In spring, we have fun under full-blossomed cherry trees, eating and drinking and romping around with our friends. And the sake you drink, surrounded by pink cherry petals dancing in the air, is somehow tastier than usual. In Japanese, we have even coined the word, hanamizake – which refers to the sake you sip under the cherry trees. Then, of course, you need to be careful not to quaff too much booze...”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

Released to celebrate the 300th role of iconic Japanese actor Kazuo Hasegawa, An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 雪之丞変化) is a superbly eclectic offering from director Kon Ichikawa (The Harp of Burma) - as surreal as it is stylized and mesmerizing cinema.

Hasegawa plays the double-role of Yukinojo Nakamura - a kabuki actor who (like Hasegawa himself) was renowned for being an onnagata, or female impersonator - and the dashing thief Yamitaro, who likes to behaves a bit like Robin Hood.

When Yukinojo chances across the three men who drove his parents to suicide decades earlier, he sets in motion a plan for revenge worthy of Shakespeare; what he discovers he can't control are the ulterior ramifications of this revenge-play, as his actions shatter innocent lives.

It's difficult to overcome the fact that lead man Hasegawa was pushing 55 here; while he was reprising a role he played before (in 1935), he's obviously too old to push the sensuality angle of the onnagata, yet still somehow tweaks it on several levels.

For his part director Ishikawa doesn't even try to suspend disbelief - into this high drama he winds liberal doses of comedy, kabuki-style sets and visuals that are stretched out within a pop art context, and some innovative sword-fighting moments that border on the dream-like.

Realism this most certainly is not, and that's the film's beauty.

Adding to the spice in An Actor's Revenge is a modern jazz soundtrack, while the acting chops are ably supported by Shintaro Katsu (of Zatoichi fame) and the stunning Ayako Wakao, who previously shone as Eiko in Kenji Mizoguchi's The Geisha (1953), and is devastating here.

While not Ishikawa's grandest achievement, it's still a hypnagogic gem well worth the viewing, and the cool cats at Madman Entertainment in Australia are going to be releasing this in July - check here for more details.

Images © 1963 Kadokawa Pictures, inc.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Asakusa: Reconstruction Town

Legend has it that back in the 7th century AD two brothers taking a fishing jaunt on the Sumida River managed to hook a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy - and no amount of lobbing the object back into the murky waters would relieve them of the burden.

So, Sensoji Temple - dedicated to that persistent goddess - was built nearby, in an area now known as Asakusa, right here in the heart of what’s now Tokyo.

A millennium on after its foundation, a rabbit-warren of streets just north of Asakusa - named Yoshiwara - developed into a licensed brothel area, whose denizens ranged from higher class courtesans to el cheapo prostitutes; by the latter half of the 19th century, the grounds of Asakusa Park were given over to a Kabuki theatre, jugglers, geisha houses, circus acts, photography booths, dancers, comic storytellers, performing monkeys, bars, restaurants, and archery stalls where sellers of sexual favours were reputed to have offered a rather wide variety of services.

While constantly the victim of nuisance customers like fire and earthquake, most of this disappeared in the conflagration of World War 2. So, while it rates as this city’s oldest temple area, the buildings themselves are amongst Tokyo’s newest places since WW2 bombing destroyed all the original stuff.

Just a few minutes’ walk from Asakusa Subway Station, the imposing Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), houses two effigies of the gods of thunder and wind—although this gate is in fact a replica built in 1960, as its predecessor was destroyed in an air-raid.

Visitors must pass under its improbably huge paper lantern, then negotiate the historic, forever-crowded Nakamise shopping arcade (a maze of stalls that’s over 200 meters long, full of faux Japanese historical odds and ends, yukata robes, fans, regional snacks, and plastic samurai swords), then pass by a five-storied pagoda (itself a 1973 reconstruction) and under the Hanzomon Gate, before even reaching Sensoji - which is usually awash in incense, used for purification, and guaranteed to induce a cough or two.

Even Sensoji Temple is itself a replica, constructed in 1958. Like the Kaminarimon and much of the rest of Tokyo, it was flattened in the Allied blanket bombing in 1945.

Still, you can’t complain about the location, and if some of the spice and sizzle of previous centuries has disappeared, you can still spot the occasional geisha.

There's also Kappabashi-dori (かっぱ橋), best reached from Tawaramachi Station on the Ginza Line. This is Tokyo’s restaurant wholesale district, and sells that insanely detailed plastic food you see displayed in Japanese eateries, metal spatulas, deep fryers, cool restaurant food banners, and an intense array of crockery.

And just nearby, on the banks of the Sumida itself - where that goddess statue came from—is the commercial HQ for a famed Japanese company that for some is itself deified.

Called the Asahi Building (not to be confused with the TV Asahi premises in Roppongi Hills) the place has what looks like a golden piece of crap atop, and is mecca for anyone who’s dabbled with Japanese beer or brushed up against the silver-shrouded contents of Asahi Super Dry - without doubt Japan's most famous international amber fluid.

Mmmm... beer.