Lの本当の秘密/Death Note: L Change the WorLd

[Screenshot]Death Note is a hot property, and mostly deservedly so. What I’ve seen of the anime is clever and thrilling; I’m given to understand the manga is on a par with it. The first two live action movies (as reviewed here and here) were authentically enjoyable and mostly lived up to the promise of the preceding works.

This film, on the other hand, is a stupid pizza topped with extra stupid. It involves a competition among the various principals, all of whom are supposed to be fiendishly clever, as to who can behave in the most incongruously ridiculous way. We can start with the primary macguffin, a virus like Ebola, but far more infectious and more rapidly deadly. Incidentally, two things which keep Ebola from being much more dangerous than it is happen to be… its extreme infectiousness and short incubation time. It’s a horrific disease in a small area, but it tends to burn itself before becoming an epidemic.

The dumb things people do when fighting over this virus and its vaccine are mostly not worth mentioning, but two things stand out: first, a very important person ends up changing hands because, AFAICT, one side simply couldn’t be arsed to wonder where she is. Yes, L is supposed to be a bit spacey, but he’s also supposed to be smart. Second, and more damningly, the conclusion of the movie has ecoterrorists hijacking a plane to the US, with the intent of starting an epidemic there. They manage to accidentally infect themselves with the virus before the plane lifts off the ground.

A word of advice to terrorists: if you are infected with a virus which makes you bleed out your eyes and die in less than an hour, you might want to scratch the plan which involves a transcontinental plane flight. Perhaps, instead of flying to the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world, you will settle for the single largest one, which you’re already in?

Of course, one would think L, hearing of this plan, would breathe a sigh of relief as every single virus-carrier perishes in a plane crash, relieved to have foiled the plan at the price only of a single airliner full of innocents (this would arguably be in character). But instead we get a thoroughly uncharacteristic and risky action sequence which manages to save everybody.

This is, needless to say, a disappointing addition to the franchise. L’s mannerisms can’t carry a film, even in conjunction with Near’s equally odd quirks, and I miss the old days when Death Note-related media was intelligent.

(A note on contrasts: this review’s a lot shorter than the last review, also of a Japanese film but a classic. Writing about good film can be hard, because there’s especially if you don’t want to spoil the plot, one can only indulge in so much admiration. Tearing a bad or mediocre film a new one, OTOH, is always fun.)

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

切腹/Harakiri

[Screenshot]This is certainly a self-consciously arty film. Like many Japanese dramatic films, it brings to bear a fair number of stage dramatic conventions which I’m not deeply familiar with, so certain nuances of expression (and of course of language) might have been lost on me, but nonetheless it was impressively presented; it was very long but never felt like it was dragging, laying its story out in a way that left me anticipating its (rather gruesome) revelations and conclusion. It’s very much a period drama, but unlike the many (mostly Kurosawa) films of the feudal period, this one is set in the Edo period, with a strong consciousness of social change, evidenced both in the crumbling of the great houses which forms the primary dramatic backdrop for the story, and the technological change presaged by the appearance of firearms.

It’s a beautiful film, with stark cinematography and dramatic contrasts of shade in the set design; the most obvious criticism that can be leveled at it is that, like so many of its artistic peers, it runs quite long. The story is ultimately pretty slight, spun out in detail which although gorgeous occasionally gets a little narratively thin, and although it’s never dull it does tend towards a certain languidity, lingering on a particularly striking setting or bit of acting. But if you don’t mind a certain leisureliness of pcing, there is enough here that you won’t feel like your time’s been wasted.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

ゲド戦記/Tales from Earthsea

[Screenshot]I’ve been mourning the decreasing involvement of the elder Miyazaki in recent Ghibli productions since, well, at least when I reviewed Ponyo. This work is not actually a Hayao Miyazaki film; it’s made by his son Goro. I tried not to let that color my judgment too much, but the fact of the matter is that this movie doesn’t have a lot to set it above the crowd. On a technical level it’s quite good, particularly in backgrounds. The character-designs seem in some ways cruder than the Ghibli standard: maybe greater stylization and simplicity? They’re still quite good, mind. I listened to the Japanese dub enough to determine that it was passable, and then switched over to English, since Disney’s voicework for Ghibli localizations is usually excellent. They got good people doing good work this time too, but I think maybe someone told Timothy Dalton (who I honestly did not realize had done anything else after his stint as James Bond) “sound as much like Ian McKellan doing Gandalf as you can”.

So technically Earthsea is quite good, but realistically I expect nothing less. What brings me back to Miyazaki’s work is creativity and thematic strength, and on those fronts this story feels a little flat. I’ll admit the only book of the source material I’ve read is A Wizard of Earthsea, and except for a few side references to the larger world this story didn’t particularly resemble anything I read there, although I’m given to understand it bears a closer plot similarity to some of the later books in the series. In one particular, of course, it’s conspicuously different: I’m pretty sure Earthsea’s not supposed to have that many white people (where “that many” in this context happens to be “everybody”).

A lot of what I got from AWOE was about personal responsibility and the limits of personal power. Sparrowhawk fucks up horribly and then cleans up his mess, becoming a stronger person and gaining a greater appreciation for his own limitations in the course of his redemption. Power unchecked is somewhat a theme in this film, but without too much of a connection to personal limitations: there’s a great deal of nattering about The Balance of Nature and suchlike which all ends up mostly irrelevant to the actual confrontation and the villain’s plans. I’m not such a purist as to insist that an adaptation needs to be compatible in themes or plot or even characterization with its parent work, but where it cuts the original work out, it needs to put something else in its place, and even considered as a standalone work Tales is problematic. A lot of plot threads end up dropped abruptly: there’s no reason to suspect, for instance, that the blight on the land is connected to Cob’s machinations.

It’s a very pretty film, but left me with little to hang on to. Ponyo at least had charm, but this felt at least as unfocused and without cute fish. Of course, a girl does fly in it. Evidently producing films about flying girls is a genetically heritable trait.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, Nausicaa.net.

巌窟王/Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, full series

[Screenshot]A lot of basic information about this series was written up in my review of the first four episodes and then my review of the next four episodes. I’m stepping back from partial-series reviews these days because they leave me with less and less to say by the end. Certainly this series is no exception. The visual style continues to be fantastic and somewhat unnerving: it really is a love-it-or-hate-it effect for the most part. The use of textures is getting steadily less restrained near the end of the series, with more garish and violent combinations of texture and color. That may (or may not) be intentional. I was mildly disappointed by the increasing role of CG effects in the later parts of the series, though: as background decoration they’re brilliant, but as foreground elements they clash badly with the texture-wackiness. Also, the CG gives them an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to do mecha battles, which I at least could have done without.

The Japanese dub is quite good; the American dub is passable modulo some peculiar design decisions: there is one character who always speaks in French in the original dub, and his dialogue is translated to English the same as everyone else’s in the American dub. While the original decision was a bit peculiar (having exactly one character speak in French, uncommented on by everyone else, in a story set in a futuristic France in which everyone else speaks Japanese is more than a little peculiar).

So, I’ve gone over the technical aspects, but I’m not sure what to say about the plot. It’s deeply divergent from the original story, which is not necessarily a problem: it’s a pastiche built over the characters and motivations of the original work, changing things liberally to fit the story desired (Franz is a much larger character than in the novel; most of the Morrels are absent completely and the few who remain have a considerably diminished role). Peppo, who I adored in the first four episodes, remains lamentably underused, but reamis a ray of sunshine occasionally brought out to play. The final showdown between Morcerf and Dantes felt weak and a bit problematic, but much that led up to it was in fact excellent.

I’d cautiously recommend this one — up to episode 17 it is absolutely fantastic, and from there on it depends a bit much on flashy CGI and lets the plot grind down, but even up to the 22nd episode it remains riveting and interesting. The last two episodes are a bit of a mess, but not in, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion territory. If you liked Dumas’s novel but not so much that you see a disordered recapitulation of its themes and characters as a travesty, then you might well like this series as I did.

However, the easiest test is just to watch the first episode. If the art style puts you off, no amount of intrigue and drama will really counter that. If you find the art fascinating or alluring, it’s probably worth your time at least for the first half.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

スクールデイズ/School Days, full series

[Screenshot]There are three important things to know about School Days. First, it’s based on an eroge*. Second, the eroge it’s based on is infamous for having really bad endings. Third, the anime series is based on one of those bad endings.

I don’t play eroge, but I get the impression a bad ending is usually “you don’t get laid”, or perhaps “you get laid, but skeeve people out to the degree that the epilogue makes it clear you’re not getting laid again any time soon”. School Days has these, apparently, but it also has really, really bad ones. Think about the worst relationship you ever had. This is worse.

I forget who recommended School Days to me, but they clearly hate me and wanted me to suffer, because this is an an enticing horror, like a car wreck. It’s actually a fairly seductive work, particularly because for three episodes it really is kind of sweet, with a pleasant Cyrano de Bergerac-flavored love triangle shaping up. It has a low-level pervasive lechery in its dialogue, but watching teen anime one kind of tunes that part out. Somewhat more distressing is its awful male-gaze shot-framing, where I keep expecting the female characters to break their dialogue to inform the animators that, no, their faces are actually about 2 feet higher up.

And then at the end of Episode 4, it all starts to go downhill, and gets really skeevy really fast. But by then it’s drawn you in enough to want to see the fate of these people. In fairness, I went in mildly spoiled. I knew (or thought I knew) what happens, but didn’t know who did it, and as the series progressed, I got an idea for who it was (I was wrong, BTW). So I wondered at first, “how are things going to get that dysfunctional?” but around episode 7 was wondering, “how do they keep from getting that dysfunctional for a whole 5 more episodes?”. Around episode 9, however, the producers evidently realized that for a series based on an eroge, there hasn’t been a lot of sex, so over the course of the next two episodes, Makoto fucks all but two of the named characters, including a character whose entire plot up to that point has basically been about being into a guy who is not Makoto. By the time the big Game Over was rolling around, I was actually cheering for it to happen, because he’d gone from being a sweet naïf to a thoroughly unlikable character. It was very cathartic but there wasn’t much time to enjoy the catharsis, because fuck me there’s the second ending nobody warned me about and ow good God I think I didn’t need that.

This is a series which is bad for your soul. It will draw you in with its innocent charms and then blast your psyche at close range with vile characters doing awful things to each other. And you won’t even want to look away. I warn you for the sake of your own sanity.

Of course, with a warning like that, how can you resist the urge to watch? It’s insidious how it works. But if you must watch a series based on a dating sim, could I instead suggest the mostly inoffensive and pleasant Diamond Dust Drops?

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

* For those not acquainted with the many names for varieties of computer games in Japan: an “eroge” or “H-game” is a dating sim with explicit sexual content. A “dating sim” is a visual novel whose main plot involves finding romance. A “visual novel” is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure with pictures. [back]

Dance Dance Dance, by Haruki Murakami

I’m trying to bone up on my modern geeklit, and Murakami’s one of those names that comes up as authentically literary fiction. I picked this one up more-or-less at random, and have a fairly nebulous idea of how it fits into his ouevre (it’s apparently a follow-up, in a shared-world sense, to a previous trilogy, although it stands on its own). It collects a variety of themes and styles into one place: the overall tone felt neo-noir, but the plot wanders through a very mildly fantastic urban adventure, dwelling chiefly on the futility of most modern vocations (almost all the adults in the story seem to be heartily dissatisfied with their jobs) and the illusions people maintain out of cultured civility. It’s ultimately a character study, about how our narrator and his entire social circle lead unspoken lives, and that their own lives only begin to make sense when they delve deeply into others’ lives. It’s a strange story, shot through with elements of the fantastic and a sense of a Big Picture which is never entirely revealed, which is mildly disappointing: it’s possible that the overall purpose is better revealed in light of its prequels. But even taken in ignorance of what the big lead-up is to, it’s a book with comfortable and pleasing themes, seeing the narrator grow closer to others and gain a greater comfort in his own skin and a greater contentment thereby.

I very much liked the style of the work as well as its overall structure. There’s a combination of the frenzied and the relaxed that makes it work, that in the midst of crisis and adventure the protagonist has time and energy for minutiae, in a way that reminds me, perhaps irrationally, of the emphasis on the minute in The Mezzanine. There’s a strong sensory sense in the narrator’s memories of the women he’s known, and of the places he’s been, which may explain the comparison to some extent.

Mostly, I just found this book to be an effortless page-turner, though. The narrator is sympathetically thoughtful, and his world is peopled with largely flawed but enjoyably deep personalities. There are bits that are odd bonuses for me: seeing the narrator mention the Beach Boys wasn’t wholly surprising, as the book’s named after one of their songs, but seeing a mention of the obscure 1971 Surf’s Up album— well, in truth it made me certain, if nothing else, that Murakami takes pride in his acquaintance with obscurities, which is a fine, geeky thing to do. Wandering from the obscure into the overly twee, I’m not sure I can really approve of the inclusion of a succesful but self-loathing novelist named Makimura; that’s maybe a little too self-indulgent.

See also: Wikipedia.

下妻物語/Kamikaze Girls

[Screenshot]Kamikaze Girls is one of those fun little odd-couple stories, with a young female Japanese subculture twist. It doesn’t have anything extraordinarily deep to say, although it does touch on some themes of friendship and growing up and exploring outside your own box. Mostly it just milks its character archetypes for all they’re worth, bouncing the naïve Momoko and snarly Ichigo off of each other in interesting combinations (note not apparent in the subtitles: “Momoko” means “peach”, and “Ichigo” means “strawberry”. Theme naming!), giving each the upper hand in their own comfort zone. It’s mostly just a fun ride through a somewhat caricatured presentation of the Lolita fashion and Yanki motorcycle subcultures.

Although it’s thematically nothing to write home about, I’m pleasantly surprised by the cinematography. It is adventurous without being pretentious, for the most part, making use of clever time-lapse and scene-transition mechanisms, and flashbacks arise in interesting and fun ways (one of them is an animated sequence, which is about as in-your-face as the cinematic techniques get).

It’s a fun story that clocks in at under 2 hours but still feels meaty, so I liked it a lot. The closest I would get to a substantive criticism is that Tsuchiya overacts Ichigo maybe just a little bit, with all the snarling and banging on tables and whatnot.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.