(Check out my previous Refn essay on My Life Directed by NWR, if you haven’t already that is.)
The Neon Demon is my second favorite Nicolas Winding Refn film (behind my #1 favorite Drive). While Refn’s previous two films (Drive and Only God Forgives) were dedicated to Mexican Director Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Neon Demon is the first of his films to really mirror and show inspiration from him. The film is often labeled as a psychological horror film, and it has both of these elements in spades, from the narcissistic personalities fighting verbally and through their work to kill one another’s careers, to the real gore and bloodshed resultant from going all the way and taking each other’s lives. But certain images throughout the film evoke a surrealism akin to Jodorowsky’s own work and the framing and construction of mise-en-scenes in the work place it firmly within an art film context. So I would call it more of Surreal Arthouse Psychological Horror film, if anything.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) plays an aspiring model who has just moved to Hollywood in the hopes of supporting herself through her physical beauty. She meets a helpful young man, Dean, who gives her her first photoshoot opportunity, a talent agent (Christina Hendricks) who gives her her first big break, a fashion designer named Ruby (Jena Malone) with whom she becomes fast friends, and a whole host of other models and industry figures as she claws her way capriciously to the top, all the while losing her sense of modesty and becoming increasingly vain and narcissistic. The film focuses on the cult of beauty within Hollywood that promotes a view of self-worth based on physical appearance and takes the phrase “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” as its operating ethos.
Jesse’s youth (she is only 16, but pretends to be 19) and natural nymphet, Lolita-like looks subversively activate a part in the minds of industry heads that values innocence and pre-pubescent simplistic life, the eternal child and idyllic memories. She is immediately catapulted to the top of the industry and becomes a closer for fashion runways in the area. But she pisses off two other aging models, Gigi and Sarah, and she spurns the sexual advances of Ruby, which leads to some bloody consequences, but first to Ruby’s violation of a voluptuous corpse at her job as a mortician, while imagining performing the acts on Jessie of course. The rest of the film is a melange of literal blood baths, mountain lion infestations, vampirism and cannibalism, self-mutilation, and a particularly visually potent scene wherein a model vomits up an eyeball from her victim and her friend commences to re-consume it once more. The result is an image and a scene that deserves to be more iconic than it is and hearkens back to Bunuel’s Eye being sliced open, the hand with ants, or the dead donkey on the piano. The eyeball scene is certainly the best surrealist sequence I’ve seen in a film since the ear in the field, covered in ants in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet.
From Drive to The Neon Demon, in each successive film, Cliff Martinez has been the cinematographer. In each film, his music has come closer and closer to the forefront of the meaning of the picture and helped to tonally define the mise-en-scene in a unique manner characteristic more of cyberpunk (Like Blade Runner, Akira, or Ghost in the Shell) and philosophical anime (like Paranoia Agent or Wolf’s Rain) than traditional arthouse films. This “sparse electronic score” (Martinez’s words) derives a ton of inspiration from seventies and eighties pioneers in electronic music. We hear the rock beat power of a Giorgio Moroder, the instrumental eclecticism and sonic power of a Vangelis, the chimes and heavy backbeat of Goblin, and the industrial soundscape of Kraftwerk, all under the thrall and channeled through the prism of new synthwave and house music like Kavinsky. These elements make the film a riveting piece to not only watch, but to interact with musically (as I’ve been doing with my guitar and my Yamaha synth pads for the entirety of my most recent rewatch of the film).
The cinematography of the film seems, like in Drive, to suit the themes being expressed in the film. This is through the use of high contrast photography and visually thematic use of color unique to films within the neo-noir genre that spawned cyberpunk. When Jessie first realizes the power of her beauty, she is being photographed by one of L.A.’s most well-respected photographers and visual artist. Gold as the highest good is lavished upon her by both her make-up artist Ruby and in the form of body paint, which is sensually rubbed onto her body inappropriately by her photographer. When she performs her runway walk, the wait beforehand devolves into an internal warring sequence wherein she solidifies her narcissism and deep reds proliferate like lifeblood, the internality of the body becoming externalized, the inner knowledge becoming apparent: She is beautiful and can get whatever she wants through that beauty.
Elsewhere, when she comes back to the reality of her motel apartment in a shady neighborhood of L.A., the nights are dark and her glamour is obscured in shadow. In these scenes, she may be attacked at any moment by a mountain lion that has made its way through her open screen door, or sexually attacked by the predator who owns the motel (Keanu Reeves). These scenes evoke cinematically her uneasiness with being outside of her element and the seediness of the world around her that masks itself within the heart of the city, but becomes very apparent as night falls and anyone and everyone becomes a target. Status or no.
As Refn’s first film about women, and his first film with a cast of mostly women, he found it necessary to split with long-time collaborators Morton Soborg and Larry Smith, and instead hired a woman, Natasha Braier, to create the cinematography of the film. the gambit paid off as Braier knows better than any of Refn’s previous cinematographers how to capture beautiful people on film, even in grotesque moments. The choice was a gambit doubly because of Braier’s relative lack of work as a cinematographer hitherto. She had only worked as a cinematographer for around nine years prior to joining the production of this 2016 film in 2015. The only film she had shot of any real international consequence thus far had been her previous work on 2014’s The Rover, which is something of a minor masterwork of dystopian, vaguely revisionist western storytelling. But the grit of that film is hardly akin to anything that needed to be done for The Neon Demon. Braier pulled out all the stops, however, and created one of Refn’s most stylish, beautifully shot films to date.
The film was Refn’s third in a row to premiere at Cannes, and like the previous outing with Only God Forgives, received both standing ovations and cheers, as well as boos. It is the second feature film released under Refn’s production company Space Rocket Nation, though the majority of the funds came from Gaumont and Amazon Studios. It was his third big-budget film in a row as well, with a final price-tag of $7 million USD, but it failed to garner enough attention to earn more than $3.4 million USD at the box office: a possible result of his previous film being a relative critical bomb.
I hope that Refn is able to get the money to create the cinematic visions he hopes for in the coming years, though his career has been checkered from the very beginning with box office smashes interspersed with total failures, and there might come an unfortunate time when the money is no longer on the table and Refn could return to Denmark to create Pusher IV and V, though I know he loathes the idea.
What’s up with these American Episode titles? Obviously referencing the Sergio Leone film, but there are no references in the episode to the film tropes and stylistic compositions that Leone put to use in his films, or even to the iconic musical scores of Ennio Morricone. Ah!?!
Anyhoo, the scene opens onto the Digital sky where Birdramon is getting beaten up by four Airdramon. Sora is practicing Tennis with her team when she gets the SOS from the now-De-Digivolved Biyomon. Sora sends out the message to the other Digidestined, but it is Saturday. T.K. is dead asleep and Kari is out and about with Gatomon on the town, and without her D-3 or D Terminal. Cody, Davis, and Yolei do receive the text and along with Sora, the four head off in the direction of their school where they sneak into the computer lab and enter the Digital World.
Once there, the signal leads them to a desert Ghost Town ala the Old West. There are boarding houses, horse troughs, stables, a sheriff’s office, presumably whorehouses, and most importantly, for the moment, a saloon with a Starmon proprietor who offers them glasses of milk, on the house, to quench their thirst after their long trek through the desert. The proprietor is also Sheriff in these parts and once the group inquires about whether he has seen Biyomon around, he pulls up a digital wanted poster of her. Ken has seemingly put a bounty on her head. As the Digidestined try to reason with Starmon and to convince him that Biyomon is actually a good Digimon and that the bounty is illegitimate, he reveals that he works for Ken and even has a Dark Ring on his head, hidden under his large Stetson.
The gang tries to escape from him, but Starmon’s Meteor Shower attack stops them dead in their tracks. And the Digimon are too hungry to muster up the energy to Digivolve. Starmon corrals the group and shuts them up in solitary at the Sheriff’s office where they find that Biyomon has also been jailed. After Starmon has left, his deputy Deputymon (conveniently named huh?) arrives and frees Yolei, Sora, Biyomon, and Hawkmon so that they can play card games with him. Starmon arrives, sees half of his prisoners missing and runs off to catch Deputymon. But he leaves his lunch behind on accident. The guys use their ingenuity, and a bit of rope that was previously being used to ties them up, to lasso the bento box over their way. The Digimon eat its contents and Digivolve, break out of the prison, and head off to help their friends.
Meanwhile, Starmon and Deputymon are facing off in a classic outlaw style duel, but Deputymon turns before the count is over and prepares to shoot. Once Starmon convinces Deputymon that this is not honorable behavior for an ostensibly good Digimon, Deputymon demures and offers up the first shot to Starmon. The big oaf gets what’s coming to all morons as Starmon shoots and connects, thereby beating Deputymon. Raidramon shows up and is quickly beaten by Starmon as well. Because Flamedramon is a better fighter, Veemon suggests that Davis Digivolve him into that form instead. the ensuing battle leads to the defeat in the dust of Starmon, the destruction of the nearby Control Spire on accident by Starmon, and the disintegration of Starmon’s Dark Ring by Flamedramon. One more Digimon has been freed by the Digidestined, bringing the overall series total of saved Digimon to 107, and another Control Spire is gone. But Ken doesn’t seem worried in the least. He resides permanently within the Digital World now and has much more time to place Spires than the Digidestined have to destroy them.
The Digidestined Cody
Since Ken went missing from the Real World and entered the Digital World full time, he has been taking control of ever-larger areas within it. With the power of his new Dark Spirals, he is now able to control even Ultimate-level Digimon and has been using Agumon’s power as Blue MetalGreymon to extend his power and dominion throughout areas of the Digital World that were previously too well defended. The Digidestined, plus Matt and Tai, have re-entered the Digital World to continue their quest where they last left off in an attempt to free Agumon. They meet Tentomon who is serving as a spy for the gang within the Digital World and leaves the group soon after the episode begins to search for Garurumon whose help will be useful in the upcoming battle (It should be noted that Tentomon has still been unable to Digivolve into Kabuterimon in Digimon Adventure 02. Come on Izzy!).
Meanwhile, T.K. and Davis are constantly fighting about what the group should do. Davis is the cautious figure who believes that they must be careful fighting MetalGreymon lest they destroy him in the process, while T.K. realizes rightly that they must fight MetalGreymon and free him from the Dark Spiral’s influence even if it means destroying him in the process. T.K. knows that if they destroy MetalGreymon, his data will form once again into a DigiEgg in the Primary Village and when he hatches, his memories will most likely be intact. Davis, however, is unusually cautious because he has not yet learned about the Primary Village or the process of life, death, and rebirth undergone by Digimon in the Digital World. In his mind, if they destroy Agumon by accident whilst trying to free him, they might destroy him for good. T.K. and Davis’ argument turns from verbal to physical, and while the other Digidestined believe that their fighting is pointless, Matt and Tai encourage it in the hopes that their fighting will bring them closer together, like it did previously in Digimon Adventure 01 for Tai and Matt.
As they travel through a Digital wasteland on the way to a Control Spire in need of demolition, Cody’s D-3 registers a Digi-Egg. The group find a marker on a cliff face emblazoned with the Crest of Friendship. As this was once Matt’s distinction, he approaches and a hollow is revealed wherein lies a Digi-Egg of Friendship. Matt attempts to pick it up, but like Tai, Sora, and Izzy before, he is unable to lift the Digi-Egg. It seems that one more Digidestined from Adventure 01 is no longer a designated Digidestined. Cody, Tai, T.K., Kari, and Yolei all try to pick up the Digi-Egg as well, but are ultimately unsuccessful. Davis is even unsuccessful in doing so: an outcome he established as obvious from the very outset as he considers himself to be the one with the least amount of friends.
A Flymon then descends from the sky above and attacks the gang. Flamedramon and Halsemon attempt to defeat him, but Flymon uses an odd buzzing noise that incapacitates everyone momentarily while he grabs Patamon. MetalGreymon and Ken show up, Flymon hands over Patamon to Ken, Ken attempts to put a Dark Spiral onto Patamon, then Garurumon shows up and frees Patamon. Digmon and Nefertimon then join the attack against Flymon and MetalGreymon with Halsemon and Garurumon, but all four are unsuccessful even together. Davis’ inability to fight MetalGreymon over concern about his well-being, leads Flamedramon to become weak. He De-Digivolves into Veemon and gets roughed up by the attackers. Davis then realizes that friendship is about caring for one’s friend’s well-being and attempting to protect them when possible. This realization elicits the opening of the Digi-Egg of Friendship, which presents itself to Davis who now has two DigiEggs and is the assigned protege of both Matt and Tai.
The Digi-Egg is energized and Veemon Armor Digivolves into Raidramon, The Storm of Friendship. He and Garurumon destroy the Control Spire, then the Dark Spiral on MetalGreymon’s arm all to to the theme Change Into Power! Ken escapes once again on his Airdramon as Tai reunites with Agumon, and with one more Digimon freed from the Digimon Emperor’s control, the total freed Digimon tally so far for the series is 106.
At this point, the series feels somewhat saccharine and the lessons learned by our heroes are rarely hols the same importance as in Digimon Adventure 01. That, or the novelty of interpreting their actions in the same manner has worn off. Either way, the series’ rewatch value has seemed to wain as the series commences. Hopefully the Ken arc will come to a close soon and the story will open up into greater, more interesting plot-lines and conflicts in the coming episodes.
Ciao for now,
The Digidestined Cody
Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1952 film, Ikiru, is one of his most critically appreciated and well-known films worldwide. He created the film at a time when existentialism was in vogue as a philosophy, but did not intend the film to be an openly existentialist text. Kurosawa was always influenced by Dostoevsky pretty heavily, however, and his proto-existentialist current runs throughout Ikiru, which translates into the intransitive Japanese verb “to live.” How one ought to live is the primary focus of this film, and inspiring others in the post-World War II world of disintegrating foundationalisms and diminished meaning to find their own ways to live and to flourish was Kurosawa’s stated didactic goal.
The film portrays a bureaucrat who works of the public works program in his city. He has worked for his company for 30 years and has as of yet not missed a single day of work, but he is starting to feel ill and after getting the run-around from his local doctor about his ailment, he realizes that he has stomach cancer. And he most likely has less than six months to live as well. This figure, Kanji Watanabe, is a droll, boring piece of bureaucratic machinery, but once he learns of his impending death, he rebels and misses work, goes out on the town, gets himself a young girlfriend, and tries to find the solutions to his problems at the bottom of a bottle of sake. He sings of life’s brevity and meaninglessness and haunts club after club in an attempt to erase the reality of his condition from his conscious awareness, but is ultimately unable to do so. You can’t stay drunk perpetually.
Watanabe is portrayed by a Kurosawa regular: Takashi Shimura. Shimura had previously acted in Kurosawa’s feature film debut Sanshiro Sugata, as well as most of his other films to that point. Throughout his career, Shimura would act in around 200 films, around 21 of these, or about 10% in total, were Kurosawa films. When one thinks of Kurosawa, often the often Toshiro Mifune comes to mind. But in fact, Mifune only acted in 16 of the auteur’s 30 films. Shimura is the constant actor in this filmography and should more readily be the face and character we recognize first. He was able to portray a terminally ill, downtrodden man in a manner that allows the viewer to emotionally connect with him at all points in the film. His reflective song, “Gondola no Uta,” is sung from a low, ghastly register more at home in a ghost story or Kwaidan than in a contemporary social picture like Ikiru. But the song, the spectral figure of Watanabe, the snow, and the realization of all mise-en-scene elements together with a thematic content that hits home for all audiences- how should one live?- makes the film into a dramatic tour de force verging on cinematic tone poem status.
The story derives much of its inspiration from the short story ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy. In that tale, a Court of Justice official lives a life of drudgery as a bureaucrat who works to escape the meaninglessness of existence and the annoyance of his entitled family members. But one day he takes a fall and lands on his side. The fall breaks no ribs, but he is put into a critical condition and bedridden by the fall, which triggered and revealed a deeper ailment akin to the stomach cancer of Watanabe in Ikiru. The bureaucrat has lived rightly and realizes the full import of his illness as ultimately senseless and arbitrary. But as he weakens over the course of the next few months, he reflects deeper on pain and suffering and death and comes to understand that he has lived an artificial life devoid of passion projects and dreams and hope. He has masked the meaning his life may have developed through paperwork and labor and only upon death, learns that an authentic life is now out of his reach.
Watanabe similarly learns that pain and death are meaningless on a large scale. He also realizes that he has been living an artificial life and that to lead an authentic life he must use his last days to contribute something to society through his work. His personal subjective meaning derives from altruism (though it need not in all cases) and he decides to help clean up a cesspool in one of the city’s neighborhoods and to work within the bureaucratic channels to build a park in its place. His single-pointed focus, persistence, tenacity, and dedication to his cause allow him to boldly stand up to local politicians and to yakuza bosses. To work without letting anyone’s negative feelings getting in the way, because his time is short and he has no time to harbor hatred for others or to even consider how others think of him.
His efforts are rewarded and his park is built. By staring in to the face of death and keeping it as a focus for his action, he was able to achieve what philosopher Martin Heidegger called Being toward Death. This Being toward Death allowed him to overcome the bureaucratic rules that usually call for doing as little as possible and not stepping on the toes of superiors. It allowed Watanabe to discard his concern for the opinions of the Them to instead achieve what he wanted before his own death. This Being toward Death also gave his life a directionality and subjective meaning through his personal goal of creating the park and in this way, achieves Albert Camus’ definition of meaning as anything that keeps you from killing yourself. Watanabe had previously been drinking himself to death, and in fact, did seem to take a few weeks off of his lifespan in the process. By Being toward Death his new goal allowed him to quit his time in dive bars and focus on constructive goals.
At the end of Watanabe’s life, he sits upon a swing in the park at night. His spectral presence swinging in the snow is a phantom who has completed his goals and no longer finds it necessary to roam amongst the living any longer. He dies there, all the while singing Gondola no Uta:
“Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens.
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips.
Before the tides of passion cool within you.
For those of you who know no tomorrow,
Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens.”
And in the wake of his death, his coworkers reflect on life’s brevity and the fact that life can end at any moment. That “any one of us could suddenly drop dead.” But as they return to the office, bureaucratic rules return and nothing gets done. The human spirit dead for rites in the life of Watanabe, only to be recalled again anew by one afar, away and unknown to us now. Maybe you?
(If you haven’t already, check out my previous essay on Isao Takahata’s film The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals)
Grave of the Fireflies is Isao Takahata’s 1988 masterpiece, his first official film release under Studio Ghibli as director, and one of the most critically-acclaimed anime and war films of all time. Much has been said about the raw emotional power of the film, of the pessimistic picture it paints about how war affects the innocent, of its implicit indictment of patriotism over the vastly more important ideologies of human feeling and compassion, while simultaneously staying constantly relevant in a time when refugee crises span much of the Earth and conservative demagogues fight for only the rich and powerful at the expense of their own people, both their compatriots and fellow human beings worldwide. As Seita and his little sister Setsuko roam through a post-World War II wasteland where the center is now far gone, Japan can no longer help its own people, and many disadvantaged people, like children, were left behind to die of malnutrition and disease.
Religion, and specifically Kami worship, often play roles in the films of Takahata. From the indigenous Ainu religious tale of Horus, to the ecological-mystical fable of Pom Poko, and all the way into the traditional Japanese tale in Kaguya-hime no Monogatari. But here, the only mention of religion comes with occasional notions of State Shinto, which was explicitly commingled with Japanese Militarism and the cult of Emperor Worship as a Divine Kami on Earth. The protagonists of the film are children who are innocent and unconcerned with these ideological notions, but are subject to the effects of these ideologies time and again as their mother dies during a firebombing of Kobe, their father dies at sea whilst commanding a ship for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and their Aunt becomes so overcome with jingoism that she begrudges sharing food and resources with Seita and Setsuko in lieu of giving more for the war effort.
Takahata famously went on record stating that the film was not an anti-war film. No. This approach is too simplistic. Rather, the fault lies within the ideology of imperialism as a whole and the moral atrocities that followed were the result of a weak moral character on the part of the Americans who fought back with nuclear weapons and firebombing of civilians en masse, but also the result of a Japanese military-political effort to continue to make money and expand their influence throughout the southeast Asia, consequences be damned, and then to carry on the war far past the time it was truly lost just for the purposes of vain pride. The purpose of attacking the causes of the war is that the war could have been avoided. The reason for not attacking war outright is that during this time, there was another conflict that may be one of the only just wars of the entire 20th century: namely, the fight against Germany. But I digress.
Grave of the Fireflies stands at an artistic juncture for Takahata. His films were exhibiting an increasing social conscious and realism during this time that was previously only apparent on a minor scale. This was the first totally mature, long-form feature film project for Takahata that he was able to produce without having other projects on his mind and on his desk at the same time. It was a time of flux. Whereas Takahata produced Nausicaa and The Castle in the Sky for Miyazaki previously, they were now working on projects simultaneously. So Toru Hara, the key figure in Studio Topcraft, which was bought out by Ghibli in 1985 and became the animation team behind Studio Ghibli, decided to produce both Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro to give both of the film’s auteurs time to focus on the craft of filmmaking totally. Projects would continue to cycle between the three figures as producer for the next three years until Takahata’s 1991 film Only Yesterday, when Toshio Suzuki would become the producer for all future Ghibli film projects.
Although Joe Hisaishi had been working on every Miyazaki film as composer since Nausicaa, and would continue to produce the score for every film thereafter, he had not yet produced a score for a Takahata film. Instead, Grave of the Fireflies was scored, to brilliant effect by Michio Mamiya. Mamiya had previously produced the scores for Takahata’s films Horus, Gauche the Cellist, and The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, but Grave of the Fireflies would prove to be his final film score for a film, animated or otherwise. He is 88 years old now, and was only 58 at the time, but for some reason or other decided to end his film score career forever then and there. He has sense composed and conducted pieces for various orchestra however. After this film, Takahata would employ a different composer every time for the remainder of his work, but would not collaborate with the legendary Joe Hisaishi until his final film in 2013: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari.
Finally, throughout the sixties and seventies, a young animator had worked with Miyazaki and Takahata numerous times as key animator, beginning with the Lupin III anime series, both Panda! Go, Panda! films, and Future Boy Conan through to Anne of Greene Gables and Sherlock Hound. This young man was Yoshifumi Kondo. In 1987, he joined the relatively newly formed Studio Ghibli and spent the next twelve years working as key animator on many projects, culminating in his employment in 1995 as director for Whisper of the Heart: the first feature-length Ghibli film not directed by either Takahata or Miyazaki. But his first work for the Studio was as storyboard artist, character designer, and animation director for Grave of Fireflies.
Though his first project with the company, his previously history working for Takahata and Miyazaki propelled him to the forefront of the new production. Because Isao Takahata cannot draw, he relies heavily on other creative talents to bring his visual and thematic concepts to reality in film. Yoshifumi Kondo was the perfect conduit in this regard as he created beautiful, often nearly-surreal vignettes throughout the film that relate Seita’s memories or show emotionally-gripping moments in an arthouse style. He decided to outline character models and sets with brown lining instead of the more traditional black in an effort to soften the animation and make it blend more seamlessly with the backgrounds and the realistic animation style of natural environments (a continuance of the poetic realism at play in Takahata’s earlier film Gauche the Cellist). Arguably, without Kondo the film would not be the visual splendor it became. This success is evidenced by the fact that Miyazaki and Takahata continued to use his strengths as a key animator and animation director in the coming years and were setting him up to become their creative successor at Studio Ghibli in the coming years.
Overall, the film is a beautiful, though somber reflection on war, ideology, domestic refugees, the destruction of innocence, and a call for a more reflective politics that engages more than business and power dynamics, but always puts people first. It is a gripping rendition of the 1967 autobiographical short story Grave of the Fireflies by Akiyuki Nosaka, which could have only been realistically portrayed to such powerful effect in the field of animation. And in this, it stands as another testament to the power of animation within the oeuvre of Isao Takahata, and more generally, within the Japanese medium of anime at large.
[Next up: Only Yesterday]
Tai is sitting in math class waiting for the period to finish so that he can join his young Digidestined friends in the school’s computer lab. Once there, we find that Izzy, T.K., Davis, Kari, and Cody have all assembled in the room and are ready to return to the Digital World once more to save Agumon from the influence of Ken’s black gears. Yolei stands just outside of the computer room’s door and seems to be somewhat depressed, but for no identifiable reason that is disclosed at this point or even later in the episode. Her depression is rather more of an enigmatic state or constant mental condition more akin to clinical depression, which hinders her from going with her friends into the Digital World.
As the rest of the gang enters the Digital World, they immediately find Tentomon who has information on the current whereabouts of Agumon and Ken. Unfortunately, Tentomon will only serve in the capacity of informant during this episode as Izzy has remained behind in the computer room for technical support. This is especially frustrating for me, and probably for a number of other viewers and reviewers of the series, who reveled in all of the other original 8 Digidestined Digimon being able to Digivolve at various points before episode 10 (more than 20% into the series), but must wait longer for Tentomon to once again Digivolve into Kabuterimon in Adventure 02. The gang learns that Agumon is in Rail Town and the quest begins anew to save their friend from the clutches of the would-be Digimon Emperor.
All the while, the Digimon Emperor, Ken, has been contemplating the failure of the Dark Ring to control Andromon by overpowering his memory circuits, as well as thew failure of the rings to control SkullGreymon, a fully Digivolved Digimon. He has trapped Agumon within a containment unit of his hideout and continually forces him to Digivolve from Greymon to SkullGreymon, continually channeling more power into the Dark Ring. He hopes to control SkullGreymon, but no amount of extra power is sufficient to the task and SkullGreymon ends up destroying much of the lab instead. As Ken realizes that a Dark Spiral model should have enough power to control
SkullGreymon, Wormmon is below inside the chamber. He frees the weakened Agumon in an attempt to end the senseless torture and to hopefully force Ken into using the Spiral on him instead (he is Ken’s Digimon partner after all). But Ken is cruel and chooses to instead gather a small army of other powerful Champion-level Digimon to aid him in battle.
The two parties converge and a fight ensues between five DarkTyrannomon and five Airdramon against Flamedramon, Digmon, Nefertimon, and Pegasusmon. The latter make quick work of freeing the five Dark Tyrannomon, blocking the attacks from the Airdramon, and then directing attacks toward Ken himself. But Ken’s clothing in the Digital World is more than just fashionable attire for an evil villain. It allows him to repel attacks (presumably only attacks below a specific power threshold) and to fly as well. He approaches Agumon, who has only just recently been reunited with Tai, but is too weak to Digivolve and help the others fight the Airdramon. Ken puts the new Dark Spiral on him and forces him to Digivolve into the Ultimate level, this time as a Blue MetalGreymon totally under the thrall of Ken’s whims.
MetalGreymon defeats all four Digidestined partner Digimon, then loses energy and De-Digivolves and is whisked away by Ken and his Airdramon just as Matt, Yolei, and Hawkmon arrive on the scene for backup. They are too late, but their arrival signifies Yolei’s newfound ability to overcome her anxiety and emotional states to go and help her friends when her help is necessary. Tai blames himself for once again losing Agumon, but Matt punches him, and hard. The punch brings Tai to his senses. He thanks Matt for helping him break free from his growing sense of self-loathing and self-blame, and instead strives for a future date when his efforts to help his friend will finally bear fruit. With new senses of resolve and five DarkTyrannomon now free from Ken’s clutches (which brings the total Digimon saved in the series thus far up to 105), the Digidestined are mentally prepared to continue in their quest to preemptively save the Digital World from Ken’s machinations, although they have a new challenge ahead in Ken’s newfound control over even Ultimate level Digimon.
The Digidestined Cody
(Check out my previous Refn essay on Only God Forgives if you haven’t already!)
In 2012 and 2013, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was shooting his 2013 film Only God Forgives. His wife Liv Corfixen, an actress and documentary director in her own right who had previously acted in three of her husband’s films (Pusher, Bleeder, and Fear X) went with Refn, with their two children, to Bangkok, Thailand to document the filming process of the new film.
During the filming of his previous film Drive, Corfixen had stayed behind with her children in Copenhagen while Refn shot in Los Angeles. He was gone working on the project for 10 months that time, and this time she decided to come with him to avoid having to be separated for the next 6 months. Refn’s production studio Space Rocket Nation, funded her stay as well as the production money for the documentary. Only God Forgives would also be Refn’s first film for the new company.
My Life Directed opens with a sequence that helps to put Only God Forgives into context. Alejandro Jodorowsky and Refn are shown sitting at a kitchen table, while the former gives the latter a tarot reading. He tells Refn that before Drive, he focused on the joy and pleasure of making films with a personal vision. Now, after Drive’s success, future success seems to occupy his mind more than anything else. Throughout the film, Refn frames the making of Only God Forgives as a chess match between himself and the prospective viewers of the film. He does his best to never have a dull moment and to always engineer the film’s scenes in such a way that the film will carry audience attention throughout.
Refn wants to be creative and give the world another personal vision, but finds himself questioning the plot of the film and openly recognizes that even he doesn’t know what it’s about. He doesn’t want to repeat himself with this film and wants to avoid focusing too much on themes of Evil and the Underworld, but finds himself unable to do so. The deeper thematic tensions of his films have always been identified by Refn as attempts at Shakespearean-level drama, but the dramatic tensions of Shakespeare are thwarted in Only God Forgives by using generic neurotic and psychoanalytic categories. The boy’s sexual obsession with the mother, which leads him to Oedipal visions of killing the father and claiming the mother totally for himself. But in Only God Forgives, the boy actually kills the father and passes the Oedipal stage by projecting fatherliness onto his brother, coming to accept sharing of the mother, and gaining a camaraderie in sexual perversion with his brother. Interesting, but definitely more Freudian than Shakespearean.
Refn is characteristically depressed and anxious through the production of the film. His wife documents days when he finds it hard to get up in the morning, when he tears up because of the film’s progress or lack thereof, as he airs his doubts about the film’s quality, and the moments when he breaks down and takes out his frustrations on her. He complains that he is generally known as the guy who made Drive, and that before Drive he was known as the guy who made Pusher. Lars von Trier is never regarded only as the guy who made Breaking the Waves. Refn seems to constantly compare himself to the other great Danish auteur, and rarely favorably. Overall, we get the picture that Refn is pretty neurotic and doesn’t think highly of himself or his filmography, even though his oeuvre is worthy of praise and represents one of the better bodies of work of any living director today.
The film is relatively short, only 60 minutes, but it gives the viewer a pretty indispensable portrait of the life of an artist during a tumultuous time in his life. We get valuable looks at his domestic life, at the difficulties of shooting a film, of the triumphs of particular moments in the process, and inside looks at the press and publicity circuit of a film. Paired with Phie Ambo’s 2006 documentary Gambler, this film helps to round out the viewer’s, critic’s, or fan’s appreciation of Refn’s process and inner life, while also being something of a scathing picture of why Only God Forgives did not succeed critically like most of his previous films. If you’ve a mind, check it out on Netflix while it’s still in the catalog.
Anyhoo, till next time,
[Next up: The Neon Demon!]
Ken, the narcissist that he is, watches himself on TV in an interview he gave the day before. His comments during the interview were a mixture cocky, snarky, and snobbish, but the interviewers were either so ditsy or so in love with him as a subject that they ignored them or didn’t even catch them. After giving another interview, his handler comes forward and prattles off a bunch of madness about some weird video game and asks for Ken’s advice on how to beat it, then asks for Ken’s autograph.
That night, Ken leaves his room and stares out toward the city reflecting on the ugliness and stupidity he interprets therein. He remarks, “Look at all those fools out there. Dreaming away their meaningless lives. Running around like rats in a maze.” At this point, the monologue looks like something out of an existentialist or absurdist novel. It’s something I can resonate with too readily as a truth of the world without foundational principles like morality or metaphysics. We waste our lives, and I’ve wasted much of mine as well, especially when we live our lives as expected rather than for the purpose of enjoying life and chasing our dreams through rational, measured, realizable steps that can one day lead us there (as opposed to irrational attempts to stardom or success without doing the legwork necessary).
A rational person would extend this quote to her or himself and use it as a tool, or a hammer, to chip away at those things limiting one’s realization of dreams that allow their lives to currently remain subjectively meaningless (they will always be objectively meaningless, but objective to whom? There is no one situated at the archimedian point after all). This is what a logical mind might do. But Ken is in the thrall of the black gear, so his follow line in the monologue continues, “Not one of them is worth half what I am worth! Nothing but fools!” If foundationalism is a lie meant to subjugate individuals to the social system or the collective and foment a monitoring and directing herd morality within their psyches, then might truly does make right (though other social forces can subvert this might ideologically and make it so, for example, that a dictator has total control forcefully, but everyone knows he is wrong). In this sense, if Ken were to have total dominion over all others on the planet, then there is a real sense in which he is worth more than any other person. But he has, as yet, not even gained control over the Digital World, let alone the Real World, and as such, his comments are delusional.
The next morning, Izzy and the Digidestined are in the computer lab at school when they decide to track down Ken in the Real World. They use a picture from his last televised interview in front of his apartment complex, then isolate the apartment’s features in a complex map identification program (Something akin to a combination of Google Maps and Facebook’s automatic Face Recognition, but for objects). Using this program, Izzy finds out where Ken lives and the group heads in his direction to find the boy genius in his element. But when they arrive, the cops are outside of his home responding to a 911 call from his parents who believe he has run away.
Ken left a note on his computer monitor stating, “Goodbye to all of you. Your trivial lives will plague me no longer. My destiny awaits.” Again, we get the sense of grandiosity in Ken’s mindset as well as a deep revulsion for the commonplace. Some who first come around to anti-foundationalism and nihilism come to view things in this manner, rather than feeling concern and goodwill towards one’s fellow travelers in this meaningless world. Those that feel like Ken still believe that they themselves are better than others because they have a realized the truth of the world and are free from ideological shackles that the sows in the herd have not even been able to call into question, as of yet. They believe that they still have a grand destiny or fate (which is patently against nihilistic logic) because they are still trapped in a neurotic state of child-likeness known as the Puer Aeternis.
The Puer Aeternis is a Jungian concept for a neurotic state wherein one lives life with a deep sense of personal heroics. The puer believes that all one’s goals will be met without putting in the work and that life lived now is just a provisional life on the way to their goals. They cannot enjoy life currently lived because it is other to the dream of life they have conceptualized and internalized for themselves. As one ages, the mindset of this eternal child god, this Dionysus, this Peter Pan, does not go away with time. The only way to break free from the neurosis is work. The reality of drudgery and hard-fought victory that puts into perspective one’s dreams and ambitions and goals and eliminates the fantasy world from life. Ken has not reached this stage beyond the puer aeternis, but as he continues to work and his work is thwarted at every step by the Digidestined, he will have to change his views and grow in the process.
The Digidestined return to the computer lab and find that Ken has set up a ridiculous amount of Control Spires in the Digital World seemingly overnight. They enter the Digital World and find themselves on a fiery plane where five Dark Ring-enslaved Meramon stand waiting to challenge them. Flamedramon’s fire attacks just strengthen the fires of the Meramon, Halsemon’s wind attacks also stoke their fires and make them larger and more powerful, and Digmon’s attempts to break the ground below them and send them deep below lands the Meramon in lava that they easily escape, and even enjoy. Luckily, Pegasusmon and Nefertimon’s beam attacks do damage to the Meramon and destroy their Dark Rings, thereby setting them free.
Then, Ken appears with five Airdramon in tow and Tai’s partner Greymon enslaved by a Dark Ring. He uses the Dark Digivice to Digivolve Greymon, but it backfires and creates SkullGreymon, whose power as a fully-evolved Digimon is too much for the Dark Ring to control. SkullGreymon beats up the Meramon, the Airdramon, and all of the Digidestined Digimon, then destroys Ken’s new Control Spire. Ken sends five DarkTyrannomon after SkullGreymon to stop him from causing any more havoc, but all five are defeated as well. SkullGreymon then runs out of energy and De-Digivolve back into Agumon who is taken by Ken as they fly away on the Airdramon. The Digidestined are worried about this turn of events as Agumon’s sector of the Digital World has now been left unguarded and if Ken is able to control SkullGreymon, none of their Digimon are currently powerful enough to take him on, and win.
The episode ends on this depressing note and things look bad for the Digidestined in the future. Ken might actually be able to take over the entire Digital World at this rate. But on another note, the Digidestined freed the five Meramon from their Dark Ring enslavement and have brought the Freed Digimon Total for the series up to 100!
Till next time,
The Digidestined Cody
The episode opens with Davis practicing with his soccer/football team and being cheered on by Tai on the sidelines. Everyone is working their hardest to get conditioned for the up-coming match against kid genius Ken Ichijouji’s school club. There are stories being bandied about regarding Ken’s prowess on the pitch and how he scored 48 goals in the previous season. Which is insane.
To put that into context, the best season individual season in pro history seems to be Lionel Messi’s 2011-12 La Liga season when he scored 50 goals for his team. Other best seasons by renowned great players include the 2013-14 Premier League run of 34 goals by Wayne Rooney and the 2016-17 La Liga run of 36 goals by Christiano Ronaldo. These last two come nowhere near 48. The best ever beats Ken’s score by 2. Now, granted Ken is in a junior high or high school league, and the players are not as good or as difficult to score against as in the pro leagues, his 48 total seasonal goals isn’t as impressive, but it will be given some more details on the scanty amount of time he actually spends playing.
When the other Digidestined hear that Davis is playing a game against Ken- who they still have no idea is synonymous with the Digimon Emperor mind you- they decide to go watch his match and cheer him on. Yolei has the ulterior motive of getting Ken’s autograph, as well as capturing his heart (she fails on both counts in the episode, but presumably manages to capitalize on the latter objective at some point after the events of Digimon Adventure 02). The others have the ulterior motive of wanting to see the boy genius in action. But there’s a problem. He doesn’t show up to the game.
Ken’s teammates say that Ken rarely makes it games and is busy today with a soft drink commercial and a soccer ball sponsorship meeting. The match starts and a glorious montage erupts to the tune of the Let’s Kick It Up! Theme. Davis scores the only goal of the first half and puts his team in the lead at 1-0. Then, Ken “The Rocket” Ichijouji finally shows up and gets put in the game for the second half. He quickly scores a goal and by the game’s end has scored a total of 9 goals, which are the only goals his team manages to score at all (a Champion Team mind you). Davis blocks Ken’s final attempted goal and prevents the final score from becoming 10-1. The match ends at 9-1 with Ken as a dominant force on the pitch.
Now, Ken’s team is a champion team even without him and Davis’ team showed itself to be on par or even slightly better than that team at the beginning of the game. Meaning that normally Davis is a champion-level player and that his team are very strong defensively, which is made abundantly clear by the champion team being unable to score against Davis’ team. Ken’s skill level can be gauged by his ability to score nine times in the second half of one game in what would normally be a legendary feet of agility, tenacity, and sheer cardio skill. He is a force of nature.
As to those 48 goals from last season, they are made that much more impressive in the knowledge that he only plays a few games per year. And rarely ever a full game at that. So, in the second half or last quarter of a handful of games, he managed to score 48 goals for his team and bring them from champion level to unbeatable level. This is another testament to his skill, but also to the force of power that the Black Gears of Millenniummon have over him. We know from the WonderSwan console game D-1 Tamers that Ken was once an average kid, though a Digidestined. Once infected by the black gears, his genius became elevated and he became bent on total destruction of all those in his way, both in the Digital and Real Worlds. This extends to his viciousness on the pitch. But the real question for me is whether black gear is a banned substance? And if so, is Ken doping?
But in all seriousness, Ken leaves the game pissed off at Davis for taking his glory during that last attempted goal. He sojourns to the Digital World and sets up a new Control Spire deep within a new sector, the Forbidden Valley of No Return. Izzy registers the new spire and sends Digidestined to destroy it, but once there, everyone but Davis and Veemon are sucked underground beneath the sands. They are captured by Ken and hung from a large cliff where a Deltamon stands ready to consume them with his dragon mouth, his metal dragon hand, and his SkullGreymon hand (why does a champion level Digimon have an Ultimate-level hand?). Davis must choose which three Digidestined will be consumed by Deltamon, but instead chooses to sacrifice himself.
It’s all an illusion however! The other Digidestined have escaped from Ken’s clutches elsewhere and come running to warn Davis that those effigies on the cliff are really disguised, Dark Ring enslaved Bakemon. Flamedramon cracks the Dark Ring on Deltamon, then the rings on the eight Bakemon. Digmon, Halsemon, Nefertimon, and Pegasusmon destroy the Control Spire and Davis attacks Ken directly by tackling him over the cliff’s edge. Neither Davis or Ken are seriously hurt by the fall and tumble, but a scrape on Ken’s knee is revealed, which reveals to Davis the identity of the Digimon Emperor as Ken, who receives the cut on his knee when Davis blocked his shot on the pitch earlier that day, and in the Real World.
As Ken flies away on his Airdramon, the others are confused by the state of affairs and Davis is in disbelief that his one-time soccer idol and adversary could be his digital adversary as well. With eight Bakemon and the Deltamon freed from their bindings, the Bakemon are left to go be naturally evil elsewhere. The total of freed Digimon in the series is now up to 95 and a huge plot point has been unveiled. Next time, the story will begin to move along at a different pace and hopefully pick up some steam in the process.
The Digidestined Cody
(To check out my previous Refn essay click here: Drive)
Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s 9th feature length film and his tenth film overall if one counts the made-for-TV Miss Marple: Nemesis film released in 2007. It was his second film, and his his second film in a row, to premiere at the most prestigious film festival in the world at Cannes. It is his second, and second film in a row, to be dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky (as a hero of Refn’s, but not necessarily an influence- I can find few thematic or artistic links between the two on Drive and Only God Forgives). The film was Refn’s fourth and so far, final, collaboration to date with cinematographer Larry Smith (Fear X, Miss Marple: Nemesis, Bronson). It is also the second, and second in a row, of collaborating with musician Cliff Martinez on a film score. It was his second and last, to date, collaboration with actor Ryan Gosling. Somehow, with all of these creative talents behind the film and a $4.8 million USD budget, Refn managed to make what is in my opinion his weakest film.
The film begins with two American brothers who run a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok. One is an SOB and a pedophile who goes off, finds a young girl, makes her, and then makes her. As in double wet job. You get the drift. Lt. Chang, “The Angel of Violence” (Vithaya Pansringarm), arrives on the scene where the psychotic American is still sitting in the room with the dead girl. He chastises the girl’s father for not protecting her and for actively making her susceptible to predatory behavior by pimping her out. But he tells him: “Now’s your chance to do something.” The father enters the room and kills the murderer. Later, The Angel cuts off the father’s hand as a perpetual reminder not to treat his three other daughters in the same manner.
Julian (Gosling), the living brother, tracks down the father to seek his own retribution for his brother’s death. But once he hears the whole story, he lets the man go free and plans to delve no further into the incident. His brother had it coming. Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), however, has different plans. She comes to Bangkok, takes over the operation, and sends off hitmen to take out the father and then the cop. Unfortunately, the cop is a super cop, a true vigilante (with real power) Angel of Vengeance who manages to outwit and outluck his adversaries, and in the film’s denouement, manages to find and torture all of the hitmen, kill his opponents, and rid Bangkok of the criminal American element and family who have been smuggling in cocaine and other illegal substances into the country.
The Angel of Vengeance is the third in a triptych of characters in Refn’s filmography. The first is the mute One-Eye in Valhalla Rising whose mystical visions and obscured past make him into a mythic figure of divine significance. Next is Driver who has watched too many crime films and action movies and has an unknown past as well. He tries to be heroic, but underneath he is the Scorpion, brutal and bloodthirsty as any of his enemies. He speaks more often than the mute One-Eye, obviously, but his dialogue is sparse. The Angel of Vengeance is a police officer from Bangkok who has taken on the entire criminal element in an effort to strengthen his society morally and structurally with just the force of his own will and hands. He wants to create a good society for his daughter to grow up and he uses his past skills as a martial artist and as a legendary kick-boxer to achieve his ends.
Julian feels like the real third in the triptych as well, but is not identified as such by Refn. Julian speaks 17 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film. He comes from America and has somehow made his way to Bangkok and become a drug lord in Thailand. But his story is more neurotic than mythic. He killed his own father because he was beating Julian’s mother (or from her account, because Julian has a neurotic obsession with her and couldn’t let another man have her). He does anything his mother asks of him, even when she injures his pride and calls him out for his odd psychological state in front of his prostitute girlfriend Mai (Rhatha Phongam). He is especially cold and calculating and even nonchalant about his brother’s death. He is prone to violent outbursts, but only when his mother’s character is called into question by Mai. And when he finds his mother’s body after it has been rendered lifeless by The Angel of Vengeance, he cuts open her stomach and place his hand into her womb. Something is seriously wrong with this character and it isn’t something that has religious or mystical significance.
Despite a ton of interesting concepts and a hard-boiled film noir-ish conceit, the film is not very engrossing. It plays out as a series of vignettes with wildly different mise-en-scenes and no overarching color palate. Unless, of course, deep reds, neon greens, blues and violets, plus regular bright whitish daylight hues makes a color palate. Refn might be color-blind, but so am I, and I can definitely tell that there was no real overarching rhyme or reason for the color palate being as it was. The musical score rarely feels pervasive like in Drive, though it is luckily never invasive to the experience of watching the film. No tracks really stand out besides the final Karaoke track sung by The Angel of Vengeance with his police friends in a bar. The music very rarely heightens the tensions of the moments or strengthens a scene’s emotional content. All in all, these design elements are just so-so, nothing special.
And the title of the film? I’ve got no clue. Lt. Chang as a divine emissary sure doesn’t forgive. so what gives?
The film earned $10.3 million USD at the box office, thereby doubling it’s budget in profit. But the film received more boos than cheers at Cannes, by audiences worldwide, and by critics. This critical slump would lead to the commercial failure of his next film, The Neon Demon, due to sheer lack of interest in the movie-going public. This is a shame, because that film is a return to form for Refn and deserved more critical praise and audience revenue than it got. Refn’s always had a rocky career. And though I’m just now finally catching up to his modern era works through this blog, and it seems as if he has reached some measure of success, the road is far from over, and there will surely be numerous bumps along the way. Potentially one that could flop so hard, the journey might end there and then.
[Next up: My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn]