Archive | June 2018

Wild Bill

(Check out my previous Western film review here: Rancho Deluxe)

The 1995 Wild Bill Hickok Western, Wild Bill, is something of an all-star production. The film was directed by Walter Hill, a great action screenwriter turned director who began his career penning films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway before directing a series of classic films in the late 70s and throughout the 1980s that includes The Driver, The Warriors, The Lost Riders, Streets of Fire, and Crossroads. His was a muscular sort of directing in the great tradition of American film auteurs like Howard Hawks and John Huston. And like those two men, he created a ton of films in a short time, very few of which are great, but occasionally one or two amongst the horde would appear that justify the sleight of haphazardly-directed works. Wild Bill, I am sorry to say, is a film beyond his Walter Hill’s prime years as a director, and as a result, the picture is pretty awful.

The rambling, stylistically and narratively confused film has a long lineage of narrative from which to draw from, and which makes it that much more confusing why it turned out as badly as it did. To begin, there is the legend of the Western outlaw occasionally turned lawman Bill Hickok whose life story can, and often has, filled volumes. Hill chose here to cover much of this story in brief vignettes and tell only the tale of his ignoble, rather mundane last days and death throughout the meat of the film.

Hill did not just pull the story out of legend and history books before directing it either, which might have justified the film’s incomplete nature and meandering tone. No, the story of Bill Hickok that this film ultimately derives from is that of Fathers and Sons, a play written by Thomas Babe that is typically been well reviewed. Next, the acclaimed author of Paris Trout, Pete Dexter, shaped that play into a novel of his own called Deadwood.

Despite the esteemed literary tradition backing the film, and the fact that Western mythos often makes for a good film, Hill decided make of the film something akin to the recent Oliver Stone indie success Natural Born Killers. As such, Wild Bill alternates between black and white, color, and matte photography styles. It often employs dutch angles and other arthouse framings. But it does none of this particularly well, and worse, it does most of it in a slow, methodical manner, which prevents the film from taking on the kaleidoscopic quality of Stone’s work. And when Hill does cut from one style to another, it’s done in such a way that the picture becomes disjointed and leaves the viewer feeling jarred by it. As if Hill were completely unable to choose a rhythm and to stick to it. And believe me, there is no meta-rhythm going on here, Hill is no Godard.

Although Jeff Bridges plays the role of Wild Bill Hickok well, and is a generally decent actor in everything he does, no amount of acting could save his role from the confusions of the narrative. He moves from place to place, causing trouble and killing folk in the film’s prologue before settling into Deadwood for reasons that never become totally apparent (John Hurt, the film’s narrator, explains that there was a gold rush going on in that town. However, Hickok does no prospecting and doesn’t even take on a job as a sheriff on account of the onset of glaucoma slowing blinding him). He has dream sequences in which he is hunted by Native Americans, presumably because he killed a chief at the beginning of the film who has a dream that he must fight Hickok to save his people (or some such odd metaphysically suspect scenario). And aside from the color photography of scenes in Deadwood, there are often flashback sequences with varying looks and cinematic approaches, which ought to help differentiate time displacement in the story, but really only add to a conceptual confusion in the film’s color palette and artistic style. Consequently, it is over-saturated in colors and styles and seemingly has no overarching style or look, and feels ‘searching’ in an inept manner representative of a lack of direction and not the ‘searching’ quality of a Tarkovsky film, or even of Natural Born Killers (A film I don’t enjoy, but respect as a work of art).

Within the film is the story of one of Hickok’s past loves named Susannah Moore (Diane Lane) who he loved and left. He apparently sired a son who grew into one Jack McCall (played miserably by David Arquette) (Why the last name? Beats me?) who blames Hickok for his insecurities or some such thing and ends up tracking the old man down to kill him, if he can. But the young gun has no practice with a gun and is beaten by Hickok at every turn. He hires a gang of gunfighters to help incapacitate his father and hold him in a saloon, and then pontificates about how his feelings were hurt by him not being around and not sticking around with his mother who was a self-respecting prostitute, supposedly. Instead of killing Hickok, he roams about talking about his feelings (is this not the Wild West?) before NOT offing the old man, managing to let him escape, kill his entire group of gunfighters for hire, and then finally getting up the nerve, inexplicably, to kill the old guy. McCall does’t even run away and become a self-respecting outlaw, he just turns himself in and is hung by the neck until dead for killing his own father in cold blood.

Rounded out by lackluster performances by Bruce Dern, Keith Carradine, and Christina Applegate (all actors I actually like), the film is miserable drivel. And as one of two films in a combo pack including the aforementioned Rancho Deluxe, I might have to deem this the single worst Western film collection release ever sold on the market (at least to my knowledge). Jesus! Kill me now!

 

Cody Ward

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The Big O: Act 04- Underground Terror

(Act 03: Electric City)

I’ve mentioned, often enough, the different kinds of music employed in The Big O by composer Toshihiko Sahashi to develop a mood, heighten the tension of a moment or to play as incidental accompaniment to a moment, and to serve as a pastiche of those cultural forms that influenced the show. However, the most glaring piece of music in the series is the opening track, which I have not hitherto discussed at any length. The chorus of the song, which plays in its shortened minute and a half version in syndication, is replete with obvious aping of the Queen-composed theme from the 1980 American Sci-fi production of Flash Gordon. 

But if you listen to the full track online, you will find that much of the remainder of the song’s operatic nature and rock and roll style is in keeping with the post-Glam Rock glam of Queen musical productions like Seven Seas of Rye or Bohemian Rhapsody. The effect is the boldly, and even haphazardly, make the point from the very get-go that The Big O is as much a pastiche of the Japanese Giant Robo genre, Kaiju films, and Tokusatsu shows, as it is a pastiche of Western influences like American music (Jazz, Rock and Roll, Classical, and early Electronica) and Sci-fi. And personally, the piece is my favorite opening theme of any anime, scratch that, of any TV show period.

That said, Underground Terror is something of a labyrinthine affair whose mysteries could be mined for months, and over hundreds of potential pages. So if I’m to strike some gold, I oughta get to it now. The episode opens to the image of a broken watch lying in a pile of rubble on the ground, presumably beneath Paradigm City itself. The city is an ontological quandary, a place with no history and no memory of its past, and thereby of a city beyond time. The broken clock is a visual signifier, to my mind, of this basic state of Paradigm as a place out of time. A voice speaks: ‘Let’s just say, if what happened forty years ago didn’t exist, man would still be a creature that fears the dark. Fear comes from not knowing. He then averts his eyes from that fear and acts as if he never had any memories of his life, of his history from the very beginning.’

The point here being that the denizens of Paradigm’s dank streets, its dark hollows fear mining their memory banks for information about the Event. And as such, they have averted their eyes and decided it better not to seek out the truth, better to remain in the dark and become acclimated to it, as a defense mechanism, and have eventually become atrophied in the process, like the Mole Men, who can no longer surface and view the truth lest it blinds them. The voice is pessimistic about the plight of his people to rise out of the Platonic Cave without being forced to do so. And as a seeker of the truth, he has taken on the persona of the Philosophical Warrior who fights not only to realize the truth of the past, but to bring this truth to those he protects, whether they want it or not.

The scene shifts to an old house in a district of the domed city that is set for demolition and eventual reconstruction with new domiciles for the fossorial hominids of Paradigm. An old woman resides within the home and explains that her son lost his memories of her when the Event occurred forty years ago. She has remained in this home all this time in the hopes that his memories will return and he would one day be able to track her down before she died of old age and heartbreak. Now, she must move. Roger Smith has been hired to ensure that records are easily available of where she has relocated to, in the off chance that her son attempts to track her down one day. Another man is in the room with them, an employee of the Paradigm Corporation who has a job for Roger Smith. He is to go to a specific rail-car terminal to learn more about the job, which presumably pays exceedingly well. Otherwise, Roger wouldn’t be caught dead working for Paradigm.

Once there, he finds within the station a reproduction (or the original?) of a Salvador Dali Gala Angel painting in which the clouds at her feet transmogrify into terrifying columns of atomic dust ala his Nuclear Mysticism. The painting, representing something akin to a world ending event and the inherent beauty in such a visual image as well as the metaphor of an act leading to a new beginning, resonates intensely with Roger, who studies it for a while. His own angel, Angel, appears behind him. She speaks with Roger and explains that her new alias is Patricia Lovejoy and that she now works for Paradigm Press. She needs Roger to track down an important reporter named Michael Seebach, who has been off the grid, missing, for three months, and whom the company wishes to present a large severance check to in exchange for his final manuscript. If Angel is the femme fatale who prefigures the next Event, the man they spy along the way, riding past in a deluxe rail car, Alex Rosewater, the CEO of Paradigm Corp, will prove to be the god who initiates that end. At the mansion, Dorothy stands by a large table, constantly turning over sand timers in an effort, symbolically, to prolong this next Event’s arrival.

The next image:  a drip of water falling into a small pool. ‘Do you think man can survive cut off from his memories of the past? He, having no idea how long he’s been there or where he’s from, and what he’s connected to?’ If you know the about the ending of this series, then you will understand what I’m getting at in this next point. If you don’t, take it as poetic pop philosophy psychobabble. All beings can extend no further in memory beyond the point of their emergence into this world. All worlds, including our own, are potentially a Paradigm City. Some are just more filled out with detail and with information handed down about the past (which will always be suspect), and with fewer holes in reality. The world a Simulacrum, the holes of Paradigm mere memories, the gaps in our own appearing only at the quantum level, but both revealing an ontological incompleteness at the core.

Roger first visits Dan Dastun for information on Seebach. He finds that the guy hasn’t paid his taxes in three months and has left behind his wife and child. However, he has not checked out of the domes. And someone has been renting an apartment in a squalid area of town under his name. Roger visits the building and finds something akin to the Bradbury Building of Blade Runner, and a den filled with papers and odds and ends not dissimilar to J.F. Sebastien’s pad. Therein, he finds a text within the typewriter that has just been written moments before his arrival: ‘I’ve lived my life as a newspaper reporter. I uncover the truth, write my articles, but then I learned all too well that a mere reporter like myself can’t ever get to the truth in this city. It is nearly impossible and it’s unsure. No one here is even interested in learning the truth. A truth that must be known, but I want to know! I want to learn what must be known.’ The points earlier explained about philosophical marauding into the Cave and ontological incompleteness become more strongly evoked here.

By the door, gasoline begins to seep into the room and Roger smells it just as Seebach lights it and engulfs the room, and most likely his manuscript, in flames. He manages to escape by jumping out of the room’s window and using his wristwatch grappling hook feature (ala Batman) to prevent falling and to reach the roof of the building. Across the way, on the building opposite, stands the first real arch-villain of the series. Bandaged from head to tie after some egregious incident in his past, this figure reveals that he was once the man known as Michael Seebach and now goes by Schwarzwald. Roger remarks that this name means Back Forest in German. I remark that the Black Forest is the perfect symbol for the philosophical warrior who, like Martin Heidegger before him (who indeed was the philosopher of that domain), roams a place close to culture, close to history, close to one’s roots, and thereby close to the wellspring of one’s being. Schwarzwald as a persona is one meant to unify oneself with that quest of the 20th century’s greatest thinker who came as closely as one can to the deepest questions of ontology without retreating into madness.

Schwarzwald’s last words before retreating into the blackness of the night stick in Roger’s mind: ‘You’re a corrupt dog on the city’s leash!’ And it’s true he has been acting in this capacity, has worked for Paradigm on two occasions in two weeks. When he returns to his mansion, he reflects on this and how he must now ‘dig up the truth’ and ‘face the darkness within.’ Dorothy joins him and tells Roger that her ‘father’ was merely a craftsman and did not understand the core mechanics of her design, of just how she thought and acted and worked. Now, aside from reflecting about himself as a potential double of Schwarzwald, he ponders the existential questions surrounding artificial intelligence and his growing feelings that Dorothy is something more than a mere android, more than a mere machine programmed with zeros and ones, switches and levers.

He departs the next morning and enters the subway tunnels beneath the city. No one wants to travel down here, not even robbers despite there still being store fronts and many goods to be looted. They fear that the ghosts of the their pasts, of life before the Event may emerge to haunt them, and that the truth may be to painful to bear. The Big Ear (The Informer) once told him that people lived down here, some by choice and some by necessity. But even farther below this level is another access tunnel and a long ladder, which leads to a place no one has any knowledge of (except for Schwarzwald). Roger ventures here and finds that the walls become less dilapidated and more new the farther he goes, that the world below here seems archetypal, perfect, untouched, and back to the point about ontological incompleteness in a simulacrum, not completely designed, too smooth, and lacking detail like grime. Eventually, he ventures too far for even his rational mind to hold on. Roger is paralyzed by fear, falls a few flights downward toward the concrete ground, completely limp, and thereby unharmed. The bodies of ghostly humans pass him by in the tunnel and he passes out.

When he finally awakens, the ultimate chapter of this saga (more thematically and symbolically dense than anything in TV anime this side of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) begins. Roger finds himself within a field of flowers, his head lying on the lap of his mother. The sequence is so idyllic and consequently impossible within the context of Paradigm City that it hearkens immediately back to 1982 and the Unicorn Dream Sequence in Blade Runner, which indicates to the viewer that Deckard may not, in fact, be a human being at all. Instead, we learn there and later through Gaff’s knowing Unicorn origami that Deckard’s memories are artificial. Here, we learn likewise that Roger’s memories are artificial. This is a key to the meta-textual and meta-narrative brilliance of The Big O insofar as this rabbit hole leads one to believe that Roger, like Deckard, may in fact be an android himself. However, the show’s creators, knowing this revelation would lead astute viewers toward this conclusion, present it only as a postmodern red herring. The final truth of the series is all the more revolutionary as a consequence.

When Roger comes to, he finds that he is within the tunnel, and his head is reclining in the lap of Dorothy. She asks, ‘Did you just say momma? As in your mother?’ He becomes defensive partially as a natural human response, and maybe partially because he recognizes the impossibility of this vision being a memory, and of himself being a normal human being. As a dark electronica theme plays and almost induces fear, paranoia, dis-ease, angst, and terror in the viewer, Roger asks Dorothy if she understands terror. She changes the topic and explains once more that she feels things and that even her creator could not understand how or why. Roger, feeling perhaps particularly vulnerable in this moment of ontological dread, tries to explain to Dorothy that each and every being is unique and impossible to fully understand. In this moment, his sentimentality rears its head. Dorothy ignores his words as potentially mere darts and jabs disguised as olive branches, which would ultimately cease reaching across the aisle and end up rearing their ugly head as anti-android prejudice and an unwillingness to recognize her worth as a living, feeling being.

At the end of the tunnel is a chasm. Dorothy enters it, with Roger not far behind, and the two come across a large abandoned city. A large Megadeus, which Roger inexplicably recognizes as the Archetype of Big O, reclines within a pile of rubble on the city’s edge. Perched upon its shoulder is Schwarzwald who pontificates to his two visitors on the power their society once possessed before the Event and how at one time, a Megadeus was ‘nothing special,’ how he himself would master one as a dominus if only his memories would reveal themselves to him, would become disclosed and exit the psychological Cave of his mind to enter into the conscious realm. As Dorothy approaches the Megadeus, it hails her and uses her to somehow breathe life into itself through a particular set of code that she is made to vocalize. As Schwarzwald sets up an attack against Roger with a series of alcohol-soaked bandages, the machine lurches forward, and at the point of lighting the bandages, Schwarzwald is instead burned. He retreats to a corner of the room, seemingly to watch the remainder of the battle and potentially to die.

Roger, meanwhile, calls upon his own Megadeus, Big O and upon piloting the semi-sentient machine, with Dorothy in the cockpit alongside him, begins to fight the much stronger, more agile Archetype Megadeus (whose movements are reminiscent of a berserk EVA Unit-01). As the thing knocks down the bulkier modern Megadeus, its primal force overwhelming the later, ‘complete’ model, Roger and Big O stare into the veritable abyss of Being from out of which they emerged. Dorothy does likewise, and seems to register true fear for the first time as the claims the impossibility of this being’s existence and denies that it could be related to her in any way, shape, or form. Luckily, as an ‘incomplete’ being, the Archetype Megadeus has no special weapons beyond its brute strength with which to cut down its modern opponent. Big O has a chest cavity full of heavy-duty explosive weapons, all of which it launches into the chest cavity of its opponent, defeating it in the process and simultaneously ripping a large hole in the ceiling above and making the archetypal city viewable from on high.

As Roger stands atop his balcony late that night and reflects on the oddness of Dorothy as an android, seemingly coming to terms with the fluidity of the concept human or of sentience within his own world, the shadowy CEO of Paradigm Corp, Alex Rosewater, speaks of how good a Negotiator Roger truly is. And off, somewhere within the recesses of this city outside history and time, water drips within a pool and the Black Forest would-be liberator of men toward memory lives.

 

Cast in the Name of God,

Cody

[Act 05: Bring Back My Ghost]

The Big O: Act 03- Electric City

(Act 02: Dorothy Dorothy)

Previously, I’ve discussed the role of head writer Chiaki J. Konaka in working to shape the concept of The Big O into a masterful script. I’ve also talked a bit about the importance of the musical compositions in the series by Toshihiko Sahashi and how his eclectic approach to Classical Western film score techniques incorporating Jazz and Electronica help to set a mood throughout the series in keeping with its film noir, trad mecha, and Western animation influences. A third figure of major importance to the film’s development was its chief director Kazuyoshi Katayama whose role in shaping The Big O into classical form deserves, even cries out, for a brief discussion.

Katayama developed The Big O as a pastiche on 1960s-70s American and Japanese cultural influences including neo-noir, Jazz music, American cartoons, Kaiju and Tokusatsu films and shows, and the Giant Robo mecha genre pioneered by Go Nagai. Although Katayama has directed little of renown since The Big O, besides the 2009 feature film King of Thorn, his early career from the mid-80s onward is replete with pioneering work. He began directing in 1984 as an episode director on shows like Magical Fairy Persia and Magic Star Magical Emi, before moving on to helm the OVA film Maris the Chojo in 1986an adaptation of a manga work by Rumiko Takahashi and part of the Rumik World OVA series. In the following years, he directed acclaimed work including the 1988 OVA Appleseed (one of the few shining stars of traditional animation in the franchise’s bad-CGI riddled history), 4/7 episodes of the OVA series Giant Robo: The Animation, the sci-fi anime epic Super Atragon, and the classic anime series Argentosoma. Katayama has retained an intense interest in mecha anime and sci-fi throughout his career, which ultimately aided him when it came time to assemble a team of great collaborators and direct his masterpiece: The Big O.

But now to the episode at hand. It opens to the sounds of a manic, crazed, intense, and lively sturm und drang piano piece played at lightning speed, something like the product of a mind that must be deranged or in a mad fever of creation. However, this piano is being played by Dorothy with flat effect and no emotion behind it. It awakens Roger Smith who has apparently overslept by 15 minutes and allowed his breakfast to get cold thereby. At the table, Dorothy pretends to drink coffee and Roger reflects that she surely cannot be a sentient being, and is merely an android, a machine copying the behavior of those around her. Dorothy, of course, as a sentient being or no, seems not too pleased by these comments.

The lights in the parlor turn off suddenly, but no one is alarmed as this is an ongoing problem in the city of Amnesia where very few have the requisite memory fragments to work on electrical grids, not to mention build new ones, that or new dams or other sources of energy for the city. A young woman named Casey Jenkins visits the Smith mansion with a job for Roger as a Negotiator Go-between for the denizens of Electric City and the Paradigm Group. The woman works for the latter organization, which employs the city’s military police and runs its government as a social subsidiary of the Paradigm Corp’s Corporate Police State. This structure mirrors the dystopian society of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles ruled over by the Tyrell Corporation, and serves as one more example of that film’s influence in Japanese culture, and specifically within the medium of anime.

Once Roger arrives in Electric City in the dead of night to investigate the hydroelectric power plant, he immediately comes into contact with the town’s residents. The gate to the dam is locked and a band of vigilante activist types surrounds roger and explains that if the power plant is turned back on, this will anger the god of the lake who will consequently ‘rain down his lightning of wrath.’ Roger takes this as mere superstition and decides to feign retreat and investigate the dam another way. He studies the terrain from afar and realizes that there may be an underground access tunnel leading down from the adjacent hills. Coincidentally, there is an old cabin on this hill, which upon closer inspection does indeed hide a staircase, which most likely descends below the plant. As he approaches this access route, he hears the rustling of leaves behind him and then prattles off his third professional rule: ‘It’s not my style to carry a gun.’ This he concludes by remarking, ‘I don’t mind being slugged from behind either,’ which he hopes will dissuade the aggressor from doing so.

To his surprise, his suave manner has little effect and the man slugs him anyway. Roger awakens the next morning, unties the ropes binding him to a chair in the kitchen, and thereby assures the old coot, a Swede named Sven Mariski, of his competency in the process. Roger helps out with chores and even makes the old guy breakfast before Sven heads out to chop wood and the house is vacant. Our jaded hero next searches the home and finds a trap door leading to an abandoned and largely destroyed lab in which a large fish tank has been smashed. A circuit turns on and electricity surges throughout the space of the room, and it seems that someone has snuck into the old man’s secret dam access tunnel and turned on the hydroelectric dam. Roger investigates and eventually finds the Paradigm employee Casey Jenkins within the subterranean passageways. She reveals that her true affiliation is not with Paradigm proper and that her name is not Casey. Instead she goes by the moniker Angel, and a fallen one at that, Roger muses: an observation of her femme fatale nature as a spy who has seemingly made Roger the fall man in the eyes of the denizens of Electric City. The observation will prove even more apt as the ontological nature of the Paradigm City Universe becomes apparent in the series’ later episodes.

As the hydroelectric dam comes online and begins to generate power, a mysterious beast begins to cry out with the moans of a lone whale. The song is eerie, primal, and touches the deepest levels of insecurity in all those in the surrounding area. The beast eventually emerges from the lake and begins to wreak havoc upon the buildings of the surrounding area. Is it truly a god? Or merely the creation of a man in the image of a god? As Angel makes her get away in her sedan, the creature locks onto her and eventually electrocutes her car into a false start. Roger calls upon Big O and begins to fight the beast. But the old man, Sven, is out on the water in a small inflatable boat and could be killed if Roger uses the full power of his Chrome Buster laser ray attack. As such, he merely holds off the beast, and is electrocuted pretty severely in the process, until the old man turns off the beast’s power supply: the hydroelectric dam. After the old man is out of harm’s way, Roger finishes off the Eel Megadeus and begins to reflect on the true nature of this beast as potentially partially mechanical and partially organic, a god of man’s fusion of the natural and the technological orders: the self-same nature as the Big Megadeuses?

When Roger returns to his mansion, Dorothy is playing the blues. He prods at her a bit by throwing a verbal-emotional dart about why an android would play such emotional music. She responds merely that even she occasionally feels like playing them. And Roger, confused, ponders the notion of an android feeling a particular way and comes to the conclusion that its not worth throwing himself into another existential quandary over, and if she says she feels that way, then he might as well act as if she truly does. After all, Cartesian certainty ontology only leads one to the conclusion that you yourself exist. All other beings may in fact be mere creations of your cosmic-creative mind. So what difference does it make if she’s an android?

 

Cast in the Name of God,

Cody Ward

[Act 04: Underground Terror]

The Big 0: Act 02- Dorothy Dorothy

(Act 01- Roger The Negotiator)

After the defeat of Dorothy-1 by the Megadeus Big O and his Dominus Roger Smith, her sister Android Dorothy went haywire and disappeared for a time out of sight. As the large mechanical frame of her Megadeus sister fell to the ground below, and police chief Dan Dastun was busy attempting to save Dorothy who he noticed running off toward the direction of the action, he became in danger of being destroyed himself. Luckily his old Lieutenant was the Dominus of Big O and managed to see what was happening in time to save him by blocking the debris.

Dastun, being a proud man, cannot merely thank the Megadeus for saving his life and instead sicks his military dogs on it. Like the altercation before it, their weapons have absolutely zero effect on the Megadeus, which just continues its onward stride and eventually descends beneath the earth to a transportation hub deep within the bowels of Paradigm City. And all of this accompanied by an Electronica Jazz soundscape akin and reminiscent of a fusion between the sounds of Goblin and Cassiopeia, albeit compliments of the series composer Toshihiko Sahashi whose innovative, cerebral, emotional, and simultaneously intuitive work emboldens and strengthens the entire production.

As Roger Smith rides off into the city astride his black sedan, The Griffon, Sahashi paints a new internal soundscape of wailing, melodic-line saxophone and solemn, somnambulist ivories riffing on Roger’s theme and moving us into the interior realm of his hardboiled poetic musings on the nature of memory and The Event. ‘As I said, this is the city of Amnesia. There appears to be what was once an underground transportation system.’ On which Big O is currently travelling toward his hangar for storage and repair by Norman Burg. ‘It’s a dreaded labyrinth and they say that those who wander in, never come out alive. I use it for my own purposes.’ The darkness of this space, the paranoia and fear it excites in those who travel along its corridors, makes it the ultimate liminal stage for the rising up of nightmarish memories, of pre-Evental information too horrific for most minds to comprehend without attendant trauma as its consequence.

Roger wonders why Beck would release Dorothy so readily for cash in the past. He knows that he was after Dorothy-1 and did not necessarily need the android Dorothy. This adjective, of android, will be something Roger increasingly shies away from using throughout the episode, signalling a recognition within Dorothy of something more complex, more human than that term signifies. Something that makes the use of that term a belittling one, which denies to her some agency she seemingly holds, some emotional inner life within, or more troubling, a surge of romantic attachment for the android within Roger, which makes him feel the need to project these notions onto Dorothy, despite them not truly being there. This possibility continues to haunt Roger throughout the series and intensifies here in his introspective task of wondering why he continues to think about her despite his client (Soldano) being dead, and both Dorothys now being accounted for. A memory of her words rings out within his mind in which she asks for his protection, and though she has no money, and he has no legal or moral call to do so if she truly is just an android, he continues on in his quest and attempts to track her down.

In the next scene, Roger arrives within the dive bar in which his informer seemingly resides as a fixture as permanent as the barista or the bar from which he serves drinks. The Informer relates more troubling information to Roger. Dorothy-1 was not an old Megadeus that had been renovated by Soldano with the arrival of ‘memory fragments.’ Rather, the Megadeus was completely new and was designed and created by someone who regained total ‘memory fragments’ about the process of construction of Megadeuses, meaning there are likely to be more of them if the inventor is not stopped (if that person wasn’t Soldano himself that is). ‘You know Roger, memories are like nightmares. they come to you when you least expect them…. Are you familiar with the story of the Nightingale?… I hear there’s a Nightingale. Inside the domes.’ Soldano’s last words spoke of a Nightingale and Roger reasons that there may be some connection.

He tracks down a club called The Nightingale down in the lower-class regions of the city of Paradigm. Upper-class dome types have been coming here in droves to experience high class nightlife for some time now. Roger runs into Dorothy here, who seems not to know who he is, or is actively ignoring him. She is on the arm of some old man, the old man who they previously passed the day prior on the way to fight Dorothy-1, the man she called her father. Roger, who is denied entrance on account of not being a member of the club, eventually knocks out a guard and hides within the shadows of the club: A pulp phantom lurking within the tenebric portrait. On stage, Dorothy, the mechanical songbird, sings a tune in her chiaroscuro revelry. Roger reflects: ‘Later on, I learned the old story of the Nightingale from somebody who knew it. The tale was a fable about an emperor of some ancient country who loved the song of a mechanical bird.’ The question here becomes whether the emperor is the old man, Timothy Wayneright I, Roger Smith who is falling for this potentially soulless being, or both.

After the song, Roger tries to speak with Dorothy, who seems to recognize him but refuses to answer his questions. Beck arrives and his goons stop Roger or the old man from acting by holding guns to their backs as they plan to take Dorothy away once more. Dorothy responds mechanically by knocking out one of the men who attempts to lift her, then approaching the one threatening harm to her ‘father’, the old man. The guard becomes afraid and kills the old man just as Roger knocks out the man with a gun to his own back. Beck jumps into action, tasers both Roger and Dorothy, and finally makes his get-away. When Roger comes to he finds Dastun standing above him. He reports that Dr. Wayneright recovered his memories and was in some way responsible for the re-building of the Megadeus, and of the creation of Dorothy. When the Event occurred, he seemingly lost a daughter, and made Dorothy in her image. As they speak, a report airs that Dorothy-1 is back up and operational in West Dome No. 5, once again approaching the Mint Building to nab currency printing plates.

Roger finds a mysterious wind-up key on the floor in the club, signifying that Dorothy may be no more than a songbird, a machine without Artificial Intelligence or a soul. He pockets the item, signifying something like an attempt to remember this possibility whilst also holding onto the hope internally that she may be more than a mere android (and thereby the quandary in his heart is one with that of Deckard in Blade Runner, of uncertainty and the nagging, impossible hope that the impossible becomes reality). He runs off and initializes Big O, easily overwhelms Dorothy-1 (piloted remotely by Beck) in the ensuing battle, almost destroying his power core before realizing that Dorothy has been wired into the machine as a ‘power regulator circuit.’ He allows himself to be ensnared by Dorothy-1, recklessly and bravely exits his cockpit and jumps toward the power core of his enemy to wrest Dorothy away from the binds putting her in danger and keeping her unconscious. And although she weighs nigh on a thousand pounds as a human-sized object composed of metal, his adrenaline and the strength of love and of belief give him the power to lift her and to return her to the cockpit of Big O.

Dorothy-1 collapses without a power source, and Big O tracks her remote uses down to a van elsewhere in West Dome No. 5, then turns in the van and its occupants to Dastun before returning below ground and eventually back to home base. Once there, Norman employs Dorothy as a maid at the house, which she takes on of her own free will as a way to pay back Roger for protecting her, though she frames it as payback merely for his Negotiator fee, and thereby appears to be expressing some human sentiment herself. Roger expresses disbelief that Norman would hire someone without his permission, but relates his second rule to his new maid nonetheless: ‘If you stay here, then you wear black.’ Dorothy responds merely by calling taste into question. And just like that, an existential emotional epic on equal footing with Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis and Blade Runner is under way: the core question of this journey of the soul what does it mean to be human?

 

Cast in the Name of God,

Cody

[Act 03: Electric City]

Rancho Deluxe

(Check out my previous Western film review: The Undefeated)

Generally speaking, I avoid watching films and series that I have suspicions of being terrible or potentially awful from a mere glance at their trailers and those associated with the project. For the 1975 contemporary Cattle Rustler Western Rancho Deluxe, I did just that. The film stars Jeff Bridges and Samuel Waterston, both of whom I can generally stomach as actors, but more importantly contains a number of bit players in minor roles or cameos who are legendary actors. These figures include Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright as cattle-hands Curt and Burt, Slim Pickens as private investigator Henry Beige with specialty in rustling cases, and Joe Spinelli as the Uncle of one of the rustler kids.

Aside from these figures, I had never heard of the editor, producer, writer, or any of the female stars in the picture before coming to it. I knew the music of the film was provided by the awful ballad country-ish singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet, which should have been a warning regarding the bad taste of those who made the film. I also had no familiarity with the director of the film, Frank Perry, and after studying his filmography, still have no familiarity with his work as a director of B-pictures and independent films of little or no regard or critical merit. However, I told myself that this was a Western, made in the post- New Hollywood period and thereby potentially something of a heartfelt personal picture in that tradition with an auteur sensibility. And man, I could not have been more wrong.

The protagonists of the film are Jack McKee (Bridges) and Cecil Colson (Waterston), relative bums with no jobs, and no place in society on account of their stupidity in life and their lack of will to work or to create their own work as businessman. Cecil prides himself on being a Native American, despite the actor playing him not looking a bit like one and doing so only naively within the context of the film (something for which his friend ribs him). The two often make ends meet and pay their rent by killing rancher’s sheep, hogs, or prize cows, hacking the best parts of them up with a chainsaw, and hauling them out to their landlady who saves some money on groceries every month thereby.

The farmers who the boys prey upon are hard-working people who don’t deserve the bullshit brought upon them by these ‘protagonists.’ Early on, the two develop an antagonism against a ranch owner who raises prize beef stock, and who is a relatively sympathetic character who works hard, but gets no respect from his kids or his wife (as assholes are won’t to do). The cattle rustlers steal the man’s prize cow and only return him after receiving a large ransom that could potentially wipe the man out financially. In other words, as a kid from a working class background, I can only view the main characters of this film not as fun-loving rogues living off of the fat of the land, but as vultures, vampiric beasts living off of the hard work of others.

Throughout the picture, there a few subplots about the rancher’s wife attempting to cheat on him for no easily ascertainable reason, his own ranch-hands turning against him and deciding inexplicably to work with the cattle-rustlers, and the PI he hires to track them down turning tailcoat and refusing to turn them in to the proper authorities. The film could have been rehabilitated if it contained within it some communist worker revolt subtext against the industrialist ‘man’, but only if it also transformed the rancher from a rational, hard-working, decent person into a monstrous being. It does neither of these things. Instead, by the denouement of the film, viewers are left pissed off that the cattle rustlers finally escape and wishing that some force of moral outrage and firepower would have joined the rancher, and blown out the brains of the two idiots, the ranch-hands, the old investigator, and the man’s wife, and ultimately return to him his cattle and the money he lost for no good reason so he could live out the rest of his days comfortably and in the lap of luxury, where a life of hard work and entrepreneurial activity ultimately ought to lead when undertaken morally and with an ear to the pulse of what consumers desire.

In the words of the immortal Roger Ebert: ‘I don’t know how this movie went so disastrously wrong, but it did.’

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: another film you never want to watch Wild Bill]

The Big O: Act 01- Roger the Negotiator

It’s time to get back into the swing of things after a full week-long break from reviewing anime series.  I’ve decided to return to it with a comprehensive commentary on one of the most legendary, mythic, and stylish anime series of my childhood: The Big O. Like the last two series I reviewed on this blog, Serial Experiments Lain and Digimon TamersThe Big O is a Sci-fi series written by one of Japan’s most talented screenwriters of the anime medium: Chiaki J. Konaka. And like all anime series that can qualify as amongst my favorites, it is a work of sublime visual quality whilst simultaneously dealing in myth, metaphor, futurism, posthumanism, and the power of the human spirit.

‘My name is Roger Smith. I perform a much-needed job here in the city of Amnesia.’ The city of Paradigm, a vast metropolis wherein urban decay and obscene wealth live side by side in an uneasy  proximity. A city, partially domed, and protected thereby from the sands of the infinite deserts surrounding this technological bauble. Smith is a Negotiator and drives along within his car toward the outskirts of his city where he plans to meet with Beck, a small-time criminal who has kidnapped the daughter of a rich industrialist and inventor, named Soldano, and plan to return her only in exchange for a large sum of money. As he rides off toward the checkpoint, the sun catches the lenses of his black sunglasses momentarily, and in that moment the hollows of his eyes are revealed to be mechanical. Although human, there is some deeper truth to the identity of Smith, not merely a physical reality as Other to humanity, but as ontologically different from what he seems to be.

A solemn Jazz soundtrack of keys and saxophone plays out throughout many of the show’s more somber moments as a reflective etude signalling viewers to at once live the moment with the characters or scenes in the show, as well as to take on a critical distance and the emotional-logical pain of separation and isolation, of Otherness and alienness that is the core feature of human life. When Smith reaches the meet-up point, the exchange goes off without a hitch. Until, that is, Soldano rushes up to meet his daughter Dorothy and reveals to Smith, just as Beck and his lackeys ride off with the money, that this Dorothy is merely an android (though an extremely realistic one). Smith, confused by the situation, but always professional, pulls out a remote, which activates a drone mechanism within the briefcase that has the effect of causing it to return to him through the air. But before Soldano’s money can be recovered, Beck’s men shoot down the briefcase in mid-air, which results only in the case opening and losing its cargo in a nearby bay.

Throughout this sequence, the film noir influence on the series becomes immediately apparent. From the Jazz soundtrack to constant tenebrism and encompassing darkness in the palette of scenes, high angles and sideways dutch angles to heighten the tension of the approach between the Negotiator and those with which he plans to make an exchange. Add to this, the feelings of paranoia, fear, and claustrophobia attendant upon moving through such a dark, dank, closed in city, a city of Amnesia wherein everyone’s memories of forty years prior and all that came before were wiped clean on account of the mysterious Event, and this is the perfect stamping ground for our cop-turned-private eye protagonist. Later, it will become apparent that a second influence on the series was the Batman animated series of the 1990s as Smith is a rich playboy with a large mansion and inheritance, a great black sedan, tons of gadgets with which to fight back against the forces of evil, a butler who is in on his secret, and even an a good cop who helps Roger along the way.

As our noir protagonist roams the city in his attention-catching black sedan with a built-in protected mode, he finds himself in a small bar where The Informer gives him the lowdown on almost any information he needs, for a price that is. He tells Roger that Soldano has apparently gotten his hands on a ‘memory fragment’ (a Big O term that could potentially mean a piece of information like a book or schematics for an ‘ancient’ technology as well as real memories, prophetic dreams, or nightmares dredged up from neuroses preceding The Event). The Informer also alerts Roger to the possibility of Soldano using this memory fragment to create ‘illegal items.’ Roger leaves the bar and drives back to his flat in his sedan, musing on the oddity of a civilization like Paradigm wherein few can even repair old technologies and none are ever built, a civilization without a history that manages to survive.

When he arrives home, his butler Norman Burg alerts him to the presence of a young woman visitor in the parlor of his home. It is here that we learn the first of Roger’s rules: ‘Only lovely young women can unconditionally enter this mansion.’ But when the girl turns to address Roger, she is revealed to be the android Dorothy who demands Roger take on a protection job for her. Roger wants to refuse, but Dorothy will take no for an answer. The situation becomes more confusing when Dan Dastun, Roger’s old police chief, arrives and alerts Roger that the police’s independent investigation into the whereabouts of the real Dorothy Wayneright eventually concluded that Soldano has no daughter, and never had a daughter in the first place.

Roger decides at this moment to leave once more and seek out Soldano for more information. Dorothy insinuates herself into Roger’s journey by tagging along in his car for the ride. Along the way, he prods the android a bit by asking the existentially charged question: ‘What would an android call its creator?’ Dorothy doesn’t respond, though her silence speaks volumes and indicates a deep displeasure brought on by the probing jab. When they arrive at Soldano’s factory, they find it destroyed and Soldano lying within an observation room dying, bleeding out. He speaks a few words before his voice fades and his final message dies is delivered to Roger alone, not even the viewers being privy to these deeply personal final addresses. However, what we are privy to is this message: ‘I never wanted to build it…. for them.’

Norman calls up Roger on his com device and alerts him to the presence of a Megadeus (or Greek-Latin derived ‘Great God’) mecha destroying the city downtown. Dorothy asks Roger why they came here to see Soldano, and he responds that he was hired to do a job, to find the real Dorothy and ensure she is safe, and even though the client is dead it is not within his code of professional honor to cease his assignment before completing it. As Dorothy and Roger speed off in the direction of downtown in the black sedan, and they close in on the disturbance, they are stopped for a short time by a police checkpoint where Dorothy notices an old man standing off-sides who she calls her father.

Finally, the two arrive downtown in West Dome No. 5 where the mecha, which Dorothy recognizes as her sister Dorothy-1, the prototype twin of herself, is raging and fighting against the police. At this point, Roger calls upon his secret weapon: the Megadeus Big O. It rises from beneath the city upon a large rail system and ascends to the surface. Roger enters the cockpit, which proclaims itself ‘Cast in the Name of God’ and deems Roger a worthy Dominus (or Latinate ‘master’) with the phrase ‘Ye Not Guilty.’ He engages the enemy and bursts an incapacitating mega-arm piston blow through its very core, the solar plexus, delivered with the verbal relish ‘Bye-bye Dotty!’. The android Dorothy below is near the action and Dastun tries to protect her, but only ends up potentially killing them both as Dorothy-1 falls seemingly right on top of them.

And the mysteries are no closer to being understood now than they will become at any point during the first season of this series. But as in all great works of narrative, the joy is not so much in the revelations of the denouement, but of the journey toward this conclusion. And the more labyrinthine that journey, the better.

 

Cast in the Name of God,

Cody

[Act 02: Dorothy Dorothy]

Heartbreak Ridge

(Catch my previous Clint Eastwood film reviews here: Bridges Of Madison County and Honkytonk Man)

In 1986, Clint Eastwood directed, produced, and acted in a war film that cost $15 million USD to make. Although it looked like a TV movie, had the lamest possible war as its central action piece (the 1983 Invasion of Grenada), and was one of Eastwood’s least distinctive projects as a director, it managed to net over a $100 million USD beyond its budget. There are no painterly compositions in the film, no great acting performances, no explosive action sequences, and no intrigue except for the least common denominator consumer of kitsch with a long attention span (surely an imaginary figure, no?), and yet it made a ridiculous amount of money based on the strength of Eastwood’s name alone.

In this Technicolor war film, Eastwood plays an aging Marine named Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway who seems to be in the force for good. He was once a great soldier who fought nobly and won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Korean War for acts of valor during a skirmish known as Heartbreak Ridge. Later, he apparently went on four different tours of duty in wartime, three of which were in Vietnam alone. but his constant gungho mentality and will to kill and to fight in a combat zone led him to neglect his wife back home, to never raise a family, to never sit back and come to terms with who he really was at core, and as such, his wife eventually left him. Highway becomes a drunk and ends up constantly finding ways to start fights with other soldiers and with civilians as a way to get out his frustrations.

So when he lands a last chance to train a young group of recruits for the front lines, he takes it in earnest and tries his best to turn a new leaf. He spends much of the film attempting to shape up his green recruits into a fighting force worth their salt, whilst butting heads with his commanding officer Major Malcolm A. Powers (played to little effect by Everett McGill: Twin Peaks’ Big Ed) who is himself a young man with no current fighting experience. This desk chair general thinks himself a knowledgeable commander because of all he has learned at the academy before ascending to a respectable position as a leader at a small training camp and Highway does his best to prove the kid doesn’t know the first damn thing about military tactics, which are, he believes, first and foremost, about surprise, good timing, taking initiative, and having the guts to attack even if the odds are against you.

Meanwhile, Highway tries his best to stop drinking heavily and begins to treat his body better in his old age. He gets into a few fights, but mostly against his own platoon soldiers or against his superiors during sanctioned training exercises, which obviates the need to reprimand him for his actions. He begins reading women’s magazines in an effort to better understand the psyche of women and in particular, the needs and thoughts of his ex-wife with whom he wishes to reunite. The whole exercise is relatively campy without being shot in a manner that reflects this zaniness or acted in a manner that makes it apparent. It’s sappy without having a real emotional core as none of the cast of characters are particularly easy to identify with, partially because of the relative drowsiness of their acting, and therefore, I found it pretty difficult to care about any of the struggles of the film’s characters.

As an epic war film, one might imagine that much of the picture would revolve around a war setting. However, much of Heartbreak Ridge is purely human melodrama on the way toward the battle. And when the battle comes, it is pretty lackluster. There is gunfire, and explosions abound, but the numbers of the characters is very restrained, the scenes carry no kinetic weight as they are shot head-on with little concern with crafting epic, sweeping scenes or painterly compositions and it becomes painfully obvious in these scenes that either Eastwood let an unskilled workman-like second unit director shoot much of this material, or worse, that he was uninterested in making the scenes interesting visually (we know he was able to do so as he had done so on previous films and would do so later in his career as well).

The pre-production period of the film was slowed substantially by the Army first endorsing the film, then reading the script, and finally taking back their endorsement as they thought that the character of Highway was too old-fashioned and did not reflect the modern teachings and instruction of the Army. It seems they had not enough intelligence to realize this was the intention of Eastwood: to produce a film in which the modern, weak-willed approach of the military, which often kowtows to progressive morality instead of taking on a total warfare/ war is hell approach, butts heads against a real old school hard ass of the latter mentality. Later, the Marines endorsed the film, but after receiving a screening of the picture, they too retracted their endorsement citing similar concerns to those of the Army. If fatigue at consistently being misunderstood by those institutions he meant to lionize wasn’t enough to weaken his resolve and thereby affect the film negatively, then I don’t know what did, but as established above, there must have been some lack of trying on someone’s part.

Some of Clint Eastwood’s films are amongst my favorite American films of the post-New Hollywood period and include classics like the Hitchcockian thriller Play Misty For Me (his directorial debut); the Westerns High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven; the music films Honkytonk Man and Bird; the dramas Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Mystic River; and the War films Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. Many other Eastwood films are ones I enjoy on occasion, and consider good films, but would not place amongst the ranks of these former pictures. As for Heartbreak Ridge, I cannot in good conscience place it even amongst the ranks of his decent pictures and found it overwrought, a little lifeless, dated, and worse yet, boring.

 

Cody Ward

The Butter Battle Book

(Check out my previous Ralph Bakshi film review here: Christmas in Tattertown)

1989 was a restorative career of sorts for Bakshi as he was able to create more than one commercial project over the course of the year and firmly established his ability to come through on projects on budget, on time, and without stirring up controversy akin to that on his 1987 series Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. He began the year by developing a short live-action film entitled This Ain’t Bebop for the anthology film Imagining America. The film stars Harvey Keitel as a man reminiscing on the events of his past, on his affinity for the jazz of Coltrane, Miles, and Bird, the writing and performance art of the Beat generation, and the paintings of Jackson Pollack. Bakshi himself considers the short film to be ‘the last thing I did with total integrity,’ which should give you some sense of the downward trajectory of his work, artistically speaking, from here on out.

After the completion of that project in June of 1989, Bakshi was commissioned by TNT to create an animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book The Butter Battle Book. He called on his old friends from the Mighty Mouse series (including Tom Minton) to help animate the project and advised them along the way to develop it as closely to the book as possible, as he had an affinity and a respect for the work of Dr. Seuss. This interest in authentically portraying the original author’s intentions led Bakshi to hire Seuss himself as a screenwriter for the new work and as an executive producer with just as much of a hand in the film’s creative direction as Bakshi had.

In the film, a world is presented in which two factions of bird-like hominids live separated as two hostile enclaves only prevented from destroying one another by virtue of a large wall physically splitting their communities. Despite the two groups being physically identical, and only being distinguishable by their attire, the Blue-shirted Yooks and the Red-shirted Zooks hold a mutual hatred for one another and view each other practically as different species. The reasoning behind their divide is not because of some historical reality of separation and intense fear of the Other, or because of a past war or even that caused their current schism, but instead merely because an objectively minor cultural difference: The Yooks spread the butter on the top of the their bread and the Zooks spread theirs on the bottom. The point here being that all human beings in our own world are ultimately the same species, and are only separated by what, upon reflection, should appear to be relatively minor cultural differences such as language, religious practices, and customs.

The movie centers around the character of a Yook Border Patrol guard who watches his border like a hawk and prevents Zooks from crossing over it with the use of his whipping stick melee weapon. His grandson, as an innocent child with untarnished thoughts and a more objective view of the world, does not understand why he must hate the Zooks. As such, the old guard does his best to instill his own xenophobia and propaganda into the mind of the child, just as his school teachers teach him slogans, perpetuate baseless hatred, and warp the minds of their young charges. On top of these forms of local community and familial brain-washing, the boy’s government has rallies and national songs that help to instill into his mind the fear and hatred of Zooks, and frowns upon the teaching of logical, rational thought processes that could potentially aid one in removing the ideological shackles holding back the forward progress of hominid-kind toward resolution of conflict and peace.

Meanwhile, the Zooks are likewise pissed off at the Yooks for buttering their bread on the ‘wrong’ side. As such, they have beefed up their own border patrol and have armed their guards with new slingshots with which to destroy the Yook Border Guard’s whipping sticks. When the old Yook’s weapon is broken, he runs off to town hall to tell his mayor, who then develops a new weapon with his team of scientists (representing scientific advancement’s complicity in nationalism in the 20th century) to combat the slingshot. Eventually, guns are developed, then mortars, bombs, laser technology, and finally, a weapon analogous to our own world’s atomic bomb. But unlike in WWII where only one side developed atomic capability quickly enough to irresponsibly use it, both the Yooks and the Zooks develop their tech at the exact same moment and threaten to destroy one another if either lets up their vigilance at any time.

The situation mirrors Cold War sentiments of the time when both the Soviets and the U.S. had developed weapons and were in a seemingly intractable, permanent stalemate. The wall between the two sides here was physically represented in our world by the Berlin Wall, symbolically representing the Cold War tensions, paranoia, and uncertainties attendant upon and arising from the Soviet Iron Curtain, which was by then a more than 40-year old reality. The film ends in the exact same fashion as the book with the two people perched upon the wall separating their communities. Each threatening to drop the bomb into the territory of the other if either let’s up his vigilance for even a moment. The scene transitioning then to an End credit with the cautionary message, ‘Or is it?’. Dr. Seuss called the work the most faithful adaptation of his work in any medium hitherto and praised its animation style for mirroring his own cartoon style.

However, TNT released the short film on November 5th, 1989. Four days later, the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Cold War tensions that had wracked the 1st and 2nd worlds for decades now began to thaw. The force of the images in the film lost a real-world referent, the same message now needed a new social order to mirror, and life repudiated and refused art outright.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Cool World]

Wolf Children

(Check out my previous Mamoru Hosoda film review: Summer Wars)

After the release of Summer Wars in 2009, Hosoda’s career as an anime feature auteur was well established on both critical and commercial ends. So in 2011, his producer Yuichiro Saito decided to call it quits with his current production house, Studio Madhouse (where he had worked since 1999), and co-founded Studio Chizu with Mamoru Hosoda in an effort to give his films a larger marketing and advertising pool to work with.

This was an important step because in a large production house like Madhouse, the box office success of one property is, in a sense, used to help fund as many new projects as possible. In the past, this meant that many of Hosoda’s fellow TV and Film directors at the company could potentially create works that lost money or broke even for the company and still continue to make new properties because of the success of his and other commercially successful director’s works. It also meant that his past two films received very little in the way of marketing before release. Despite this, they made enormous sums for indie anime features. The move to Studio Chizu meant that he could better market his films before release, release to more territories, and make much more money.

The gambit was ultimately successful, and remains so to this day, as Wolf Children, released in 2012, played to over 34 countries and regions and ultimately made $55 million USD at the box office. Like his previous works, it won Best Animation of the Year awards at many film festivals including Mainichi, Oslo, the Japan Academy Prize, the Tokyo International Anime Fair (or TAF), and at the New York Children’s Film Festival. Such a success with all of the windfall going either to the producer and director’s bank accounts or into the company fund, instead of into less bankable works, means that we should be able to count on Hosoda making films for a long time to come. Even if his films start to lose money. And if he keeps making them at or above the quality that he has, this is something to surely cheer on.

Wolf Children is a heart-wrenching drama that the uninitiated into the world of anime might not expect of the medium. It is an auteur work with human emotion and feeling as its core theme and Hosoda’s animation team depicts his world more beautifully than almost any arthouse cinema feature has ever been able. The film is in the tradition of Ghibli social realism ala the late Isao Takahata and is not necessarily a feature at its core, which one might imagine best suited for animation as it is a film about a young woman who falls in love with a man, bears his children, loses him in an accident, and then must struggle to raise her two children under adverse circumstances. This is typically the stuff of bad melodrama when helmed by anyone but a master of psychological approach, but Hosoda boasts more than a Godardian or Satoshi Kon-like eye for compositions and inventive editing. He has the ability, like Bergman or Woody Allen, to transform the mundane into the sublime, into the ethereal, and the particular into the universal, as an instantiation of the human condition.

Another element of the story is the fantasy element that runs throughout the work, and which actually makes the narrative more fitting for the medium of animation. the young woman, named Hana, is struggling through university and a part time job when she meets a precocious young man who sits in at classes at her school, despite not being a student himself. He is astute, takes close notes in class, and seems to be trying his best to drink in the best of life at this crucial early period of his life. This searching quality about him added to the mysterious nature of his background as a man seemingly with no family, and his unaffected good look,s immediately draws Hana toward him. And after some time sharing books together and Hana helping him sneak into the library to read for days at a time, the two have the traditional fall, spoken of by all the poets, into love.

He later reveals to her, before they decide to move in together and start a life as mates, that he is a wolf man and can change his appearance at will. This being is, in the context of the narrative, the legendary, now extinct, Honshu Wolf: the only native species in Japan. This romanticized beast was once worshiped by the Japanese as a Kami of great importance, and still remains an icon of Japan’s historical memory. Hana accepts him for who he is and she soon becomes pregnant. In one of the most inspired montage sequences in recent memory, accompanied by the emotional Elysian heights of a gripping score by Takagi Masakatsu, Hosoda takes us from this early period of first becoming pregnant, to Hana studying natural home birth (for fear of what would occur if she gave birth to a half-wolf child in a hospital setting), quitting her job, raising the child (a girl) with her mate, and eventually giving birth to a second child (a boy).

The second great dramatic point of the film is the death of the father, who goes out to hunt for pheasants or other large birds in the city on instinct. The appearance of a wolf in the city is upsetting to many people, and as such, someone shoots him. Hana goes out to find him after he doesn’t at the expected time, and finds him just as a maintenance crew carries him away to the trash dump in a garbage bag: the unceremonious death and erasure of a Japanese historical monument analogous to the death of his forebears as Industry, increasing human hostility, and population booms encroached upon their habitat, and eventually wiped them out from the historical record.

As the kids grow up, Hana is increasingly harangued by public health officials who find that she has never brought her children to the hospital, given them health check-ups, or enrolled them in daycare or pre-school. Her neighbors and landlady complain that she must be keeping a pet dog in her home as the howls of her young charges are heard occasionally in the night: something she cannot reign in until they grow to an age when they can understand the need for secrecy about their heritage. Added to these frustrations is the problem of raising two children as a single mother who cannot leave them with anyone to watch them while she works. As such, she has remained jobless and is quickly running low on funds from what was left behind by her mate. So Hana decides to move to the countryside, where housing is cheap and subsidized by the government so he money will go much further, where she can raise her children in relative seclusion, and where she can grow some of her own food and give her children the choice, when they grow old enough, to decide whether they want to become fully human or go back to their roots and live amongst the mountains as wolves.

The word ought not to be thrown around haphazardly, and I do so with some caution, but to call Wolf Children a masterpiece is a bit of an understatement. The picture is not only one of those rare occasions when all of the elements fall into place and a work of art results from a commercial enterprise, but one that pushes the medium to its furthest current limits and achieves more than any drama in the medium may ever have. And like the old adage goes, if Hosoda had to pick any one work on whose merits he would either be ceded or denied access to heaven, Wolf Children would be it.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: The Boy and The Beast]

Digimon Films: Digimon Tamers: Runaway Locomon

(Catch my previous Digimon film review here: Tamers: Battle of Adventurers)

The second and, thus far, final Digimon Tamers film was released on March 2nd, 2002, in between the TV release schedule for episodes 46 and 47 of the anime. However, unlike the previous film, it doesn’t take place at roughly the same time of its release. Instead, Runaway Locomon is situated six months chronologically after the D-Reaper was defeated at the end of the series. Like the film before it, Chiaki J. Konaka, the Tamers series writer, had nothing to do with its development and instead a different screenwriter was hired to create the scenario. Konaka himself criticized this move as some confusion arose from potential continuity errors between this film and the series. However, Konaka has also given his support to the film as it further develops Rika’s character in line with the psychological acuity and attention present in the series.

The film begins with Rika at a train station with her mother. She is on her cell phone speaking with Takato and she seems mad that he didn’t tell her about a party or outing that he had planned with all of her friends and even family invited. It seems he has been planning some sort of a surprise party for Rika and the cat has been let out of the metaphorical bag. Suddenly, a large black antique train passes by at blistering speed in the terminal. The machine does not stop to load passengers and upon closer inspection is not actually a train at all, but a Digimon with the appearance of a train. Further down the tracks, Takato has been trying to meet up with Rika. When the train passes through his terminal, he manages to scan it on his D-Power and finds that the digital being is called Locomon. And boy is this thing crazy hell bent on getting someplace or other.

Now, here is where the big point of contention arises among fans of the series. Takato has Guilmon with him just as Renamon is by Rika’s side, though off in the shadows. In the following scenes, we find that Calumon is living with Jeri at her house, Kenta and MarineAngemon are out about town shopping, and Kazu and Guardromon are hanging out in the park. Later, Beelzemon will enter the picture, as will Justimon. This means that not only did the small DigiPort that Takato found at the end of the series at the back of Guilmon’s den eventually allow for Guilmon to return to his Tamer partner in the Real World. But so too have all of the other Tamer Digimon returned. And this despite the fact that Janyu’s use of the Juggernaut program at such a fundamental ontological level between the Digital World and the Real World supposedly made the Real World uninhabitable for Digimon. While not exactly a continuity error, we have yet to receive the full explanation of how this became possible in the interim between the series and this film, and as such, it comes as quite a surprise to attentive fans and viewers of the series.

Takato has Guilmon Digivolve into Growlmon to attempt to stop the train Digimon head on. As expected, the Champion-level Growlmon is not up to the task of stopping an Ultimate-level dead in its tracks, though he does stall the train just long enough for Takato to climb aboard the train. Rika and Renamon join him shortly thereafter by jumping down from a bridge farther ahead on the tracks directly on top of the Locomon, before then climbing inside of his classy chassis. The trio find a boiler, but even the most OP water-based Modify Cards administered to Renamon are not not enough to put out the fire powering Locomon. They eventually find out that he is acting so oddly because a Mega-level push-over Digimon named Parasimon has infected him with his parasitic self and is controlling his movements, throwing him thereby into a frenzied race to no particular place.

Henry, Kazu, and Kenta eventually catch up to one another and find an unused train car, which they power through Guardromon’s flying ability and attempt to get as close to Locomon as possible. Meanwhile, the train commission techies have no clue what to do except for cancelling all routes, closing the train’s circuit into a closed loop, and getting all of the other trains off of the tracks as soon as mechanically possible. After some time scrambling to restore some semblance of order, Yamaki arrives and takes over the department, and directs the construction workers on call to manually move Locomon’s track in a different direction off toward a DigiPort that will absorb him and send him packing back to the Digital World.

Unfortunately, Parasimon complicates matters as he continually targets Rika as a parasitic host and turns her against her friends, which makes it difficult for them to jump ship and get out of the way of the DigiPort up ahead on the tracks. Furthermore, Parasimon has a broader plan that involves forcing Locomon to Digivolve to Mega-level as GranLocomon, making him practically unstoppable, even by the DigiPort, which is now of minuscule size relative to the train Digimon. Finally, Parasimon is able to call hundreds of its friends through the DigiPort once it comes within close enough proximity to it. All of the main Digimon Digivolve, but Sakuyamon, MegaGargomon, Gallantmon, Justimon, MarineAngemon, Guardromon, and Beelzemon Blast Mode astride Behemoth (which should be destroyed completely and serves as the only true continuity error in the film) are still too few to overcome the parasitic menace. That is, until Gallantmon takes on his Super Mega form as Gallantmon Crimson Mode and uses his Quo Vadis special attack to defeat all of the Parasimon throughout the city in one fell swoop.

The destruction of the parasites frees up Locomon’s mind, though he is comically still hell bent on chugging along, seemingly without any goal in sight. He turns back into his Ultimate-level form and enters the DigiPort, the situation is resolved and the Tamers return home to celebrate the win, and to celebrate Rika’s birthday together as a group. However, while she was being possessed by Parasimon, she was forced to reflect on the loss of her father, her father who is separated from her mother, seemingly left his family behind, and now is never around for her. Rika leaves the party to collect her thoughts and makes herself seem stand offish in the process. But unlike the old Rika, she has matured and grown stronger in will and in confidence. She stands back up and walks back toward the party after a few moments of reflection, illustrating her growth as a character and as a person even since the D-Reaper was defeated so few months prior.

All in all, the film is nothing to write home about. It’s a fun little adventure, but there is never an instant in which the pressure is really on as the Parasimon never succeed in overtaking any really powerful hosts and the threat of Locomon was, in reality, something of a non-threat. Even if he never ran out of steam and had to go along manically forever in the Real World, he could be put on a closed loop. This would really slow down traffic for a time, but would in no way be the end of the world or anything close to an existential threat to humanity like the Devas once were, or like Zhuqiaomon, the D-Reaper, Mephistomon. The film is interesting, but very little of consequence occurs therein. At any rate, I’m glad that the creators of Digimon made this film and gave us fans what amounts to an extra episode of the series almost just for the hell of it.

 

Ciao,

The Digidestined Cody

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