All The Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy is an author close to my heart. His prose has the muscular quality of top-form Hemingway, the occasional irreverence of Bukowski, the mythic nature of Faulkner, and a surreal or postmodern underpinning always threatening to emerge and engulf his readers in incredulity at the absurdity of the nihilistic worlds he fashions together in his own symbolic West, which is ultimately a stage for the conflict of intellectual traditions. First of foremost of that conflict between the Western intellectual tradition of rationality and supposed human epistemic omnipotence, and newer forms of uncertainty and mysticism arising constantly as the logical consequences of this former intellectual project.

Those who undertake to create film adaptations of McCarthy’s novels or plays are typically those with an intellectual or artistic bent who do so because they value his work and understand it at a deep level. Some past cases of films like these that I had seen were the masterful Coen Brother’s adaptation of No Country For Old Men in 2007, the classic dystopian metaphysical horror film The Road in 2009, and Ridley Scott’s amoral adaptation of the play The Counselor in 2013. As such, I had high hopes for the first major film adaptation of a McCarthy work in 2000’s All The Pretty Horses, based on his 1992 novel of the same name.

The film was directed by Billy Bob Thornton after the break away success of his Southern Gothic classic Sling Blade in 1996. The original cut of All The Pretty Horses came in at over 3 hours in length, had a slow, methodical, epic pace and was reportedly extremely well suited to the style of McCarthy’s writing. The story, set in 1949, the definitive death of the frontier and a move into Industrial America, Electric Music, and pop culture, was accompanied by a spare guitar score played on era-correct instruments. And the entire affair was set to be a great follow up to Thornton’s previous film, and could have established him as something of a promising visionary director at the time. Instead, the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein (known for raping films well before the current allegations about his sexual misconduct) forced Thornton to cut the film down to less than 2 hours in length, and also replaced the score without the director’s approval with a more conventional piece. The result was a picture maligned by most critics that made back only $18 million USD on its more than $50 million USD budget, and brought Thornton’s directorial career to a halt (he only directed a couple pictures over the next two decades).

Despite the film’s truncated form, the kernel of what Thornton had envisioned for the picture is still there within it. The focus on metaphysically and generally philosophically charged language verbalized in a brute, terse manner is maintained throughout the film, which consequently almost borders on presenting the audience with mere types instead of characters. Some critics find this approach to storytelling abstruse and obscure, but those men and women are also the kinds of readers who would likewise champion the use of types in classic works by Dostoevsky, Kafka, or Nietzsche. In other words, they are typically hypocrites who might find the value of such an approach in the novels of Cormac McCarthy with his Kid and Judge archetypes running throughout All the Pretty Horses, and then somehow fault it when these types are the symbolic trade of the celluloid medium, which is possibly even more suited to their use. After all, cinema is an art form first and foremost that can do anything paintings, photography, music, art installation, or literature can do. And before the advent of sound to the medium, character development was the last thing in artists of the medium’s minds, as it should be today.

And again, despite the critiques of fools and backbiters and those without a real critical bone in their bodies, the film does manage to develop the character of the Kid. John Grady Cole (played by Matt Damon) has dreamt of taking over his grandfather’s ranch for the entirety of his childhood. But times are changing and the old frontier lands will yield significantly higher profits for the family if sold to oil barons instead of toiling away raising cattle on them for the next fifty years. As such, when Cole’s grandfather passes away, his mother quickly decides to sell the land and thereby destroys all of Cole’s hopes for a life on the range. The death of these hopes is visually symbolized by the corpse of the grandfather Cole, who appears visually similar to the great Western character actor Slim Pickens (though Pickens passed away almost 20 years prior, in 1983). The death of the Western genre, the death of the West, and the end of all romanticism for Cole in the hopes of working the land upon which his grandfather, and his grandfather, worked their entire lives.

Cole decides to leave the ranch and head south past the Rio Grande and into Mexico where a real frontier still exists and one can find steady work as a cowboy. He takes along with him his trusty friend Lacey Rawlins as well as two horses they steal from the ranch i the dead of night and on they go. Along the journey, they run into a young boy named Jimmy Blevins who has likewise stolen a horse, as well as his stepfather’s gun and some supplies in the hopes of making it down in Mexico, and escaping constant beatings at the hands of the man. Blevins has obviously had a difficult life, which has turned him into a good shot as well as a youth prone to outbursts of violence. This tendency within the boy will later prove his downfall. Rawlins and Cole will not escape its repercussions unscathed either.

Over the course of the film, Rawlins and Cole make it to their destination and meet a woman along the way who owns a small bar. She is, notably, the same actress as Bennie’s girl in Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The two men find a ranch and impress the biggest tycoon (Ruben Blades) around by breaking in over a dozen wild horses in a week. Cole falls for the man’s daughter (Penelope Cruz). Loves begin, crimes catch up to their perpetrators, and lovers are forcibly wrenched apart. By the end of the film, Cole has realized that there is no place on Earth coincident with his romanticism, no place that measures up to his ideal type of Paradise. The Kid becomes The Man, develops into a disillusioned soul who is by no means completed by film’s end. One can imagine his past traumas developing into alcoholism or drug use. That he will have his share of women, but will experience a dearth of truly good times for the remainder of his days. And that he accepts this begrudgingly and will remain a haunted man like his father Cole (Robert Patrick) before him: a Tennessee Williams type, divorced, down and out, drunk, and jaded by the hand he’s been dealt in life, and the knowledge that there is no better hand to be had. Except death’s sweet release and the hope that things will be better once he returns to the wellspring of his being, to the womb, the mother, the vacuum of Being, to the void.

 

Cody Ward

 

[Next up: Child of God]

 

 

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The Big O: Act 07- The Call from the Past

(Act 06: The Legacy of Amadeus)

Thus far, I have repeatedly explained the centrality of Chiaki J. Konaka’s screenwriting work to the development of The Big O. He is a major creative force in the anime and lent many of his own philosophical and literary preoccupations to the narrative of the story. I have also discussed the role of series director Kazuyoshi Katayama who, unlike Konaka, was directly involved in the production of every single Act of the first season of The Big O (whereas Konaka only directly penned five Acts, including this one, and otherwise wrote drafts for the remainder and assembled a trusted a team of screenwriters to assist him on the project).

A third figure who balances out the triad of creative minds on this series Keiichi Sato, a mecha and character designer, and animator, who conceived of the story for The Big O alongside Katayama, and who is directly responsible for the iconic look of the series’ visual style and direction approach, consequently its mise-en-scene, and also the beautiful designs of Megadeuses and their Dominuses within the series. It is Sato’s penchant for nostalgia that explains the hyper-referentiality of this, essentially, postmodern and transhumanist text. And although he contributed design and animation work on numerous mecha classics like Mobile Suit Victory Gundam, Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and the esteemed Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still OVA series; and later went on to work on iconic anime like Wolf’s Rain before moving on to direct OVAs, features, and TV series; Sato still considers The Big O to be his magnum opus. I’m inclined to agree.

As the last Act of the first season penned directly by Konaka, Act 07 contains his distinctive trademarks of philosophical speculation and Lovecraftian Cthulu Mythos. In this case, Roger has been hired by fish merchants in a coastal city on the outskirts of Paradigm who have grievances against the fisherman. It seems that some ghastly Gilman like figures have been appearing as of late and attacking ships that attempt to plumb the depths to harvest the fruit of the sea. As a result, everyone is afraid to venture forth and no fish are being caught, the cost of fish in the city of Paradigm has skyrocketed, and the situation is becoming dire as the entire coastal region is reeling economically from the effects of a stalled market.

Before leaving the city, Roger visits his informer, The Big Ear, for news on what to expect on this upcoming job and on how he could potentially go beneath the waves to investigate the activities of the Gilmen below. He is told of a man named Readerman who has recovered some memories of the past, of his father’s knowledge of engineering submarine crafts in particular. And although the concept of a vehicle that can operate underwater is foreign to Roger and seems suspect to The Big Ear, Roger decides to track the man down and rent out the craft for a journey beneath the sea. Unfortunately, Angel appears in the town and commandeers the craft for herself by undercutting Roger’s bid with a more lucrative one. As our femme fatale pulls away from the docks and begins to submerge, Roger runs along and manages to jump into the cockpit moments before it closes and the two are off on this adventure together. But whereas Roger wishes merely to figure out what’s going on with the Gilmen so he can evacuate them and return the local fishing industry back to normal, it seems that Angel is hell bent on recovering memories of the past.

As they delve deep below the ocean, they find a submerged city in which lights are still on in many of the underwater buildings, many of which have remained sealed shut despite the pressure of thousands of tons of water surrounding them constantly. The inexplicable nature of this underwater city becomes ever more so as Roger explains that he has heard that this city was once populated, was once above water prior to The Event. For those who have seen The Big O to completion, we know that this is impossible and instead that the city must be akin to the Model City below Paradigm City: a region never meant to be seen by human eyes, thought impossible for humans to investigate with their current technologies, and thereby, created incomplete or absurd. As in a video game where a territory can be seen, but not walked into, as a soft edge to the virtual reality of the game, so too is this underwater city. A node of ontological incompleteness whose very discovery is something of a signifier of the ability of man to exceed his programmed parameters. Of his boundless reach and grasp.

Eventually, Angel and Roger encounter the Gilmen, who are revealed to merely be Paradigm investigators sent to gather ‘memories’ at the bottom of this city in hopes of aiding their lord and master Alex Rosewater in his as-yet undisclosed master plan. The Gilmen attach bombs to the submarine, which damage the craft enough that it begins to take on water. Roger is forced to pilot the craft directly within the lobby of a building at the bottom of this sea, and somehow, inside of the building, there is a remaining oxygen supply. For three days, Angel and Roger hide inside of this building, hoping all the while that some miracle will occur to free them from it. Roger could call upon Big O to save them, but would thereby blow his cover and reveal his secret identity as the dominus of the Big O Megadeus in the process. During this time, the room becomes increasingly hotter and the air supply quickly dwindles. Angel eventually sheds her outer layer of clothing, revealing a pair of scars on her back in the exact places where a real angel might have had wings before they were removed.

When the Gilmen finally find the locus of the light of memories in a quarry below the windows of Roger and Angel’s makeshift home, a new Megadeus emerges as the guardian of the memories: the Lovecraftian Dagon Megadeus. A reclining giant encased in algae that quickly kills many of the Gilman scouts, destroys its own memory cluster to prevent them from falling into the hands of men (and thereby showing the creator of this simulated reality to be a wise creator who has laid obstacles out to prevent ‘memories’ from being recouped by mankind), and emerges from beneath the waves to wreak havoc on the nearby coastal city. Dastun’s men appear on the scene relatively quickly, but only manage to burn off the restrictive algae from Dagon, thereby making his sleek metallic body more mobile than before.

Finally, Roger calls upon Big O and smashes the window of the building to swim toward its cockpit. He manages to save Angel and deposit her on the shore of the beach without her seeing him enter the Megadeus. However, the damage is done and she now seems to know that Roger is the pilot of Big O. Furthermore, she pleads with Roger to not destroy the Dagon Megadeus, which contains many memories of the past before The Event. In the building, Roger reasoned that Angel’s concern over memories of the past reveals her foreign status, as natives of the city live comfortably only by refusing to seek out their past. Roger, a native of Paradigm, has no qualms about destroying Dagon with Big O’s potent piston punch, much to the chagrin of Angel. And also to the displeasure of Alex Rosewater, who chides Roger from afar for not trying to show ‘a little more respect for the dead’ [for the memories of the dead before The Event].

Roger’s role as a figure destined, or even programmed, to prevent others from uncovering damaging memories about the past, about the nature of their reality is one I will discuss in much more detail in the future. However, let it be known here that my previous comments about Roger obviously being a human being were mistaken and his true nature is much more complex. And much closer to the character of Deckard from Blade Runner than I was ever emotionally willing to accept.

 

Cast in the Name of God,

Cody Ward

[Act 08: Missing Cat]

The Big O: Act 06- The Legacy of Amadeus

(Act 05: Bring Back My Ghost)

As promised, I’ve completed some much-needed repairs on my house and now I’m back here in this blogspace, back in my virtual home, my veritable nexus for all things in celluloid culture that beckoned to me throughout the week like an idinal mistress calling constantly for my return. Just as those urges to get back to writing, to get back to The Big O, to anime, to Western films, and to animation, were always there in the back of my mind, so too were you here, calling through phantom channels and announcing yourselves through the occasional like or follow of this blogspace. My average weekly view count for a week in which I post 9-10 essay-reviews is a little over 100 views per day. And this past week in which I posted almost nothing, it was still over 100 views per day. For that, I thank you kindly and salute you as comrades in the shared experience of hyping and reflecting on (and even often trashing) commercial pop art of all kinds, and specifically those made for the Gold and Silver Screens of this world. So without further adieu.

The sixth episode of The Big O is, again, one written not by the series creator Chiaki J. Konaka, but instead by one of his close friends and collaborators on past scripts. Unlike Keiichi Hasegawa, the screenwriter for Act 05 Masanao Akahoshi, the writer on Act 06, had much less experience in writing scripts hitherto. In 1998 and 1999 he wrote three episodes of Konaka’s Devilman Lady, which was his first job writing for any TV show of note up that point his career. The Big O became his second writing job, and on it he would go on to contribute the script to Act 12 as well before ultimately moving on to write for Tokusatsu shows like Ultraman, again alongside his pals Konaka and Hasegawa.

And like the previous Act, the story of Act 06 is largely episodic and has little to do with the developing story arc of Roger uncovering the mysteries of the City of Amnesia, The Event, and of his own past and identity. Dorothy awakens Roger once again as the Act’s opening number by playing a fugue on the piano of particularly upsetting speed, complexity, and underlying sturm und drang romanticism. The master of the house has once again overslept, this time far into the day, and slightly beyond noon. And although she is probably justified in awakening her host in this manner in order to prevent him from wasting his free day asleep in bed, he decides to take her to an old friend who may have the ability to rid Dorothy of her annoying instrumental proclivities.

The two ride downtown in The Griffon (Roger’s black sedan) and eventually find themselves outside of a club called Amadeus. Outside of the door, they hear an airy, elegiac nocturne being banged out ever so precisely and with such skill as to elicit an emotional reaction in Dorothy. She explains to Roger, in an ever so subtly envious tone, that the pianist inside is playing a piece from the classical repertoire, out of time and seemingly with little regard to the sheet music’s dictums. Roger explains that these changes are what gives the piece its emotional and lyrical resonance, are what gives it heart. When they enter the club, Dorothy is surprised to find that the pianist is an android like herself. Roger is pleased to find that many of the denizens of this dark place are enjoying their drinks just as much as the beauty of the music being produced by the resident android Instro whose music’s Elysian qualities lull all those who hear it into a restful calm.

Instro’s full name is R. Instro. The initial R. always signifying ‘Robot’ within the mythos of The Big O (as in Dorothy R. Wayneright as well) and serving as another important key that connects the franchise to Western sci-fi history as Isaac Asimov used this initial in the same capacity within his works. Instro’s creator, Amadeus, was the original proprietor of the club, which has now changed hands, but still retains its mechanical muse (its own Nightingale, if you will). Amadeus was a scientist (or one who has regained memories, or fragments of history or information, from prior to The Event) who died in a mysterious incident in his lab some years prior. Instro never refers to this man as Amadeus or as his creator, but merely as his father. The mystery of such a constant designation is deepened throughout the episode as flashbacks appear to show Instro as a child, a human child, and photographs within the home of Amadeus later reveal pictures of himself with a young boy coincident with the one Instro identifies as himself in his flashbacks. Meaning that either the boy died and Amadeus somehow managed to translate his memories into code, which he then incorporated into Instro’s mind, or Instro is actually the child whose mind was uploaded into a mechanical body for some unknown purpose or because of some ailment the boy’s physical body manifested. Either way, the obvious inner emotional life of Instro is apparent and pushes the envelope ever further within this dystopian cyberpunk transhumanist anime narrative toward a prescient dialogue about issues that will become increasingly more important over the coming decades.

As Instro begins to tutor Dorothy within the club before operating hours, a man named Gieseng enters and inquires of Instro whether he is now ready to take on the burden of his creators’ dreams for him. Once Gieseng realizes that Instro has company, he makes an abrupt departure and promises to return at a later date. Roger finds the whole situation odd, and out of concern for his friend Instro, he pays a visit to Police Chief Dan Dastun to find out more information about this Gieseng fellow. Dastun has a file on the man (seems to have a file on just about every person in the city) and alerts Roger to the fact that Gieseng was Amadeus’ scientific partner, and that during the accident that took the latter’s life, Gieseng was present, and managed to survive. The accident is revealed to have been caused by some sort of haywire phono-sonic machine.

When Roger and Dorothy next visit Amadeus’ Club, they find it closed and absent of Instro’s presence. Inside, a hole has been blasted into the piano and the wall behind it, though no debris from the impact is around. Furthermore, Dorothy finds Instro’s bow-tie sitting in the nook above the piano. When the two leave the club, they venture out toward Amadeus’ old house. There, they find that the home has a huge hole blown into the side of it. And then the Constanze Megadeus appears. Instro is piloting the machine and recognizes Roger along the ground. He explains to his friend that his father created him as the key to this powerful machine, which he created to exact revenge upon the Paradigm Corp. for wrongfully terminating him and cutting off his funding. Roger sees through this reasoning immediately, tells Instro that he is too human to have been created for destruction, and that Gieseng is merely manipulating him toward his own ends. But Instro has made up his mind and regretfully sends a phono-sonic wave blast toward his friend Roger who he recognizes is now standing in the way of him achieving his apparent life’s purpose, and potentially putting his father’s ghost at ease.

But Roger has already called upon his own Megadeus and Big O arises from the ground to protect his dominus from the blast. The two begin to fight back against Constanze, but are repelled by the sheer power of the phono-sonic machine’s blasts. Even Big O’s lasers and machine guns are not enough firepower to break through the waves of energy and all looks for naught as Big O begins to deteriorate and the bolts holding him together start to come loose. Just then, Dorothy finds a piano within Amadeus’ home and begins to play the nocturne that Instro taught her. Instro immediately recognizes the tune as well as the deep inner emotional truth that he was not created to destroy, but to create beautiful music for the world. He ceases his attacks, which gives Big O an opening to crush the arms of Constanze and render her immobile and impotent.

Below, Gieseng attempts to stop Dorothy by launching a wave of sound from his own handheld phono-sonic gun. Fortunately, though tragically, a large tree has become weakened in the soil behind him over the course of the battle between the earth-shaking Megadeuses. It falls directly onto Gieseng and ends this Caligari-esque villain’s life with one fell swoop. Instro, defeated, opens his cockpit and, still believing himself a mere tool for destruction, rips out his arms from the controls of Constanze and vows to never play music again. But Dorothy has different plans and reasons with Instro that he must continue to tutor her in her own playing. The episode ends with him doing just that, a new pair of arms and hands of lesser dexterity, but ample ability now sutured in where his father’s previous masterpieces of design once were. And although Dorothy becomes significantly better and more intuitive in her playing, she still on occasion hammers out the old sturm und drang to awaken her host when he oversleeps.

 

Cast in the Name of God,

Cody

[Act 07: The Call from the Past]

Update

Just a quick update everyone. I’ve been working on renovating the outside of my home to placate my homeowner’s insurance.

Will be back to 9-10 Essays/Reviews per week beginning Monday. Thank you for all of your support and for your patience.

 

Ciao for now,

Cody

The Boy and The Beast

(Catch my previous Hosoda anime film review here: Wolf Children)

In 2015, Studio Chizu released its second film: Mamoru Hosoda’s sixth feature film The Boy and The Beast. The film was Hosoda’s fourth collaboration with producer Yuichiro Saito and second collaboration with composer Takagi Masakatsu (whose work here was not quite as ethereal and emotionally gripping as the soundtrack on Wolf Children). However, where Hosoda was really starting to build a team of constant collaborators in a few directions, he was also striking out on his own in another key area: screenwriting.

Hitherto, Hosoda’s films The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Warsand Wolf Children had all been drafted by screenwriter Satoko Okudera. After the production of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosoda began to co-write screenplays and develop stories for his films alongside Okudera, which produced increasingly better, more dramatic, and more personal works. By 2015, it seems that Hosoda decided it was time to try his hand at the complete work of drafting his own film’s scripts (as he has continued to do on 2018’s Mirai of the Future). And although The Boy and The Beast is possibly his weakest film since his time as a contract director for franchises like One Piece and Digimon, that claim does little in the way of belittling this film, which is quite good. His previous films are just better.

The film is a work about determination, friendship, family, coming of age, and overcoming one’s limitations. It is the story of a young boy named Ren whose parents are divorced. He lives with his mother, who dies inexplicably of an illness and leaves Ren behind in the care of her extended family. He resents the fact that his father has not come to claim him as he ought to and will only learn much later in life that his father was not informed of the goings on until a few weeks after his mother passed. The man wanted to claim Ren and raise him himself, but by that point he was too late. Ren ran away from his extended family and took to the streets of Shibuya where he was eventually picked up by a large Anthropomorphic Bear named Kumatetsu (‘Iron Bear’ or ‘Piercing [martial] Bear’) who was out searching for an apprentice to teach the ways of the martial arts.

The boy returns with the beast back to the land of Jutengai where all residents are anthropomorphic animals of various species and kinds. In this anime Universe, gods exist. They become gods, and undergo the liminal act of apotheosis, only after becoming the Lord of their province and then voiding their office after finding a worthy successor. The current Lord of Jutengai is a rabbit known for being extremely indecisive. He plans to become the god of decisiveness as some sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to his inability to be decisive in normal life and plans to void his office and cede it to one of two champions: Kumatetsu or the Boar Warrior Iozen. The next Lord will be the one to claim victory in a battle between the two champions set to begin when the current Lord makes a decisive decision to begin the ceremony.

However, the old rabbit has a few things he wishes to accomplish first. Although Iozen is a skilled fighter with an honorable demeanor, and Kumatetsu is bumbling oaf with no manners and only brute strength, he believes that Kumatetsu is worthy of fighting Iozen and of thereby potentially becoming the next Lord. To this end, the Lord pushes Kumatetsu to gain an apprentice. And although human beings are not allowed in Jutengai as they cannot ascend to the level of gods or lords on account of the evil always residing within their hearts, the Lord of Jutengai makes an exception for Ren as he hopes his presence will push Kumatetsu to train harder. The Lord also sends the two on missions and journeys to visit the other Lords of different provinces in the hopes that they will gain some knowledge and wisdom about the nature of strength along the way.

When Ren arrives in Jutengai, he is only 9 years old. He begins his training unable to even hold a sword, but over the course of the film, he studies Kumatetsu’s every move. This allows him to defeat his rather predictable master in battle, as a young human boy, using only a broomstick handle. Kumatetsu takes on the challenge to train and better himself with relish and for the next eight years, the two develop a rapport and a fighting style that is totally unpredictable, very disciplined, and extremely difficult to fight against. Hordes of trainees flood their home and pay high fees to become the students of the boy and the beast and all seems well with the world in Jutengai.

However, at this point, the plot rolls into motion and tons of events begin to occur. Ren accidentally finds himself back in Shibuya one day. He decides he wants to learn how to read and happens to find a girl with whom he has an immediate affinity. The two become close, Ren reestablishes contact with his father, and as he studies, he finds he can take college entrance exams even without having gone to middle or high school. Meanwhile, Iozen’s sons have been growing up and growing stronger day by day as well. But the youngest of the two boys, Ichirohiko, is unlike his brother or father as he was adopted from the human world as an abandoned infant by Iozen. And the darkness in his heart has been festering and threatening to bubble up to the surface and cause trouble within Jutengai and in the human world. As the Lord of Jutengai sets a date for the battle between Kumatetsu and Iozen, tensions are high and tale turns into an action film that manages not to jump the shark (too much anyway) like many action-oriented anime tend to do.

Like all three of Hosoda’s prior films, The Boy and The Beast was critically beloved and generated an impressive revenue for anime feature film: $49 million USD. It won Animation of the Year Awards at Festivals worldwide including the prestigious Japan Academy Prizes (which seem to award Hosoda a win for every film he makes now). However, Hosoda’s next film proves to potentially be even more lucrative and prestigious than any of his past efforts combined as Mirai of the Future has already premiered at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Annecy International Animation Film Festival alongside Kitaro Kosaka’s new film Okko’s InnMirai is set for theatrical release in Japan later this month on July 20th and is sure to play in theaters worldwide, probably releasing wider than any previous Hosoda film, and hopefully making a ton of money in the process, which can then in turn be used to keep Hosoda employed as a filmmaker of interesting, auteur films for years, if not decades to come.

 

Cody Ward

Cool World

(Check out my previous Bakshi review here: The Butter Battle Book)

From the 1988 Mighty Mouse so-called cocaine fiasco onward, American animator and creative pioneer within the medium of cartooning, Ralph Bakshi, had a very difficult time getting anything greenlit. When he did have the opportunity to direct a new project, it was often compromised by producers or by an apparent diminishing ability of Bakshi’s own to develop compelling, or even interesting, ideas. By 1990, this downward spiral would almost never again contain within its trajectory an occasional upward momentum or peak of creative work.

After directing the short films Christmas in Tattertown and The Butter Battle Book, in 1988 and 1989 respectively, Bakshi was given a chance to direct a pilot episode for a projected series called Hound Town. The work is relatively easy to track down online and is worth watching if you are a devout Bakshi fan. It contains moments of slight subversion within the dialogue and animations of the episode, which are uniquely Bakshi and become the norm for many later productions by figures like John Kricfalusi and Tom Minton who studied under Bakshi’s wing on Mighty Mouse before leading the creator-driven animation revolution of the 1990s and early 2000s. Unfortunately, the pilot has little redeeming quality artistically speaking, and it plays like a sappy 50s sitcom, of the most part. Bakshi himself called Hound Town ‘an embarrassing piece of shit.’ Enough said.

By early 1990, Bakshi was itching to get back into feature film-making as he had been out of the game since 1983 when he directed Fire and IceWhen he approached Paramount with an option on a script for a feature mixing the mediums of animation and live-action, they apparently bought the idea within three minutes and offered him a $30 million USD with which to work. The plan, in the studio’s eyes, was seemingly to capitalize on the popularity of this mixed media approach, which was previously a hit in 1988 on the classic film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Bakshi’s artistic interest in this approach extended back as far as 1974 when he began directing the film Hey Good Lookin’However, the funding and backing for that project dried up and was not released for almost another decade, and only because Bakshi put his own money into the project and managed to animate over the old live-action stills.

On this new film project, entitled Cool World, Bakshi initially intended to craft a story of a young cartoonist who becomes ensnared by the world he animates, falls for a toon of his own creation, and sires a child to who subsequently grows into a real menace to both worlds. Unfortunately, his producer on the picture, #1 POS Frank Mancuso Jr., had the script rewritten without Bakshi’s permission or knowledge and presented a totally different story to the director together with the threat that he would fire Bakshi if he didn’t direct it. Bakshi not being one to wage war with producers in the same manner of an Orson Welles or Terry Gilliam, or to give up a project on which he might still make the best of it, he went ahead with the script and began to craft with his team the tale of an ageing cartoonist ex-convict named Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) who creates an animated world called Cool World. And of a young G.I. named Frank Harris (Brad Pitt) who returns from war, wins a motorcycle in a game of poker, and takes his mother out on a ride, which ends in her death and his own retreat through some unexplained machinations of world-altering pain and grief to this animated world.

Inside Cool World, Harris becomes a detective and the film becomes a mixed-medium film noir. The imagery of the film is replete with visual icons reminiscent of the architectures of sci-fi worlds from Blade Runner, to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and even Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. There is a Debbie Harry-like seductress and femme fatale in Cool World named Holli Would (har har har), played by Kim Basinger, who wants to bone a real human being. It is Frank’s job as a cop and general buzzkill to prevent this union between cartoons and human beings, a job he seemingly invents with no real reasoning or precedent in the laws of Cool World. But the artist who created her, Deebs, has schizo-mystical experiences in which he is somehow transferred into Cool World, and he has no qualms whatsoever about laying pipe, whether the chick is biological or iconographic-hentai in nature.

The result is that Holli becomes a real woman and leaves Cool World with Deebs to track down something out in Las Vegas called the Spike of Power, supposedly left behind by a cartoon who previously became human, entered the real world, and proceeded to buy up casinos and make himself super rich (still getting all of this?). It is the job of Frank to get out of Cool World, return to the real world for the first time in 15 years, find a man called the professor (a toon animated in a manner that makes him a dead ringer for the professors of Osamu Tezuka manga and anime productions) with the help of his friend Neils (an animated spider visually similar to the titular protagonist of the Fleischer Brothers early animated feature Mr. Bug Goes To Town), and stop Holli before she uses the power for ill gain or disrupts the balance between the Real World and this new world of Deeb’s creation: Cool World.

The film is all kinds of confusing, making almost zero narrative sense, and the acting from its live-action characters is not particularly good either. On its $30 million USD budget, it grossed a mere $14 million USD at the box office and was likewise critically reviled (and stands at a mere 4% on Rotten Tomatoes of this posting). Despite this, and I say this with some deep self-loathing and questioning of my own critical faculties, also recognizing my growing enjoyment of almost all things Bakshi, there are moments of great fun throughout the film and the animation is top notch. Some of the characters, with their combination of traditional and modern styles, who populate the dense noir sci-fi dystopia of Cool World come closer to Rintaro’s masterpiece Metropolis than any other animations I’ve seen within the medium of anime. Because Bakshi knew the thing was going to terrible, he told his animators to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it and to develop any ideas they had visually. The end result being that within Cool World, there is the kernel of something greater, of something better that could have been. If only studio execs would mind their own damned business and let the artists do the creating, while they handle the distribution, marketing, and production schedules. Mancuso, however, was not interested in these latter problems, which is why the film took two years to complete and release and made less than half its money back for his studio. Hopefully Sr. demoted the kid after this flop.

 

Cody Ward

[Next film: Cool and the Crazy]

The Big O: Act 05- Bring Back My Ghost

(Act 4: Underground Terror)

Although the series The Big O was written by Chiaki J. Konaka, he only wrote the general narrative of the story in Season 1, and only specifically wrote five out of thirteen total episodes in that season. The majority of the episodes from this project were written by various screenwriters who had worked with Konaka on prior occasions. And the second most prolific episode writer for this season was Keiichi Hasegawa, who drafted four episodes including numbers 08, 10, and 13, as well as this episode, Bring Back My Ghost. As for the second season, The Big O II? Well, that’s a different story for another time.

Hasegawa as a screenwriter does not write specifically or even usually for anime productions and instead sticks to Tokusatsu for the most part. Since 1996, he has been the head writer for almost all Ultraman projects since Tiga, and has contributed in some way to every Ultramon project from that time on except for Max. Konaka also spent a fair bit of time writing episodes for Ultraman series throughout the 1990s and probably first met Hasegawa on Tiga before late working under him once more on Ultramon Gaia. By 1998, Konaka was helming the series creation and head writer role for Devilman Lady. He hired Hasegawa to draft episodes of this anime, which probably solidified Hasegawa in Konaka’s mind as a figure whom he could rely on to do good, innovative work alongside him on future productions. As such, on The Big O, Hasegawa became his right hand man of sorts.

The story of Bring Back My Ghost is a complex tale of police corruption, cover ups, revenge, and destiny. And it opens upon a street in a low-income part of Paradigm City. A high-ranking general within the Military Police reclines in the back of his black sedan, pontificating all the while to his personal driver on how he believes that all of the poor in the region are no more than ‘rats… crawling the streets.’ He makes a few offhand comments about needing to clean up the place (a sentiment that will later be mirrored by the views of his ultimate boss to whom he is no more than a lap dog, and the head of Paradigm Corp, Alex Rosewater). However, his driver has more pressing concerns. The area through which they are travelling is populated by a dense fog, and there have been numerous incidents in the past few weeks of a mysterious ‘ghost’ appearing from out of the fog and destroying the cars, and the lives, of various officials within the Military Police. Worse yet, they are approaching the area in which these attacks occurred.

The driver suggests they take the long way around, but his chief pushes him onward as he believes the belief in ghosts to be absurd, that there are no such things as ghosts, and that the previous incidents must have been mere accidents. After all, some drivers are just inept and find it difficult to traverse heavily foggy conditions. Just as he says these things, the ghost appears up ahead. Its spectral pallor and general smog-like build register it immediately as a Kaiju most likely derived from the character of Godzilla’s enemy Hedorah. It appears so suddenly that the driver is unable to avoid it and is caught up in one of its beams of light, which immediately incinerates the car, and presumably those within it.

Elsewhere, Roger is hosting a group of lawyers in his foyer. Each group immediately finds the other repulsive. The lawyers in Roger’s mind on account of their having an attitude and an expectation that he will take the job they have in mind whether he likes it or not (something which makes him even more averse to taking any assignment they might dole out). Roger in their eyes by virtue of his overwhelming and immediate hostility towards lawyers. However, as this is Roger’s mansion, he has the upper hand and promises to expel his intruders through recourse to his Policy #4: If someone lacks courtesy and sincerity, I ask them to leave.’ Unfortunately, he will have to take the job, as the core lawyer, Rick Frasier, is only asking for Roger’s help on account of his ageing mother. And Roger’s Policy #5 reads: ‘I value women and the elderly.’

When he visits the old woman the following day in the luxurious, artificially verdurous East Town, he finds that she is an old billionaire who has clawed her way to the top and created a monopoly on ownership of the best lawyer’s leases around. But she is turning 75 years old soon and has recently suffered the misfortune of going blind. She seems prescient and somehow know when Roger enters her room that he is staring at a picture of her son, Bonny Frasier, on the mantelpiece. She wants to meet her son at least one more time before she dies so that she can make amends for the evils she wrought throughout her days, the evils of her past cutthroat business dealings that estranged her and her son so long ago. And she asks Roger to track him down because she has heard that Roger is an ‘honest and dependable guy.’

The only problem is that her son is known to have died a year prior. During a large riot of Paradigm’s poor citizenry against the expansion of the domes into their territory, which would force them to relocate from their homes, the Military Police fought back momentarily with violence. Bonny was there and somehow got caught up in the event. He was shot and fell off of the bridge on which the stand-off was occurring, and into the waves below. His death ended the riot and brought some solidarity between the two forces for a time that helped to cool tensions. As Roger speaks with the old woman, a symphonic Gregorian chant of sorts ebbs and flows and eventually swells into something of a fever pitch of emotion and mood unlike most any film score before it. The effect is, like much of composer Toshihiko Sahashi’s work on The Big O, a testament to the power music can have in effectively solidifying and heightening the mise-en-scene of a film, the mood and atmosphere of a piece. In this case, shifting it from an otherwise tame conversation into one replete with significance emotionally and viscerally.

As the story progresses, it is revealed by the Big Ear that Bonny was apparently onto some sort of corruption on the part of his superiors in the Military Police. Three of the men who died in the previous weeks by the bay were top-ranking Military brass who were involved in this corruption. A fourth, Colonel Gauss, is the last man left with some involvement in the undertakings. At Dan Dastun’s office, Roger finds out little more as his old police chief buddy doesn’t believe that information involving the Military Police is any business of a defector from the force like Roger. Luckily, Gauss is out on the town, being tailed by a series of Dastun-led officers mean to protect the Colonel. So when his entourage somehow manage to lose his car within a dense fog and cannot locate the Colonel, and Roger just so happens to be in Dastun’s office when this is reported, he makes his move and follows Dastun out to the bridge where Gauss was last seen.

It turns out that Bonny was the driver of Gauss’ car and led him to his death by drowning after falling from the same bridge Bonny himself was thrown from after finding out that his superiors were actively fanning the flames of hostility with the protesters by killing one of their symbolic leaders. When he was shot by his superior officer, and landed into the cold waters of the Paradigm City bay, Bonny thought he was a goner. But within those waters was the mysterious Megadeus Osrail, who saved him from death’s door, and then allowed Bonny to control him as his Dominus in order to exact his revenge. Roger defeats Osrail after realizing that the Smog Ghost was a mere projection meant to disorient and scare its victims while the real Megadeus waited out in the wings for the right opportunity to blast its opponents with a fiery laser beam of justice. Big O’s tracking devices and Roger’s quick wit were enough to figure this out and to direct their own Arc Line laser toward the Megadeus.

At the end of the day, Bonny was taken into Military Police custody by Dastun’s forces. But now before being given a chance to meet his mother and wish her a happy 75th birthday, and to reunite with his brother, the lawyer Rick who had become so jaded and so much more abhorrent since the news of his brother’s supposed death had reached him a year prior. What’s more, Dastun promises to give the kid a fair shake and a fair trial. Because even though his actions were fueled by hatred, rage, and revenge, he did manage to root out some high-level corruption and those individuals who sullied the name of the Military Police through their actions.

 

Cast in the Name of God,

Cody Ward

[Act 06: The Legacy of Amadeus]

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

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]

Dining with Donald

Donald on dining in and out

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