Ghost in the Shell (Japan-UK, 1995) and (US-India-China-Japan-Hong Kong-UK-New Zealand-Canada-Australia, 2017)

What am I?

It was great to be able to see the original on the big screen. Apart from the ability to see the awesome detail of the cityscape more clearly, it was Kawai Kenji’s score that had significantly more impact when compared to TV viewing. As I understand it, Ghost in the Shell was a prestige (expensive) production that attempted to rekindle the west’s (relative) enthusiasm for anime that had flared with Akira (Japan, 1988); hence Manga Entertainment’s UK involvement in the production (it’s now owned by Lionsgate). Whilst Studio Ghibli’s productions continued to have a fanbase in the west, there was a gap in the market for a more action orientated film (presumably for fanboys). Whilst anime remains a minority enthusiasm this side of the globe, anyone who saw The Matrix (US, 1999) was seeing the fruits of Ghost’s impact on the Wachowski brothers.

Ghost in the Shell continues to be influential in 2017 not only because of its visuals but in its portrayal of a society where the division between humans and technology is becoming extremely blurred. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this aspect of the film had dated because of the rapid pace of technological development over the last 20 years. However, if anything, it’s even more telling now because although we are not yet able, as humans, to exist online, many people don’t feel they are whole unless they are on the network. Young people, in particular, are wedded to mobile social media. The division between AI and humans, a topic that is ever more relevant as the Internet of Things invades our homes, is central to the film’s concerns.

I can’t, however, say I entirely understand the film; and its brilliant sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Japan, 2004) is even more opaque. Philosophy is difficult but it isn’t so much the ideas Ghost that perplex, rather what is going on for some of the time. Whilst the complexity may be wilful it can also be read as being about an increasingly incomprehensible world where actual news may be ‘fake news’; for example the fact that Britain and America are complicit in atrocities in Yemen is barely reported. In the UK we voted to leave the EU for reasons not based on truth (and there are many arguments why the EU is not fit for purpose) but on lies. However, Brian Ruh’s detailed plot summary in Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii confirms that the narrative is entirely coherent.

Although there is plenty of narrative drive in the film, it is a three-minute montage of cityscape that is most mesmerising. Colin Marshall offers some interesting analysis of this sequence (here); he explains that the emphasis on the space of the city is linked to cyberspace and shows how the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality is blurring; I’ve yet to look as his other videos. What Marshall doesn’t mention is Kusanagi is present in some of the montage, on her own , in parts of the montage giving us, I think, a sense of her loneliness.

You can see what I am

The first buzz I heard about the American remake was that the film offered another example of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’: Caucasian actors taking the role of minority ethnic characters; as for example in Doctor Strange (US, 2016) and Aloha (US, 2015). In this case it was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi. The charge is potent, the white dominance of executive positions in the film industry guarantees a monocular view of what audiences want: BAME, not to mention female characters, won’t appeal to a wide audience’ goes the ‘logic’ despite the evidence to the contrary – see Hidden Figures and Moonlight. See also: ‘Screenplay analysis shows that even in films with strong female leads, the number of lines by men far outweighs those by women’. However, the charge is weak in this case. Japanese anime conventionally doesn’t necessarily draw its characters as Japanese; the one obvious Japanese character in the original, Arimaki, is play by Kitano Takeshi in remake. There’s also a plot point that emphasises Kusanagi’s ethnicity.

Although I’d liked the trailer I was doubtful whether Ghost in the Shell would benefit from the Hollywood treatment and so it proved. Ironically, given the original’s purpose was to appeal to western audiences, the necessity to appeal to a very wide audience to justify the $100m+ budget drains the narrative of its fascination. The philosophy is barely present and the ending is ridiculous. The producers are looking to produce an ‘origin story’ to make the Major, as she is known in the film, as a new superhero. Fortunately poor box office returns suggest this won’t happen.

As noted above, Hollywood has already remade the original in The Matrix that managed to weld gung-ho action to philosophical questions. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, though, through its eerie beauty and embrace of the human/AI interface, is the film for the 21st century.

PS Cineworld managed to leave us in the dark at the end: excellent. However, the masking was incorrect; this site suggests the problems endemic.

Giovanni’s Island (Jobanni no shima, Japan, 2014)

Magic and the reality of war

Magic and the reality of war

Whilst the demise of Studio Ghibli, after Miyazaki Hiyao’s retirement, has been exaggerated it is still reassuring to see an anime released in the UK; particularly one as good as Giovanni’s Island. It was screened as part of an ambitious programme, at the Kala Sangam centre, that attempts to keep arthouse cinema in Bradford after Picturehouse’s takeover of programming at the National Media Museum. After an almost sold out start, only three turned up the evening screening of this film. There are two more showings in the current season – check them out here and here.

Giovanni’s Island is a child eye’s view of the aftermath of  war when  Soviet soldiers occupied the northern Japanese island of the  setting. It’s also a ‘coming of age’ story, not as extreme as JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, however nonetheless it portrays the way in which children, in particular, are psychological (as well as physical) casualties of war. The relationship between ‘Giovanni’ (the non de plume of the protagonist is a reference to a famous Japanese novel Night on the Galactic Road) and Russian girl, Tanya, is heartbreakingly drawn. Some critics found the film sentimental however as the film is a child’s eye view this is entirely appropriate. Whilst there is a fine line between bathos and pathos, I do wonder if critics, who find themselves ‘tearing up’ tend to resist their emotional response by blaming the film.

The animation, as is usually the case with anime, looks fabulous though the drawing of characters is particularly undefined, even by anime’s standards.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki o kakeru shôjo, Japan, 2006)

Holding on to the past

This marvelous anime reverses the idea that youngsters want to grow up quickly with the protagonist attempting to reverse events that lead to change. Although not a Studio Ghibli production, Girl has a hero who could happily reside in movies made by Miyazaki (and others). Her wonderful tumbles, necessitated by having to leap through time, give the character a wonderful dynamism.

The animation lurches between the beautiful (those clouds) and Hanna Barbera horrible. However, the absence of schmaltz in the narrative, built around the truism that ‘time waits for no one’, make this a film definitely to see.

Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo, Japan 2008)

Japanese Cute

Critics have compared this film to Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (Japan, 1988) as it will also appeal to very young children. Of course his films appeal to all ages such is their artistry, however I was slightly disappointed in Ponyo though I can’t exactly pinpoint why. When Ponyo, a fish wanting to be human, is running on waves chasing a car, we are regaled by typically brilliant animation so, maybe, it’s the slightly confusing, simple narrative that doesn’t engage me.

Miyazaki’s recent films have all had darker aspects to them as does Totoro; in Ponyo – other than references to the polluted sea and an absent father – the film’s world is fairly sunny and there is very little narrative tension; I was never convinced that Ponyo had unbalanced the world and that it going to end. Of course, the narrative isn’t really that important. Part of the problem was I saw it in the dubbed version which risks Disneyfying the film though the lack of clear good-bad is very unHollywood.

One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, Japan, 2003)

Mobile phones are bad for you

Mobile phones are bad for you

Genres are, by their nature, formulaic however new examples of the genre need to be different otherwise audiences, having seen it all before, will ‘turn off’. One Missed Call is a Ringu rip-off, instead of video tapes and a week to live, the hapless victims receive a mobile phone call – uncannily from themselves – from a day or two in the future were they get to hear their last words. Then someone else in that person’s ‘contacts’ receives a call.

There is very little difference from Ringu, and other examples of J-horror: the emphasis on school girls; the useless cops; the slightly older man who tries to help; disturbing young children; long hair witches-ghosts; brilliant set pieces… And that’s why One Last Call is worth watching, for despite it’s overlong near-two hour length, there are many genuinely chilling moments. J-horror directors relish placing something uncanny in the mise en scene without drawing attention to it. So a routine search of an abandoned flat suddenly becomes creepy as you think, ‘Are those fingers sticking out of that cupboard on the wall?’ You look ‘closer’ to realise the bloody witch is in there.

Directed by the incredibly prolific Takeshi Miike (80 films in under 20 years), One Last Call is a worthy entrant to the J-horror cycle. Wonderfully composed shots – how the hell does he do that when directing four films a year?! – and a genuinely scary finale offers a satisfyingly cold-sweaty experience.

Tokyo Sonata (Japan-Netherlands-Hong Kong, 2008)

'Who are you looking at?'

‘Who are you looking at?’

I found this a frustrating film as, after a fabulous two thirds, it charges off into  absurd narrative developments. As the image above suggests, this is a dysfunctional family headed by a recently fired ‘salaryman’. The framing in the home is terrific, using stairs, doorways etc. to divide family members, as in the melodramas of Minnelli, Ophuls and Ray. Add to that the almost-surreal images of long queues in an employment agency stairwell and besuited business men amongst tramps at a ‘soup kitchen’ (they can’t afford lunch) you get a marvellous representation of how changes in Japanese business are throwing men onto the scrap heap; the protagonist, Sasaki Ryuhei, has lost his job as admin has been cheaply outsourced to China.

Sasaki’s wife is bored, stuck at home constantly tending to her family’s needs; his sons are alienated from work and school.  He cannot come to terms with his loss of job so maintains, like Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993), his daily routine of going to work. This long set up is fantastic but maybe the scriptwriters didn’t know how to finish it? Roy likes that ‘fantastical’ elements, for me they worked against the tone of what happened earlier; the moment the narrative flashes back ‘3 hours earlier’ the film lost its grip on me.

Still, the film’s worth seeing for the first part and maybe you will enjoy what happens after.

Paprika (Japan, 2006)

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Shamefully this didn’t get cinematic distribution in the UK but the buzz about it, and Satoshi Kon’s other films, such as Millennium Actress, made sure it was on my DVD rental list. However I was a bit disappointed; visually it is as stunning as the other films I’ve seen by him, but I found the postmodern play on movies and ‘world is a dream’ a bit hackneyed. It was difficult to forget other films, such as Millennium Actress and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), when watching it and so it appeared derivative.

As derived movies go though, and of course that describes virtually the whole of Hollywood, this is brilliantly done.

The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima, Japan, 1960)

Sisyphian life

Sisyphean life

Although this film (inevitably) reminds me of others it also seems unique. There’s no dialogue, there are a few songs and plenty of sound, and nothing happens until 28 minutes into the film. By that I mean, there’s no sense of a narrative ‘problem’ until then. This happening? A bucket of water is dropped. And it’s not a ‘narrative problem’ in the normal sense; the ‘disruption’ is the characters’ whole existence. But dropping the water  is a ‘big deal’ as it has to be carried up a hill (above) having been transported from another island:

The Naked Island can be regarded as an oblique representation of hibakusha cinema in the endless toiling of a seemingly inutile, barren land: a bittersweet, poetic elegy for Shindo’s dying ancestral vocation on a rural, isolated island. (Aquarello, 2006)

It reminded me most of Terra trema (Italy, 1948), a neo realist film portraying existence on an inhospitable island. Unlike the neo realist films, Shindo Kaneto directs in a highly stylised fashion with a beautifully composed Cinemascope and monochrome mise en scene. This stylisation seemed to me to be slightly ‘at odds’ with the, at times, brutal life portrayed. It seemed that the film was celebrating the ‘close to hostile nature’ life of the protagonists; however, it isn’t quite that simple.

Millennium Actress (Sennen joyû, Japan, 2001)

The past mingled with movies

The past mingled with movies

This movie flirts with postmodern frivolity but transcends it with a thoughtful, bitter-sweet meditation of memory, life and the impossibility of perfect love. Movies offer the illusion of the latter and the eponymous lead  spends her life seeking her Mr Right who she bumped into twice when a youth. By the end she realises that all she is in love with is the chase.

The conceit of having the interviewers of the actress, at the end of her life, appearing in her ‘flashback’ memories is brilliantly conceived and executed. And we get a smattering of the history of post-war Japanese cinema on the way. The wonderful mixture of wit and visual beauty seems to be characteristic of writer-director Satoshi Kon; I’m looking forward to Paprika (2006).

Only Yesterday (Omohide poro poro, 1991, Japan)

Past and present meet for the future

Past and present meet for the future

The only film I had seen by Isao Takahata was Grave of the Fireflies (1988), an astonishing depiction of post-war Japan. Only Yesterday is very different, a pastoral evocation of a second ‘coming of age’ of the 27 year old teacher who ‘takes’ her 10 year old self on holiday.  At the start, the cross-cutting between the 10 year old Taeko and the older version is slightly confusing as it’s unmotivated by the narrative. It’s a wonderful conceit that dramatises the role of memory, and the past, in our lives.

Not without its longeurs during its 2-hour length, it has, nevertheless, some magical moments; such as when Taeko walks on air having made tentative contact with a boy who also fancies her. The Japanese countryside looks beautiful and it’s great to watch a movie that focuses on life as it is rather than life as Hollywood shows it.