Stephen reviews: Riding Bean (1989)

ridingbean_1Riding Bean [ライディング・ビーン] (1989)

Starring Hideyuki Tanaka, Naoko Matsui, Mami Koyama, Kei Tomiyama, Megumi Hayashibara, Chieko Honda

Directed by Yasuo Hasegawa


Another relic from my high school days, Riding Bean is about as action packed as you can make a movie without becoming a simple montage of action scenes. It’s short, but full of shootouts and car chases and shootouts during car chases leavened with plenty of lighthearted humor. It’s all about Bean Bandit, the Roadbuster, the best and craziest getaway driver in Chicago with a scar on his face and a jawline to make Jay Leno jealous. He’s a lot like a ’90s anti-hero, and his badassery oozes off the screen. His partner is a sexy gun expert named Rally Vincent, who knowledgeable anime fans might recognize as the main character of Gunsmith Cats, though here she is blonde instead of brunette.

Bean will take on any job as long as he gets paid, and while Rally is more of a good guy, she is still pretty much in it for the money and has no qualms about the illegal nature of their jobs. As with any rebel car chase story, there are plenty of car crashes and incompetent police for Bean to make fools out of. And trust me, these are some flat-out ridiculous car chases that could only have been brought to life in an anime. His car may not be as tricked out as James Bond’s, but has Bond ever had a car that can drive sideways? And of course it has the requisite “driving off an unfinished overpass” scene as well; you can’t have a car chase film without one of those.

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Stephen reviews: Urusei Yatsura: Only You (1983)

Urusei_Yatsura_Movie_1_Only_You-255847611-largeUrusei Yatsura: Only You [うる星やつら オンリー・ユー] (1983)

Starring Fumi Hirano, Toshio Furukawa, Saeko Shimazu, Akira Kamiya, Kazuko Sugiyama, Ichirō Nagai, Shigeru Chiba, Yuko Mita, Yoshiko Sakakibara

Directed by Mamoru Oshii


This was manga artist Rumiko Takahashi’s breakout hit. Although these days she is better known for Inu-Yasha, it was Urusei Yatsura that would cement her reputation as the best romantic comedy writer in the industry. One of her biggest strengths lies with her puns, and that is something horribly difficult to translate. The title alone is a pun, taking the Japanese word urusai (“obnoxious,” or “shut up!” when used as an exclamation) and splicing it with the word for planet to give it an alien flavor. (Yatsura, if you care to know, means something along the lines of “bastard” or “asshole.”) Thus the title was officially translated into English as Those Obnoxious Aliens. It’s a series that lives up to its title admirably, with story after story about some alien invader or supernatural monster popping up and causing misery for everyone, usually leaving the main character, Ataru, the most miserable of them all.

Way back when I was in high school Urusei Yatsura was unquestionably one of my favorite anime, but I only ever saw the TV series and a little bit of the manga. I actually had no idea the films even existed. But time went by, the series went out of print, and I haven’t paid much attention to it in years. One of the fun things about writing these reviews is revisiting old favorites, and I had a lot of great nostalgia moments watching this film. Every time a character popped up on screen I shouted out their name and laughed, as if meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. And this is where the film can cause something of a problem. It dumps a lot of characters together without much explanation. The movie is basically one over-sized episode of the TV series, and unless you already know the major players you’ll be pretty lost in this film.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008)

ghostintheshell20_1Ghost in the Shell 2.0 [攻殻機動隊 2.0 Kôkaku kidôtai 2.0] (2008)

Starring Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ohtsuka, Kouichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Tamio Ohki

Directed by Mamoru Oshii


I was not looking forward to the final entry in my journey through the Ghost in the Shell films. In fact, I almost decided to skip it over entirely. But in the end I decided to tough it out and watch this thing just for completion’s sake, or perhaps to give a warning to prospective viewers that might try to see this version instead of the original. Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is a touch-up of the 1995 film, much like what George Lucas did to the Star Wars trilogy just prior to the release of the prequels. (So it is strangely appropriate that Lucasfilm did the audio post-production here.) And just like Star Wars, the “upgrades” are useless at best, and obnoxious the rest of the time.

It could have been worse. I was expecting the entire thing to be redone in pure CG, but only a few scenes were desecrated that way. Most of the film does use the original cell animation. This means that most of the film is still intact and still enjoyable, even though the changes make it far less so than the original. With Star Wars you could make the argument that younger viewers would be unwilling to accept the old special effects, and maybe those retooled versions did attract some new fans that otherwise would have never watched them. But with Ghost in the Shell, there’s just no reason. The quality of animation has always had more to do with the amount of effort put into it than the technology available at the time. Just look up some of Max Fleischer’s Superman films from the ’40s; they’re extremely well animated even by today’s standards. Likewise, Ghost in the Shell is a gorgeous film already. Tinkering with it is a complete waste of time.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society (2006)

solidstatesociety_1Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society [攻殻機動隊 STAND ALONE COMPLEX Solid State Society] (2006)

Starring Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ohtsuka, Kouichi Yamadera, Kazuya Tatekabe, Masuo Amada, Osamu Saka, Takashi Onozuka, Taro Yamaguchi, Toru Ohkawa, Yutaka Nakano, Yuya Uchida

Directed by Kenji Kamiyama


When I started this journey through the Ghost in the Shell films I fully expected them to go straight downhill and never recover, and even though I still think the original 1995 film is the best, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well the franchise has held its quality. Solid State Society keeps that tradition going with another good blend of cyberpunk thrills and intellectual depth. I think that’s what holds the series up and keeps it from grinding to a halt. It has never drifted so far into action fluff that it becomes mindless, but it has also never forgotten to keep that visceral edge honed sharp.

Unlike the previous Stand Alone Complex films, this one is actually meant to be a film. It is not a compilation, or even an adaptation. The story was intended from the start to be a movie, and that has helped it avoid the flaws that brought down Individual Eleven. I was hoping that would translate into better animation, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. It still looks about the same as the other Stand Alone series. That’s no terrible insult or anything, but it would have been nice to get a visual boost.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GIG: Individual Eleven (2006)

individual11_1Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GIG: Individual Eleven [攻殻機動隊 S.A.C. 2nd GIG Individual Eleven] (2006)

Starring Arsuko Tanaka, Akio Ohtsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Ooki Sugiyama, Osamu Saka, Rikiya Koyama, Sakiko Tamagawa, Taimei Suzuki, Ken Nishida, Takashi Onozuka, Taro Yamaguchi, Toru Ohkawa, Yuko Sumimoto, Yutaka Nakano

Directed by Kenji Kamiyama


As the title might suggest, this is a sequel to the previous Stand Alone Complex. It’s also a compilation film just like The Laughing Man. Because it’s a part of the same TV series, it has the same solid animation, though a little heavy on the CG for my tastes, and the same great dramatic Yoko Kanno scores. But somehow Individual Eleven didn’t entertain me as much as The Laughing Man did. It was a bit less action packed and more explanation packed. And this is in a franchise that is already very explanation heavy in the first place.

It doesn’t help that it mimics the opening scene of the original Ghost in the Shell film not once, but twice over the course of the movie. Yeah, I know, it was a cool scene, but I don’t need to see it reenacted all the time. After that opening that I’ve basically seen before, it dives into a very long fictional history lesson to set the groundwork for the events of the film. I can’t say that this was unnecessary, but it really dragged down the first part of the film. Things thankfully pick up from there, but I couldn’t get into it as much as the previous film. It may have just been that opening breaking the mood, but I wasn’t so fond of some other factors either.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man (2005)

SAC_laughing_manGhost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man [攻殻機動隊 STAND ALONE COMPLEX The Laughing Man] (2005)

Starring Atsuko Tanaka, Osamu Saka, Akio Ohtsuka, Kohichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Toru Okawa, Takashi Onozuka, Taro Yamaguchi, Sakiko Tamagawa

Directed by Kenji Kamiyama


The Laughing Man is a compilation film of the Stand Alone Complex TV series. As such, it has a TV budget and it lacks the slick animation of the two Mamoru Oshii Ghost in the Shell films. It does have some pretty solid production values for a TV series, though, and strangely enough the CG is actually better than in Ghost in the Shell 2. There’s a good deal of it, but it’s not nearly as intrusive and actually makes an attempt to blend in with the line art of the character designs. It was a bit annoying to have every vehicle rendered by computer, but I’m more forgiving with something that obviously needs to make do with a lower budget. And since it’s not contrasted with such great standard animation, it’s less disappointing to see here.

Compilations can spell doom for a film in other ways, though (just look at the Yotoden Movie for an example of how bad things can get), but The Laughing Man is one of the better compilations I’ve seen. Partly this is because of its length. The Laughing Man clocks in at more than two and a half hours, and that means it has enough time to put in all the necessary content to make the story work. It’s still a little rushed at times, but everything you need is here. Although I really wanted an explanation of those girls curled up in Major Kusanagi’s bed. Were they spare bodies? Does she collect life-size dolls? Or were they just passed out after a satisfying S&M session? In a world full of cyborgs and robots the possibilities are endless. In fact, I’m not sure I want to know. The truth will probably never live up to my inflated expectations.

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Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

ghostintheshell2_1Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence [イノセンス GHOST IN THE SHELL (仮題)] (2004)

Starring Akio Ohtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Atsuko Tanaka, Tamio Ohki, Yutaka Nakano, Naoto Takenaka, Yoshiko Sakakibara

Directed by Mamoru Oshii


While the first Ghost in the Shell dealt primarily with mental identity, the “ghost” of the title, Innocence deals more with the physical robot body, the “shell” in this analogy. In that sense, it completes the theme nicely and is the perfect direction for the series to take. This time the police case is investigating a series of crazed robots that have killed their owners. This immediately made me think of Boomers from the Bubblegum Crisis/AD Police series, but like the first film, Innocence is so full of philosophical discussion on the definition of life and the distinction between man and machine that it stands apart from most anything else dealing with psycho robots.

It’s certainly an ambitious goal to make a sequel to such a complex and well-made film as Ghost in the Shell, and although I have a number of issues with it, it didn’t do a terrible job. Mostly what bugs me is what really just comes with the territory in a mid 2000s anime; it’s chock full of obnoxious and very obvious CG. When set next to the original, there is just no comparison between the natural grace of handcrafted animation and the jarring, stiff feel of CG. What makes this more annoying to me is that the moments that don’t rely on CG look fantastic, which only emphasizes how ugly the CG is. Much of the film does look amazing, and it just makes me bemoan the fact that the entire film wasn’t made so well.

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