Stephen reviews: Assault Girls (2009)

assaultgirls_1Assault Girls [アサルトガールズ] (2009)

Starring Meisa Kuroki, Rinko Kikuchi, Hinako Saeki, Yoshikatsu Fujiki, Ian Moore

Directed by Mamoru Oshii


It’s been a while since I last dived into Mamoru Oshii’s filmography, and it seems I have blundered into the worst spot to do so. Assault Girls is apparently a semi-sequel to a variety of short films Oshii made earlier, so perhaps I would better appreciate what it was trying to do if I had already seen those. But the film ought to stand on its own in any case, so I won’t be pulling any punches here.

Another of the film’s quirks is that it is almost entirely in English, with the unfortunate fact that all the actors, aside from narrator/gamemaster Ian Moore, are not very fluent in English. Rinko Kikuchi (best known to American audiences for Pacific Rim) would undoubtedly have been the best at speaking English intelligibly, so it’s pretty sad that her character, Lucifer, is the only one that has no dialog, remaining completely silent throughout the film. As such, much of the English in the film still requires subtitles to understand, and the resulting stiff acting really drags the film down.

Assault Girls follows the Mamoru Oshii tradition of combining evocative visuals with sluggish pacing. As such I’m a bit torn on it, just like most of Oshii’s films. This time I’m leaning much more towards boredom than interest, and only partially from the acting. The movie talks a lot about abstract social concepts, dumping a lot of explanation right at the outset. On top of that, the film has a lot of slow sections where nothing much is happening. This is a very good combination for tuning out and losing interest.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Assault Girls (2009) →

Stephen reviews: Dark Cat (1991)

darkcat_1Dark Cat [ダークキャット] (1991)

Starring Tsutomu Kashiwakura, Ryotaro Okiayu, Daisuke Gori, Shigeru Nakahara, Aya Hisakawa

Directed by Iku Suzuki


This is clearly one of those anime titles that is a reduced form of the original story it was based upon, except that upon further investigation I can’t find anything that it was based upon. Now that’s pretty bad if it really was this disjointed and incomplete right out of the original design phase. It truly feels as if there is a much larger story to be told, and it just got drastically cut down for a movie adaptation. So many of the plot threads reference backstory that doesn’t exist in the film that I have to believe there was a lager story somewhere, even if only in the writer’s head.

The film opens with a tall dude with hair shaped slightly like cat ears talking to a blue girl in a hospital bed. It cuts back and forth between his conversation and random girls about town vanishing in a flash of light that leaves smoking craters behind. This is actually a pretty good opening that really got me interested in what was going to happen. Sadly, it never really follows up on that mysterious situation. The rest of the film is mostly filled with the emotional struggles of a teenage girl and the guy she’s been in love with since childhood, then a bland fight with a cat monster gets tacked on at the end to wrap things up.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Dark Cat (1991) →

Stephen reviews: Mononoke (2007)

mononoke_1Mononoke [モノノ怪] (2007)

Starring Takahiro Sakurai, Aiko Hibi, Daisuke Namikawa, Daisuke Sakaguchi, Eiji Takemoto, Fumiko Orikasa, Hikaru Midorikawa, Hiroshi Iwasaki, Houko Kuwashima, Kōzō Shioya, Masashi Hirose, Minoru Inaba, Rie Tanaka, Ryusei Nakao, Seiji Sasaki, Takeshi Aono, Tomokazu Seki, Toshiko Fujita, Wakana Yamazaki, Yasuhiro Takato, Yoko Soumi, Yukana

Directed by Kenji Nakamura


I know you’re not supposed to judge a book (or in this case a TV series) by its cover, but sometimes that’s all you really need. As soon as I laid eyes on the cover art for Mononoke, I knew it was going to be great. My gut refused to believe otherwise. And it’s decisions like this that have made me very trusting of my gut over the years, at least when it comes to anime. My one and only concern was that the cover was not what the actual animation would look like. Thankfully that bizarre, otherworldly art design is exactly what you get on the inside.

Those light shades and faded pastels are a very unusual choice of colors for a horror story. Usually you want some all-obscuring darkness to ratchet up the mystery, but for me that bright color palette was more mysterious than any darkness could ever be. It’s clear right from the start that you are in a completely different world when you watch Mononoke, and you don’t know what you’re going to find. All that was apparent just from the box; all that remained was seeing if the show could actually live up to my foolishly high expectations. And boy did it ever!

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Mononoke (2007) →

Stephen reviews: Hellevator: the Bottled Fools (2004)

hellevator_1Hellevator: the Bottled Fools [グシャノビンヅメ, Gusha no bindume] (2004)
AKA Gusher No Binds Me

Starring Luchino Fujisaki, Masato Tsujioka, Ikuma Saisho, Kae Minami, Yuko Takarada, Ryusuke Koshiba, Koji Yokooawa, Keisuke Urushizaki

Directed by Hiroki Yamaguchi


When I pick these live-action horror films to review I look for the most outlandish things I can find. Typical horror thrills don’t really thrill me, so if I don’t want to be bored out of my mind I need to track down more exotic fare. Maybe something comedic or deliberately campy, something that doesn’t try to take itself too seriously and presents its silliness with a knowing smile and a wink. Or at least something so batshit crazy that I can laugh at it. Thus when something with a title as puntastic as Hellevator caught my eye, I thought my search was over. But far from a campy cheese-fest, Hellevator is a dark and inventive psychological thriller that, much to my surprise, is genuinely good.

The movie clearly has a vision, and sees it play out with surprising depth. The imaginative world is what really captured my interest. It’s a sort of futuristic setting, but with very old-fashioned technology. There’s a weird combination of heavy industrial machinery with robot brain-in-a-jar toys for children. The society seems to exist solely inside a massive building with no idea that there is anything outside. And what is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is how well it establishes this world despite most of the movie taking place inside just one elevator.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Hellevator: the Bottled Fools (2004) →

Stephen reviews: Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

NightontheGalacticRailroad_1Night on the Galactic Railroad [銀河鉄道の夜, Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru] (1985)
AKA Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Express

Starring Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakamoto, Chikao Ohtsuka, Hidehiro Kikuchi, Junko Hori

Directed by Gisaburō Sugii


If you’ve been around this site for a few years, you may recall a film I reviewed a while back called Spring and Chaos. It was a biopic about Kenji Miyazawa, Japan’s foremost literary figure. This film is the adaptation of Miyazawa’s most famous book, Night on the Galactic Railroad. And these two films have more than a passing connection. Now that I’ve finally seen Night on the Galactic Railroad, I can see just how strongly it influenced Spring and Chaos. That later film is as much a tribute to this film as it is to Miyazawa himself.

Watching this film also drove home just how indebted the Galaxy Express 999 series is to Miyazawa’s original novel, though this film’s adaptation of the book came out quite some time after Galaxy Express. In fact, the two titles are nearly identical, with “galaxy express” and “galactic railroad” simply being alternate translations of “ginga tetsudō.” Any way you slice it, Miyazawa’s little fable has had a massive influence on anime and manga, to say nothing of what it did to Japanese literature.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985) →

Stephen reviews: Project A-ko: Versus (1990)

projectakovs_1Project A-ko: Versus [A-ko The ヴァーサス] (1990)
AKA Project A-ko: Uncivil Wars, Project A-ko: Versus Battles, Project A-ko: VS, A-ko the Versus

Starring Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Saeko Shimazu, Hiroshi Takemura, Sho Hayami, Masami Kikuchi

Directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima


Don’t tell me you’re surprised that there’s another Project A-ko. You do remember my reviews of the Urusei Yatsura series, don’t you? Just ‘cuz it’s got “final” in the title doesn’t mean they stopped there. As with Project A-ko 4, I only have my likely incorrect guesses to go by for why Nishijima, director of the original film, came back to make Project A-ko: Versus. Whether it was intended to revitalize the franchise or if it was only ever intended to be a one-off side story is beyond me, but if it was intended to restart the series it failed. No more official Project A-ko projects were made except the American comic book adaptations and tabletop RPG (yes, A-ko was that popular in the States).

Versus is actually a mini series, not a movie, however it only spans two episodes, “Battle 1: Grey Side” and “Battle 2: Blue Side.” Together they tell a single story, so it’s easy to cover them both in one review. A-ko: Versus takes place in the distant future where A-ko and B-ko are friends who hunt giant turtles on Tatooine (or whatever the hell they decided to call the planet here), and neither of them have ever met C-ko before. C-ko is the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and she gets kidnapped by the series’ antagonists, space pirates that want to use C-ko’s body to resurrect Xena. No, that time I wasn’t pulling out a pop culture reference for ease of comprehension. Xena is a long-dead sorceress that has the power to destroy the universe, so it’s a pretty big deal.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Project A-ko: Versus (1990) →

Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 4: Final (1989)

projectako4_1Project A-ko: Final [プロジェクトA子 完結篇] (1989)

Starring Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Tessho Genda, Shuichi Ikeda, Asami Mukaidono, Daisuke Gori, Sayuri Ikemoto, Yoshitada Ohtsuka

Directed by Yuji Moriyama


I can’t say why the filmmakers decided to call it quits at part 4. Perhaps they ran into funding trouble or just ran out of ideas. Maybe it was a case of staff arguing over the direction of the series. Since I’ve never seen any behind-the-scenes info on the Project A-ko sequels (and probably never will), I can only rely on my own unsubstantiated guesses. For whatever it’s worth, I think they realized there wasn’t anywhere else for the series to go and wanted to end the franchise gracefully rather than milk it until it became a stale echo of its former glory.

One of the reasons I say this is because Project A-ko 4 is basically a rehash of the first film. It once again mainly involves an alien invasion that interrupts A-ko and B-ko’s bickering. In fact, the great feud between the two has become so routine that even the other characters are unfazed by it at this point. The big difference this time is that their teacher, Miss Ayumi, is getting married to Kei, so the fight is over him rather than C-ko. This makes C-ko feel abandoned, and she spends much of the film rather depressed.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 4: Final (1989) →

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