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!

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Stephen reviews: Arcadia of My Youth (1982)

800621_1Arcadia of My Youth [わが青春のアルカディア Waga Seishun no Arcadia] (1982)
AKA Vengeance of the Space Pirates, My Youth in Arcadia

Starring Makio Inoue, Kei Tomiyama, Reiko Muto, Reiko Tajima, Shuuichi Ikeda, Tarô Ishida, Shuuichiroo Moriyama, Hitoshi Takagi, Takeshi Aono, Yuriko Yamamoto, Yuujiro Ishihara

Directed by Katsumata Tomoharu


Leiji Matsumoto’s most prominent character is certainly the aloof Captain Harlock, so it would be nice to get an origin story for him. Well, that’s exactly what this film does. If you’re old enough, you may have even seen it in the ’80s when it was drastically edited for an English release called Vengeance of the Space Pirate. It’s also notable for having a small role by Yuujiro Ishihara, one of Japan’s most popular actors from the 20th century. During the film’s opening, he plays Phantom F. Harlock I, one of Captain Harlock’s ancient ancestors. Not only is this his only animated film credit, but it was also the final performance of his career, so Japanese cinema buffs may find it interesting on that note.

The film chronicles Harlock’s transition from a ship’s captain in the Earth’s military to his role of wandering space pirate. If you’re curious as to how he got that eye patch, or met some of his more important crew members, this is the movie for you. It does not reveal how he came by his trademark scar, though. That tale has never been told, you’ll just have to come up with your own theories. But you will get to see how Emeraldas came by hers. Or at least one of the ways. Other stories give her a different origin. Leiji Matsumoto is not known for his consistency, and if you’re interested in his works, then you just have to accept that continuity is not the goal here.

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Stephen reviews: Wicked City (1987)

Wicked City [妖獣都市, Yoju Toshi] (1987)

Starring Yuusaku Yara, Toshiko Fujita, Ichirô Nagai, Takeshi Aono, Mari Yokoo.

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri


It’s time to get out of the kiddie pool and head for the royally fucked up pool. I have thus far in my reviewing career avoided the nastier areas of anime, but that had to end sometime, and October’s horror marathon is as good a place as any to head over to the dark side. Wicked City is yet another Hideyuki Kikuchi adaptation, and like Demon City it is directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. If I was to compare that film with Vampire Hunter D, I would have to say that Toyoo Ashida was the better director for adapting Kikuchi’s works, but here Kawajiri proves that he really can handle the job just as well, if not better.

The animation is damn good, just like all his other films that I have seen, although the beginning moments felt below average. I was initially disappointed, but as soon as the first monster shows up it amps up the quality and never looks back, matching Demon City for gorgeous and grisly visuals. There’s not much outright gore, though. It’s more about crazy nasty monsters lurking around every corner than blood and guts splattered everywhere.

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Stephen reviews: Redline (2009)

Redline [レドライン, Redorain] (2009)

Starring Takuya Kimura, Yuu Aoi, Tadanobu Asano, Takeshi Aono, Kousei Hirota, Kenyuu Horiuchi, Kouji Ishii

Directed by Takeshi Koike


Redline tries as hard as it can to be cool. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that trying to be cool is the fastest way to fail at it. That’s not to say that Redline is a terrible film, but it feels like it spends more time trying to prove how amazingly super awesome it is than actually being good. It feels a little like Kill Bill crossed with something out of MTV’s Liquid Television. Maybe Aeon Flux, except without the crap animation and horrifically ugly character designs. I almost want to call it melodramatic, but that implies a sappy sort of sentimentality. Redline is more about being as intense as it can. I may just have to coin a new term for it. Megadramatic or superdramatic or something. I’ll figure it out later.

I have seen other anime use this style of over-the-top excitement where every scene is filled with dramatic sharp camera angles and close up zoom-ins, and others have reached higher levels of intensity, so the novelty has worn off for me. This style needs to be all or nothing. If you can’t match up with the craziest of them, then you might as well not even bother, and Redline just doesn’t manage the same absurdity of something like Dead Leaves or FLCL. Maybe someone less accustomed to anime insanity would get more out of it than I did.

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Stephen reviews: Ninja Scroll (1993)

Ninja Scroll [獣兵衛忍風帖, Jūbē Ninpūchō] (1993)

Starring Kōichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara, Takeshi Aono, Daisuke Gôri, Toshihiko Seki, Shûichirô Moriyama

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri


Despite the title, Ninja Scroll doesn’t have much in the way of scrolls. There’s only one, and while it is important for a minor plot point, it certainly isn’t title worthy. But if the film doesn’t deliver the kind of ancient literary action that you were hoping for, let me tell you, it certainly keeps its word about the ninjas. In fact, it has so many to spare that it kills off a dozen of them in the first ten minutes. The poor guys don’t even stand a chance, as their opponent is a gigantic ninja made of rock with an equally gigantic two-bladed sword that he hurls around like a boomerang. He’s one of the Eight Demons (or devils, depending on the translation) of Kimon who all have a different magic power. In fact the only major character in the movie that doesn’t have some kind of magic ability is Jubei, the main character, who has only his badass sword skills to keep him alive.

Jubei gets hired, or rather blackmailed, by an old ninja to fight against the demons. And of course, the old man has powers, too. He can stretch into strange shapes and change color like a chameleon. They also wind up working with Kagero, a female ninja with her own power, who helps in order to repay Jubei for saving her from being raped. The sexual content is pretty graphic, so anyone squeamish about the rape scene may be getting more than they bargained for.

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The Dagger of Kamui (1985)

The Dagger of Kamui [カムイの剣, Kamui no Ken] (198)

Starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Mami Koyama, Tarô Ishida, Yuriko Yamamoto, Ichirô Nagai, Kaneto Shiozawa, Takeshi Aono, Kazuyuki Sogabe, Takashi Ebata

Directed by Rintaro

Expectations: Moderately high. The trailer was awesome.


Before I get into anything concrete, I should preface this review with a quick bit on my knowledge (or lack thereof) of anime. In the 90s I saw a few, but nothing truly captured my imagination. Then I saw Spirited Away and I realized just how good the genre could be. From that point forward I sought out more Miyazaki films and was equally impressed with each of them. Despite working solely within animated films, Miyazaki had all the trappings of a traditional director, and being a firm believer in the auteur theory, I naturally latched onto him. I made a deal with myself to pretty much only watch his films when it came to anime; he was a name I could trust. Then I watched Whisper of the Heart a few months back, and I realized the fallacy of my personal pact. Clearly there were other films out there in which Miyazaki was not the director that were done just as well. I silently decided to one day re-visit anime in its many forms and truly give it a good ole college try. Enter one of my co-workers, who’s much more of an anime dude than I am. He suggested me this film, and after an initial internal struggle with myself, I decided to watch it. And I’m glad I did.

The Dagger of Kamui tells a somewhat complex story of betrayal and death, but it’s all told from the point of view of our hero, Jiro. The film opens with an unseen assassin murdering his mother and his sister, and when Jiro walks in and finds them, the townspeople immediately accuse him of doing the deed. They always knew he’d do it too; he was found in the river as a baby and was not actually one of them. This event sets into motion the entire film, as Jiro gets taken in by the kind and mysterious Tenkai and taught the ways of the Shinobi via a kick-ass montage of Jiro running along ocean waves and jumping between tree branches.

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