Anno Dominus

October 1995 saw the appearance of what may yet turn out to be the defining work of 21st Century science fiction.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno 新世紀エヴァンゲリオ is an animated TV series that ran for 26 episodes and birthed one of the most enduring and successful franchises in the history of anime. Released in the west under the nebulously evocative title of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series’ original title can be literally translated as “Gospel of a New Century”.

Gospels are useful things to bear in mind when approaching the Evangelion franchise as Eva is not just a TV series but a series of more-or-less consistent works that more-or-less rework the events and themes contained within the original TV series. Given that Eva is a hugely commercially and massively commoditised trans-media franchise, it is tempting to view these later films in the same way as we might view the similar properties that have emerged from Hollywood over the last ten years. Concepts like ‘remake’, ‘reboot’ and ‘reimagining’ might be useful in trying to understand the relationship between different Batman  and Star Trek films but the Eva properties are far more personal and so the relationship between them is a lot closer to that between the various Christian gospels.

While the gospels may share a setting, a cast of characters, and a message to convey, they do not necessarily line up in terms of narrative and character detail. For example, the book of Matthew claims that the Resurrection was reported by women while the book of Mark suggests that they kept the fact to themselves. More substantially, the book of Mark presents Jesus as a conduit for information about the world to come while the book of John treats Jesus as a spiritual teacher whose example we are expected to follow. Theologians may well argue that the various gospels are consistent as long as you squint a bit and deliberately misinterpret things but another way of accounting for the inconsistencies is to view the different gospels as different and more-or-less successful attempts to articulate a single divinely-inspired vision. Anno’s desire to articulate his vision has taken over twenty years and resulted in four broadly different iterations of the same basic story.

It is tempting to explore the differences between the various iterations of the Evangelion story but that would require me to write a much longer article. Suffice it to say that people who are interested in getting to grips with Eva are advised to start with the most recent run of films. The original TV series and Evangelion: Death and Rebirth are also worth checking out but they are considerably harder to find and End of Evangelion is really just an expanded and reworked version of the events described in Rebirth meaning that it will make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the themes and characters.

I’ve not written anything about Eva before but the recent UK release of Evangelion: 3.33 struck me as an interesting place to start as the current iteration of the story — the so-called Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy — is now several years behind schedule and growing ever-more opaque with each additional volume. In fact, the development problems are so severe that Western home releases of the film were delayed by two whole years amidst rumours of demanded re-translations and re-dubbings. At time of writing, it is not clear to me that Rebuild of Evangelion will be any more successful or definitive than previous articulations of Anno’s vision but the incomplete vision we have is already more arresting and mind-blowing than any Western science fiction film in recent memory.

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REVIEW – Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

FilmJuice have my review of Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Re-watching the film for the first time since it first appeared in a UK cinema, I was struck by the extent to which it is a microcosm for all the strengths and weaknesses of Miyazaki’s direction:  On the plus side, the animation is spectacular, the mood is uplifting without ever seeming false and the design is a profound expression of nostalgia for a sophisticated, metropolitan Europe that may never have existed in the first place. On the down side, the plotting is frequently nonsensical and the characters have so little depth that they struggle to command our interest, let alone our sympathies. As I put it in the review:

If you are one of those upper middle-class parents that have latched onto Miyazaki as a reliable source of non-violent and morally uplifting children’s entertainment then Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely the film for you. The animation, artwork and pacing are more than enough to keep the little ones amused while their parents sit in open-plan kitchens drawing up plans to take over a Tuscan bean farm or a gite in the Dordogne. However, if you are a grown-up looking for grown-up ideas and characters then Howl’s Moving Castle is a touch more problematic.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) in which I suggested that Miyazaki’s attitudes towards humanity moved back and forth between flesh-rending misanthropy and warm-hearted sentimentality. In that piece, I concluded that Miyazaki tended to ‘do’ warm-hearted sentimentality a lot better than he did complex adult morality. Having recently re-watched both Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle, I now realise that my earlier diagnosis was entirely off base. The problem is not that Miyazaki struggles with adult morality, it is that he struggles with human psychology but that these struggles are less evident when they are presented as part of a film aimed directly at children. Indeed, both Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle suffer from the fact that they are films that revolve around entirely unconvincing love stories but because Ponyo presents itself as child-friendly, we are more inclined to forgive its lack of psychological foundation while Howl’s Moving Castle seems much more grown-up and so the lack of real characterisation is both obvious and grating.

REVIEW – Yatterman (2009)

My review of Takashi Miike’s Yatterman has just gone live over at FilmJuice.

Wheeled out as part of an attempted relaunch of a children’s anime franchise from the 70s, Yatterman is absolutely fantastic to look at: The design is sensational, the special effects superb and the action sequences flawless. Most interesting of all is the fact that Miike did not feel in anyway compelled to ‘darken’ the source material as Western directors have insisted on doing when adapting video games and comics. Of course, this ‘darkening’ betrays a deep-seated distrust of the source material; comics and video games are not a fitting subject matter for film and so any attempt to adapt them for the screen must go out of its way to appear ‘mature’ and ‘series’ even when it is nothing of the sort. As a result of this refusal to betray the source material, Yatterman is delightfully bright and poignantly childish… I mean, the opening scene sees a giant robotic chef fighting a giant robotic dog. Grimdark this ain’t. However, while this is all very interesting from a design point of view, it does not make for a particularly interesting film as the characters and plots are taken directly from the source material and 70s children shows are not known for their robust characterisation. Even in Japan.

The only thing preventing Yatterman from being completely unwatchable is Miike’s decision to present the characters as brightly-coloured cartoons that secretly yearn for a normal adult life:

Furthermore, the film suggests a similar tension between adult sexuality and bawdy anime-style humour. Indeed, when perverted baddy Boyacky (Namase) reveals his innermost desire to possess all the schoolgirls of Japan we assume his desire to be sexual in nature. However, when we cut to the inside of Boyacky’s fantasy we learn that he desires nothing more than to paint their toes. Thus, the man who spends the entire film leering down cleavages, peeking up skirts and drooling at unexpected nudity is revealed as being so sexually stunted and emotionally immature that he literally cannot imagine himself having actual sex with another human being.

In other words, either you spend your time leering at moe figurines or you get to have proper sex with people. You can’t have it both ways. Given that the anime attached to this film is filled with fanservice and that the film itself was presumably financed on the assumption that it would pander to otaku, you have to salute Miike’s bravery. Even Michael Haneke never went so far as to call his audience a pack of emotionally stunted virgins.

Ludwig II… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest column on You Higuri’s manga series about the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Despite having a real fondness for GLBT film, manga and the occasional GLBT-infused anime series, Ludwig II was my first serious encounter with the genre known as Yaoi. Written mostly by women for other women, the yaoi genre tells melodramatic love stories involving ‘beautiful boys’, by which I mean young men with feminine physical characteristics. Ludwig II tells the story of the so-called ‘Mad King’ of Bavaria and his complex relationships with both an aide and reality as a whole. While Ludwig II is very much a melodramatic love-story in the romantic tradition, Higuri juxtaposes the demands of the yaoi genre with the demands placed on the historical Ludwig II as a means of exploring the concept of escapism. Indeed, Higuri presents Ludwig’s madness as an increasingly self-destructive desire to escape from reality into a world of imagination and beauty:

By highlighting both the heroic nature of a refusal to completely submit to the mundane and the devastating consequences of shifting one’s intellectual focus away from the problems of real life, Higuri speaks to our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Clearly, Ludwig was an intelligent and gifted enough politician that he could have done more to protect his subjects from the harshness of that world.  In one particularly heavy-handed moment, Higuri points out that Ludwig’s failure to defend Bavarian independence helped propel the German people along a path leading to the Death Camps.  Had Ludwig done more to check Prussian ambition then perhaps Germany might never have united and had Germany never united, then Hitler might never have gained a powerbase sufficiently strong to begin the Second World War.

Having recently worked my way through the six translated volumes of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, I was delighted to discover in Ludwig II a similarly complex and compelling interweaving of traditional genre with historical fiction and romance. Ludwig II is one of the best things I have read this year, it cuts to the bone of why it is that we find ourselves attracted to escapist media.

REVIEW – Black Butler, Collection One (2008)

Videovista have my review of the first ‘collection’ (which may or may not be the same thing as a series) of Toshiya Shinohara’s anime adaptation of Yana Toboso’s Black Butler manga.

Black Butler is a not particularly intelligent, not particularly inventive and not particularly interesting series that sees a young man form a pact with a demon to help him find the person responsible for the death of his parents.  The demon takes the form of an uber-competent Jeeves-style butler who not only helps the young man to manage his business empire but also to battle underworld threats to Victorian Britain. The steampunk fantasia that makes up the series’ foreground is, quite frankly, utterly derivative but the series is made watchable by a yaoi-inspired subtext that introduces a strong erotic charge to the boy’s relationship with his butler:

All of these elements (including the weird top-bottom, master-slave relationship) will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever encountered the Yaoi or Bishonen genres of manga but the fact that these elements are present in an ostensibly mainstream and youth-oriented series lends them a fresh and subversive feel that is undeniably attractive and engaging.

While the series just about held my interest, it did make me wonder why you would watch this rather than an actual work of Yaoi or Bishonen anime. Neither of these sub-genres is particularly marginal or all that subversive… why hide their influence in the closet of a mainstream anime series?

REVIEW – Death Notice: Ikigami (2008)

Videovista have my review of Deah Notice: Ikigami, Tomoyuki Takimoto’s adaptation of Motoro Mase’s manga Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit:

There is something profoundly refreshing about Death Notice because not only does it seek to tug the heart-strings rather than quicken the pace, it also tugs the heart-strings in a way that displays a real depth of insight into the human condition and the different ways in which we face death. Each of Death Notice‘s episodes functions as a delicious and perfectly contained capsule of loss, grief and hope in the face of death.

In fact, I enjoyed the film so much that I went out and purchased a few volumes of the manga.

Demonlover (2002) – Back from the Primitive

I recently re-read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) for the first time since taking up criticism as an activity.  I originally read the novella as a very straight-forward conceptual breakthrough story in which a Victorian comes to realise the literally horrifying nature of existence.  However, upon further reflection it strikes me that, while sticking to this interpretation of the novella, there are three possible insights to take away from the book :

  • Firstly, that existence outside of the confines of civilisation is horrific.  Under this interpretation, the desiccated world of doilies, influential aunts and ancient men we see in the opening section of the novella are a price we have to pay in order to protect ourselves and escape from the Horror of the Hobbesian state of nature.
  • Secondly, that existence is whatever humanity makes of it.  Rather than building a new world or exporting the values of the European elites, colonialism has in fact opened the way for the rapaciously greedy to create a sort of hell on Earth.  A hell in which a man’s capacity to kill elephants and enslave the local population makes him a great man.  When Kurtz dies, he groans not for the horror in the world, but the horror he and his imitators have unleashed.
  • Thirdly, that Kurtz’s groans are a moment of conceptual break-through.  Under this view, humanity is trapped between the anguish and misery of being and the terrifying nothingness of non-being.  Whether a Dutch merchant or a Congolese fisherman, the dilemma is the same even if we do not necessarily realise it.  Kurtz, by venturing far outside the confines of his native culture, has realised the truth about existence.  A truth that horrifies him even as he dies.

These three different interpretations represent different solutions to the question of why existence is so horrifying :  Is existence tainted by our actions?  Is it something that is present in the world but escaped from thanks to civilisation?  Or is it something that permeates all of existence, but which we only catch a glimpse of from time to time when we are paying attention?

Critically panned at the time of its release, Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) is an attempt to provide an answer to this question by considering not only the ways in which humans treat each other but also the ways in which human civilisation deals with the savage nature of existence through its media and its institutions.

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