In a recent review over at FilmJuice, I moaned about the tendency of Western distributors to only pick up the films that chimed with Takashi Miike’s reputation for producing horrifically violent cinema. However, Miike’s recent acquisition of mainstream respectability thanks to Thirteen Assassins (2010) and Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) means that more and more of his lesser films are finding their way to US distribution. Yatterman (2009) is one example of this, Crows Zero (2007) is another. THE ZONE has my review of the latter.
What I liked about the film is that it takes quite a traditional hero’s journey plot structure and neatly dovetails it with quite a melodramatic approach to characterisation meaning that despite being nothing more than a series of confrontations leading to a final battle, the film never feels overly episodic:
While the foreground of Crows Zero is dominated by the need to conquer the school, the subplots all revolve around the tensions between what the individual wants and what people expect of them. Thus, Ginji struggles with both the expectations of his father and the expectations of his followers while Serizawa tries to cope with the fact that his gang expects him to deal with Ginji despite the fact that he thinks the pair could probably be quite good friends. In true yakuza picture style, these tensions are explored in a highly stylised and melodramatic manner that owes more to opera than it does to gritty crime fiction. In fact, one subplot resolves itself by having someone bellowing their devotion into a rain-soaked sky while another subplot resolves itself through an epic all-day battle sequence. As the film progresses, this movement between genres proves itself to be remarkably effective as the melodrama distracts from the episodic structure of the plot while the humour and violence prevent the film from getting bogged down in self-indulgent teenaged angst. However, while Crows Zero neatly sidesteps the problems associated with both of its parent genres, the film does possess its own set of problems.
These problems are derived from the fact that, rather than constructing the series as one would a traditional cinematic trilogy, Miike directly imports the narrative conventions of shounen manga. Shounen manga narratives frequently span dozens and dozens of books and in order to support these astoundingly lengthy narratives, manga writers have developed their own set of techniques that are very different to those of cinematic series. While the techniques required to sustain lengthy cinematic series are evolving in light of franchises such as The Avengers, Miike’s use of narrative techniques derived from manga feels like too much change far too quickly resulting in some astonishingly awkward plotting. As I say in the review, I can imagine how these techniques might work in the context of an entire series, they are really quite distracting in the context of an individual film (indeed, given that the sequel exists and is now three years old, I think it was a major mistake not to release both films as a box set).
It is impossible to dangle one’s toes into the waters of Japanese sequential art without, sooner or later, encountering the name of Osamu Tezuka. Aside from being a hugely prolific and influential artist who inspired generations of authors, Tezuka was also one of the first Japanese comics artists to enjoy commercial success in the West with series including Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. However, despite the child-friendliness of Tezuka’s greatest successes, many of his finest works are decidedly darker and a good deal more complex. An excellent example of this is Tezuka’s recently translated The Book of Human Insects. Set in 1970s Tokyo, the novel offers a darkly compelling portrait of a woman with a remarkable capacity for re-invention. Ostensibly a psychological thriller about a Mr Ripley-like femme fatale who feeds upon Japan’s predominantly male intelligentsia, The Book of Human Insects resonates most when read as a critique of post-War Japanese society.
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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.
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?
Gestalt Mash have my review of the sixth volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Eisner and Tiptree award-winning manga series Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
My review features something of a reassessment of the series as I realise that, rather than looking it as a Feminist thought-experiment about an alternate feudal Japan in which the male population has been reduced by 75%, the series is best seen as a historical epic. The term ‘historial epic’ is somewhat misleading in that it tends to summon images of fat fantasy novels with intricate plots that unravel over hundreds of years. While Ooku’s plot may cover a number of generations, the plot is very much anchored to the waxing and waning of historical forces. There is no grand narrative at work here, just the ceaseless change of an aging ruling class and how the decisions they make change the country:
By stepping back from the lives of the individual characters and focusing instead upon the historical themes that emerge from the passage of the generations, we can see that Yoshinaga is suggesting that history is above all a product of human passions. Yoshinaga’s characters are the twisted and broken products of a twisted and broken society and while their exalted positions allow them the power to shape and reshape society as they wish, there is the growing sense that Yoshinaga’s characters repeat the mistakes of the past because they simply cannot help it. In Yoshinaga’s history, change happens more by chance than by design.
Needless to say, I am still very much enjoying this particular series and I hope that Viz Media continue to show their commitment to the series by publishing volume 7.
My previous posts on the series can be found at the following locations though I have also collected them under a single heading in this site’s menu bar:
Gestalt Mash have my column on Matoro Mase’s manga serial Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit.
My column draws on the first six volumes of what will be an eight volume run if Viz Media do actually translate the entire series. Set in an alternate version of contemporary Japan, the series is about a society that has decided to force its population to make the most of life by killing one citizen in every thousand at random. The series examines this ideas from two different perspectives; on the one hand, it examines the psychological impact of the death sentences on the victims and their families while, on the other hand, exploring what the effects of this policy are on the Japanese body politic. The result is a series of graphic novels that paint exquisitely detailed pictures of human grief and suffering whilst also slowly creating the impression that such a society is monstrous and must be overthrown:
Death has the power not just to end lives, but also to change them. It can change them for the better by prompting people to make changes, and it can change things for the worse by fostering a crippling sense of futility and loss. Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is an exploration of the tension between these two reactions to the revelation that we too shall someday be no more.
The series has also spawned a film adaptation, which I also wrote about a little while ago for Videovista.
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.
Gestalt Mash have my fifth piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s excellent Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
The fifth volume (the last one translated to date) of the series slows the pace down after the brisk historical jaunting of the previous volume. Again, the primary concern is the failure of the Shogun to provide the sort of leadership required to steer Japan through troubled times but Yoshinaga subtly shifts the emphasis of the book opening up whole new vistas. Indeed, while the previous volumes have been all about the need for the Japanese ruling elite to reflect the changed demographics of Japanese society, enough time has now passed that we are on (at least) the second generation of female rule. In Yoshinaga’s alternative Edo period Japan, women now have exclusive control over all aspects of society. This changes the power dynamic between the sexes and so presents Japanese culture with another ‘fact’ that it needs to reflect.
Gestalt Mash have my fourth piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s alt-historical manga epic Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
Volume 4 shifts the timeline forward in order to see how later Shoguns fare with the task of managing a changing Japan. By allowing us to see the ways in which these later Shoguns struggle to fill the first female Shogun’s sandles, Yoshinaga not only invites a more generous appraisal of the first Shogun, she also shifts the series register away from an explicitly feminist analysis of gender differences and towards a more general political analysis of the responsibilities that accompany power.
Oh… and the book ends on a spectacular cliffhanger!
Gestalt Mash has my third piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s alternate history manga Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
Following hot on the heels of the second volume in the series, volume three teases out a political conflict at the heart of the Shogun’s court. A conflict in which the forces of conservatism battle the forces of social progress for control of both Japan and the mind of the Shogun. Beautifully drawn, exquisitely written and awesome in the power of its insights into contemporary attitudes towards gender and sexuality, Ooku continues to be a fantastic piece of sequential art.