The 2nd Dimension

Monday, November 27, 2006

Viewing Journal: Seven Samurai (live action movie)

Movie Overview
DVD Info

Overall= B
Story = B+
Video = C+
Audio = C


Whether or not you are a fan of anime, you have probably seen something that has been influenced -- directly or indirectly -- by the movie Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven, Samurai Seven, even The Three Amigos, and A Bug's Life all share a similar plot line whose origins can be traced back to Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic.

A small rice-farming village is threatened by a band of bandits who plan on pillaging the villagers' crop once it has been harvested. In an effort to save their livelihood, the villagers hire seven ronin samurai to help fend off the attack.

The plot, like I said, probably isn't anything you haven't seen before; and that may very well be this movie's downfall for many people. Despite the fact that this is the original, it's hard to watch it with the fresh mindset that people had back in the 50's when this kind of thing hadn't been seen before. And because of that, the plot may initially come off as predictable. But I think if you watch it all the way through there are a few aspect that stand out from a lot of contemporary films.

The first thing that stands out is that, despite the fact that it's a samurai movie, there isn't a lot of violence. The fighting doesn't really start until the last third (or so) of the movie when the bandits start to attack. And even then, the fighting is bloodless and comes in relatively short spurts. It seems to focus more on the strategy of fighting and the character's reaction to the fighting than anything else. There's no long-drawn out duels between key characters showing cool martial arts or sword-fighting techniques. There's only minimal violence as needed to tell the story, and that's about it. And I think that in itself makes it a better movie because the violence doesn't distract from the story.

The second thing that makes the movie exceptional is the characters. The two characters that stand out the most are Kambei and Kikuchiyo. Kambei is the de facto leader of the samurai. He's strong, experienced, wise, humble, and compassionate; all of which make him the most likable character of the group. I also think a lot of his likability has to do with the great acting by Takashi Shimura. The other noticeable character is Kikuchiyo. He stands out because even though he wants to be one of them, he lacks the nobility that the other samurai have. He comes off as brash and at times dim-witted, and because of his history as a farmer, I think he's like the bridge that connects the samurai with the villagers. The rest of the samurai get a kick out of his antics but also have a respect for his drive to help.

In fact, I think it's that cohesive relationship among all the samurai that is one of the things that makes the characters so appealing. They work together to come up with a plan to help the villagers, and don't bicker about who has the better strategy. It's not until one of them decides to act on his own that they really get into trouble.

The final thing that stands out (that I want to mention) is the ending. In the end, the samurai reach their goals, but not without sacrifice; and ultimately, they themselves gain little from the experience. It's that happy-but-not ending that I think makes the film more interesting because it flies in the face of a lot of Western-style storytelling that demands something more clear-cut.

Visually, Seven Samurai is about what you'd expect from a movie made in the 50's. The cinematography is good as far as the use of camera angles and the like. But the quality of the film is kind of crappy; meaning that you can see spots and stuff appear on the screen a lot. It didn't bothered me, but I can't help but wonder if there is a way to clean that kind of thing up these days.

The music was subtle and enhanced the scenes that it needed to, but again it's an old movie and the soundtrack sounds like it.

Overall, this is a classic movie with a solid story and likable characters and if you claim to be a movie buff then this is a must-see. However, some casual viewers may be bored by the familiar plot, long running-time, and dated look and sound -- which I guess I can understand. But for those who can appreciate the film's lineage and can watch it with a bit of perspective, then it's something that's well-worth watching.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Viewing Journal: Barefoot Gen movies 1 & 2

Movie Overview
DVD Info

Overall= B
Story (Movie 1) = A-
Story (Movie 2) = B
Video (Movie 1) = C-
Video (Movie 2) = B
Audio = D


Barefoot Gen is a historical drama about the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II. It is loosely based on the experiences of Keiji Nakazawa -- the author of the original manga and survivor of the Hiroshima attack. It tells the story of Gen, who lives a hard but happy life with his family; but when the Alona Gay flies over and drops its nuclear payload, his life is changed forever.

This movie does not pull any punches when it comes to showing the full effects of the bomb's explosion. First off there is the explosion itself -- all shown in slow motion giving it an intense realism. Then you see its direct effects on people when men, children, pets, and even mothers holding their babies are all hit by the radiation blast and their bodies disintegrate in gruesome slow-motion detail.

The aftereffects of the blast are just as disturbing. Gen, who has miraculously survived, stands up to notice that the girl he had been walking with just a minute ago is now nothing but a corpse. He sees people walking toward him, but once they get close he sees that they look like zombies with melting flesh and who are totally unresponsive as he looks for help. When he reaches his house, he sees that it has collapsed and his family is trapped under the rubble. The only person he can rescue is his pregnant mother but the rest are buried and burned alive.

In the days that follow, Gen, his mother, and the newborn baby struggle to survive. Eventually they take in an orphan named Ryuuta because he reminds them of Gen's recently deceased brother. Their situation is made even more urgent by the fact that Gen's mother can't nurse the baby because she's had to nothing to eat and all she's had to drink is water.

It's a surreal experience to watch the whole thing unfold, but the the fact that the story was written by someone who was actually there helps to keep it grounded in reality. During the entire movie I kept wondering just how much of Gen's experience is a true-life reflection of what happened to the writer. For instance, did he really help his mom deliver her baby and did they really take in an orphan like it shows in the movie? Stuff like that really kept me paying close attention.

As much as the story was about hardship, Gen's youthful energy and attempts to make the best out of everything keeps the tone from growing too heavy. He keeps a forward-looking and cheerful attitude as he does various jobs to earn (and sometimes steal) money and food. Despite the somewhat disjointed and rushed feeling of these sub-stories, they help to raise the tone and make the story much easier to digest.

The second movie takes place three years after the end of the first one, and tells about Gen, his mother, and Ryuuta. Gen also meets up with some orphans and they work together to earn money to support each other and support Gen's mother whose health is steadily declining.

This second movie is driven more by the characters than by events, so it is not as shocking as the first. It does however show that there hasn't been a lot of improvement to things over the years since the bomb hit. Classes for children take place in the rubble of a school building, people are still dying daily from radiation sickness (called Pika), and human bones can be seen lining the river bottom.

As far as the animation is concerned, both movies show their age to a degree, but the first movie is definitely much lower quality. (At times it reminded me of something from a Charlie Brown cartoon.) The animation in the second movie is much better, with improved detail and much more fluid movement of the characters.

The music in both movies is pretty bad. It's dated and even sounds cheesy at times. It doesn't distract from the power of the story and visuals though.

I've read a lot of reviews comparing this movie to Grave of the Fireflies -- the other, more popular World War II movie about orphaned children. That one was animated by Studio Ghibli so the animation quality is superior by far, but I'm not as sure about the story. I think Grave is more heavy-handed in portraying its anti-war theme in part because it pushes the cuteness of the kids and the tragedy of their situation in order to manipulate the audience's emotions. But Gen seems like it is just showing what happened and figures that that is enough to get the point across. Sure, it uses children, but the kids are not overly cute and seldom do anything I'd call adorable. Also, although the story can sometimes seem disjointed, I think Gen does a better job of making the movie watchable by balancing the tragedy with a sense of hope. The differences are diminished a bit when you compare Grave with the second Barefoot Gen movie. But regardless, if you like movies rooted in history, then I don't think you can go wrong seeing either one.

Anime Trailers: Reideen, Moribito, Paprika, & Byousoku 5 CM

Production IG = win:

The WOWOW page for Reideen, Production IG's remake of the 1975 mecha anime series Yuusha Raideen, now hosts a 30 second and a 120 second streaming Windows Media trailer. Reideen is scheduled to premier next March. (Source: AnimeNation)

The official homepage for Production IG's upcoming anime television series Seirei no Moribito now hosts a 50 second trailer. The trailer is available streaming on the website (click the bottom left-hand link on the site's top page), and is available for direct download in MP4 format for the PSP and M4V format for the Ipod. The series is scheduled to premier next April. (Source: AnimeNation)

Satoshi Kon = ???:
The official website for the French theatrical release of anime film Paprika is now online. The site's "BANDE ANNONCE" section hosts a new English language narrated trailer ("VO") featuring extensive footage not contained in any previous trailers. (Source: AnimeNation)
And this guy is just good:
A second trailer for director Makoto Shinkai's upcoming anime movie trilogy Byousoku 5 Centimeter has been added to the official site. The trailer is available in three streaming sizes, and as a 68.4mb high resolution WMV format download. (Source: AnimeNation)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Viewing Journal: Revolutionary Girl Utena (complete)

Series Overview
DVD Info

Overall= C
Story = C
Video = C-
Audio = C-


Do you ever remember the old stories about a mystical land where a prince would fight a duel outside a mideval castle in order to save a a maiden from having to be engaged to a power vilian? And remember when the mystical land was actually a school, and the prince was actually a girl who just dressed like a boy, and the castle hung upside-down, and the villian was actually a group of students, and the maiden was a Rose Bride whose Groom would have the power to reshape the world? Remeber that? Well, if you do, then chances are you've been waching Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Here's the real story: Just after Utena's parents died she was consoled by a prince who gave her a ring with a rose crest on it. Utena was so impressed by the Prince that she vowed to become one herself one day. Flash forward a few years to Ohtori Acadamy where Utena Tenjou is a new student. She's a strong-willed girl who annoys the teachers by insisting on wearing a boy's uniform. After having her friend insulted by a member of the student council, Utena agrees to take part in a sword duel in order to defend her friend's honor. As it turns out, the duel is just one in a series that only those who wear the rose-crest ring can participate in. Whoever wins the duel is automatically engaged to a girl named Anthy Himemiya -- aka. the "Rose Bride". And whoever is engaged to the Rose Bride will eventually recieve the power to "revolutionize the world".

To be sure, there is a lot of weird stuff going on and when I first started watching this show I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But I kept with it anyway because I was interested in some of the mysteries in the story: Like who exactly is "End of the World" and why does it keep sending letters to the student council? And why is Anthy bound to be the Rose Bride? And who is Utena's prince? And why is there an upside-down castle hanging over the dueling arena? And just what the heck is the deal with those shadow girls? And what is Chu-chu? A mouse? All these things kept me interested long enough to discover some of the other interesting elements.

The first half to two-thirds of the show follows a regular pattern: First, Utena is introduced to a new member of the Student Council and learns why they want to have the power to revolutionize the world. Then the Council member challenges Utena to a duel in order to achieve the power to realize their goal. In the end, Utena almost always wins the duel and the challenger learns to accept their situation.

After Utena deuls her way through all the Council members, she ends up fighting some of the minor characters in a much darker (and in my opinion cooler) story arc called the "Black Rose Saga". It's not until the end of that that arc that the series breaks from its usual pattern and finally makes an effort to move the story forward and explain some of what is going on.

The duels, I think, are used as a means of exploring and developing the relationships among the different characters. Each character has their own personal reason for wanting to deuling and most of the time it comes down to "I want to revolutionize the world because I want such-and-such a person to like me." So the duelists just want to use the Rose Bride as a means to their own end. Utena is the only one who doesn't have a selfish motive. She wants to win in order to keep Anthy from being used by everyone else. It's her independence and selflessness that are her strengths and the reason she is always able to win. So the show is basically saying that if you want to improve your situation in life, then it's better to change yourself than to try and change (or "revolutionize") the world.

Themes aside for a minute, the thing that will probably put most people off to this series are the romantic relationships which are pretty unconventional (to put it mildly). You've got a brother-sister thing going on, and a couple girl-girl, and an older-younger pair, and in finally you've got a kind of adulterous situation. There's even a hint of yaoi inuendo going on with the three of the main (rather effeminent-looking) male characters. There's nothing that you'd feel guilty about watching because it never gets graphic. In fact, there's hardly any phycial-ness to the relationships at all until near the end. But even then they only show you just barely enough to give you an idea of what is going on. The show focuses more on the emotional aspect of the relationships than the physical. But however unconventional these romances might be, I don't think the story would work quite as well without them. It's the "forbidden" nature of the relationships that gives the show it's conflict and really drives the story.

There's also a lot of symbolism that appears as a bunch of seemingly random visuals. You've got school desks that appearing out of nowhere and than move on their own, convertibles racing around on their sides then jutting up from the ground, or Anthy disappearing and turning into a tree. I don't have much analysis for that, though. Sorry.

With all the symbolism and "unconventional" relationships, the show could have easily turned sour from the weight of its own pretentiousness. But there are a couple of things that I think prevented this from happening. The first thing is that the show has going for it is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It can be funny and fun, at least for the first part of the series. And that definitely helps make it easier to watch.

The second thing is that no matter what happens, the show never stops focusing on it's characters. In my experience, when a show focuses too much on symbolism, the story tends to get lost under a heap of esoterica. And if the relationships are too graphic, it distracts from the emotions. But characters can both push a story forward and also create a connection with the audience. So focusing on them makes the keeps the story on track.

The end of the show did end up explaining a few things, but by no means everything. It was interesting, but I can't say it was totally satisfying. But maybe that was the point.

The animation quality is average. There is a lot of recycled animation in this show. They always replay the same scene of Utena acending into the arena, and later on there are other scenes that are constantly recycled. So those scenes and the last few episodes are good quality. But for the most part it's nothing special.

The music was strange and sometimes even haunting. But nothing that I was especially in love with.

In the end, I'm glad I watched this show. And even though I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, I was able to get into it after I got over the initial weirdness. If you are into shojo titles you will definitely want to check this out. But if you have low tolerence for strangeness you'll want to run far far away.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Awesome music video by Studio 4°C

A recent Ask John article has a reference to an awesome music video called "First Squad" that is animated by Studio 4°C. It's pretty cool. Too bad there's not more.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Viewing Journal: Street Fighter II - The Movie

Movie Overview
DVD Info

Overall= B-
Story = C-
Video = B-
Audio (Japanese) = C-
Audio (English) = C+


If you are a relatively old-school (meaning pre-2000) anime fan then I'm sure you have a few shows or movies that bring back a waff of nastalgia every time you watch them. For me Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie is one of them. The show was first released back in the mid-90's in an edited form -- meaning that some scenes were cut but also the soundtrack was totally re-done. This new DVD is the first time that the movie has been released totally in-tact and with the option of watching the original Japanese language and music tracks, so for me this was a must-buy.

The movie's story is pretty negligable. It's basically a series of fight scenes loosely tied together by a very strait-forward -- and very video-game-like -- story. Bison (or Vega in the original Japanese) is the leader of a crime syndicate called Shadowlaw (or Shadowloo in Japanese). He's going around the world to gather all the world's best street fighters to join his organization, and the legendary fighter Ryu is next on his list. But since Ryu seems to be hard to find, Bison figures that he'll use Ryu's old fighting partner Ken to lure him out.

Like I said, what there is of a story is basically an excuse for a bunch of fight scenes, and the Japanese and English versions are pretty much the same in that respect. The movie tries very hard to include all the characters from the original video game, so many of the scenes have absolutely no bearing on the actual plot. But to tell you the truth, for what it is I think it works really well because it doesn't try to be anything it's not. If you want to watch a fighting movie, sometimes you just want to watch a fighting movie and an over-developed story can almost seem like an annoying distraction. This movie doesn't pretend to have depth, it just gives you what you want -- one fight after another.

And those fights are the reason that I loved this movie back when I first saw it. The scenes were coreographed pretty damn well I thought. The animation was fluid and fast and detailed to a degree I hadn't seen before and haven't seen since. Even the super-gravity-defying techniques seemed to flow naturally and realistically. My favorites are the fight between Chun-Li and Vega (or Balrog in the Japanese) and the one between Ryu and Fei-Long. I remember watching those over and over again back when I first saw this and I had a blast watching them again this time.

The one thing that I was kind of dissappointed by in terms of the visuals was that Manga Ent. didn't re-master the video. It still looks old. Though in a way I suppose that just added to the sense of nostalgia.

As far as the unedited material is concerned, mostly it involved a little more blood splooshes here and there. The major addition that most people will notice is the Chun-Li shower scene. I remember back when I first saw it I just knew that something was cut out. Well here you get to see the full monte, with Chun-Li in all her full-frontal glory. So there you go.

The biggest difference between the English and Japanese versions is the soundtrack, which I honestly think makes the two versions feel like two totally different movies. The original Japanese soundtrack -- when present at all -- mostly includes soft and subtle background music, even during the fighting scenes. As a result you get a very VERY different feel than in the English version, which contains mostly harder-edge guitar sounds and includes some more modern (for the time) heavy-metal tunes from bands like Korn and Alice and Chains. Comparing the two, I think the Japanese version was trying to bring out more realism and emotion with the soundtrack. Although it was softer, it was also less distracting, which allows you to focus more on the fight itself and ponder what the characters are thinking and why they are fighting. In the English version, the music brings out emotion too, but it's more like an adrenaline-pumping intensity and gets you caught up in the action itself more than the characters.

Although I hate to admit it, I really prefer the English version over the Japanese. Although I can definitely repect, appreciate, and even enjoy the subtle drama of the Japanese soundtrack, I think that overall the English version is more effective at being entertaining. Like I said before, this is a fighting movie, and I think the English version takes full advantage of that by enhancing the intensity of the action, and as a result, I was able to get more into it. My guess is that the Japanese culture and sensibilities would probably get more out of the implications of the subtlety. But even all that aside, the Japanese version reminded me of something out of the 80's and tended to sound kind of cheesy. (Given that I usually hate edits in anime, I sincerly appologize and sympathize with all the purists out there.)

In the end, I did enjoy the English version more than the Japanese version. I didn't re-watch the entire English version, I just basically fast-forwarded to my favorite fight scenes, but even so the enjoyment I had for this movie back then still came back to me. But regardless of whether you saw this back in the day or are coming into it with a fresh perspective, if you like strait-out martial arts action then this is an anime you should check out.