Saturday, May 06, 2006

Are wa Dare da? Dare da? Da- oh, just read it.

Please note: The following "review" was made literally some 30-something hours before I decided to start doing this. It wasn't part of an eMail review as I usually do this, more just a stream of thought on paper... er, 'puter, because much like a rape victim I had to do something to put this experience behind me. Unfortunately rape victims get to run off to lesbian communes. There is no non-sucky movie commune I know of, so I'll just have to keep putting my ass on the line for the good of the world.

At a certain point it became clear that this was something almost... good, so I added a lot of contextual crap to make it work almost like a real review. I doubt I'll be doing this in the future, so don't get all spoiled on me.

Heed my warning my children, and read on. Like the kid with only 1 arm who's dad worked at the zoo, learn from my mistakes and be a better person for it.

Devilman? More like Devil Turkey.

Adapting comics in to movies is really nothing new, with one of the earliest examples being the Superman TV series running from 1952 to 1954. Similarly, Japanese comics (manga) and cartoons (anime) have been adapted to live action since at least the early 70's with popular titles ranging from Lupin the 3rd to Star of David being turned in to big budget studio productions. Due to the stgma involved in working with comic books - that they're just for kids, that they're too cliche, that they're totally convoluted, I'm sure you've heard them all - adapting them in to a theatrical film can be more than a daunting task even for a clever and dedicated film maker. The final results can wind up being a shot for shot adaptation, such as Robert Rodriguez' stunning Sin City film from 2005, to adaptations that take the general idea if not the aesthetic and specifics of the source material, such as Bryan Singer's X-Men or Alex Proyas' The Crow, from 2000 and 1994 respectively. And then, sometimes, you wind up with cheesy unwatchable crap... I guess I could point out something like the 1991 Albert Pyun adaptation of Captain America, a film deemed so bad it was never released in the US theatrically, or, dare I say it, the then-revolutionary but horrendously silly in name only adaptation of Spawn by Mark A. Z. Dippe` in 1997. While comic movies in and of themselves are no worse than any other genre, it's fair to say that when they get it right, as Rodriguez did in his loving "translation" of Frank Miller's Cin City, the results are truly stunning. And when they don't... well, check out Captain America on DVD. What's that? Oh, right. You can't. Think of it this way: Mark Goldblatt's 1989 version of The Punisher -is- available in the US.

Yeah. Either that thought fills you with boundless dread, or I'm speaking to deaf ears at this point. Time to move on.

Why do I bring this seemingly obvious fact up? Because these rules of "sometimes they work, sometimes they don't" applies equally well to Japanese adaptations of Japanese comics. (There have even been a handfull of Chinese and even Western adaptations of manga and anime properties, but they're an entirely different breed of pain, and will be looked at another time.) With the big budget adaptations of Cashhern, Cutie Honey, Tetsujin 28-Gou (Gigantor) and and Saishuheiki Kanojou (She The Ultimate Weapon), the past 3 years or so have been a facinating time to watch Japan bring it's own creations to life in live action, due in no small part to films before them like Koroshiya-Ichi (Ichi the Killer, 2001) and Azumi (2002) proving that bringing the insnae visual aesthetic of fantasy and Sci-Fi manga to life was finally a viable option using CGI. Perhaps none of these movies, however, could be matched anticipation than Nagai Gou's 1972 manga Devilman, which finally hit the big screen courtesey of Hiroyuki Nasu in 2004.

Since about 2000, the Japanese film industry has been changing drastically, after the success and controversial and exciting of films like Battle Royale and Versus. While Japan has always produced low budget and bizarre films that were intended for small audiences and relied on creativity - and often blatant insanity - to keep themselves interesting, more and more of Japan's film industry is becoming bigger, louder, and not necessarily better. It should also be noted that Nagai Gou is no stranger to his creations being re-envisioned, and infact Devilman was created specifically to be sold as an animated TV series back in 1972. That didn't stop him from continuing an original manga featuring the same cast, a manga who's infamy and legend is acknowledged to this day by fans of manga and anime the world over. Unfortunately never a big hit in the US, Nagai Gou titles - ranging from bawdy action comedies like Cutie Honey to adrenalline fueled giant robot action like Mazinger Z and non-stop assaults of gore and sexuality like Violence Jack - are some of the most varried and strange stories ever published by a single man. With a body of work spanning 4 decades Nagai Gou STILL publishes revivals of his own characters and creates new ones regularly, from giving Devilman himself a sex change in the Devilman Lady manga in 2001 to having continued the aborted prototype which led him to create Devilman in the first place, Maou Dante (Demon Lord Dante) in 2004. With the Devilman TV series playing out like a cross between Ultraman and a 1950's Hammer horror film, Devilman was a bastard Batman/Superman lovechild that beat up demons with the Devil Cutter and Devil Beam, fighting against the onslaught of demons for his freedom rather than for the sake of mankind. It's the cheesy, fluffy, inane sort of children's entertainment that Japan adores, and which - being deemed too violent or scary in other countries - isn't really made anywhere else. But it's the original manga - and to a lesser extent the 1980's series of direct to video animation episodes (OVA's) - that are worthy of the utmost praise.

Though the specifics change constantly, the story of Devilman is more or less as follows: a youth named Akira Fudou, who's parents are no longer with him, stays with the Makimura family and has an unspoken romantic relationship with their daughter Miki. He also has an old freiend - or at least he did in the manga and OVA's - Ryou Asuka, a crazy pretty-boy who shares with Akira his dark secret: that he knows demons are real, and that if they want to protect themselves and the people they love, they too must join their powers with darkness and hope that their pure and noble intentions will win over the demon's heart and soul. While Ryou's union with a demon seems to be a lost cause, Akira becomes one with the demonic hero, Amon, and harnessing the limitless powers of a demon he dubs himself Devilman, the original dark hero who uses his brute strength to fight against an array of freudian and disturbing demons who threaten humanity, and want to return to the world to it's original state in which demonkind ruled.

The TV show, which took many cues from the earlier Maou Dante manga, changes this story around somewhat: Akira's body is taken over by Amon totally, and when Amon decides to leave the frozen prison of the Himalayas and falls in love with Miki he's marked as a traitor to demonic society. And so the denzies of Hell are sent to kill Amon, led by the Demon Lord Zenon and the monsterous general Zan'nin. The TV series is full of primary colored monsters with randomly attatched body parts, hasty bar napkin doodle characters stolen from earlier Gou stories, and has Devilman turning in to a massive Godzilla sized beast to put the smack down on demons hardcore about once per episode. It's on par with any sentai (Power Rangers) show from the era, and is only violent and shocking from an international standpoint, where the cartoons Japan made in the 70's are still more mature than the ones American kids watch to this day. No more or less a manly children's series, the TV Devilman had almost nothing to do with Gou's story - infact I've come to call it "Adam West's Devilman" to denote it's obvious influence from a certain caped crusader who's 1966 TV serial is beloved and abhorrored to this day for it's Bat Shark Repellant and "BAM!" sound effects - but was extremely popular, and in it's own right is an enjoyable waste of brain cels.

The manga and 80's OVA's Birth (1987) and Silene: The Bird of Death (1990), the most true rendition of Nagai Gou's original story, take the concept of Akira becoming a hero by chance rather than by design and weaves a harsh, dark and limitless story of horror, in which the literal Apocalypse spoken of in the bible is brought to the forefront. Whole countries are cut down, and no character, no matter how innocent or well meaning, is safe from the claws of the demons who wish to eradicate them... or the humans that share their fears and hopes and dreams. Devilman as a manga was a spectacular morality play, in which Akira fought for the preservations of humans until they did something so drastic to those he loved that he had to stop and wonder if he was really fighting a heartless enemy... or if man and demon were really so different from one another. Despite serving as a violent and occasionally sexy action/horror story, Devilman was amazingly astute and deep, at times sinking to now almost cliche` instances of demonic transformations used as an allegory to puberty, being sympathetic and at times even condoning of "monsterous" characters such as Jinmen, a beast who felt himself superior to humans who kill what they don't eat while he eats what he doesn't kill, and featuring an uncomfortable but undeniable homoerotic undertone between Akira and Ryou (even made fun of in the 1990 Nagai Gou CB Chara World OVA's), with more than it's payoff when the final story arc begins. Devilman is a legend and rightly so, crossing the fantastic and the heartfelt in to a story that was neither quite for children or adults, not for those who believed or debunked the Bible. In 1972 Devilman was a stunning comic revolution, and it's a shame that so few people outside of Japan know it. Devilman's final animated form to this day was the stunningly violent post-Evangelion styled Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman, which serves more as a final story to tell in Devilman's mythos than in any way revealing the manga's shocking conclusion - something which, for better or worse, you can see most of in the theatrical film. While the 1987 OVA series was the closest to Nagai Gou's original, the modern gothic punk style, Jung inspired collapsing realities and the uncompromising and harsh bloodshed arguably makes the Amon OVA the best cinematic adaptation of Gou's excellent manga, and in terms of literary excellence may indeed be Devilman's finest hour.

And then there's the 2004 Devilman movie. A big budget adaptation of a 30+ year old manga cranked out by the studio system, which much like America is slowly trading in it's creativity and heart for prettier stars and more daunting CGI work without actually remembering that films which rely on technological splendor alone are almost always doomed from the start. Without a story that's interesting, characters the audience cares about and the style of a film maker to bring them all to life a movie can fall flat on it's ass, and this is exactly what Hiroku Nasu's downright insulting adaptation of Nagai Gou's original concept does at every possible turn.

It's perhaps unfair to judge an adaptation alongside it's source. For one thing there are plenty of films I've enjoyed without having read or seen the work which inspired it, and there have been many times where, upon seeing a film, I've read the original out of curiosity. However, the fact that the Devilman movie is a poor adaptation of the source material is totally irrelevant. It's a poor film, from concept to acting to effects and everything else in between, and the fact that the manga was great has little bearing on the undeniable fact that this movie just sucks. Perhaps I'd be less pained by it if I didn't know the original material so well... but I doubt it. Anyone who likes good fantasy cinema from any country would write this off as porly planned B-movie celluloid regurgitation. I'm not saying that all of Japan's fantasy films suck. Infact I've enjoyed a great many, from Azumi to Sakuya Youkai-den (Sakuya: Slayer of Demons, 2000) and I even adore Hideaki Anno's very different - but hugely enjoyable - big screen adaptation of Nagai Gou's own Cutie Honey (2004). I think that Cutie Honey was the perfect adaptation of a 30 some year old comic from a man who's life work stretches any and every possibility: a vibrant and candy colored 70's deco comedy which, despite bearing almost no relation to the original's storyline, makes it's own sense and keeps that lovely tongue in cheek kitsch that makes Honey herself such an endearing heroine. Sadly, none of Devilman's dark humor or sense of loss and impending apocalypse shows itself in this turkey dropped from a plane, falling like a sopping bag of wet cement that will smack anyone morbidly curious enough to look up instead of stepping the hell out of the way.

Where to begin... I guess with the story, and how this particular version of Devilman treats it's characters. Akira and Ryou are childhood friends who spend all their time together, Ryou a self absorbed ego maniac who's only muse seems to be mutilating the bullies who pick on the meek and shockingly pussified and emo Akira. He lives with the Makimura family, and while Miki wants to hump his brains out and bear his children, since Ryou's now his caretaker about all she does is smile like an airhead and look cute. She does that well, at least. When Ryou calls Akira to his house to share with him a dark secret, he reveals that his father - a scientist - was turned in to a demon by a string of disease which posesses it's hosts and turns them in to demons. Akira is infected by Amon, and transforming in to Devilman procedes to punch demons in to puddles and then wonder what he should do with his newfound powers. Ryou has already joined with a demon, an angelic form which seems to be of no great power, and as more and more people become demons - including Miki's friend Miiko, and her neighbor Susumu - the world at large begins to panic, creating a Demon Defence Corps to kill and control demons in the face of the oncoming apocalypse.

The story has some problems from the start, but the biggest problem is definately the cast bringing the heroes of this horriffic drama to life. While the cast is mostly new faces to the Japanese film industry, and they're suitably young... well, none of them can act. Yuusuke Izaki's Ryou comes across as a brooding J-Rock pretty boy rather than as a tormented madman who's plot to destroy the world as we know it seems more like a pissy whim rather than an event he's scoured his soul to decide on. Ayana Sakai's Miki, as I've said, has been reduced to airhead status. As for Akira... Hisato Izaki makes Tatsuya Fujiwara from Battle Royale look like a thesbian God, and frankly the complaints against the child cast in Battle Royale weren't totally unfounded to begin with. Even if the style and effects of this movie were godly these amateurish performances of looking vaguely surprised when you should be crying and screaming would have brought the film to a laughable standstill. When people being slaughtered left and right are phoning in a performance that would get you kicked out of a daytime soap opera you know you're pretty much screwed.

But, that's the other problem. While in promotional shots the CGI for Devilman, Satan and Silene were incredible, their actual presence in the film is a bit less than awe-inspiring. The camera movement and action is so fast and furious that you really can't tell what's going on, and the actual integration of the characters in to the sets - particularly the scene with Ryou's father - is just horrendously bad. Not quite bad enough to make it B-Monster Movie gold... just bad. Certainly not up to the levels of similar fluffy fun like Sakuya or Azumi, but sadly the intergration is even clunkier than the intentionally imperfect CGI in Koroshiya-Ichi, and when when the CGI isn't a trainwreck, it fails to drum up any emotional attatchment. The fight with Jinmen, though it sounds cool (a giant T-rex turtle with living heads in his shell? Killer!), comes across as limp and just distant. Cool as Jinmen looks, he comes across as no real threat, and with a lame original character having accepted his death from the start that Akira punches through the face in the back goes from being heart wrenching to gloriously honorable. So when the CGI isn't even visually stunning, like... oh, I dunno', the horrible scene where Akira watches a dozen people get slaughtered by goofy goth kids who have bad CGI proethstetics (and just stands there like a retard for 5 minutes...), the feeling you get is one of tepitation if you're lucky, and frustration if you're not.

If I posessed the body of Amon, I'd do a whole lot more ass kicking than Akira ever even attempts to do in this film. This without a doubt is the biggest problem the film has, summed up so well by the scene where Devilman himself, defender of humanity, just sort of watches a bunch of kids get slaughtered by rampaging demons and doesn't know what to do: Hiroyuki Nasu has some decent toys to play with, he just doesn't have the faintest idea what to do with them. Devilman in the film is an amazing presence, so why does the film leave him half-transformed, running around like a bastard Hot Topic Halloween costume rather than letting the big man himself kick more than 1 or asses in it's none too short runtime? Why hire Ultimate Fight Champion Bob Sapp if he's just playing a nervous reporter rather than hiring him to play a massive scary demon, like Zan or Zenon or... well, anybody from Gou's manga? Takashi Miike hired Sapp in the surrealist samurai revenge epic Izo (2004) specifically so he could throw Kazuya Nakayama around like a rag doll. As it stands the reporter could have been absolutely any American, and to be honest you probably would have had a better performance out of it. Not that I'm complaining. Bob Sapp is an amazing actor for a shaven gorilla, and I mean that in the most loving way possible, I really do. It just seems pointless to hire a strong man in a film when he's not doing what he does best. Which is beat the crap out of people. There's also a scene in which a wave of demons coming out of a doorway is met at the very end by what looks like a sumo wrestler in a business suit with an afro. Uh. Yeah, that's what it looks like. And he raises his arms and screams "Bonzai demon!" (Long live the demons) before he's blown away. He doesn't become a big fat demon. He doesn''t sumo wrestle. He doesn't even get a chance to show off his amazing magical afro. He's just there, and is wasted in the truest sense of the word. In those few moments where it looks like there is potential - for drama, for action, for much of anything it's simply wasted.

I don't like ripping on movies much. I watch them to be entertained, not to fuel some inner fire to burn the children of the directors that make them. I'd much rather watch a film that's perhaps flawed but surprises me, or even just entertains me on some base level than sit through something wretched just so I can share my thoughts on the matter. But dear friends, I can't think of a film I've disliked more than Devilman right now. There are some strong contendors. Even among manga movies. It's not a celluloid waste in the way that, for instance, Gun Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998) was, nor is it even as immensely infuriating as the cool-concept-gone-awry that was Dogville (2002). This film didn't even rape my soul half as hard as did the second episode of the Riki-Oh Animation Series (1990), which took the sure-fire story of pitting Riki-Oh against his Nazi-Jesus brother and STILL managed to make it tedious and awful. This film is literally like watching two snails duel to the death with a sword and a feather: not only can you guess the outcome from the first frame, after 2 hours you really don't give a crap either way, and only force yourself to see it because you have no life, you like feeling tangible cinematic pain, or... well, you just love warning people about crap so that you can spare them the depths of de Sade inspired misery they might otherwise endure.

I once compared the Star of David (David no Hoshi, 1989) anime to shaving my pubic hair with a cheese grater. I stand by that, but it should be noted that while horrendous, that's the kind of crap that's so wretched it's continuously entertaining. In much the same way you'd look at your bloody member and gawk, thinking 'good God, was that my yam bag!?' There's a sort of masochistic allure to genuinely bad movies, and one I'm not totally unfamiliar with. But since it's immature (or maybe just not trendy enough) to like bad movies we must always wrap ourselves in the idea that "it's so bad, it's good!" No. Movies are not so bad they're good. They're just good bad movies. These are bad movies that awful as they may be have enough spunk to make us smile. Even horrible films can posess attributes that make them worth watching despite major flaws keeping the film from being "good" in any conventional sense. Sadly, Devilman is pretty hard to recommend on any level. The final 10 minutes, perhaps, are worth watching as sheer hellatious spectacle, but that's literally it, and those fleeting images of good versus evil on a grand scale don't in any way justify the miserable hour and a half before it. As a monster movie there isn't enough monster mashing to keep fans entertained. As a horror film it just isn't scary or all that violent. As a drama the cardboard characters fall flat on their stereotypical asses. Not even the score or camerawork or much of anything pull it up from being such a mediocre and unmemorable two hours that it's biggest sin is not turning the world of Devilman on it's ear and teaching it new tricks, it's just making it uninteresting and soulless.

I'm going to rip the ending apart for a second, so if after all my warnings you actually want to sit down for the bare minimum payoff, skip this paragraph. Though seeing Akira torn in half is faithfully stolen from the final chapter of the Devilman manga, the concept that Ryou is going to die with him is not only a total copout, but changes the dynamic of Gou's shocking ending totally. While I can forgive a wholly new ending, making Ryou absolved of his sins against humanity and Devilman by letting him end his life with his beloved Akira is something I call B.S. all over. And what the fecking hell is up with Susumu-kun and Miiko not only surviving a nuclear blast (!?), but deciding to walk off in to the new world together in hopes of a better life? THE APOLCAYPSE HAS KICKED YOUR ASS. DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT $200. GAME, FUCKING, OVER. *Ahem* But no. That Susumu-kun wasn't devoured by his parents (as in the original manga) is frustrating. This schmaltzy crotch cheese almost single handedly makes that 10 minute battle between good and evil seem even less like it meant a thing. If the director learns nothing else from this wretched experiment I can honestly say that I hope it's that he learns when to call it quits, which is preferably on a high note. Or at least not a contrived sucky one.

It is possible to take 30 year old anime and make highly entertaining films out of them. Both Casshern and Cutie Honey managed in the same year to not only totally reimagine their concepts entirely, but make films that stand on their own two feet regardless of their inception and entertained without the slightest bit of prior knowledge. While going in to Devilman fresh and with no prior expectations may help to lessen the initial blow to the testicles, it doesn't help the film be any more entertaining. I wish I could remember a live action adaptation of a manga or anime that was honestly more wretched, and to be perfectly honest... I honestly can't think of a one.

Cutie Honey was good. Casshern was good. I guess the law of averages said one of these three had to suck hard. A shame it had to be one of my all time favorite characters.

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