Thursday, May 15, 2008

KITE LIBERATOR - Umetsu does it again... with... moe.

I know. All the reviews are "meh", at best, and I bought it anyway, sight unseen. I liked the first 5 or so MEZZO TV episodes I saw, I abso-fucking-lutely adore both A-KITE (or just "Kite", if you ask Media Blasters) and MEZZO FORTE, and lest anyone forget, ROBOT CARNIVAL (including Umetsu's short PRESENCE) was only the second anime my formerly virgin eyes ever glanced upon. In short, I felt that Yasuomi UMETSU was a man I could trust, and knowing that the DVD sold for a scant $14 and change on Deep Discount didn't hurt either.

So, having watched the whole thing, I'm incredibly torn. I know some of you I know think that KITE LIBERATOR is the worst kind of post-modern self referential trash, and that it single handedly encapsulates everything bad about teh animuz as it exists today. I also know that anyone reading this blog probably has a natural thirst for hot naked girls and spewing blood, both of which Umetsu delivered in abundance the last time (along with time-lapse exploding bullets and hardcore 12 year old rape for good measure). In trying to be fair to what Liberator is, I have to first point out what it is not: it is, in no way, a spiritual successor to the 1998 Action Noir OVA series A-Kite. More so, it's a reimagining of the core concept, that of a lonely teenage girl who plays an innocent student on the outside but is a cold blooded assassin at her core. This, along with Umetsu's trademark over the top fight sequences, love for creepy mascot characters, wicked father figures, and a fascination with jiggly girls who aren't legal in any civilized country, remain the hallmarks of everything he's done in the last decade.

I'm afraid that's where the similarity to its' original namesake ends, and Liberator becomes something I don't think anyone out there expected.

While the original A-Kite worked itself into a sort of sweaty Neo-Noir frenzy that culminated in hardcore rape, gory and sadistic violence, jet black humor, urban decay that made Tokyo look like Detroit, and a coat of foreboding grit that required the use of a toothbrush to get out of the roof of your mouth, this approach was abandoned completely 2 years later in Mezzo Forte. Despite taking place in the exact same city - if there was any doubt, both Sawa and the custom Fisher Price Gun(TM) make an appearance - that OAV is full of ad libbed wise cracks, sex androids, a VW Beetle that defied gravity, and a plot about the heroine and villainess being sisters that Umetsu brought up once, and immediately grew bored with (until the TV series, at least). Mezzo Forte was the tongue in cheek satire to A-Kite's shameless combination of La Femme Nikita and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, but never felt like it was directly calling the original out. It was merely the next step in Umetsu's directorial evolution, and expanded the black humor of the world he already created to the point where the action went from over the top to simply awesome. I love A-Kite more than I do Mezzo Forte, but I won't deny that thematically and technically the latter is a much more satisfying - and more importantly, fun - film*.

*Both A-Kite and Mezzo Forte are 2 episode OVA series', but as even the Director's Cut of both (which also excised pretty much all the sex... go figure) turn them into single 50-odd minute movies, it's easy to think of them as single works.

Mezzo Forte would be continued conceptually in Mezzo TV in 2004, which was always Umetsu's original hope - to create a "variety" show that created a cast that could be at home in an action setting as they were a Sci-Fi or comedic setup. Mikura belting out karaoke may not be the artistic highlight of the 21st century, but I'm hard pressed to say I didn't laugh. They lacked just one thing; a budget, which was seemingly exhausted by the end second episode, with Arms pointing out - as if in desperation - that the animation would be improved on DVD (this was before re-animating TV shows for DVD was essentially a given, mind). While Umetsu certainly has appeal in his character designs and writing, without the over the top set pieces... it just isn't the same. After the charming but limited TV series, I think all of Umetsu's fans waited with high expectations to his return to the OVA format, which leads us to...

KITE LIBERATOR begins in Space, where a combination of the sun's radiation and some experimental food stuffs has mutated a pair of NASA crew members into bone-covered lovechildren birthed by the lesbian coupling of Genocyber and Rem from DEATH NOTE. Meanwhile on Earth, a teenage girl by the name of NOGUCHI Monaka is leading a double life, at once the clumsy yet smart high school student during the day, and the bullet delivering ghost like vigilante The Angel of Death at sundown. Killing only criminals she's hired to destroy by an effeminate bar owner Amuzu (who works her as a cosplay waitress in the evenings) Monaka is forced to hide her extra-curricular activities from both her deadbeat but well meaning uncle, and nosy cousin (at least I think she's a cousin). Somehow, someway, these two plot lines will crash head long in the final act...

If you're already going "whut?", Kite Liberator likely isn't something you'll enjoy - or at least you'll be incredibly confused about what the hell makes this a sequel to A-Kite. I, honestly, think that the whole shebag is a joke, a spoof after having already satirized his life's greatest work, which puts Liberator into a rather frustrating catch 22. See, Liberator presents us with villains who cry over their lost family members while their future 8 year old rape victims squirm in the background (understand he stops mid-rape to make this call), or make their mark by starting off a hostage situation by literally blowing off a puppy's head. It's the best puppy mutilation gag since GOZU, hands down. Monaka is an unlikely heroine who leaves a calling card in the form of a feather bomb, proving once and for all how redundant CLAMP's fascination with feathers and other pretty doodle-fodder details is in the real world*, and is at once an American comic book superhero (complete with a cape and secret identity) and a klutzy moe stereotype. Mix this already chaotic and convoluted plot with... well, ALIEN (I almost consider Monaka to be the sub-plot here) and the most unlikely villainous organization I've ever remembered hearing about, and action set pieces that border on the asinine - it's more Samurai Champloo that Afro Samurai, if you follow - and you wind up with a bubbling crock of stupidity that can't seem to decide if it's genuine hard boiled action or straight up comedy.

*That's not to say I'd suggest CLAMP stop reveling in their kinky fetishes. Yes, those girls like feathers. And sakura petals. And blood. Prove me wrong, go on, try.

But if Kite Liberator is a spoof, who is the joke being told to? Fans of A-Kite already had a mouth full of jet black humor in the nihilistic original, and anyone who wanted to see the same world with a twist of fun just had to watch Mezzo Forte. Liberator feels very much like its' trying to use the same basic setup - the exploding bullets, the cute girl with an itchy trigger finger, the dangerous father figure(s), the emotionally important jewelry... yeah, that's all the big points I remember - and turn it into something for the 21st century. Which, inevitably, means it's crammed chock full of moe. For those who have better things to do than follow trends in crazy Japanese pop-culture, the basic concept of moe is that you create something (usually a character) that is so cute that the viewer just wants to coddle and protect it from itself and the world around it. While A-Kite would have vomited all over the concept of moe characteristics - and arguably did, raping girls while the film cut back and fourth to psuedo Disney characters watching - Liberator turns Monaka from a cold blooded killer into a girl who eats ice cream while she listens to pop music, and trips all over herself in short skirts for good measure. She literally looks like she wandered out of a bad dating simulator anime when not on the clock, and despite her best efforts to be a badass mother fucker, the moment someone implies she has a boyfriend she's back to her klutzy self. To Umetsu's credit, he establishes almost subliminally that The Angel of Death has existed since Monaka was very young, so we're left to assume that neither is a "core" personality but that they're merely two halves of the whole.

In other words, you will be killed by moe. I'd say this revalation was funny if ELFEN LIED and HIGURASHI NO NAKU KORO NI hadn't beaten Liberator to the punch by several years.

Even more frustrating to my overly analytical mind is the fact that the familiar image of the dangerous Father Figure from A-Kite is in full swing, but unlike Sawa, poor Monaka has to deal with two of them: the fursuiting Sputnik and... well, watch the OVA and you'll get to revel in the other. Once again, a piece of blood red jewelry also establishes the father/daughter relationship for what it really is, and while Sputnik isn't given more than a few lines, I'm left with the impression that he genuinely does care for The Angel of Death - perhaps not so much Monaka, which kinda' makes sense in context. If that wasn't enough, we're also left with Mukai, a single mother with ass-kicking tendencies who, logically, is this sequel's Sawa in Big Sister form. She more than anything established the difference between A-Kite and Liberator: In A-Kite, a kick to the pills left us with a long scene of the man gripping his junk, twitching, vomiting and passing out. There was pain and believability and the overwhelming sensation that A-Kite was more human than any live action film. In Liberator, a kick to the dick cuts immediately to an ambulance wailing and a nervous boss scolding her for hospitalizing the same customer twice in one week. Once this became clear, I could almost stop wincing at the fact that Umetsu delivered to me everything that A-Kite wasn't, but under the circumstances it's clear he wasn't trying to in the first place.

Unfortunately, the biggest flaw is that there's zero character development for ANYBODY. Seriously, we don't know how or even why Monaka is the Angel of Death, nor do we know jack about Mukai other than she's violently protective of cute jail bait, likely because she has a daughter of her own (but how can she spot a trained killer? We can only guess...). Hell, even the unlikely villain isn't given an excuse to clarify what the hell he was doing using people in Space as guinea pigs: he goes from crying that it was all a mistake to being relieved that there's no evidence left, without any real clarification on what it is he was trying to accomplish in the first place. Was he in it for the money, or the science? And what happened to the rest of the NASA crew, anyway? Were they killed by the villainous organization I won't spoil, or what? Don't get me started on that sexy as hell scar on Monaka's back that's given absolutely zero explanation, to say nothing of why the "Good Cop" is after Monaka: is he just attracted to young girls (as we all are... come on, don't lie!), or does he have an inkling that she could be The Angel of Death? If that wasn't enough, the OVA literally hits the 55 minute mark and just... ends. No climax, no answers, no... nothing. Umetsu simply cuts the deck only winds up several cards short, shrugs, and it's game over.

Despite the notably positive aspects running through the work - the CG in outer space is rather spectacular, I like the stripped down Sci-Fi monster aspects for being a fun throwback to bad Alien/s knock-offs, and as always, the character designs are brilliant - the whole is far less than the sum of its' parts. While not entirely unwatchable, it's Umetsu's weakest film by a long shot, and even the first episode of Mezzo TV was both more emotionally satisfying and action packed, which is just sad. While Umetsu clearly did the design work, even the action comes off as flat and unimpressive, with Monaka's anti-gravity jumps and the rubber skulls of her opponents having neither the harsh realism that made A-Kite a nail biting success, or the over the top sensation that we were dealing with a genuine nitro powered heroine like in both incarnations of Mezzo. Monaka stands 3 feet away from a fucking explosion and isn't even thrown back.... for fuck's sake, Sawa lost chunks of her hair and had to walk around covered in bandaids the whole second episode! (And, yes, that gets me off. I know. I'm a bad man.) The action is all too brief, played for laughs, with the best fight scene being two people shooting at each other at point blank range and missing every shot... what the hell? It's just so inconsequential that I'm hard pressed to think of Liberator as an "action" title so much as I do a Sci-Fi/Moe with minimal gunplay because the final conflict requires it for dramatic effect. Umetsu claims in an interview available on Anime News Network (but not on the DVD... more on that in a minute) that he wanted to create "A Noir with Sci-Fi elements", but I'm hoping he said this out of denial over the finished product, because there's simply no Noir to be found here.

That said, Clusterfucks like this don't just "happen", they're made. Despite having two Japanese producers (one who worked on Mezzo Forte, and one from Mezzo TV) there's a third man calling the shots, and that man is John Sirabella, CEO of Media Blasters. Umetsu said over a year ago that the storyline was initially about "Sawa as a single mother raising a teenage daughter". This is clearly no longer the case (even if Mukai is an older Sawa with different colored hair, Monaka ain't her kid), so something dramatic happened between point A and point B to become Liberator. Similarly, this is one of the few times where an American investor is listed as a "Producer" and not just a silent partner. Neither A-Kite nor Mezzo Forte was written to be pornographic, but producers insisted on H scenes to justify the budgets required and ensure a certain demographic would pick it up for the wank factor. Is it possible that here Umetsu was so busy trying to please Sirabella - who I can tell you from experience is a friggin' nut job (albeit with a good business sense) - that he had to drop several aspects from the finished OVA? Both Gundress and Urotsukidoji V: The Final Chapter were released to the public without being "Finished", is that exactly what happened here? Even with another 10 minutes worth of explanations many aspects of the title would still pretty feel weak, but I can't help but think a Director's Cut would actually serve Liberator a purpose instead of being the marketing gimmick it was for both A-Kite and Mezzo Forte.

If the DVD presentation were better maybe I'd be less grumpy, but Sirabella couldn't even get that right. Oh sure, the package is pretty, with a slipcover that doesn't list all the technical specs, opens at the side and even features completely different artwork than the cover underneath. Media Blasters may piss me off regularly, but I'll always love their slipcovers. Presented in interlaced anamorphic widescreen, the disc looks... okay. Not jaw dropping, but decent. Frustratingly the disc features both stereo and 5.1 surround audio, the latter of which was a very weak upmix that sounds incredibly flat. One could argue the 2.0 mix is too dynamic for its' own good, with very LOUD explosions and very tinny dialog, but I personally have no complaints. The feature comes with decent looking yellow subtitles. I didn't watch the dub, and as I'm not exactly stoked to watch this again I doubt I ever will. The only extra included is the 27 minute Tokyo International Film Festival Digest Version, which literally drops characters and sub-plots left and right, but doesn't manage to make Liberator dramatically better in any way. Also, there's an easter egg with the OP for SEIREI NO MORIBITO as a psuedo-trailer. Just Sirabella's way of saying "ha, look what we got beeyotch!"

What it don't got, sadly, is the TIFF Red Carpet/Making-Of, Staff and Cast Interview, or Umetsu commentary on the Japanese 2 disc Limited Edition. I can forgive not including the box and storyboard booklet featured on the R2, but denying extras that Sirabella fucking paid to have made is unacceptable. I'm fully expecting a 2 disc Special Edition someday... if it includes a Director's Cut with no less than 5 minutes of new footage, I may bite. Otherwise, I'm perfectly content with the Digest Version that allows me to experience all the frustration of Liberator in only half the time.

If you ever wanted to see a talented director spoof his own work and fail rather spectacularly in the process, Kite Liberator is probably your best chance to do so. The girls are cute, some of the jokes are funny, and there's a cool monster running around... but don't mistake this for being a sequel to A-Kite. The most telling moment is when Monaka is being told that her gun once belonged to a pretty teenage girl about her age. When she asks what her name was... he couldn't remember. While this felt like a belt in the mouth to all fans of the original, it's entirely possible that Umetsu was trying to admit that, somewhere along the line, he too forgot what that beautiful young assassin's name was. With all of the common threads between A-Kite and Liberator I still feel that there was an intensional attempt to poke fun at the original, but being a spoof doesn't forgive any director of sloppy storytelling or not delivering the people what they paid for.

Don't misunderstand: this is far from the biggest belly flop I can remember. Compared to Dario Argento's full blown career suicide in La Terza Madre or ITANO Ichirou's first convoluted and asinine episode of Blassreiter, Liberator comes out smelling like a rose. Even if I can't write off the cosmic irony of Liberator entirely as being a fascinating failed experiment, I will call it what it is: unfinished, unimpressive, and woefully unfortunate. Perhaps KISS AND CRY will be a return to form.

Rent it, anyway. It's a decent Moe/Sci-Fi OVA with just a hint of that "what the fuck was wrong with OVAs?" flavor that more or less dried up after the end of the 1980s. Just try to convince yourself it has nothing to do with anything else Umetsu's done in the past. Once you've lied hard enough, the pain slowly ebbs until the comedy kicks in.

No comments: