Sunday, June 23, 2013

The EIRIN Goes Berserk

I've been pretty quiet about the BERSERK: THE GOLDEN AGE ARC/ベルセルク 黄金時代篇 film trilogy up until this point. Truth be told I've held off on watching them until all three films were available, partly because I didn't want to torture myself with waiting a year and change to see the next one, and partly because... well, the trailer footage left me unsure if I wanted to watch the film at all.

Kentaro MIURA's now 24 year old Berserk manga is a powerhouse of of character building, realistic pseudo-European dark ages fantasy, and shocking horror, with a total of 38 collected volumes so far - and, to this day, no end in sight. This very specific combination propels the Golden Age into one of the most memorable and unusual experiences available in Japanese comics out there. It was adapted as one of the very first "otaku" shows in 1997 by Oriental Light and Magic, an experiment that pushed the boundaries of violence and sexuality on basic broadcast in an industry that had just been up-ended by surprising mainstream break-outs like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena. The 25 episode BERSERK: 剣風伝奇ベルセルク TV  series was certainly extraordinary for its time - a gorgeously designed, phenomenally cast and scored adaptation of the manga that focused on the character development more than the fantastic and horrific elements of the original source material - but the sudden, explicitly grotesque final episode that left many seemingly important details unexplained left non-Japanese audiences with the worst case of storytelling blue-balls this side of The Sopranos.

I had started reading fan translations of the Golden Age perhaps six months before Dark Horse picked up the rights to the North American market, and started their unusually expensive English run in 2004. While I was interested in reading the continuing adventures of Guts, Caska and that little fairy looking thing - and felt just morally obligated enough to not keep stealing it, once I'd satisfied my curiosity to discover what I had "missed" by way of the TV series. Sadly, even Dark Horse's own aggressive publishing schedule wouldn't get up to the end of the Golden Age until some time in 2007, a period when I was mostly broke and the thought of spending $15 per book of something I knew had been running for nearly 20 years (and thus was no small investment) just wasn't on my personal radar, much as I wish it could have been. Of course now that I'm not filthy-poor and want to not only read the rest of it, but share the glorious Golden Age books with my wife, I'm faced with the grim reality that the earlier volumes are all but impossible to find for anywhere close to cover price... man, how time flies.

Digibook enthusiasts are recommended to look across the pond.

The Berserk: Golden Age trilogy is a series of animated theatrical films covering (roughly books 4 to 16 of Miura's original manga. Minor spoilers in the scheme of things will be covered in the following paragraph, so if you want to know as little as possible, just skip the red text below:

The films film, THE EGG OF THE KING, covers from Guts' battle with Bazuso the Bear Slayer to the assassination of Count Julius. The second film, THE TAKING OF DOLDREY, covers from Guts' battle with Adon Corbolwitz' battalion to Guts leaving the Band of the Hawk, and Griffith being imprisoned for treason. The final film, DESCENT, opens with Guts' reuniting with the weary Band of the Hawk to rescue Griffith, and ends with "The Eclipse" and the immediate aftermath as he accepts his new role as the Apostle Slayer.

While even the TV show felt occasionally rushed at 25 weekly half-hour episodes, the these three films average out roughly 4 hours and 45 minutes, all three films having a common opening sequence, a preview for the next two movies and inordinately long credit sequences, the actual "content" can't be more than 4 hours total (or roughly half as much runtime as the TV adaptation). With this in mind, many concessions to the original material had to be made, and while many of them are present thematically (if nothing else), some of the deleted content does change the tone and scope - if not the focus - of the story. Guts' tragic past as an orphan raised by an abusive, violent mercenary is barely paid lip service in a vague flashback, the lengths to which Griffith would go to in order to fund his dream are never properly explained, and the Queen of Midland simply doesn't exist in the trilogy's universe, boiling the complicated politics and dual-nature of Griffiths' emerging spot in high society somewhat less interesting.

There are a number of lines and brief images that fans of the material will likely recognize, but if the Golden Age trilogy is your first introduction to the franchise there's going to be a lot of questions left unanswered. Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the limited development that the Band of the Hawk gets outside of the three leads of Guts, Caska and Griffith: Judeau, Corkuss, Gaston, Pippin and Rickert are all present and accounted for, but they just don't get enough screen time to matter nearly as much as they should, particularly with the harrowing events that close the story arc. Guts' blacksmith Godo never makes an appearance (though his daughter does!?), and neither the villainous Wyald nor the unnamed human general who took his place in the TV show ever make an appearance - a shame, as he serves as a sort of Final Boss before the God Hand shows up. The new films do feature Skull Knight, a rather central figure in the final hours of the Golden Age, as well as cameos by Serpicio and Farnese, who aren't important in this particular part of the story but become fairly major players later on. Puck the Wind spirit also makes a brief appearance, as does Silat the Kushan warrior in a more impressive battle-sequence that ends in a stalemate, but won't impact the story for some time to come.

What's that? Guts on Titan? I'd be fine with this being the fourth movie...

If the only sin these films had committed was being a Cliff Notes version of Berserk, I'd be merciful by default: Adapting Berserk in anything less than a limitless number of hour-long TV episodes (particularly 20+ years worth of manga material later) was always going to be problematic. The larger issue is the focus on digital animation techniques, including a new and theoretically exciting combination of CG renders and 2D elements, fusing traditionally animated character designs and 3D elements that would have been to complex to reliably animate by hand. In a very real way this is the future of animation, combining the superior tactics of different mediums to create a seamless whole... but goddamn, the technique just ain't there yet. In the same way that The Black Cauldron and Golgo 13: The Professional had to get the ball rolling with CG in the first place, Berserk: The Golden Age is going to be remembered as one of the first franchises to literally stretch 2D animation on top of 3D models to create some at times mesmerisingly fascinating results.

Unfortunately, the results fail just as often as they work, if not more. It's easy enough to forget that, for example, Nosferatu Zodd is an entirely 3D character with the intentionally jerky, textured movement, but the 3D soldiers on the "epic" battlefields that open the first film are painfully stuff and almost infuriatingly sloppy looking. The result is an epic scope that looks distractingly poor next to the almost non-animated slideshows of the TV series, and the fact that the quality of the CG will shift from above average to well below it  in the same exact scene only serve to underscore how not ready for the responsibility Japanese production methods are in 2013. To this day, the best CG feature to come out of Japan is Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and if this trilogy looked even half that good I'd be more forgiving of its aims; certain scenes, particularly the lengthy battle in the second film in which Guts takes on a hundred men, really do look better than they should. Unfortunately the consistency is so hit or miss that if bad CG pisses you off, I'm hesitant to recommend this as the way to introduce yourself to Miura's world. Director Toshiyuki KUBOOKA has come primarily from a video game background, and seeing the massive, epic scale combined with the middling quality of actual animation and attention to detail, I'm not particularly surprised.

The first film in the Golden Age trilogy is by far the weakest of the three, trying to boil down several years into a about two reels, and focusing on ugly CG battles instead of relevant character development. As an adaptation it's serviceable, at best, but as a film on its own merits it's a bloody mess. The second film is far more competent on all levels, focusing on a single period of time and upping the action ante by focusing on the medieval warfare and political back-stabbing without being forced to try and explain complicated backstories or introduce elements of Lovecraftian-Barker horror. The second film is one dwarf short of lapping Game of Thrones at its own tricks, and suggests that Kobooka knew what he was doing after all.

As for the third film... well, the third film is where this gets really interesting. For one thing it's - by far, in my eyes at least - the best of the three films, but we'll discuss it in detail another day. I want to compare a few details to the original manga and TV versions before making any detailed or definitive judgment on what it does and doesn't do properly, I walked away from this film absolutely enthralled, horrified and disgusted. Which is a good thing, considering the pitch black material it covers.

Despite the first two films being drenched in gore, frontal nudity, child abuse and even lengthy graphic sex scenes, they both escaped the EIRIN - that is, the Japanese equivalent to the MPAA - with "PG-12" certificates. Friends will know I was already crossing my arms and glaring at this news, but aside from ignoring Miura's shocking depiction of child rape, the first two films were surprisingly true to their source material, brutal violence and brazen sexuality included. When the teaser for the third film hit, however, it promised an R-18 rating - and, yes, that is literally the equivalent to an NC-17, which has since become used primarily for Hollywood films and Pink Eiga rather than films actually produced for the Japanese market (with the exception of oddities like Miike's Ichi the Killer,  and Sato's Love and Loathing). The later, expanded trailers carried an R-15 certificate, and it wasn't until the solicitations for the recently released Japanese Blu-ray surfaced that we knew the full story...

Since we're discussing the end of a recently released film, I'm going to spoiler tag the rest of this entry. Yes, this was material written in the mid 90s and released - as a TV series - on DVD world-wide over a decade ago, but some of you might be discovering the series for the first time, or - perhaps like myself - you DO know the score and you're just curious how "The Feast" plays out in the new adaptation. In any case, the following text is going to be spoiler-filled... it's also going to get, really, really rapey all up in here. I know y'all reading this are grown ups and stuff - I mean, I say "fuckshit" and "pussyfart" all the time and you're pretty cool with it - but... well, this is adapting one of the single most traumatizing pieces of fiction I've ever encountered, and it's so over the top they had to edit it FOR JAPAN. If that doesn't ring a few potential warning bells, I don't really know what would. So consider yourself warned; lots of monster cock is on its way.

Before we get into this, I can confirm that the runtime for the "Special Version" (R-18) and the "Theatrical Version" (R-15) are exactly the same. The R-18 cut runs 01:47:48, while the R-15 cut runs 01:52:28. For one thing, after we see Guts as the Black Swordsman walk towards the camera, the R-18 cut simply fades to black, and then cuts to the WB logo. The R-15 cut fades to black, and then says "THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING" [in English] and then cuts to an exclusive 5 minute music video - though exactly what the song is, I'm not certain. It's all still images, clips from the first two movies and a few new pieces of animation including a lone wolf wandering the fields. It's cool, I guess, but totally superfluous.

The real difference between the R-15 and the R-18 versions are a number of alternate cuts that run through the final minutes of The Eclipse - for the most part the R-18 version is visibly more explicit, but one shot in particular is actually more visible on the censored version! I spotted 11 shots that were re-animated/censored for the theatrical version, and I'll post both time-codes and lengths, to give you an idea how different the two versions are.

Ideally, Viz will release both cuts whenever they get their chance to release the film sometime next year, but if worse comes to worse, at least you can all make a properly informed choice on if only having one cut is a personal deal-breaker.

Last goddamn chance, people: It's about to get really rapey up in here.

01:23:38 -01:23:42
Femto (Griffith) molests Caska's breasts and crotch.
Theatrical version darkens the bottom of the screen.

01:23:46 - 01:24:50
Close-up of tentacles spreading Caska's legs as Griffith continues rubbing Caska's crotch.
Theatrical version darkens the shot and zooms it in so you can't really see anything.

01:23:55 -  01:23:58
Far shot of Griffith molesting Caska's crotch.
Purple fog extended around Caska and Griffith on theatrical version.

01:24:47 - 01:24:50
Griffith penetrates Caska.
Theatrical version de-focuses/shakes the camera, and darkens the fog.

01:24:52 - 01:24:54
Griffith continues penetrating Caska as Guts struggles.
Black fog added over Caska and Griffith's bodies.

01:25:06 - 01:25:09
Pan-shot of Griffith continuing to rape Caska.
Black fog added to the right side of the theatrical version.

01:25:33 - 01:25:34
Close-up of Griffith's penis and Caska's rump.
Darkened on theatrical version, but just barely visible on uncensored version.

01:26:50 - 01:26:52
Griffith rapes Caska from behind as Apostles hold Guts on the ground.
Dark fog layer added to Theatrical version around Griffith and Caska.

01:26:58 - 01:27:00
Another close-up of Griffith's penis.
Darkened on theatrical version again.

01:27:12 - 01:27:15
Guts' POV of Griffith raping Caska as his eye is punctured by a demon.
Blur effect added to the UNCENSORED version - this time, the R-15 cut is actually less obscured!

01:27:22 - 01:27:24
One last shot of Griffith's penis before he drops Caska.
Darkened in the theatrical version, again.

Amazingly enough, the shot at 01:27:35 in which we see Griffith's sperm dripping out of Caska's body is identical in both versions. I didn't spot any differences in all of the shots where Guts is hacking off his own broken arm, either, which is easily the most disgusting act of dismemberment in what's basically a non-stop orgy of bodily destruction.


As I've said, the ideal solution for all releases going forward would be to include both cuts of the film, but if I had to choose one the "Special Version" would be it. It's clearly the final, raw, uncompromising version of the cinematic equivalent to being force-fed a razor blade and feces cupcake, and with Berserk as a story being an experiment with extremes, this seems like the only logical way to view the film. That said, the theatrical compromise is surprisingly good on its own terms; the censorship is far less blatant than it could have been, and the only overly distracting shots in it are the shot of Caska's legs being spread, and the obnoxiously icky close-ups of Femto's demon cock. [Assuming, of course, that I didn't blatantly miss any additional instances of censorship in my side-by-side viewing.] I'll also point out that the film version completely removes the scenes of the demons stripping Caska and preparing her to be "Sacrificed" to a large, blade-faced beetle monster, which remains one of the most upsetting and lengthy fake-outs in Miura's original comics. Considering Wyald was basically a walking rape dispenser and the Midland King tried to rape his own daughter in the manga, that's saying something.

These censored shots might look more glaring to someone less jaded by several years of "intentional" Pink Eiga optical censorship, but as 4C went out of their way to censor shots where you literally couldn't see a damned thing and then somehow left the above moments intact... well, some of it has to be an intentional "Fuck You!" to the EIRIN's demands that sex and violence remain intact, but sexual violence - even in the context of a story that presents the act of rape as the ultimate betrayal - is simply the line. It is bizarre that one instance is actually less visible on the uncensored version, but as we're seeing Guts' POV as his eye is literally being punctured... yeah, it seems more like an artistic decision than anything else.

And... that's all I got. I meant to talk about goddamn Man of Steel, but c'mon. You guys needed this way more than whatever opinion I have about the latest Superman movie.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Arise of the Import

Well... this was unexpected.

GHOST IN THE SHELL: ARISE/攻殻機動隊 ARISE , a three part OVA series with the first episode seeing a Japanese DVD/Blu-ray release on July 26th, seems like the sort of spin-off that most people will probably like, yet nobody actually asked for. Major Motoko KUSANAGI is all but legendary in both the anime fandom and even the broader Science Fiction community - a smart, hard-as-nails and sexy of the future who dabbles in brain-hacking to keep a world safe in which the boundary between man and machine has meant anything for several generations. Mamoru OSHII's 1995 internationally co-produced animated film remains a landmark for one-of-a-kind visual splendor and fascinatingly relevant pre-internet introspection about the nature of the all but inevitable digital future, and Kenji KAMIYAMA's 2002 "Stand Alone Complex" TV series - and its 2004 direct sequel, "2nd Gig" - is every bit as good as its predocessor, if in a completely different format and style. GITS's original format, a free-form cyberpunk thriller written and rendered by Masamune SHIROW, is arguably the most cohesive version of the story proper, but it's safe to say that both of the visionaries behind the adaptations took everything positive about Shirow's world and only expanded upon it, focusing more on the questions he himself didn't feel fully comfortable answering and leaving the creator to literally fetishise the technology behind it all.

Oshii's feature length sequel, INNOCENCE, and Kamiyama's "SOLID STATE SOCIETY - a somewhat pretentious arthouse experiment and a feature-length TV movie meant to tie up loose ends, respectively - aren't anywhere near as good as the material that spawned them, but they're certainly interesting enough as works of visual art and social commentary when judged solely on their own merits. Perhaps the less said about the two "Compilation Movies" based on the TV series, the better; I can't say if they're bad or not, never having seen them, but I feel the relevancy of abridged versions of TV shows basically died with VHS, and the fact that these are the only versions of the show currently available on Blu-ray in North America remains a travesty.

Vacuum sealed latex catsuits were basically Shirow's idea of "Casual Friday".

By all counts, the footage released and the talent on display for ARISE looks pretty good. The only question left is... well, who the hell actually wanted a prequel in which we see a green and vulnerable Motoko learning the ropes with Security Section 9? Part of Motoko's appeal was that she was at the top of her game, a merciless and seasoned god on the battle-field with the smarts to back up every decision she made... her only real weakness was her curiosity, a philosophical quandary about the nature of who "she" really was as a human brain encased in a synthetic, immortal body. It's entirely possible that ARISE will be a worthy successor to the name, but it's fascinating that with all the (occasionally) interesting discussion of underwhelming and non-existent female heroes in the geek subculture, we're finally getting one of them literally being disempowered just to continue the series another 150 minutes... then again, our heroine is seemingly far less sexualized here than Shirow's borderline fetish-porn art design ever was, so whether or not this is an improvement from any cohesively feminist point of view is certainly up for further discussion.

Anyway, the real story here is that FUNimation is going to be selling imported Blu-rays for the first time. They've announced an allotment of 2,500 copies of the Limited Edition JP release of the first OVA, which is already English subtitled. The JP release is selling for a list price of 6,800 Yen/$71.70, so it's assumed that FUNi will be selling this import at roughly the same price. They've at least confirmed that, much like the Aniplex of America release of the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs, they'll include the Japanese first-press bonus packaging, which includes an o-sleeve slipcover, 35mm film strip and a [translated] booklet. FUNimation has at least made it explicitly clear that this is going to be released up-front as a collector's item, and a more typical bi-lingual release at (surely) a lower price point will come out later on.

Arise, my die-cut O-ringed beauty! 
...seriously, that is pretty damn cool.

While this is all technically uncharted territory, I seriously doubt this is going to become a regular thing with FUNimation. I wouldn't be surprised if the rights to this franchise are so draped in corporate Red Tape that Aniplex wasn't sure they'd even be able to release the series Stateside without the [unofficially defunct] Manga Entertainment company acting as the middle-man, and I similarly wouldn't be surprised if FUNimation was doing this solely as a way of "proving" to Bandai Visual that the majority of Americans just aren't ready to spend more than $60 on less than an hour of entertainment. I admit I don't have any direct access to who made these decisions or what they thought they meant, but if I had to guess I'd think that Bandai Visual Japan sees this as "Market Research" while FUNimation sees this as "Pleasing Everyone Possible" - both their constitutes in Japan for not cheaping the market with a simultaneous-but-cheaper North American release, as well as the small number of American fans who were willing to drop serious coin on a brand new GITS OVA to have it now, rather than wait a year or two and get it for half the price.

I hate to say it, but I'm going to sit this one out for the time being. I have my doubts that FUNimation's "limit" of 2,500 is going to sell out overnight, and even if it did there would be little to prevent me from importing the non-limited JP release, minus the pack-in goodies. Keep in mind that $70 gets you exactly one episode, which means the full 2.5 hour ARISE experience will cost a little over $200! There's plenty of anime titles I'd at least consider dropping that kind of cash for, but a three part OVA I've never seen, explaining the backstory I never asked for to a franchise I think has already peaked - twice?!

Sorry guys, but I'm happy to sit on the sidelines until FUNimation is ready to release this at a price point that doesn't make my wallet wither and curl up like a cold testicle. That said, I literally just threw $100 at FUNi a couple weeks ago, and fuck knows how much more I'll bleed for at Anime Expo next month. Make no mistake, I'm eager enough to see if this prequel pans out to be any good or not, I'm just not stoked at the idea of spending nearly the price of a goddamn 3DS to do it with.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flowering Evil

In the seventh episode of The Flowers of Evil/惡の華, the currently airing adaptation of Shuzo OSHIMI's manga series of the same name, the show goes off the deep end by treating the teen-angst driven act of destruction as an almost religious experience. The sequence could easily the most beautiful thing I've seen in the last year, a moment out of time and space that neither looks like live action footage nor traditional animation, because... well, it's not quite either or. The entire series has been brought to life via rotoscoping, one of the oldest tricks in the animator's handbook, and while I myself had very mixed feelings about the process - particularly in the context of this show - the results that close episode 7 is one of the most awe-inspiring things I can remember. Without trying (or even needing to) explain how and why, anyone with a basic familiarity with animation should recognize how unusual and impressive this sequence is, and with it, for one glimmering moment in time, I felt all of my misgivings and disorientation with the show's unique visual style disappear. For the first time, I felt I finally understood what director Hiroshi NAGAHAMA saw in this unusual production method to begin with.

Episode 8 begins with a recap of the show's previous animated decadence... and then gives us a 6 minute scene in which two characters walk home at dawn. No dialog. No action. No deeper meaning that wasn't summed up in the first 30 seconds. I'm not exaggerating when I say "walking home in silence" compromised a third of the episode's content. Somewhere, David Lynch is holding his head in his hands and asking what the hell is going on, and he may or may not have even heard of the show. It's the single biggest act of professional trolling to the concept of animation actually being animated since the 24th broadcast episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and seeing as how that entire moment remained untouched even in the "final" presentation - the Evangelion: Death compilation movie - I've always interpreted that as the director willfully extending his middle finger in the middle of what was, up until that moment, a long-con experiment with animation styles paying off in what could be the single worst way possible. A friend of mine defended the sequence as a  perfectly sedate visual representation of what it's like to come down from a severe emotional high - can't say he doesn't have a point, but if that's the case, I'm still left chasing the dragon that ended episode 7.

That inconsistency, far more than the style itself, is what keeps me increasingly fascinated - and frustrated - with The Flowers of Evil. Mrs. Kentai calls the show awful, and I don't think that's entirely fair. Meanwhile the staff of Anime News Network gave the first episode almost universal praise, and I don't think that's quite right either. No, the show represents something unusual - something new, perhaps? - and there are absolutely properties and experiences in this show that make it stand out from basically every other piece of animation created up until this moment in history. That's a good thing. The problem is as much as I'm fascinated by the results - and the reason behind them in the first place - I'm not convinced the choice works as often as it fails. And it's that very real sense of frustration that's kept me from saying anything up until now about it: For the first time in years, I'm staring a piece of art in the face right as it's unfolding, and I'm so incredibly torn about how I feel I was afraid I'd say something I'd regret.

Rotoscoping - that is, tracing live action footage to create a more "lifelike" piece of animation - is typically used to heighten reality in situations of obvious unreality; originally created by Max Fleischer in 1915, it served as the backbone for the now iconic Paramount Superman cartoons, and was - arguably - put to its best use by its creator in the 1939 Gulliver's Travels cartoon, which combined exaggerated cartoon caricature with a fully "realistic" character. It was a really interesting use of the technology, but I'd be lying if I said I had more than vaguely fond childhood memories of the film proper, and only remember it now for the painfully awful upscaled Blu-ray, which represents one of the single most dishonest uses of the words "High Definition".

The most fascinating examples of rotoscoped animation I'm aware of, however, are Ralph Bakshi's late 70s productions, with my personal favorite - Fire and Ice - using rotoscoped animation to bring a level of nuance and surreal life to impossibly idealized fantasy archetypes designed by modern illustration master Frank Frazetta. Bakshi's first film to use the technique to its fullest was American Pop, an experimental film driven by the history of America's love of Rock 'n' Roll, and a film in which the actions of its cast work towards a final goal of being exciting and larger than life. American Pop might be unique, even in Bakshi's canon, but the rotoscoping was used specifically to boil down the swagger and over the top personality that its passionate cast of musicians are meant to embody. In Bakshi's case, rotosocping was a way to bring the nuance of reality to the realm of fantasy, be it the polished work found in the utterly mesmerizing Weathertop battle sequence of Lord of the Rings, or the kinda-shitty, often jarringly low-tech tinted tracing of  the organ player in Wizards.

Particularly in the latter case, the rotoscoping was used solely as a means to cut-costs on what was quickly becoming an out of control production, but Bakshi recognized the unique, bizarre charms of the process and deemed it worth turning into an artform in its own right. Rotoscoping popped up in a number of pieces of experimental 80s animation, including the borderline legendary armor-donning sequence in the Taarna short that ends Heavy Metal, and the raucous, over the top punk rock vitality featured in the "Born to Raise Hell" musical number of Rock and Rule. Sometimes single shots of rotoscoping will pop up in otherwise traditional animation - including one of the strangest moments in Robot Carnival's "Red Neck and Chicken Man" segment, itself an ode to both Disney's Night on Bald Mountain and The Headless Horseman. Speaking of Disney, some of the running loops in 101 Dalmations were rotoscoped too, because fuck man, dogs are complicated!

In all of these cases, the technique was used to take the "real" movement of a human being and transpose it into a larger than life exaggeration - the point wasn't quite to mimic humanity, but to take the animation representation of it to new artistic heights. Granted, some people who spend more time mulling over animation theory than myself are ready to argue that rotoscoping is a cheap, lazy method to "fake" animation - even motion capture used by films created entirely out of CG renders can be considered rotoscoped, in a sense. It certainly rubbed Pixar the wrong way hard enough that, after the 2007 oscar nominations it was up against used the technique, they released their next film (Ratatouille) with the disclaimer "100% Pure Animation - No Motion Capture!" in place of the typical live action equivalent of no animals being harmed and blah-blah look I love animals and ASPCA's all right, but unless we're watching APOCALYPSE NOW! again I feel like we've reached that point where we can probably just assume that all animals on camera are being treated better than their human counterparts. Unless Von Trier's involved, I guess.

To trace all this back to The Flowers of Evil, the TV series is taking those same tools honed by Bakshi and his contemporaries and doing something utterly drastic with them: Nagahama is using the creepy, Uncanny Valley qualities of the medium and turning it against its own audience. As I'm sure I've covered before (but can't remember when, so fuck it) the Uncanny Valley is a scientifically sound phenomenon where the closer to reality an artificial figure becomes - be it a CG render in a video game, a drawing traced from a photograph, or just an ordinary replicant come to murder your soul while you sleep with its unblinking eyes - the more those very subtle nuances that separate it from being a "real" person begin to freak us right the fuck out. Basically, it's the reason Real Dolls are more unsettling that GI Joe's - yeah, there's also that whole "lubricated orifices" wildcard to consider, but simply put, the fact that the former is meant to look realistic means we consciously realize how it doesn't. Comparatively speaking, a 12 inch figure with swivel joints and felt glued to his face just looks quaint and exaggerated.

On the off chance you've yet to see an episode of The Flowers of Evil, the show... looks like this:

Considering how amazingly... normal the original source manga looked, this fusion of 2D abstraction and unsettlingly real sense of perspective and body language are about the most traumatizing thing you'll see from Japan this side of Kanashimi no Belladonna. This being The Internet, most everyone who would have otherwise fallen into the target demographic for this bizarre anomoly took this as a personal offense and immediately got on YouTube to tell everyone how terrible the show was, even if they'd only seen a single screencap. I won't fault any of these people for this gut reaction, because I felt it too; even consciously knowing I was looking at something constructed to make me feel that way, I watched the entire first episode with one brow cocked and a grimmace on my face, wondering how the guy who directed Mushi-Shi and Detroit Metal City - two wildly different, but equally fascinating styles of traditional animation - could have made something so damned ugly!

And yet... that's kind of the whole point, I think. Shows in which attractive 2D characters deal with the trials and tribulations of secondary school are a dime a dozen, stretching into every potential demographic and genre possible - light drama, tragedy porn, zany sitcoms and everything in between. With this in mind, the omnipresence of "cute kids in school do something insubstantial for 20 minutes" card explains why The Flowers of Evil took such a drastic choice in its presentation; The Flowers of Evil isn't one of "those" shows. And I don't say that as a total dismissal, either - hell, I liked K-On!, and I thought School Days was an absolutely brilliant deconstruction of the idealized high school life. And if you didn't laugh at any point watching Azumanga Daioh!, you probably don't have a soul. Seriously dude, go to a doctor and have that shit checked.

The Flowers of Evil is either pushing those audiences away, or kicking them in the pills and daring them to keep watching, depending on how you want to view director Nagahama's intentionally unattractive style. The air of grim filth continues into the rusting, rotten background pallets and often minimalist sound design that's not too dissimilar to the average methodically paced live action Japanese arthouse drama. With a few (intentionally) uncharacteristic visual flourishes in episode 5, the Flowers of Evil TV series eschews as many of the fantastic and vibrant explosions of fun in its contemporaries, and it does it specifically to make you fell slightly worse about yourself. The slug-like pacing, asymmetrical character designs, and the groaning instrumental soundtrack all work together to create a thoroughly unpleasant, emotionally desolate atmosphere. It's all the grungy, dour symbolism of FLCL's soul crushing town, but without any of the whimsy that Gainax infused to make their return to adolescent frustrations somewhat palatable.

The most natural comparison one could make is probably A Scanner Darkly. Personally I expect others to make that connection, it seems obvious at first even, but reject it. Yes, both use rotoscoping as a way to unnerve and disorient the audience, but A Scanner Darkly itself is a science fiction story in which the very boundaries between reality and paranoia are constantly thrown into question.The Flowers of Evil is undeniably a story tied to the rejection of normalicy and psychopathic dissonance, but the universe this story takes place in is very much our own. It even gives us a specific place where it all happens (though not until much later on), quelling in part any question as to if this tale is set in "our" world or some fictionalized parody of reality.

That said, the unpleasant atmosphere is... kind of inconsistent. As others far more experienced in these areas have already pointed out, one of the biggest problems with this unique rotoscoped "look" is that, on medium and (especially) far shots, characters become all but indiscernible with essentially no recognizable features. For a show with a distinctly pointed focus on characterization - for all intents and purposes, there's exactly three lead personalities and their development is the only thing the show has to offer - literally turning your protagonist into an indistinct blob isn't helping to make your point. The fact that Nakamura has a different hair color than the other two characters almost feels like it's cheating, but - to be fair, that was true in the manga as well, and its' reasonably neutral, cute art style doesn't have any of the problems with consistency its adaptation does.

Another oddity was the fact that the first two episodes of the TV series feature Kasuga actually reading poems by Baudelaire himself. It's an interesting idea, using Kasuga's inspiration to fuse with the original material... but it stops suddenly and never re-appears, despite his continued lionization of Baudelaire. I don't mind an adaptation bringing relevant art into the fray, but to start it and then not go back to the idea feels like a bit of a cop-out... or maybe Baudelaire isn't nearly as relevant to this new original work's story as its own hero seems to think it is?

If this were the only issue with the show's presentation I wouldn't be so upset with it, but the above cap was chosen for a reason: That intentionally chosen screenshot above is from the rage-inducing scene that opens episode 8, and is literally six minutes straight of scrawled, vaguely humanoid blobs walking hand in hand in total silence as the sun rises. As another professional in this area is quick to point out, the very nature of rotoscoping is boiling "real" action down to its base elements in a way that's simpler and thus faster for the brain to interpret, and while this pacing might seem more natural in a live action drama, seeing it rotoscoped with that same methodical, slow-as-a-slug pacing sometimes on material that's literally a single background for several seconds at a time, just feels cheap and ugly by comparison. Pacing in film is an art, not a science, and I won't claim that what's done here is wrong, but the fact that I'm willing to compare it to the now legendary dick-move of animation trolling committed nearly 20 years ago in Evangelion should say something about how unusual it is.

I won't pretend I know Baudelaire from a hole in my ass - the reading in the first two episodes of his  poetry is the first I've heard of it, and knowing how I tend to hate older romance-language translation cadence I'll probably never get much else out of it anyway - but if there's one thing I'm all too familiar with, it's the hopelessness of adolescence, and how latching onto something that sounds world-shattering and smartly adult can change your whole outlook on the world. Suddenly life isn't a coursing cesspool of raging hormones, emotional retardation and intellectual boredom; you become something better, something more intelligent and worthwhile that the sacks of worthless meat around you. You become - through no lack of having anything else to compare yourself to - an individual. You wrap yourself in that knowledge, in that fascination, that fetish only you know about and you use it to convince yourself you're better, that you'll leave this aching, disgusting world of ordinary people and become something better than your own life. This is an almost universal reaction because it's as much societal as it is chemical. The wishy-washy definition of what decisions are and aren't acceptable for adolescents to make are a bitch like that.

As a teen, you're more often than not pretentious asshole who doesn't actually know shit about shit, and to whom the act of growing up and accepting that you aren't what you think you are is the most grotesque, painful, and humiliating thing you'll ever know. It's unfortunate, but also totally natural - perhaps even unavoidable. Most people who watched the first episode of The Flowers of Evil didn't know this yet, but the whole damn show is about tearing those illusions down to ashes and bones, showing you how uninteresting and common Kasuga - and by way of the way we interpret stories, the viewer, really is. The Flowers of Evil is amazing because it's about facing all the pain, all the frustration, and all the hopelessness that entails, with the likelihood of a happy ending - or even justified catharsis - being so remote that the show might as well come with a bottle of anti-depressants. It isn't pretty, and the show is designed from the ground on up to make that material as aesthetically ugly as humanly possible.

Truth be told, there's another reason I love it, and that's the delicious way in which it's completely destroyed the typical tropes of  late 90s/early 00s ero-anime tropes, particularly those cemented by the Pink Pineapple/Elf "Oyaji Trilogy" that began with Isaku. The following paragraph is going to contain some spoilers, since I can't actually explain what about this show I like properly without using an actual example. If you haven't seen episode 7 yet, consider skipping this next bit, and come back when the text returns to normal:

Just before the scene that so enamoured me, there's a wonderful exchange between the blackmailer Nakamura - who wants the antihero Kasuga to remove his mask and show the whole world the dark monster lurking within him - in which she reveals the only way to atone for his "sin" is to own it, and expose himself as the heinous, perverted shit-worm that they both know he is. Kasuga breaks down and begs her to just let him go back to his normal, awkward, uninteresting life... and and Nakamura loses hope. She - and I'm paraphrasing, to a degree at least - looks Kasuga in the eye and tells him "I was wrong about you. You just wanted sex... like everyone else. What a disappointment."

To clarify this, Nakamura isn't anti-sex, not exactly - she was eager to hear from both sides after he went to Saeki's house to (she assumed) fuck her brains out, and hope to piece together another side of Kasuga's true self, whatever that may be. She's just against the coddling, simplistic desires that drive everyone around her to be satisfied with normal, shallow happiness - something she herself is unable to feel due to traumas never fully explained, and thus rejects as being anything but a manufactured fantasy. Her torture and abuse - almost all of it emotional in nature - is to draw out whatever true deviant lurks beneath the bland face of a normal young teenager; sex itself isn't perverse, it's normal, thus sex itself means nothing to her. It literally took the rhythm and escalating gratuity perfected by Shuusaku - basically, the pornographic equivalent to a shitty slasher movie - and made it about everything but sex. Some people see this as a cop-out. I see it as a work of the original author's understanding of those underlying universal themes, which - in turn - were used to create shows like Shuusaku in the first place.

She wanted to see something violent. Something depraved. Something shocking. She thought it all meant something... and it's this realization that Kasuga can't run from his own desires that catalyses the beautiful, transformative release that affirmed my love for this unusual series, and fully reveals the core idea of The Flowers of Evil: That only by accepting those unpleasant realities we hide from ourselves will we ever be free to feel anything beyond the trite realities of puppy love and undefined teen angst. It's certainly a simplified, fatalistic notion - but it's one Nakamura firmly believes in, and even now as I draw ever closer to my third decade alive, it's not one I'm entirely convinced is without merit.

I'd go on - I'd love to talk about why I think Nakamura is so drawn to Kasuga - but that would be spoiling volumes of the manga not yet available through official channels, and at this rate, the TV series will never get to that moment of clarity anyway. As of this writing, episode 10 has aired and been simulcast on Crunchy Roll, with 13 episodes promised in total. (Sentai Filmworks has already announced the North American home video/digital rights, but there's no firm date set beyond "2013", and no confirmation of a Blu-ray either.) Without getting into major spoiler territory, I'll say that the first 33 chapters of the original Flowers of Evil manga tell a beautiful tragedy from start to finish; the fact that the author keeps going, however, is a tragedy unto itself, at least if everything up through chapter 45 is any indication. At the glacial pace the anime adaptation has chosen, there's simply no way it'll get to the end of Kasuga and Nakamura's story proper - we'll get to a big, shocking moment I'm sure - the adaptation would be a bit of a waste if it didn't get there - but not to the end itself.

I'm slightly sad knowing that the show's refusal to create anything marketable, no pop singles, no "cute" character designs to make figures from, nothing that would convince anyone but the most die-hard of manga fans [or wholly atypical anime fans] to spend exorbitant amounts on merchandise and super-expensive import Blu-rays... in short, there's no way in hell we're getting a second season. Much like Shigurui, we're going to get a literal adaptation of part of the story, and that's all we're going to get. Maybe once the TV series is over we'll have a chance to go over what might have been, to say nothing of what will happen in the 11th hour [which is, all things considered, where most of the show's "HOLY SHI-" moments are going to be found].

In short, The Flowers of Evil is a triumph more for its ghastly reflection of dark, youthful ignorance than it is for its stilted animation or occasionally awkward pacing, but in a frustrating way both of those flaws solely exist to prop up the ugly, honest fascination of self-loathing and distorted notions of romanticism the story has to deliver. If the idea interests you but the art style keeps it at arms length - something I myself struggled with for a while - I'd not hesitate to recommend the manga, which is available up to volume 6 through Vertical in North America, with volume 7 due in October. All of the self-hatred, none of the awkward sliding-scale in art quality and pacing frustrations. Whatever medium you choose, buckle up... it likely going to be both much better, and less fun than you're expecting it to be.

EDIT: Fixed a few paragraphs for clarity, accuracy and spelling... I so need an editor.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Steel Demons

Goddamn it, Don...

So, here's the deal: Our old pals Don May and Jerry Chandler purchased the rights to release Lamberto Bava's DEMONS/Demoni and DEMONS 2/Demoni 2, on Blu-ray through Synapse Films. For the time being they're only selling these two films as Limited Edition steelbook DVD+BD sets through their own website, and while they acknowledge that they might do a non-limited release later they currently aren't promising jack shit. They're planning to ship the finished product "by November", but promise they'll send them out as soon as they're ready, which - if Intruder was any indicator - may well be several weeks, maybe even a few months in advance.

It's not a typical pre-order, however. For one thing, they charge you NOW, now when the product is actually going to ship. Kind of unusual and... honestly, a bit of a dick move I think. Not sure if this is part of the grand plot to pre-pay Scanavo for the access to their delicious Steelbook technology or what, but it's something you can't exactly plan for - you either pay now, or pray it isn't sold out later. The other brow-raiser is the price tag: Each steelbook is $39.95 plus $6 shipping, which makes the whole set just under $92. For reference, anyone who pre-ordered the Arrow Video steelbook from last year literally paid less than half the price Don is asking for both films after the standard Amazon discount.

That said, not only is the packaging unique - both sides feature some amazing artwork, one an "all new" take by award winning horror specialist Wes Benscoter, the other a 'clean' version of the original poster art -  but the Blu-rays themselves stand to deliver an improved presentation when compared to Arrow Video's frustrating attempts. Both will be presented on BD-50s with, presumably, moderate-to-high bitrates encodes, and the first film will feature both the "American" dub as featured on the Arrow Video BD, as well as the "European" dub (which had been featured on every prior DVD release I'm aware of). The English audio on Arrow's release was "blah" at best, and their excuse for not including the alternate dub was even worse; even members of their notoriously positive Cult Labs forum poked holes in their defense saying that it's "impossible" to sync an alternate track to a new print by one of the members doing it himself in less than half an hour.

The press release promises 'all new' HD transfers, but as we've already established talking with Don May himself, it's the same initial 2K scan Arrow Video created with Cinetecca di Bologna plus some additional color-correction. That said, I've got no qualms with that approach; Arrow Video's final transfers had 99 problems, but their scan of the OCN [Original Camera Negative] ain't one.

The discs also have a host of brand new, and - for now, at least - exclusive bonus material in the form of five new interviews each, including director Lamberto Bava, producer Dario Argento, genre writer/director staple Luigi Cozzi, composer Simon Bowsell and several others. You guys know me, I'm starting to think we've reached the point where there's not many new stories left to tell about 25 year old genre films, but I certainly can't blame Synapse for trying to fill these discs to the gills for those who never tire of heaving these people reminisce on their most beloved works. I don't think I've actually watched more than a curious minute or two of any of the bonus features on the Arrow Video set yet, so as you can imagine the presence of new extras leaves me nonplussed more than anything. Truth be told I'm surprised there's no new commentary or any material with the first film's co-star Garetta Garetta, who was more than happy to show up for the 35mm screening I saw at the New Beverly not long ago, but I can't say their inclusion would have nudged my wanting this one way or the other either.

Oh yes, you also get a replica ticket with the first set. Not quite as cool as the Japanese DVD box set including a mini-replica of the Black Sunday mask, I admit, but it was a nice little gesture to make that bitter price tag go down just a bit smoother.

Honestly... I'm not sure what to do. The tins look pretty great. I do love the first film, and Arrow Video's release - while a marked improvement over the Anchor Bay DVDs in several areas - are a mess when it comes to color grading, compression and the English audio track which was, arguably I suppose, the "original" language track. Owning several Synapse releases, I have no doubt that these will be the "Ultimate Edition" presentations I've been longing for since I first laid eyes on Arrow's middling transfer work. I don't intend for this to be any sort of popularity contest, but simply put, Don's work basically speaks for itself. If you own Frankenhooker, The Dorm That Dripped Blood, Fairy in a Cage - heck, even that awesome 42nd Street Forever Blu-ray! - you already know that their work is consistently good, and that Synapse is more than capable of producing the finest presentation of the Demons films we're likely to ever see. Sick as I am of double-dipping films in general, much less from Blu-ray to Blu-ray, I want these sets, and damn the expense!

But still, $46 a piece? Christ, that makes even Twilight Time's $35 shipped price tag on titles like Christine seem pretty fair, and at least with those damnable things you aren't sitting there wondering if your somewhat sizeable price tag is going to be replaced a few months later by a reasonably-priced mass market version.

All we know for sure is that over 1/3 (or about 1,000 each) of these sets has already been bought by the public, and if these last more than a week I'll be shocked. Already I'm struggling to pull the trigger for one each - particularly when I remember what a damned slog Demons 2 is! - but the thought of doubling down and trying to flip a second set is borderline heart-breaking.