Girl in Woods

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“Why we don’t camp, #273.”

It’s always interesting when reviews of a film are deeply polarized, and that’s the case here. The first page of Google results run the gamut from “I simply despised the film as a whole” to “The images are frightening within, and the only thing better than the scares are the performances.” While I lean toward the latter, I can see how this could have failed to make a connection with some viewers, and if that happens, then there isn’t much else to prevent the former opinion. It’s the kind of film where there isn’t likey to be a middle ground in reactions.

Following an awful childhood trauma, Grace (Reeves) has grown up into a troubled soul, but has finally found some peace, through her boyfriend (not without his own issues) and pharmaceutical help. However, that’s all shattered on a weekend trip to a cabin in the forest; on the way there, an accident (or was it?) occurs, leaving Grace stranded, alone, in the woods and very poorly equipped to survive. For what follows is a gradual and relentless shattering of her sanity, as the stress builds up and the drugs run out, and she tries to get out of her predicament. Grace’s personality splits into three distinct versions of herself – then there’s the darkly aboriginal creature who appears to be stalking her.

Meanwhile, we get flashbacks to Grace’s life with her mother (Carpenter) and father (Perkins), shedding some light on the cause of her mental fragility. It’s not much of a stretch to see Grace’s lost physical state as a metaphor for her psychological one: the title (and yes, that is it – I didn’t miss out a “the”) suggests the same. Since her character is on screen in virtually every scene, it’s a movie which really stands or falls on whether you buy in to Reeves’s performance – or, more accurately, performanceS, since many of these have her interacting only with her other selves. After some shaky moments early on, I found the approach kinda crept up on me, and some of the three-way scenes are near-impeccable, both technically and dramatically.

When your story largely involves watching someone lose their mind, keeping it interesting for the viewer is not an easy task to pull off. Benson succeeds, even if you’ll be reluctant to commit too far, because it’s clear that what Grace remembers, and what actually happened, may be radically different things. There’s a sudden effort at the end to tie everything together into urban legend, which I’m not sure is particularly helpful. It seems to come out of nowhere and feels like pandering toward a sequel. Trim those few minutes off, because you’ll know the “true” ending when you see it, and it would be a tighter overall product. Yet, there’s still enough of merit here to make it worthwhile, if admittedly this could be seen as merely confirming our strong preference against woodland wandering.

Dir: Jeremy Benson
Star: Juliet Reeves, Charisma Carpenter, Lee Perkins, Jeremy London

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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“Majors in stunning visuals; minors in everything else.”

I really wanted to like this. Seriously, this had the potential to be thoroughly kick-ass, innovative and visually stunning, in a way never before seen in action heroine cinema. However, the end result is only somewhat kick-ass, and might have felt more innovative. if Ghost in the Shell hadn’t already been strip-mined for ideas over the past two decades, as noted over the weekend, by everyone from James Cameron to the Wachowskis. Rather than pushing the imagination envelope further, Sanders and the film’s script seems content to coast along on the original ideas, and these are no longer as cutting-edge as they need to be.

The story still concerns the Major (Johansson), here the marginal survivor of a terrorist attack, who has her brain transplanted into an entirely artificial body by the Hanka Robotics corporation. She has become the top operative of a government security group Section 9, working alongside somewhat-cyberized Batou (Asbæk) and the still entirely human Togusa, under the command of Aramaki (Kitano). Hanka becomes the target of a series of cyber-terrorist attacks, investigated by the Major, despite experiencing “glitches” of audio-visual hallucinations. The culprit is revealed to be a hacker known as Kuze (Pitt). Turns out he has more than a slight connection to the Major, being in possession of disturbing information about her origin, as well as her life before becoming a full-body cyborg.

The story has a very clever approach to the whole “whitewashing” controversy: at least initially, rather than Motoko Kusanagi, she has been reinvented by Hanka Robotics as Mira Killian, who give her a whole new set of memories, which may or may not be accurate. It’s this quest for her real identity which drives the plot, containing more than a few echoes of Robocop. And that’s an illustration of the main problem here: it feels less like anything cutting edge, than a conglomeration of elements taken from films which has gone before. That half of these stole from the animated Ghost, doesn’t help the live-action version much.

There are are some aspects which work. It looks lovely, and I can’t say I felt shortchanged by having gone to the cinema to see it: though even here, it’s like Blade Runner with less rain and more daylight. The cast are good too. Johansson has the correct deadpan approach, Asbæk is ideal for the hulking Batou and Kitano knocks it out of the park, as the most bad-ass bureaucrat you’ve ever seen [this will be absolutely no surprise if you’ve seen classic Kitano films such as Violent Cop]. However, in action, it only works in intermittent moments, such as the raid against the hacked geisha robots, or the battle against the spider-tank – the latter certainly lives up to expectations from the other versions.

The aspect which did work better than in the animation was the blurred line between humans and cyborgs, which is more striking when you have real people involved. There’s one scene, for instance, where Kuze is talking to the Major, and he simply reaches out and lifts a quarter-panel of her face off. It’s a startling image; truth be told, perhaps too startling, as I spent the rest of the scene thinking, “SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS MISSING PART OF HER HEAD!” rather than about the conversation between the two characters. I’ve also heard a number of people say this was a case where 3D genuinely improved the experience – we saw it in 2D, in deference to Chris’s motion sickness, which ended 3D viewing for us at Avatar.

At a brisk 106 minutes, it doesn’t hang around, though the story appears to shift gears at about the half-way point, and becomes more focused and driven. It’s still barely able to scratch the surface of the universe: having watched four movies, 52 TV episodes and four hour-long OVAs over the past couple of months, I was painfully aware of how much was going on that had to be utterly discarded here – yet they still found time to include a number of scenes e.g. the water fight, which felt inserted, purely as homages to the original material. Did appreciate the way languages were completely fluid: Aramaki spoke all his lines in Japanese, yet the Major was entirely in English, as if this was as much a stylistic choice as the shape of your “shell.”

Unfortunately, it looks like this will likely be one and done for the franchise, with the film being crushed at the North American box-office by – pardon me while I throw up – Baby Boss. If the makers are to recoup their investment, it will need to follow in the footsteps of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and perform well in overseas markets. [RE: TFC has now taken 11x as much in foreign markets as it did in the US/Canada] Action heroine fans will be hoping for better results on June 2, when Wonder Woman opens.

Dir: Rupert Sanders
Star: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

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“Not be confused with the old movie.”

Really, that was the best name they could come up with? Oh, well. “A rose by any other name…” Released in Japan in June 2015, more or less on the 20th anniversary of the “not-so-new movie”, I guess, it’s the most recent incarnation of the animated universe. This is more or less a direct follow-on from the Arise series, following up on the “Firestarter” arc, the name for both a wizard-class hacker and the virus they have created. As such, you’d definitely fare better if you’ve seen that series first, since (as we’ll see) it has enough issues with new plot elements, and doesn’t bother with much explanation about any pre-existing ones.  This feature is also using the same redesigned character designs, and with the Major (Sakamoto) operating in conjunction with Section 9 and Aramaki (Juku), rather than under his direct control.

The main incident under investigation is the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister, blown up with a briefcase bomb, during a meeting. That’s the simple synopsis. The more accurate one would involve a complex and tangled web of government departments and their intersection with elements of the military-industrial complex. It’s a alphabet soup blitzkrieg of acronyms: MOD, MOC, DFA. Or was it MFA? Either way, it becomes awfully hard to keep track of who is doing what to whom, for the sake of which alliance. Perhaps it makes more sense if you have a pre-existing awareness of the intricacies of the Japanese federal bureaucracy. Otherwise, you’ll be left scratching your head and/or yawning for significant chunks of this.

Which is a shame, as there are some aspects which are still enjoyable. I particularly liked the idea that the head villainess actually uses the same make and model of prosthetic body as Major Kusanagi, so in effect she is hunting her own doppelganger. This ties together with more information on her childhood, in a cybernetic orphanage, which is being run for purposes that are very far from charitable. There is more of a sense of team here. The Major refers to her colleagues as “parts,” something they take to mean they’re expendable – or it could actually be high praise, given the nature of her existence. It’s symptomatic of the ambivalence about technology that has been present throughout, over a period now spanning two decades.

The action is as impressive as it was in Arise, with a number of show-stopping set-pieces, pitting Kusanagi and her team against a range of opponents, from near-human to entirely artificial. There are also surprisingly poignant moments, such as their questioning of a former active-duty soldier whose job is now to receive the last words of his colleagues. This renewed his purpose in life, after he had been left behind to wallow in his obsolete prosthetic body. But these elements just make the murky plotting all the more frustrating, and I can’t help suspecting the writers confused obscurity with depth.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star: Maaya Sakamoto, Ikkyuu Juku, Kenichirou Matsuda, Tarusuke Shingaki

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

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“Brains and brawn.”

Much more a reboot, complete with a redesigned lead, than any kind of sequel, this four-part series of hour-long episodes received a theatrical release in Japan, before being released on DVD. In a typically confusing GitS universe approach, it was then broadcast on TV in 10 episodes, with extra material added. I mention this only because it’s the four-part version which will be reviewed here. It starts before Major Kusanagi (Maxwell) joins up with her boss, Aramaki (Swasey): initially, she’s part of the 501st, a counter-cyberterrorism group which owns her cyborg body. However, Aramaki offers her the opportunity to go freelance under him, doing similar work, and assemble a team who will largely be free from bureaucratic oversight.

Over the course of the four episodes, she recruits others whose names will be familiar. For example, ex-Ranger Batou (Sabat), comes aboard after initially being part of a team working against Kusanagi, who are trying to prove government complicity in war crimes. This is an interesting change, compared to the previous versions, which always seemed to join Section 9 “in progress,” and provides some intriguing insight into what makes – literally, to some extent – the Major the way she is. For, in this incarnation, we discover that she has been in her prosthetic body since birth, and has never known any other way of life.

The other main focus is the dangers of a society which is totally reliant on technology, because of the horrible opportunities for exploitation it presents to terrorists. Even the heroine is not immune to being hacked, and one of the themes is the implications of a world in which you can’t trust your own memories, when these could be false implants. This makes police work incredibly hard, because as is pointed out, even if someone admits to committing a crime, they could actually be entirely innocent. This illustrates the nicely cynical streak here, concentrating heavily on the potential downsides of scientific advancement.

I found the main strength to be the much better balance struck between the intellectual and action elements. If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know I’ve rolled my eyes at the uber-dense lumps of philosophy, shoehorned in for no reason more necessary than, apparently, to prove how well-read the script-writer was at college. Here, those are refreshingly absent, although you still need to be paying damn good attention to the plot: I made the mistake of drifting away in episode 2 for a bit, and finally had to admit defeat, cranking things back to re-watch what I’d missed.

The battle sequences are awesome. Whether it’s the Major going up against another enhanced human, or taking on a massive battle-tank which has been hijacked by a pair of “ghosts,” these are slickly animated and edited with precision, in a way from which many live-action films could learn. They’re also incredibly violent, both on a personal level and in terms of the material carnage caused by them. But such is the joy of cyborgs, they can take a lickin’ and keep right on tickin’… The result is a rare combination of action and intelligence, that offers something for both the lizard portions of the brain, and the more highly-developed parts.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star (voice): Elizabeth Maxwell, John Swasey, John Swasey, Jason Douglas

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

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“Shellfishly indulgent.”

This is largely included purely for completeness: if this had been a stand-alone film, it likely wouldn’t have qualified, not reaching the mandatory minimum quota of action heroineness. For in this sequel, Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) has abandoned even her artificial physical form, for life entirely inside the Internet. Her presence in this is therefore more spiritual, with Batou (Yamadera) referring to her as his “guardian angel”, and her impact is more felt than seen – particularly in its ramification for Batou, whose degree of cybernetic enhancement is not much lower than hers. She only returns to a tangible persona in the final scene, where Batou has to take on a near-endless stream of combat-reprogrammed sex robots. My, that’s a phrase I never thought I’d be writing…

So this is much more Batou’s story, as he and the much-less enhanced Togusa (Ōki) investigate Section 9’s latest case. In it, the “gynoid” sex robots created by tech company LOCUS SOLUS, are involved in a series of their owners’ deaths, which have been covered up and settled quietly, out of court. Section 9 are brought in, over concerns the incidents are a prelude to a cyber-attack by terrorists. Instead, they discover human “ghosts” are being implanted into the gynoids, to make them more realistic. It eventually turns out LOCUS SOLUS, from their floating headquarters (conveniently in international water) have been kidnapping young girls, in order to repeatedly copy the victim’s personality into their robots – a process which eventually drives the source insane.

It’s quite a trip for Batou and Togusa to get there, however. They have to handle a very pissed-off Yakuza gang, whose boss was one of the gynoid victims – they don’t respond well to Batou’s style of investigation, shall we say. Then there’s Kim, an ex-military hacker who can hack the pair’s cyber-brain, and twist the reality they experience into a pretzel. This is where the mix of animation styles is perhaps at its best: Oshii opts neither for pure CGI nor traditional hand-drawn, instead combining them in a way that uses the strengths of each to good effect.

But it probably is too damn cerebral for its own good. Per Wikipedia, “quotations in the film come from Buddha, Confucius, Descartes, the Old Testament, Meiji-era critic Saitō Ryokuu, Richard Dawkins, Max Weber, Jacob Grimm, Plato, John Milton, 14th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, the Tridentine Mass, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie, French Enlightenment philosopher and author of Man a Machine.” This is a common problem for Oshii: see Avalon or Garm Wars, for other examples of his work which also struggle to hold up under the philosophical weight he throws onto genre fare.

Look, I’m not averse to intellectual concepts in film. But when it comes to action film, they need to be a garnish rather than the main ingredient – something to tickle the higher parts of the brain, while the lizard areas enjoy the spectacle and gratuitous violence. While those latter aspects are present, it comes with indigestible lumps of philosophy, that I would rather had been present in lesser quantity, if not left out of the dish entirely.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Akio Ōtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Tamio Ōki, Atsuko Tanaka

Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex

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“We need to go deeper…”

Despite the critical and commercial success of the original film, it took a while for anything further to emerge from the GitS universe. Over the seven years after the movie, the only adapted media to be released was a 1997 video-game. This hiatus came to an end in October 2002 when Stand Alone Complex took the air on Japanese satellite station  SKY PerfecTV!. This was a 26-part series, each episode lasting 25 minutes, and was followed in 2004 by S.A.C. 2nd GIG, which had the same format. In turn, the first season was adapted into both a feature-length version, The Laughing Man, and two manga volumes, while the second was also edited down into a feature-length edition, Individual Eleven.

The main advantage the TV series offers over the movie should be apparent: it has much greater scope at which to explore the world of cyberbrain networks, information warfare, and their resulting impact on society and humanity. This is particularly apparent early on in the first series. There does eventually develop an ongoing story arc, focusing on the search for an elite hacker (the “Laughing Man”, who takes inspiration from a J.D. Salinger short story) who is trying to expose a conspiracy between the government and cyber-medical companies. But the series also has episodes that don’t advance this at all, exploring other aspects of life in the technologically advanced society which is 2030’s Japan.

It can also be pretty damn cerebral at times. Even the titlular concept, the “Stand Alone Complex”, is not easy for the viewer to wrap their head around. It’s a little bit like the notion of copycat incidents – except, in the case of the Stand Alone Complex, the original didn’t take place, or at least not in the way perceived by those who copy it. It’s probably easiest to provide an example: “Slender Man”. This was a supposed supernatural creature, belief in which reportedly caused two 12-year-old girls to stab another, a ritual designed to impress Slender Man. But the urban legend in question was actually a piece of fiction, created wholesale by a Internet forum user. This idea informs both seasons, with reality and perceived reality both triggering subsequent actions. It’s sometimes way above my head, that’s for sure.

Another result of the extra room is an approach which occasionally becomes meandering to the point of irritation. On the other hand, you can only admire a show which is confident enough in its own abilities, to have an episode which takes place, almost in its entirety, in an Internet chat room. Another ongoing thread is the growing self-awareness of the Tachikomas, independent AI tanks employed by Section 9. These feature in little vignettes at the end of every episode in the first season. To be honest, I initially found their squeaky little voices fairly irritating and fast-forwarded as soon as the final credits rolled. However, they did redeem themselves with a surprising bit of altruism at the end of the series, and were considerably more tolerable in the second season.

Compared to the movie, the animation is a little less fluid – as you’d expect, given the constraints of cost and time. The budget was reportedly $300,000 per episode, compared to $10 million for the film: so the entire first season, running nine hours or so (excluding credits), still cost less than the 80-minute movie, even allowing for seven years of inflation. The style is also a little different, with the character designs more closely resembling the original manga. This is perhaps most apparent in the look of Major Kusanagi. For the TV version seems quite enthusiastic in the area of fan service, with some of her costumes looking as if she’d just rolled out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, rather than those typically worn by a public servant – see below for an example!

While the feature focused directly on the Major and her quest for identity, the series also uses its greater freedom to become more of an ensemble piece. The Major is clearly still the leader and boss, with skills that surpass everyone else – they defer to her, and it’s entirely understandable. But over the course of these 52 episodes, the spotlight turns at one point onto just about everyone else, from her hulking second-in-command, former Army Ranger Batou, through to Togusa, the member of Section 9 who has undergone the least amount of cybernetic enhancement. This allows it to explore their history. For example, the (somewhat notorious, due to its graphic violence) “Jungle Cruise” episode, had Batou hunting down an ex-military colleague who has become a serial killer.

The second season, while still having some individual episodes, has an interesting main thread which has become particularly relevant in the light of subsequent geo-political events. A refugee crisis has broken out, leading to a large influx of displaced people to Japan, causing tension between them and the locals. A charismatic refugee leader, Kuze, has sprung up, leading a movement demanding autonomy for the island where they are being housed. A right-wing group within the government, led by creepy intelligence officer Goda, seeks to exploit the tension by “false flagging” a nuclear incident as a refugee terrorist act, allowing the group to stage effectively a military coup. While originally inspired by the Japanese reaction to 9/11, it’s easy to see parallels to the current world situation here.

Partly due to this, I’m curious to see how much of the series ends up present in the live-action film. The very first episode includes a hostage situation involving android geisha, which is a part of the trailers we’ve seen. As mentioned, each series was edited down into a feature-length compilation, so could be the basis for the 2017 story – though as I haven’t bothered with those, I can’t comment on how coherent the results ended up. But other aspects of the trailers appear to come from the original movie, so I suspect we’ll be looking at a combination, drawing from multiple elements of the GitS universe. It’ll probably be based more on “what looks cool?” rather than narrative sense!

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, William Frederick Knight

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society
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“Solid State Survivors.”

A rather clunky title for an OAV (original animation video), which came out in September 2006, about 18 months after the end of season two. It’s also two years after the events depicted, with Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) having quit her job as Section 9, and largely dropped off the grid. Batou (Ōtsuka) has taken over her position as S9’s top field operative, with Togusa (Yamadera) the. After a series of suicides exposes a plot for a bioterror attack, the group is on the hunt for a hacker called the Puppeteer, apparently behind it. But the investigation finds the apparent attack was almost a diversion, and uncovers a massive child abduction ring that may be responsible for as many as 20,000 kidnappings.

Even by the standards of a series which has always waxed philosophical, this has some pretty deep constructs. For example, the Puppeteer is described by the Major as a “rhizome”. Wikipedia tells me this is a concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972–1980) project. It is what Deleuze calls an “image of thought,” based on the botanical rhizome, that apprehends multiplicities. Well, glad we’ve cleared that up, then. Fortunately, you don’t really need to understand any of this: basically just think of of it as an example of a computer network becoming self-aware, and acting on its own behalf. Everything beyond that, feels a bit like extracts from a paper by a college student who wants you to know how deep they are.

It’s somewhat better when not vanishing up its own philosophical backside. Probably the best sequence has Togusa becoming the victim of a brain-hack and compelled to make a terrible choice: hand his own daughter over to the Puppeteer, to become one of the abductees (with his memory then wiped) or kill himself. It’s a chilling sequence, and also marks the return of the Major to work with Section 9. She has been carrying out her own investigation, free from the restrictions inevitably resulting out of her official role. It turns out to be connected to the aging of Japanese society – a major problem now, and likely to be worse by the late 2030’s when this is set.

It looks pretty slick, with a budget definitely on the high-end for video animation, and there’s no need to have seen the TV series, for this to make sense. But it’s largely forgettable stuff, and the significant absence of the Major, particularly in the first half, weakens proceedings considerably, robbing it of the universe’s most memorable character.

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Osamu Saka

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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“The ghostess with the mostest.”

ghostintheshell1985Renowned for its influence on just about every subsequent cyberpunk entity, from The Matrix to Westworld, this also remains one of the classic anime movies, more than two decades after its release. The main problem though, is the translation of a densely-packed and heavily notated manga series by Masamune Shirow, into an 82-minute action feature. You’re left with something forced to cram the philosophical aspects into a couple of indigestible lumps – an approach certainly also adopted by the Wachowski Brothers.

It’s set in a future Japan where cyborg enhancements have become the norm, to the point where some people are beginning to question what’s left of their own humanity (the “ghosts” in the hardened artificial “shells”). Among them is Major Motoko Kusanagi (Tanaka), an assault-team leader in Section 9, a federal public security agency. They are attempting to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious hacker, who uses an automated facility to create an entirely artificial body. Section 9 discover that the truth about the Puppet Master’s origins is closer than is comfortable, stemming from the actions of another government department and “Project 2501”. But what, if anything, does this say about the Puppet Master’s goals?

It’s a rather uneven mix of high-paced action sequences and more leisurely scenes. Each work well on their own (helped immeasurably by Kenji Kawai’s score), yet fall short of combining into a thoroughly cohesive whole. The Major might be rather over-fond of waxing philosophical, as shown in the following monologue, during a down-time conversation with her less-enhanced colleague, Batou (Ōtsuka), which feels more like the sort of thing I heard out of my fellow students – typically, the damn philosophy ones – at university, late on Saturday nights after the bar had closed.

Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyberbrain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me’. And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.

While certainly a good summary of the movie’s main theme, it’s the kind of thing best explored in a longer, more leisurely format such as the TV series which were to follow. Here, this kind of rumination seems a bit forced. More effective than the chat is the action. Kusanagi’s talents and ability to take damage make for some glorious set pieces, such as her fight with one of the Puppet Master’s host bodies, and a battle against a tank, possessing vastly superior fire-power. The look of the film is just glorious as well, combing traditional cel animation and computer graphics to an effect rarely, if ever, matched. There was an “enhanced” version which came out in 2008, with upgraded CGI; yet after two minutes, I switched back to the original, where the combination feels more seamless. It’s certainly preferable to much modern anime – I’d rather have something try too hard to be smart, as here, than not try hard enough.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera

Getting Wilde, by Jenn Stark

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I initially thought I had a fairly good handle on where the first book in the Immortal Vegas series (currently at six entries, plus a prequel) was going, with a Lara Croft-esque lead, who specializes in locating and recovering ancient artifacts. You can also throw in fragments of The Da Vinci Code, since she is hired to retrieve a relic from the secret basement beneath the Vatican, and is going up against a cult of religious, Catholic fanatics. But it somehow ends up taking a sharp right-turn, ending up in a version of Las Vegas where, just out of phase with the casinos and hotels, lurks a hidden dimension of other venues, populated by…

Well, probably best to rewind a bit. For in this universe, magic is real, albeit not apparent to the vast majority of the population. Some, particularly sensitive types, have an affinity for it, in one way or another, giving them abilities such are remote viewing or precognition. These are the Connected, and our heroine Sara Wilde is one of them. She started before she was even a teenager, using a talent for locating missing things to help her local police. But after a tragic incident, she was forced out on her own, and now wields her skill in the pursuit of material objects.

Meanwhile, the Arcana Council – largely formed of characters out of the tarot deck, e.g. the High Priestess, the Magician and the Devil – are based in that alternate Vegas strip. They seek to maintain the balance between good and evil, preventing either from prevailing, and that’s becoming a problem. For the increasing intersection of technology and magic is being exploited by those who want to benefit from the resulting synergy – they don’t care how many lives have to be destroyed in that process. Which is where Sara comes in, as exposure to a psychoactive drug turns her into a seer, and she unwillingly takes on that mantle, to protect the innocent alternatives.

If it sounds rather complex and confusing, that’s about right. You’d expect the first book in a series to set out the universe and its rules fairly clearly. But here, you’re largely dropped in to the middle of things, then have to try and figure out what’s going on, from nuggets dropped by Sara almost in passing. Maybe previous knowledge of Tarot might help? It also suffers from incompleteness, a sadly common trait in e-books; Stark sets up the characters and plot, then more or less ends in “Buy volume 2!” rather than offering any resolution. The book’s attitude to sex is kinda weird as well. Wilde doesn’t actually have any, but comes perilously close on multiple occasions, to the extent this seems like some kind of edging fetish.

But you shouldn’t take the above to mean it’s all negative. In particular, Wilde is a very well-formed character. She’s clearly a heroine, willing to put herself in harm’s way (both physically and psychically) to protect others, out of genuine concern for their well-being. Yet she’s far from flawless, carrying her own share of historical baggage, and has a sarcastic wit to which I can easily relate. Stark has a good eye for her settings too – having been to Las Vegas, it would be the perfect location for a supernatural governing body to set up their operations, just out of sight behind the lurid facades.

I’d probably have liked to have seen more action out of Sara. Her first excursion, into the depths beneath of the Pope’s palace in Rome, is almost an occult Indiana Jones escapade, and she clearly is capable with more than just her mind. But after that, there is a lot more talk than walk, save perhaps for her helping bust loose some unwilling participants from behind a sleazy casino, in an even sleazier back-room. Hopefully, future entries will have more of this, and she won’t be stuck doing remote viewing for the High Priestess, which is where she ends this volume. I’d probably be interested in another adventure, given the potential here; yet there are enough flaws, it could all end up being thoroughly wasted.

Author: Jenn Stark
Publisher: Elewyn Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Golden Swallow

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“Roc beats Swallow”

If this seems somewhat familiar, it’s because it is not dissimilar to Iron Swallow, reviewed just a couple of weeks back. However, this is the official sequel to Come Drink With Me, in which Cheng reprises her character of Golden Swallow, rather than being the Taiwanese knock-off. Ms. Swallow is living a fairly quiet life, fighting for the rights of the underdog, etc. along with the aid of Golden Whip (Lo). Their peace is disturbed by the actions of Silver Roc (Wang Yu), who is carrying out various massacres, and leaving Swallow’s trademark darts at the scene, in order that she gets blamed for the crimes.

Turns out this is Roc’s idea of courtship, figuring it’ll force Swallow to track him down – and not with the aim of serving a restraining order, as I’d have said was more likely. Odder still, this “massive body count in lieu of a bouquet of flowers” concept actually appears to work, at least piquing Swallow’s interest, and thus  setting up a love triangle between Swallow, Roc and Whip. It’s only interrupted by the arrival on the scene of Poison Dragon (Yeung), and the two suitors put aside their scheduled duel to the death on top of a mountain, in order to take care of the real villain.

Despite the title – particularly the alternate one, which promises a whole level of action the film isn’t interested in delivering – and lead billing, this is significantly less about Swallow than Roc. And that’s a shame – Wang Yu would get plenty of his own opportunities to shine, he didn’t need to be hijacking the limited chances given to Cheng. Took me a little while to work out, too, that his character is named after a mythical giant bird, not a boulder. The references to “soaring rocks” were quite confusing for a while, until I figured this out.

The fights are okay, rather than impressive. They’re certainly not helped by Chang’s style, apparently an early ancestor of the MTV style of shooting action. This involves the camera being pushed too close in to capture the skills of the participants, and a primitive version of steadicam, which is certainly not steady in the slightest. I didn’t like it. I had high hopes for a scene which began with Swallow sitting quietly in a tea-house, which seemed to be echoing one of the most memorable sequences from Come Drink With Me, but it was little more than a nod, and was over before it had properly begun.

I wasn’t all that impressed with Drink, finding it more influential than entertaining. But it is still considerably better than this, which never gets off the ground thanks to a laughable plot, and carries out something perilously close to a bait and switch, with the heroine of its title reduced to a supporting role. What a waste of Cheng’s talents.

Dir: Chang Cheh
Star: Cheng Pei-pei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Yeung Chi-hing
a.k.a. The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick

Gunslinger Girl

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“Young and heavily-armed.”

gunslingergirlIf you want something more cerebral and family friendly than Kite – if a story about underage assassins can ever be family friendly! – then Gunslinger Girl is perhaps for you. Set in Italy, a shadowy government organization, the Social Welfare Agency, has a prototype project which takes young women from hospital beds, augments their strength, speed and agility with cybernetic accessories, and unleashes them as state-sponsored special agents, with a wide-ranging license to kill. Each has a handler, to maintain and direct their conditioning and act as backup. But these trained assassins are still little girls at heart, with a fondness for teddy bears and ice-cream, as well as forming disturbing attachments to their handlers, who become their only family.

Though probably the most disturbing thing here, is that these are the forces of good: this is your tax dollars (well, tax lira) at work, fighting against radical terrorists and organized crime. Does the end justify the means, in terms of both the physical and emotional costs paid by those who take part, especially those too young to offer any kind of informed consent? Perhaps wisely, the thirteen 22-minutes episodes don’t delve too far down that rabbit-hole, preferring to concentrate more on the relationships between the five girls who are the subjects of the project. There’s something of Ghost in the Shell here, with the heroines’ awareness of their own (now, largely mechanical) nature leading them to ponder what it is to be human, and whether they can even consider themselves as qualifying any more.

The action here is perhaps less frequent than you’d expect, each episode typically having one or two brief bursts of intense activity. This doesn’t soft-pedal the violence in any way, even if it doesn’t seem to have the emotional impact on its young subjects that you feel it might; this could well be the point, and may also be a side-effect of the amnesia which is induced in them. The technical aspects are solid, in particular the music which prefers a classical tone to the (over-used, to be honest) standard large helping of J-Pop tunes, and the show has been complimented for its attention to detail, particularly in the details of the weapons it depicts.

My main issue is the lack of any real story arc or escalation. You reach the end of the 13th episode and, while not ineffective (most of the girls sit out in a meadow, watching a meteor shower and singing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, while one lies in a hospital bed), it would hardly pass for a satisfactory conclusion. This may well result from it being an adaptation of just the first two volumes, in a series actually running to fifteen. Given this, it might have been wise to cut down the characters; rather than splitting stories and characterization relatively evenly across the five, focusing on one or two in greater depth would potentially have been more successful. That said, I still appreciated its more thoughtful and leisurely pacing, and will certainly cover the sequel series in due course.

Dir: Hiroshi Ishidori
Star (voice): Eri Sendai, Yuuka Nanri, Kanako Mitsuhashi, Ami Koshimizu