Ninja Scroll the movie – Review

Japanese Title: Juubee Ninpuuchou

 

Related: Ninja Scroll: the Series (sequel)

Similar: Afro Samurai

Basilisk

Sword of the Stranger

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action

Length: 1 hr. 30 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Well-choreographed and brutal action.
  • A variety of cool ninja powers.
  • Dark visuals to match the grim narrative.

Negatives:

  • With the action focus, most characters have little to no development time.
  • Some awkward explanatory dialogue.
  • Weak music.

Jubei is a vagabond swordsman, hiring out his skills to those who can pay. One night, he helps a ninja woman in trouble. She is Kagero, the last of her ninja unit after an investigation into a mysterious plague led them to slaughter at the hands of a ninja who can turn to stone. He is known as one of the eight devils – eight ninja with extraordinary abilities. A government official looking into the matter hires Jubei to defeat these devils. Thus, Jubei and Kagero are drawn into a plot that threatens to overthrow the government.

Ninja Scroll is an action heavy film of blood, nudity, and cool abilities. The action scenes, Ninja Scroll’s focus, are the most exciting aspect with great choreography and variety in techniques. At only an hour and a half long, there isn’t time to drag out the action or have characters stare into each other’s eyes for episodes on end. Each fight in Ninja Scroll is sharp, intense and varied as Jubei faces the eight devils, all with interesting powers. One ninja can live in shadow, while another can summon snakes from anywhere – anywhere… The manner in which these powers are used is the anime’s most creative aspect. Unfortunately, outside of the action, these villains have no development; they are evil and must do evil things with cool powers.

The lack of development is an issue across the board except for Jubei and Kagero, whose motivations and personalities are explored beyond surface level. The government at the core of the plot doesn’t get any screen time to establish and why this overthrow could be so disastrous. Of course, if your interest lies solely with the action, then this won’t matter. The plot itself is constructed enough to support the action; it isn’t vague or full holes, but does lack depth.

Ninja Scroll is a good-looking film, especially when you consider its 1993 release date. If all you saw during its era was Dragon Ball Z, then Ninja Scroll’s gritty quality comes as a surprise. The artists went for a grim atmosphere throughout, shadows filling all corner of the screen. Even when the sun is out, jet-black shadows contrast with the light in every scene. The animation is good – the blood in particular, which there is plenty of. Each villain has interesting visual designs to fit their abilities. I particularly liked the snake woman with her intricate tattoos.

A great failing is the dialogue. There are several moments where a character will explain how someone died even though we just saw them die. Too much stating the obvious, as well. Jubei slashes the rock ninja, who says in a stilted manner, “A very skilful attack, but you must realise I cannot be cut.” Exposition by stating the obvious isn’t good writing. The dialogue in the latter half gets pretty rubbish at points.

Ninja Scroll stands on its great action and dark atmosphere. It’s a shame that they didn’t extend the airtime to allow for character exploration, and they could have hired a better dialogue writer.

Art – High

Ninja Scroll looks good, defying age, and is loaded with blood.

Sound – Medium

A variety of voices well executed; however, the Japanese takes the edge, as the plethora of ancient Japanese names sound odd in English – a minor gripe. The music is underused and weak overall.

Story – Medium

This is purely about action with a decent narrative structure to support it. The villains are cool in design, just not in development.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Ninja Scroll’s action coupled with dark fantasy art is well worth your time. Just don’t expect extensive character development.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Holy S***Riveting Action

Negative: 

No Development

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Tokyo Godfathers – Review

Japanese Title: Tokyo Godfathers

 

Related: Paprika (same director)

Perfect Blue (same director)

Millennium Actress (same director)

Similar: Kurenai

Tekkon Kinkreet

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Comedy Drama

Length: 1 hr. 32 min.  movie

 

Positives:

  • A heart-warming Christmas story.
  • The protagonists are a fun trio.
  • A good amount of humour balances the heavy drama moments.

Negatives:

  • Too many of the narrative events and twists are convenient coincidences.
  • Lacks Satoshi Kon’s signature psychological style.

Tokyo Godfathers is the third of director Satoshi Kon’s anime films, a film unlike the rest of his portfolio. It is a touching Christmas story centred on a homeless trio – an alcoholic, a runaway, and a transvestite – who find a baby abandoned in a rubbish tip. With a key found by the infant as their clue, they set off through Tokyo to find her parents.

On the journey, the trio must confront their pasts, the lives they abandoned and ran away from. Baby Kiyoko acts as a catalyst to bring the trio back to reality. They are an unlikely group, always at each other’s throats, bickering and insulting one another; however, rather than hostility, you get a sense of family from them. They support each other as if they are all they have in the world while they sift through people’s trash to survive. The alcoholic lost his daughter to illness, followed by his wife who couldn’t take it any more after he was barred from professional cycling for fraud. This abandoned baby girl reminds him of his own. How can someone abandon a baby when others lose theirs to illness? The transvestite too has an emotional connection to the baby. He is the most attached of the trio, as the baby makes him feel like a mother.

While Tokyo Godfathers has a unique premise and tells an interesting overall story, it does suffer from one big problem – coincidence. Many of the events or twists occur due to coincidence. When in trouble, they coincidentally stumble into an acquaintance that can aid them. When the trail runs cold, they coincidentally find a precise clue that points them in the right direction. And so on. It wouldn’t be a problem if there were a couple of small coincidences – after all, life has coincidences – but here, every turning point is coupled with coincidence. There is a huge web of connections by the end in Tokyo, a city of 13 million, mind you. To be fair, some of them are hilarious such as the half dozen people named Kiyoko (the baby’s name). Tokyo Godfathers does a great job of balancing humour with drama. The banter among the trio is great.

Another point of note: if you are a fan of Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfathers may disappoint you, as it is nothing like his other work. It lacks the psychology and mind-bending found in his anime. Of course, if that doesn’t bother you, then it won’t matter.

Tokyo Godfathers is a good film with its unique setup and a mix of humour and drama that ultimately handicaps itself through convenience and coincidence. The dynamic between the homeless trio and their personal trials are worth the price of admission alone.

Art – High

Though not as creative as Paprika or as unsettling as Perfect Blue, the art still boasts high detail and solid character design. Only the ending credits crawl gets weird when the Tokyo skyline dances. Comes out of nowhere, actually…

Sound – High

The voice work for the protagonists is great. I appreciate the inclusion of actual Spanish for the Spanish characters.

Story – Medium

A unique story of a homeless trio trying to return an abandoned baby to its parents. Unfortunately crippled by overuse of coincidence to drive the narrative from point to point.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A good Christmas film I can recommend to most. Avoid if you don’t like an overuse of coincidences to push the plot forward conveniently.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Stellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Kaiba – Review

Japanese Title: Kaiba

 

Similar: Kino’s Journey

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Weirdly creative in design.
  • A strange tale of memories and mental manipulation.

Negatives:

  • You have to love the abstract art and surreal narrative to enjoy.
  • Little music, repeats often.
  • Though the world and monsters are creative, they aren’t detailed or explained much. The weirdness simply is.
  • The child-like art makes the few promiscuous scenes creepy.

Kaiba is a man on a mission to be the best at children’s card games, and he’s going to do it with or without the rules because he’s got money! …wait, wrong anime. Actually, Seto Kaiba entering into Kaiba the anime wouldn’t be the strangest thing that happens in this show. Kaiba is a surreal trip into a world of memory manipulation expressed through abstract art that you will either love or hate.

Kaiba (hole in his chest) lives in a society where the wealthy barter and trade for memories. After death, a person’s memories are stored into a chip, whereupon it can be implanted into a new body to live again. Memories can also be deleted or added as needed – out with bad, in with happy – to improve one’s life. In essence, you could theoretically live forever. Authorities kill people on a whim, bodies turned to sludge and their memories transferred to the mainframe in wait of a new body.

Kaiba wakes up in a strange corner of society, suffering from amnesia and embarks on a journey to recover his memories, the pendant around his neck with the picture of a girl his only clue. On his journey, he encounters a variety of characters from a memory smuggler to a space sheriff. Kaiba isn’t sure which memories are real and which have been altered.

The art in Kaiba is unusual, wildly different from what people expect when they think ‘anime.’ It is inspired by old anime – very old – like Astro Boy old, and you must love this style in order to enjoy Kaiba. The abstract art matches the abstract narrative. The style and themes hold consistent throughout the series. My major complaint with the art is the child-like character design being dissonant with the events of the narrative. These characters look like infants, yet there are several promiscuous scenes that some may find disturbing (others will probably laugh). We are told that they are adults, but the character look and sound like children. Using female voice actors for almost all male characters really didn’t help with convincing the audience of character age.

Ultimately, Kaiba is a difficult anime to discuss without going into spoiler territory. If you love the surreal or just want to watch one of the stranger shows out there, then Kaiba is for you. One episode is all you need to decide if it’s worth your while or not.

Art – Medium

Weird abstract art that you must love to enjoy this anime. I would personally never use it.

Sound – Medium

A serviceable voice track accompanied by slow, psychedelic music. Most tracks consist of 10-15 second clips that loop endlessly to create a song. It feels as if each track makes an appearance every episode, which gives an air of…cheapness.

Story – Medium

A strange tale of a boy searching for his lost memory, which succeeds at its core, though the world at large, the lore is left unexplored.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Only for those who love the weird and surreal. One could either love or hate Kaiba within a single episode.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Wolf’s Rain – Review

Japanese Title: Wolf’s Rain

 

Similar: Ergo Proxy

Darker than Black

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Adventure Drama

Length: 30 episodes (26 in season one, 4 OVA to conclude)

 

Positives:

  • An extensive and varied soundtrack from multiple countries.
  • Great visual quality expected from studio Bones.
  • Solid Japanese voice work alongside the likes of Crispin Freeman and Steve Blum in an equally good English track.

Negatives:

  • Serious pacing issues.
  • The main drive of the plot, the search for paradise, doesn’t have any urgency due to vague objectives and potential consequences early in the series.
  • Four recap episodes in the middle.

I first started watching Wolf’s Rain in 2003 shortly after its initial airing. It took until yesterday, eleven years later to finish watching the anime – I never felt that ‘just one more episode’ drive. Poor pacing issues, vague storytelling, and filler episodes make Wolf’s Rain a difficult anime to invest in.

Wolf shapeshifters were thought extinct for 200 years; however, a few survived and blended into the populace as humans. A white wolf named Kiba follows the scent of Lunar Flowers to Cheza the flower maiden, key to opening the door to paradise. Unfortunately, the villain Darcia, who seeks to open paradise to remove his family’s curse, kidnaps Cheza. Kiba along with three other wolves, Tsume, Hige, and Toboe, give chase to rescue her. Meanwhile, a hunter and his dog Blue track down the pack of wolves, intent on wiping them out.

Wolf’s Rain’s narrative setup is a good one brought down by ambiguity. I understand (and recommend) that a writer shouldn’t lay out all the cards on the table within the first chapter; however, you must at least tell the audience which game you are playing. The narrative structure in Wolf’s Rain is akin to playing poker, only to have someone declare ‘Gin!’ and win the game, which is when you realise you weren’t playing the right game. Wolf’s Rain doesn’t establish the importance of paradise or the relevance of the villain (outside of kidnapping because the plot needed conflict) until late in the series. Furthermore, it isn’t some grand twist. The world is ending and paradise must be opened in order to save it. Only the blood of a wolf and the lunar maiden can accomplish this task. That’s all they needed to state clearly within a few episodes. It seems as though the writers assumed that the audience already knew all of this somehow.

Wolf’s Rain main storytelling device is allegory. Everything represents something. The focus here is on religious pilgrimage and social constructs. The wolves’ search for paradise is their journey to enlightenment, while the government’s extinction of wolves is the suppression of freedom. Looking at the device on a macro level, it is well executed, as the wolves face a dozen trials from betrayal to self-doubt to false hope as their varied personalities clash with one another. That said, it fails on a micro level, the scene-to-scene narrative. Writers can’t just throw something at the audience a claim quality because it’s ‘symbolic.’ Even if something is symbolic, it still needs structure and quality. When using symbolism, ask this: if the audience doesn’t catch the symbolism, will they still understand what is going on? If a character hulking out and turning evil is symbolic of inner struggle, there still needs to be a plausible reason for hulking out into evil. One can’t suddenly make him evil and declare symbolism!

The pacing doesn’t help either. Where some episodes have action, drama, and tension throughout, other episodes consist of nothing more than slow pans across silent scenes where little happens. Yes, moments of silence and introspection can enhance the narrative tension, but here the silence builds to nothing. To compound further, episodes 15 to 18 are recaps of the story thus far from the perspectives of different characters – the same recap four times! One would assume these recaps at least garner extra backstory or maybe revelations about a character’s motives. Alas, no, just filler. Imagine if you had to pay for this back when it was four episodes a DVD.

Where Wolf’s Rain does shine is with its music. Composer Yoko Kanno is to be commended for her excellent work with the soundtrack. She recorded music from around the world to craft an extensive and varied soundtrack. The opening theme sounds like something from Sting, the closing is by Maaya Sakamoto in English, there is European chant, Indian Raga, violin for moments of sorrow, and so much more. Truly great music.

It is a true shame the storytelling in Wolf’s Rain is so vague. As things are, I found the plodding story moments a hindrance to reach the tension. The soundtrack is worth a listen on its own, at the least.

Art – High

Great work as always by studio Bones with attention to detail like persistent battle damage. In human form, the artists managed to convey wolfish characteristics without resorting to clichéd ‘dog-ears-and-be-done-with-it’ design.

Sound – Very High

A phenomenal soundtrack from around the world along with great voice work in both languages. Gravel brothers Steve Blum and Crispin Freeman bring the appropriate levels of growl to the villain and Tsume, respectively.

Story – Medium

An over reliance on symbolisms leaves the plot vague for too long. Also suffers from pacing issues and four episodes of recap in the middle.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Unless you can stand a vague narrative and slow pace, you won’t enjoy Wolf’s Rain. I do really love that music.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great Music

Negative:

Poor Pacing

Paprika – Review

Japanese Title: Paprika

 

Similar: Mind Game

Serial Experiments Lain

Paranoia Agent

Perfect Blue

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Horror Mystery Science Fiction

Length: 90-minute movie

 

Positives:

  • Mind-bendingly crazy dream sequences rendered in gorgeous, detailed art.
  • Keeps you guessing on what is reality and what is a dream until the end.
  • Zany music to match the wacky visuals.

Negatives:

  • A few questions left with vague answers.

Have you ever seen the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder? You remember that scene where Wonka takes everyone on a boat ride through a psychedelic tunnel? Paprika is a feature length version of that. The dreams are surreal, music weird, characters loopy, and it’s all great. Paprika is the last in director Satoshi Kon’s anime films – Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers. If you have seen his other works, you know what kind of mind-bending and psychology to expect.

Researchers have created a device that allows therapists to enter a patient’s dreams to find the source of anxiety or neurosis. One such therapist uses her red-haired alter ego known as Paprika to explore the dream world. However, when a device is stolen and patients’ dreams start grafting onto the minds of therapists, dreams become indistinguishable from reality. Paprika must navigate the dream world to figure out how it started and who is responsible.

Though this may sound similar to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, they are far from alike outside of the common narrative device – dreams. Where Inception is grounded in the reality of oneirology (study of dreams) to craft a thrilling heist film, Paprika uses the imagination side of dreams where anything and everything can happen free of oneirology. Inception had strange things happen, certainly, but nothing truly weird. Paprika on the other hand, is nothing but weird. There is a parade of fridges, frogs, lucky cats, anatomy mannequins, the Statue of Liberty, Buddha, and whatever else they thought of, all in honour of a loony old man whose body fat absorbs baby dolls. Need I say more? In Paprika, the dreams have no rules, no boundaries, no logic. They are insane and tons of fun.

Paprika requires that you pay attention, particularly to the scene transitions, or you may miss crucial information that establishes what is dream versus what isn’t and risk losing the plot. Unfortunately, even with focus, some of the important questions remain unanswered. However, that doesn’t interfere with the overall enjoyment of the film.

The art does a brilliant job of bringing the craziness to the screen, accompanied by equally weird, yet good, music in a cacophony of electronic sounds and ever-fluctuating vocals. The artists didn’t skimp on animation. Several scenes have so much animation at once that you need to watch them several times through in order to catch everything.

If you enjoyed Inception, but thought it was too realistic and needed a few more talking guitars and nightmare fuel, then I recommend Paprika. Just don’t expect the same sort of narrative as Inception. That would only lead to disappointment.

Art – Very High

A crazy world of dreams filled with imagination brought out by surreal art.

Sound – High

Both Japanese and English voice tracks are great, though the Japanese has the edge. Paprika’s voice in English may grate on you from its ‘squirreliness.’ Love the psychedelic music.

Story – High

A fun story of insanity that breaks the mind with a smattering of horror thrown in.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Paprika is a must watch, even with a few narrative faults. Prepare to dive into some bloody weird dreams.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Holy S***Stunning Art Quality

Negative: None

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