Sunday, 22 November 2009

Flag: The Movie

Just finished re-watching the movie version of Flag (which seems only to be available in German-speaking countries), and it is everything that Mind Game is not. I won't pretend to be writing a full review here, as that would hardly be fair with a 100-minute edit of a 13 episode series—and I can hardly assess the edit properly until I've seen the full series. But here's a couple of observations.

Firstly, the mecha elements of the show, which some people find inappropriate. Do we really need to have piloted robots in a UN-based operation set not too far in the future? Maybe not, but the robots here resemble the Tachikomas and Uchikomas of Ghost in the Shell (minus the artificial intelligence) more than they do the giant machines of Mobile Suit Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion. The HAVWCs of Flag are presented as if they are plausible developments of military hardware, powerful and maneuverable, but far from indestructible. On one level, they are an attempt to imagine what the conflicts of the near future might look like; on another, they are an attempt to reclaim the whole mecha genre from impossibly huge machines piloted by whining brats.

More importantly, the first person perspective—everything is seen through a lens—is not a gimmick. Flag is about the power of the image, and in particular the photographic image; to be constantly reminded that we are watching images is completely appropriate. In a sense, Flag is coldly objective in its resemblance to a documentary, stripping away (almost) all the usual bombast and noise associated with military drama. But not only that: by showing us what is seen through the viewfinder, rather than just the final product, we're being reminded that photography and film are a process, and at the same time that there is always a person behind the lens who sees.

This representation of photography is also a reference to traditional animation, and perhaps to film itself, which is precisely about using still images to create motion, narrative and meaning. Flag is at once a tribute to the camera, the media, and the operator, both in form and content.

As you might guess, I think that Flag is considerably more subtle that the military-political thriller it appears to be on the surface. Maybe at some point I'll attempt a more comprehensive and coherent review.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Mind Game, directed by Masaaki Yuasa


Synopsis


Nishi and Myon were shy sweet-hearts at school but haven't met for some years. Nishi visits Myon and her sister Yan, who run a cafe. While there, two thugs turn up looking for Myon and Yan's father, who is in trouble with the local mafia. One of the thugs goes berserk, attacks Myon, and shoots Nishi.

His spirit leaves his body and meets a constantly shape-shifting God, who informs Nishi that he's dead. Not wanting to accept this, Nishi forces his way back to life through sheer determination, and finds himself in the cafe a few seconds before his death. This time he kills the thug, and flees with the two girls. A car chase ensues; just as capture seems inevitable, the trio drive off a suspension bridge and are swallowed by a whale.

Inside the whale they meet an old man who has been stranded there for 30 years; he helps them to survive and encourages them to make the most of the situation.

Finally, they escape.

Review

I like arty and pretentious anime as much as the anyone. I think Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose seemingly innocuous mecha beginnings give way to stream-of-consciousness psychoanalyzing, is a high-water mark. Confusing or confused, it's worth it. And I'm a huge fan of Satoshi Kon's work, all of which pushes the limits of anime. I enjoy the challenging stuff.

So when I read several fairly glowing reviews of Mind Game, I was curious. But I'm not sure if we were all watching the same film. Yes, the art and animation are spectacular, shifting between contrasting styles with grace and ease. It's certainly a visual showcase. Yet none of the reviews mention the aspects I'm going to talk about below; and I'm inclined to think that beyond the artwork, Mind Game is really just art-house by numbers. Fill in the dots between seemingly edgy elements, and you'll have a great piece of cinema. Or not.

Take the characters. Nishi is a wannabe Manga-artist. Fine. Myon wanted to be a swimmer until her breasts got in the way. Um, fine. The old man prepares gourmet dinners and talks to his friends, the dinosaurs. Whatever. And Yan wants to be a performance artist and likes nothing more that taping balloons to her chest, covering herself with paint, and throwing herself at canvas. While trapped inside a whale. Er… what?

This is all meant to be psychedelic and avant-garde, I suppose. Subtle it isn't. For example: Nishi tells Myon a story about space explorers for whom the only source of food on the planet they were stranded on was alien excrement. But then it turns out that the space explorers were actually on a cell in Myon's body, and they grew larger until being flushed out of her system. You can imagine the details, I'm sure. This charming tale has the inexplicable effect of seducing Myon; I can only suppose that her eyes were so clouded with love that saw in it the unrestrained imagination of her beau, and that the story was meant to have the same effect on the viewer. Personally, I just thought it was tasteless.

Duly seduced, Myon and Nishi have sex. Fortunately, there isn't any nudity, as their bodies dissolve into a kaleidoscope of lines, colours and images. Unfortunately, this sequence resembles nothing so much as a 1969 sketch by Monty Python: trains entering tunnels and then crashing, waves lashing against the shore, that sort of thing. Only in the sketch, we ultimately pan away to reveal an inept guy playing the film to his increasingly frustrated girlfriend. See, the Python sketch is a parody. Which says a lot for the sequence in Mind Game.

It's as if the whole thing is trying too hard to be different, to be absurd, to be psychedelic. Towards the end all four of the main cast pool their resources to escape, rowing as hard as they can through the water-filled stomach of the whale—until their boat is broken. With only the momentum to carry them forward, they use whatever comes their way as leverage to propel them forwards: bits of wood... fish... a fly... Onwards they run, as the whale swallows successively large objects: a ship, an airplane (which explodes behind them), an office block, which Nishi has to navigate his way through, leaping over tables and through windows…

Then finally we see a almost identical stream of images to those which opened the movie, only with slight differences; so whereas at the start Myon caught her foot in the door of an underground train, now she doesn't. This is art-house by numbers again: repeat the same four minutes of footage with minor changes and in so doing give 'meaning' to the changes. What it actually means is not actually the issue; the fact that it's meaningful is all that's important.

In the end, Mind Game is a hodgepodge of highbrow and lowbrow; of comments about breast size and toilet jokes combined with literary references and pseudo-symbolism. Perhaps it wants to exploit the contrast in a kind of cinematic magical realism; but in my view it fails completely. Nothing represents the film better than Yan's paint dancing: it wants to be art, but it's mired in vulgarity.

Bought, watched, and offered for sale on amazon marketplace before I'd even finished it.
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Verdict: Weak; I wish I'd done something better with my time. It's merits are few and far between.

(Review also available at MyAnimeList; cover image taken from there).

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Ouch

George Orwell once remarked that political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of fact hardly matters. That's true, unfortunately, and it's part of the reason that our society lacks a genuine, responsible, serious left-wing movement.

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Noam Chomsky, 1969