Wildstar's Anime Review

Saturday, April 09, 2005

First Annual New York Anime Film Festival 2000

The first annual New York Anime Film Festival was opened with a speech by CNN Senior Correspondent Beth Nissen at the Japan Society. Ms. Nissen's speech was both humorous and refreshingly intelligent. Pokemon and his more "vacuous cousin", Digimon, received a well-deserved tongue-lashing before she went on and described what was great about anime. Anime at its best, she said, is watched like a book is read, with the viewer acting as an active participant, as opposed to a mere static observer. Whether otakus, otaku wanna-bes, otakus in training, or otakus in denial, she said, we love anime because of its depth and complexity, rather than the black and white, "good vs. evil" stereotypes in less inspired works. Great art is far more demanding of its viewers' imagination; and therefore, much more rewarding. Many of the features this weekend proved the same. After commencing in the comfy theater in the Japan Society with a screening of the Utena movie, the rest of the festival was held at the amazing Directors Guild of America Theater, which seats 450 people. It was a privilege for everyone to see the highest budget anime productions in recent years on the large screen. The organizers deserve many thanks and applause. I just hope they can pull it off again next year.


Adolescence of Utena Movie

Kunihiko Ikuhara's Adolescence of Utena Movie may have been the best movie of the entire festival. This was a beautiful production, taking all the wonderful artistic elements from the series and lifting them to greater heights. Utena's universe is hard to describe. It is a surreal place, unlike any other animated before. It is a place of sheer beauty and the deepest of traumas. Awaiting the audience are waterfalls of roses, whirlwinds of flower petals, and a marvelous rose garden perched on a precipitous overhang. The movie features spectacular animation and some of the most beautiful images I have ever seen. In some ways it is a tale of the human spirit, over-coming the darkest of fears. It is also the only story I can think of where the heroine is saved by, yes, the other heroine! But, I can't help but applaud the genius behind Utena. It is a work of great intelligence, full of symbols and double meanings. Nothing is simple here. Nothing is clear-cut and easy to understand. We are only given stolen glimpses and subtle hints. The rest is up to our imagination. What I like most about the series is how the audience is kept guessing. It is the unanswered questions that prove to be the most fun and the most fascinating. Before the screening, Mr. Ikuhara was interviewed on stage by Ms. Nissen. During the interview, he seemed just as reticent to give answers in real life as he is in his works. At one point, rather than answer a question about Utena, he advised us to use our own imaginations and arrive at better answers than his own. In fact, he seems to embody all that is wonderful about Utena: He is at once secretive and funny, ingenious and playful, masculine and feminine. And as he admitted on stage, in his work we are seeing his own personal fantasies. Utena is not a mainstream work and may be shocking to many (including me). To make a point, Mr. Ikuhara noted that even in Japan, anime fans are looked down upon; However, he said that he finds great satisfaction that something socially redeeming is found in a sub-culture such as anime. And as a matter of fact, Kunihiko Ikuhara was present for the entire anime festival, from Friday evening until the last show on Sunday. Though very quiet and private, he attended many of the movies as a fan, just like the rest of us. He was often seen loitering around, talking to fans and signing autographs. It was really awesome having him as an attendee at this event. I hope he enjoyed the weekend as much as the rest of us. Thank you for all the flowers, Ikuhara-San!


The Aurora

The Aurora is a completely CG movie boasting the talents of voice actress Megumi Hayashibara (Cowboy Bebop), character designer Katsuya Kondo (Studio Ghibli), and composer Masamichi Amano (Giant Robo). I did not know what to expect with this film and was pleasantly surprised, although I found the CG very hard to swallow. At times it looked visually as good as the work in Blue Sub #6, but the CG characters never really felt that comfortable to me. Appearance wise, the characters looked like animated versions of those seen in Playstation games like Tomb Raider, but of much higher quality. The mechanical designs were a mix of familiar super-technology with an alien, bio-engineered, crustaceous look. But, the strength of this movie is its solid, well-paced plot line and many tender moments as well as heroism and tragedy. The producers did their best to present a good story and I think they did a very professional job far above the average anime plot. There is also sufficient action to keep the audience interested, but nothing mind- blowing. By far the best thing about this movie is the soundtrack. Fans of Giant Robo will feel right at home in the classic and very powerful symphonic orchestration. Set in 2033, the movie opens far below the ocean in a deep-sea oil-drilling base, where the reluctant hero is kidnapped by the mysterious Nora and her sidekick Chunru, just as he is quitting his job, to return to the high-tech base on a mission to save humanity. Along the way, many mysteries are resolved such as Nora's true identity and her relationship to the infamous biologist Wang-Yu Long. Overall, I enjoyed this sci-fi film for its professional production values and feature-film status. But many in the audience seemed to dislike it. CG maybe the future of anime, but judging from this movie, the quality is just not quite there yet. (GAGA Communications. Aprox 90 minutes)


Blood: The Last Vampire

Blood: The Last Vampire was one of the best features of the event. A near perfect production written by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo, with its only fault that of being too short. Blood tells the story of Saya, the last original vampire, in stylish fashion. The mood is eerie, dark, and deadly serious. The highlight of this feature is the intense and constantly scowling heroine herself. For Saya, violence is a necessity, not just an option. It was a thrill seeing her swing her samurai sword with deadly and vicious intent. The character designs were very unique and outstanding. I don't know what technology they used, but they looked beautiful. One character reminded me of Ghost in the Shell's Batou, while Saya had those full pink lips we have seen in another recent Production I.G. project, FLCL. The animation of the movie itself was extremely high caliber. The CG used was so convincing that I often could not tell if it was animated or not. This was a slick production on the scale you would expect from Production I.G., with a classic story line and all the animated violence you can stand, done in high fashion. The only problem is that the film ended abruptly after only 48 minutes. Apparently, this production is a medium-crossing merchandising experiment, with a Playstaion 2 game and a novel, penned by Mamoru Oshii, to follow. I just hope that they have plans to finish this movie soon.


Escaflowne the Movie: A Girl in Gaia

Escaflowne the Movie: A Girl in Gaia, was one of the most anticipated films of the event. But this new vision of Escaflowne is far different from the series that preceded it. It is much darker and very, very violent. It is also much more artistic and beautiful. Animation-wise, the visually stunning production was a real treat, with some of the most detailed backgrounds and mechanical designs ever. The updated character designs were amazing. And the action sequences were very powerful. But the best thing about this film, in addition to the high production values, was Yoko Kanno's soundtrack. I felt like this might be her most mature composition yet, fitting perfectly with the action and romance on screen. However, if you go into this movie expecting the complexity and development of a 26 episode television series in about 90 minutes, you may leave disappointed. What you do get is an amazingly animated new adventure that can stand independently of the series. However, the best part of this screening was having Yoko Kanno in the audience, watching the movie with us. Before the screening, she spoke briefly and told us that she loved Escaflowne, especially Van (But in her opinion, Allen's nose was too long!) The Bandai executives also said that they would like to make an Escaflowne 2 and 3. So, looking over to where Yoko Kanno was sitting during the film, I noticed that she was absolutely enthralled and teary-eyed during the romantic moments and pumping her fists in the air excitedly during the action scenes. I'm glad to report that she is a real fan just like us. It was that kind of moment that made this weekend so special and unforgettable.


1001 Nights

1001 Nights is a 23 minute animated dream-like sequence in Yoshitaka Amano's vintage style. It is reminiscent of the art in his previous works such as Angel's Egg (Mamoru Oshii) and Final Fantasy. Featuring a mix of many different animation techniques, there was no real discernable plot. I can only liken the action to that of various movements in a symphony. Images of multi-turreted palaces and cities of a 1001 gleaming minarets meld with dancing fairies and demonic fiends. This was a really stunning short film by a great artist who has moved far ahead of simply animating cartoons. There were many industry veterans on hand for this screening, including Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Kunihiko Ikuhara (Utena), and Peter Chung (Aeon Flux). Mr. Amano was also present for this world premiere and described the film as a chaotic fusion of low-tech and high-tech, water color and 3-D. He also said that he in the film, his goal was to create an animated ballet. Originally, 1001 Nights was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to be viewed with a live performance. This was the first time shown on 35 mm.


Vampire Hunter D 2000

Vampire Hunter D 2000 was the last film shown Saturday evening at 10 pm. After a full day of great anime featuring Blood, The Aurora, The Vision of Escaflowne, 1001 Nights and ALICE, the packed house was primed for something special. And this movie rocked the house. The audience exploded in cheers during the movie at least five times, applauding the great action sequences. Directed by Yoshiuki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll), this remake brought all the great elements of the original Vampire Hunter D and raised them to astronomical levels. It ran for 1 hour and 40 minutes of non-stop Ninja Scroll-like action and looked like it had the biggest budget of the entire festival. This movie was HUGE in capital letters. The setting is a devastated earth that still retained hints of past architectural grandeur, combining a Wild West flavor with a gothic Victorian landscape. Stained glass window, droves of bats and iron-wrought carriages set the mood. At times, it was actually pretty scary. And in the middle of it all, the ever-classic D himself looked exactly as you remember him, but better. Lots better. He's still the coolest anime character ever in my book. The only thing I didn't like about this movie was that some of the characters were too brightly colored and clashed with the darker color pallet of the rest of the movie. These were the members of an elite vampire destruction squad that fight along with D. I did like their super-hero designs, but they just didn't fit in well with the movie. You will recognize them as classic Kawajiri action heroes in the mold of Osamu Dezaki's characters (Cobra). But what was really spectacular about this movie were the background designs and castles. Both the interiors and the exteriors were lavishly detailed and rival any other production I have ever seen. I think they spent a fortune on this one. Unfortunately, being a Kawajiri flick, it was all style with no substance, but you don't realize that until you've come down from the adrenaline rush! This is definitely his best work yet. And though the story was neither deep nor emotional, I wasn't bored for a second and cheered along with everyone else. For what it was, it was perfect: a fun, entertaining, action-filled blockbuster that delivers what it promises. Encore!


Jin-Roh

Jin-Roh is the long awaiting production from director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). The talented staff included art director Hiromasa Ogura (Honneamise, Nadia, FLCL) and composer Hajime Mizoguchi (Escaflowne). The background designs of this movie were stunningly beautiful. To fit the mood, all the colors were muted. I think that its level of artistry could not have been achieved in live action. The music was absolutely spellbinding as well. I can't think of a more gut-wrenchingly beautiful soundtrack than this. Of all the high-budget productions paraded before us, this was the cream of the crop. I think it will go down as one of the top anime features ever, in the elite company of Grave of the Fireflies, Wings of Honneamise, and Ghost in the Shell. It was that good. I could hardly follow the complicated plot, but it really didn't matter. It is the emotions evoked that matter in this film. In introduction, CNN's Beth Nissen described it as both a fairy tale and a cautionary tale. But above all, this is a powerfully emotional drama that is almost too painful to watch. The movie is set in a war-torn Japan that Oshii described as how Japan would be if Germany had won the war. We witness mass riots by resistance fighters rebelling against the brutally oppressive government and their army of heavily armed shock troopers. And we see the painful consequences of facing such an overwhelmingly more powerful enemy. The movie asks, what happens when viscous animals play with humans. And the question is answered on screen, violently. At the end, I felt as if my heart had been torn physically from my chest. Now that I think about it, the mood was very similar to the novel 1984. With painfully violent scenes followed by many moments of utter human loss, this movie is a great artistic and literary achievement. What else do you expect from Mamoru Oshii?

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