Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1997)

We’re dumped into the middle of a complex situation in a mechanized future city, where teenage kids are piloting giant robots to fend off invading aliens, or “angels,” then as the show settles into a groove of one angel per episode (each requiring either skill, strategy, or brute force/rage to defeat) it gradually fills in the details – some of them, anyway. Plenty of questions remain: why teenagers? Where do the alien-angels come from, and how are they connected to the apparently partly-biological robots (or “evas”)? Who’s the shadowy organization that runs the shadowy organization that runs the eva program and where did they get their plans and prophecies from? Why do the main characters have a pet penguin? And why is every single character in this show extremely neurotic?

I get that we’re in Japan, so of course there are teenagers piloting giant robots and of course there’s an out-of-place, comic-relief pet penguin. These traditions endure from Voltron to Macross/Robotech to Gundam to American movies like Robot Jox and Pacific Rim. I just played a 2015 Japanese video game in which cool dudes and underdressed sexy ladies pilot giant robots to kill marauding aliens, accompanied by a comic-relief talking potato, so it’s still going strong.

Our heroes:

Things get dark quickly:

The show is obsessed with numbering things (the third child, unit 04, seventh construction phase of tokyo-3, twelfth angel, second branch, code 707), feeling at times like the script was written in Excel. Set in the futuristic time of 2015-2016.

Seele or Nerv or something:

Our tormented lead character is Shinji. He lives with Misato, a hard-drinkin’ penguin-owner who runs mission control along with ex-rival Ritsuko and ex-flame Kaji, or actually I’m not sure what any of their jobs are because I watched the show slowly and missed or forgot some details. Also living with them is super-cocky pilot Asuka, whose whole world falls apart if she can’t be the best at everything. And living on her own is the quiet, often-injured Rei. Everyone has major, major parental and/or love-life issues, the worst of which is that Shinji’s dad Ikari runs the shadowy Eva organization Nerv but has never once spoken to his son with affection, and has a weird offscreen relationship with Rei, who he might be cloning.

Rei-clones:

Ikari-hand:

Then in the final episodes, instead of polishing off the story it dives into the tortured minds of the lead characters for an experimental-film psychoanalysis session. “This is the me that exists in your mind.” Shinji meets the perfect friend who turns out to be the final angel and must be killed by Shinji’s own hands. Asuka’s and Shinji’s moms die repeatedly in flashback. Ikari talks to an eyeball in his disfigured hand. Rei keeps being resurrected. Even the penguin is sent to live with someone else. Finally, Shinji reaches self-acceptance. “It’s okay for me to be here.” I found parts of the final episodes whiny and repetitive, but over the next few days warmed up to the idea of the whole series having been a prolonged Shinji therapy session.


The End of Evangelion (1997)

Then, the movie remakes those last two episodes the way the fans preferred: with mad apocalypse instead of therapy. There are still sexual and parental hangups, petty grievances, inter-agency power struggles, and everyone’s still super lonely and unhappy, but now there’s more sci-fi storyline to go with it. Nine new winged evas are unleashed along with military forces upon our Tokyo base, decimating it. Asuka goes on the biggest homicidal rampage of all time, taking down all the new evas, then Shinji has the biggest crippling self-doubt paralysis of all time, then every other character in the entire series is killed, then Rei becomes a planet-sized god, rapturing and absorbing the souls of all humanity. Unfortunately, the underground control panel nerds stay alive until the very end so they can keep spouting nonsense:

“Ikari has installed a Type 666 firewall on the MAGI’s external feed circuits.”

“Psychograph signal down!”

and my favorite,

“Pilot response approaching infinite zero!”

Said to be one of the best anime series ever… after this and Paranoia Agent I wonder what I should try next. Apparently Death & Rebirth is a skippable movie, condensed from the series and End of Evangelion movie, and there’s a trilogy of remake movies from 2007-2012 from the original creative team, which might be good, but I’ll hold off watching those since Wikipedia says there’s a part four coming. Writer/director Hideaki Anno apparently created the series (particularly the finale) in response to his own battle with depression. He started out as an animator on Nausicaa, also made Cutie Honey (which I enjoyed), some other kid/teen animated shows, and I guess he’s making the next Godzilla movie. Codirector Kazuya Tsurumaki directed the weirdo series FLCL.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Takashi Miike)

Cannes Month continues. This played there in 2011 – in 3D! The 3D would’ve added some novelty to a remake which seems to have none at all, unless we’re counting that it’s filmed in color. Scene-for-scene redo of the original, well-acted and shot (but the original was well-acted and shot), kinda languid in the flashback-heavy middle, and with a less biting ending.

Motome (Eita of Memories of Matsuko) had a desperately sick wife (Hikari Mitsushima of Love Exposure) and baby and needed doctor money, so he did a dishonorable thing, telling the local samurai house that he wanted to commit seppuku at their house so they’d pay him to go away. But they’d decided to make an example out of the next sap who tried this, and since Motome had done another dishonorable thing – selling his sword for food and secretly substituting a wooden one – he’s forced to die an agonizing, splintery death while his family succumbs to illness at home.

So the dead wife’s dad Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa, later in Miike’s Over Your Dead Body) visits the house a couple months later with the same seppuku story in order to get an audience and shame them for what they’ve done. Per an IMDB comment (I know!) the film argues “that honour is ultimately irrelevant in the face of social suffering.” It’s a compelling story, but during hard times, the house (led by Doppelganger & 13 Assassins star Koji Yakusho) has built its fortune on the traditional ideas of honor and can’t afford to let Hanshiro’s humanist ideas take hold.

C. Huber in Cinema Scope:

Hara-Kiri [demonstrates] a classical craftsmanship few contemporary directors could ever hope to match, but at the cost of personal expression. Miike’s single-minded take on a straightforward samurai tragedy follows the original’s outlines, yet replaces its smart, suspenseful time-shifts with big blocks of flashback melodrama … the marvellous, mostly brownish palette of the interiors tended to sink in the murky fog of light reduction, making Cannes’ first 3-D competition entry a good argument against the process.

Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)

Akiko (Rin Takanashi of new psycho-murder movie Killers) is sent to visit old man Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) at behest of her boss/pimp (Denden, a cop in Uzumaki), skipping a meeting with her visiting grandmother. She tries to avoid her “fiancé” (Ryo Kase of the Outrage movies), who confronts and torments her and accuses her (correctly) of lying, then he tries to kiss up to Takashi, who he assumes to be Akiko’s grandfather. Later he realizes the truth and shit gets real.

Strange movie, hard to warm up to, with an unexpected ending. Shot by Takeshi Kitano’s DP. Played at Cannes with Amour, Holy Motors, Cosmopolis and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. Title was meant to be The End, which would’ve been darkly funny if it flashed up right after the final scene.

R. Porton in Cinema Scope:

Like Amir Naderi’s Cut, another recent films made in Japan by an Iranian director, Kiarostami employs a rather schlocky narrative schema as a means of exploring, and exploding, cultural contradictions.

V. Rizov:

The threat of something horrid happening throughout — especially when the prof’s at the wheel, going into reverse while seemingly unaware of little kids behind the vehicle or nodding off at a red light — is finally delivered upon. This is effectively a movie that wonders about a society in which an abusive fiance can “confront,” with barely suppressed violence and much arm-grabbing and yelling, his would-be future wife in a wide open public area and not merit a glance, let alone an intervention.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki)

We watched this the same week as Princess Mononoke, and not long after Princess Kaguya, and it suffered by comparison. Also suffered by expectation, since it’s possibly the most beloved Studio Ghibli movie, providing the company their mascot. Surely it’s a good, enjoyable movie, but it’s simpler, more oriented towards kids. Gives a Coraline vibe, as kids move into a new house and find magic within. Coraline wanted everything to be more wonderful and centered around her, but these girls have real problems – mom in hospital with tuberculosis (see also: The Wind Rises).

The girls are excited about their new house, especially when the younger one crawls into a tree grove and discovers a Totoro (like a giant raccoon-bear that can fly on a spinning top and create massive temporary trees).

Then Totoro eats them.

No he doesn’t. An elderly neighbor tells them about the soot sprites (black dust balls with eyeballs) in the attic and the girls eventually meet the neighbor’s grandson, a silent, socially awkward boy. Gradually things get more real as we learn that their transplant to the country was prompted by a sick mom, and the youngest girl wanders off to visit her, but gets lost, prompting a search party and leading the older girl to seek out Totoro’s help.

Totoro summons the greatest thing in the history of movies: the catbus.

Then it eats them.

No it doesn’t.

Princess Mononoke (1997, Hayao Miyazaki)

Final movie we watched in 2014, if we don’t count the disc of Brakhage shorts I put on for New Year’s Eve. Katy was impressed at how weird and non-Disney it seems. There’s a magical nature god with healing powers whom the title character tries and fails to protect, then a fight over its severed head, after which the movie’s main character decides to join the mining town whose leaders have been trying to destroy the forest and its spirits all along. With a more straightforward Avatar approach, the forest-destroying, spirit-killing factions of humanity would be the villains, but here everything is more morally complex.

Most distractingly recognizable voice in the English version: Billy Bob Thornton as a mercenary monk. Minnie Driver led the mining town, Gillian Anderson played the giant wolf that Mononoke hangs with, and Keith David (the guy who fights Roddy Piper for an hour before putting on the glasses in They Live) was the giant blind pig.

Memorable: the cursed boar Ashitaka fights at the beginning, setting him off on a journey to find where it came from and un-curse his arm. And especially the bobble-headed tree spirits.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata)

Gorgeous movie with an unusual look, like storybook illustrations in motion. Aging, childless couple get a baby, fine cloth and a ton of gold from bamboo plants. The girl grows rapidly, loves playing outdoors, likes a local boy called Sutemaru, but her dad decides all this gold should be spent to give his Princess a finer life so he has a palace built in the city, where she learns to sit very still and play music and not do much of anything except be courted by deceitful rich men. Then it turns out she’s from the moon, which is weird, but M. Schilling says it’s “based on the oldest-known Japanese folk tale, which dates to the 10th century,” also filmed in the 1980’s by Kon Ichikawa as Princess from the Moon. We watched the English version – only notably great voice was James Caan as the Princess’s foster dad.

One of the best scenes, where Kaguya is sitting still behind walls as others decide her fate, then she panics and flees, and the animation style panics with her.

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968, Hajime Sato)

This is a completely looney Japanese horror oddball movie released in the Eclipse Shochiku set. It’s cheap, weird and highly entertaining, also atomic-bomb-obsessed and weirdly Vietnam War-referencing, with stock footage edited in at key moments.

The most doomed flight of all time encounters a UFO, receives a bomb threat and hosts a gun-toting hijacker at the same time. Large-faced hijacker Hirofumi has little effect as the plane flies through red skies filled with crazed engine-clogging birds then crashes, killing the pilot and leaving first officer Sugisaka in charge. On the ground, the hijacker runs off and gets possessed by aliens in his forehead (recalling Jeffrey Combs in From Beyond), while the bomb-threat fella hides his bomb and claims he was only kidding.

Potential bomber allowed to roam free:

The gov’t rep gets homicidal:

So the survivors are hiding in the plane from alien vampires who appear to kiss people to death (Yuko Kusunoki of Dodeskaden and Kurahara’s Thirst for Love is next to be captured/possessed) except for psychiatrist Kazuo Kato (Kurosawa’s Ran) who wants to go outside and study the aliens, while government representative Mano (Eizo Kitamura of the Yakuza Papers parts 2 and 3, and Modern Porno Tale: Inherited Sex Mania) proves to be a bigger asshole than the aliens or hijacker, getting people killed in order to save his own skin. Bomber dies blowing a hole in the side of the plane, and American Mrs. Neal (Kathy Horan of Genocide and The Green Slime) comes after the vampire with a rifle and loses. When our hero Sugisaka (with his woman on his arm) finally lights the hijacker on fire, the alien oozes out of his forehead and possesses Rep. Moto’s underling then kisses Moto to death.

Sugisaka and the girl leave the crash site and find out they were about a mile from civilization, but everyone in the city has been killed by aliens – much more efficient aliens than the one attacking the downed plane, I guess. Burned bodies and atomic blasts are invoked in the apocalytic finale.

Sugisaka was Teruo Yoshida, in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon a few years earlier, must’ve starred in too many horror movies in 1968-69 (including this, Horrors of Malformed Men, Inferno of Torture and The Joy of Torture) because he disappeared from the screen in 1970, and his loyal stewardess was Tomomi Sato of the 1979 Jigoku remake and Blackmail Is My Business.

The Sensualist (1991, Yukio Abe)

Goofball Juzo bets his penis that he can sleep with high-class courtesan Komurasaki. There is no way this will happen, but fortunately Yonosuke, the most sexually experienced man alive, overhears his troubles and helps him out.

The same 17th century novel was adapted by Yasuzo Masumura as A Lustful Man.

Animated Oscar Shorts 2013

Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan)

Like the premise of Tezuka’s Broken Down Film with the pacing of Pixar’s Presto and revised into a self-consciously old-meets-new Micky Mouse cartoon. The director has worked on Wreck-It Ralph and some quality television.

Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz & Alexandre Espigares)

Great steampunk 3D – nervous shut-in manages to leave the house to rescue a neglected dog, which eventually outgrows his apartment. Based on the artwork of Stéphane Halleux, who goes uncredited on IMDB. One of the directors worked on the feature version of 9.

Feral (Daniel Sousa)

Wild child is “rescued” and brought to civilization, doesn’t adapt well. Black and white, faces are all toothy mouths, with eyes hidden. Some cool expressionist bits.

Possessions (Shuhei Morita)

A lost traveling repairman seeking shelter gets imprisoned by a house full of vengeful discarded artifacts – broken umbrellas, torn clothing and the like. He convinces the objects they still have worth, thanks them for their more productive years. Not as formally exciting as the previous three nor as cute as the next one.

Room on the Broom (Jon Lachauer & Max Lang)

Clearly based on a children’s book: a witch gradually gains new friends while looking for lost things. Her broom gets more and more weighed down, which is a problem with a witch-eating dragon on their trail. All animal grunts were voiced by famous people, but famous voices are lost on me since I thought Simon Pegg’s narrator was actually Rob Brydon. Cartoony 3D style, like if those animated shorts we used to see on HBO had been made with today’s software.

A la francaise (Boyer & Hazebroucq & Hsu & Leleu & Lorton)

Versailles 1700 with the king’s court portrayed as chickens. Loved it.

The Missing Scarf (Eoin Duffy)

The second short in the program about someone asking woodland creatures for help finding a lost article of clothing. Belatedly, I’m going to declare that the major trend in cinema last year. This definitely wins best performance of the bunch, for the voiceover by George Takei. Conversations with neurotic animals turn philosophical, then metacosmic, with infographic-style animation. This and the previous one were not nominated, but they’re the two I most want to watch again. Aha, the chickens are on vimeo!

The Blue Umbrella (Saschka Unseld)

Seen this before. A good closer.

These were stitched together with not-great ostrich/giraffe vignettes voiced by a guy from Thomas and Friends and a guy from Nightbreed who also appeared in the amazingly titled The Glam Metal Detectives. We saw the traveling theatrical presentation – all screenshots are from online trailers.