Resurrection Men

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Information wants to be free. Despite the public failure of Dr Frankenstein’s experiments with reanimated cadavers, his technology spreads like wildfire. When the mathematician Charles Babbage invents “necroware” that can turn a corpse into a servant, the British Empire is transformed through an entire underclass of zombie workers. John Watson, a young doctor, is recruited by “M” from the secret service to track down Frankenstein’s missing papers, in the hope that he can unravel the last mystery – how to bring back a human soul along with a body…

Satoshi Ito was the darling of Japanese science fiction in the early 21st century. Born in 1974, he shot to fame in 2007 with his novel Genocidal Organ, in which terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons, plunging the free world into a downward spiral of restrictive surveillance. It was voted the book of the decade by Japanese fandom, and swiftly led to Ito’s work-for-hire novelising the video game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. His next original splash was Harmony, which concentrated on the hunger strikers who protested against a self-proclaimed utopia. But only two years after his debut novel, Ito was already mortally ill, repeatedly hospitalised with cancer. His obsession with medical technology in Harmony hence took on a new, grim relevance, as did the handful of pages from his last idea… left behind after his untimely death, aged just 34, in 2009.

Empire of Corpses was lightning in a bottle – an industrial revolution founded not on slave labour, but on reanimated corpses, pushed every post-colonial button in modern fiction, along with a “Great Game” stand-off between British and Russian agents in the killing grounds of the Middle East. It had everything: espionage, exotic locations, steampunk stylings, and a league of extraordinary gentlemen ripped from the pages of history and adventure – we see the newly minted Dr Watson receive the injuries in Afghanistan that he would later grumble about to a more famous sleuthing companion. And he’s only the first of a whole host of figures who pile into the narrative like a who’s-who of the 19th century, including the Brothers Karamazov (working undercover for the Tsar), Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant.

Ito’s publishers wouldn’t let it die. They commissioned his friend Toh Enjoe, a very different novelist, to finish the work in progress, and the collaboration beyond the grave would go on to win a Seiun Award (Japan’s Hugo) in 2013. All three of Ito’s novel-length works went into production as animated features – partly, one suspects because of his undeniable popularity, although a cynic might suggest that the best possible original creator in the eyes of an anime producer is one who is too dead to answer back. Empire of Corpses was the first of the three to reach cinemas – rumours persist that it was rushed through in order to take a slot vacated by a more troubled production. That, at least would explain some of its problems, since it looks fantastic, sounds like a dream come true, but ultimately shambles like creature born from several great ideas, sewn together but not quite quickened with the spark of life.

It’s difficult to know where the problem lies for Empire of Corpses – right from its publication in novel form, there was always the concern that Toh Enjoe took the narrative far from the original creator’s intentions. It starts so well, but you can almost feel the moment 20 minutes in when the original pages ran out, and Toh started to wing it. His rescue job on Ito’s notes won a Seiun Award in Japan, although we’ll never know how much of that was a sympathy vote for the dead co-author. Three further writers are credited with bringing the film to the screen, and it’s they, we might assume, who sat around brainstorming and decided that what the main female lead Hadaly Lilith needed was a really big pair of boobs. Her pneumatic shuffling through the movie detracts from a storyline that otherwise takes itself very seriously indeed, but which lumbers uneasily from fiercely argued anti-colonialism, to a subtle gay romance, to a somewhat illogical zombie drama (suddenly, biting people makes them undead), to the origin story for an entirely different series, only revealed in a post-credits sting. The final act, in particular, gets bogged down in a Japanese interlude and an explosion-happy finale, a big finish seemingly hobbled by the twin golems of budget and time.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #12, 2016.

 

Computer Says No

Jonathan Clements asks: is Sibyl faulty?

psychopass-coverAs part of the research for the PSYCHO-PASS anime film, director Naoyoshi Shiotani trained with Tamura Tactical Gear, a company that offers military re-enactments. “I asked them what was never done in movies,” he recalls, “and they told me that hardly anyone ever shows the wounded getting treated. I thought that was a brilliant idea.” It’s precisely the sort of attention to counter-intuitive detail that has made PSYCHO-PASS one of the anime hits of recent memory.

In the year 2113, Japan is kept safe by the Sibyl system, a super-powerful computer that uses on-the-spot brain scans to determine how likely someone is to even think of committing a crime. Anyone with criminal leanings can be terminated or imprisoned before they do wrong, except for a few “latent” criminals who are employed as enforcers to do the establishment’s dirty work. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, everything, from deluded criminals whose psychological profile shows up as normal, to innocent people who inadvertently show signs of criminal tendencies. And that’s assuming that the system itself isn’t faulty or open to corruption. What happens when Amazon stops recommending things you might like, and rings the police instead to grass you up for liking too many films about terrorists?

“Intelligent people do not fit in,” warns writer Gen Urobuchi. “Because in that world knowledge is not regarded as something that makes people happy, so those who devote themselves to knowledge are criminals and drop-outs from the career track. The Sibyl society is a utopia where people become happy by putting a lid on knowledge.”

If that all sounds a uncomfortably prophetic about our post-truth, Brexit-obsessed world, PSYCHO-PASS is rooted firmly in the “If this goes on…” school of sci-fi, positing a world where big data is increasingly used to control the citizenry. Far from creating a safe and happy society, the concentration on pre-crime has led to a paranoid and fearful dystopia, where people are tarred with the brush of criminality not because of what they have done, but what a computer thinks they might. The series reflects a healthy scepticism about the reliability of statistical tests – a particular bugbear in Japan, where school examinations are often ridiculed for squeezing out originality of thought in favour of rote learning.

The reasoning behind the scenes at animation studio Production I.G is liable to be tied up in both the success and limitations of their former cash cow: the Ghost in the Shell franchise (affectionately known in fandom as GiTS). Ever since the 1995 movie, GiTS has periodically rebooted as a TV series, as spin-off movies and video works, the rights in its ownership becoming increasingly tangled. With the oncoming splash of the live-action Hollywood GiTS movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, the intellectual property is liable to become even more convoluted. Meanwhile, GiTS is based on a manga from the 1980s, arguably a whole generation behind the times. For a long while, Production I.G has injected fresh new sci-fi ideas into the franchise, but someone must have surely asked: why don’t we just invent our own?

The name to watch behind the scenes is supervising director Katsuyuki Motohiro, a man with only an oblique relationship to the anime world. The director of the live-action TV and cinema smash Bayside Shakedown, Motohiro is a master at crafting thoughtful policiers, and brings to the table a healthy disrespect for anime trends. It was him, one suspects, who was largely to be credited with the production’s stated “anti-moe” policy, refusing to fetishise cute female characters as a sop to an imagined audience of emotionally stunted fanboys. The result is leading lady Akane Tsunemori, who believes in the system even though she is confronted with its many flaws.

A PSYCHO-PASS animated feature went into production alongside the second TV season, offering a new plot in which the “successful” Sibyl system is experimentally installed in a South-East Asian country. Writers Gen Urobuchi and Makoto Fukami welcomed the chance to showcase how an idea that almost makes sense in strait-laced, conservative Japan could go right off the rails in an unstable dictatorship where all sides have better access to firearms. They also observed that Motohiro was on hand to push them in unexpected directions, such as forcing the cast to speak English even in the Japanese release, and insisting on a puzzle introduced in the first act. “He said,” remembers Urobuchi, “that if you want the audience to sit there for two hours, you have to offer them a mystery at the start.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #11, 2016.

Sacred Sailors

momotaro_still_page3_4-850x620Over at the All the Anime blog, I write an introduction to the wartime propaganda movie Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (i.e. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors), which is receiving its belated UK premiere at Scotland Loves Anime next month.

“Japan’s first animated feature was a masterpiece of propaganda film-making, uncompromising in the bile it directed at the enemy, romantic in its evocation of home and hearth and of imperial Japan’s Pan-Asian aspirations, and still unsettling today in its depiction of the mindset of the Japanese military. Its survival to reach modern audiences is itself an adventure story in which it somehow evades bombing raids, burial, shredding and bonfires, emerging from hiding after almost 40 years to offer modern audiences a horrifying glimpse of a very different world.”

Armchair Beijing

41A5LcKbTvL._SX268_BO1,204,203,200_Advance praise is in for my new Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing, from impressively heavy hitters.

“‘This book is like having a friendly, knowledgeable companion taking your arm as you wander through the back alleys and boulevards of one of the world’s great cities. Clements wears his learning lightly, and his informed but inclusive tone makes this the perfect book for the visitor to Beijing.” — Rana Mitter, author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

“‘Beijingers, both Chinese and foreign, mourn the Chinese capital’s rapidly-disappearing traditional alleys but few of us appreciate Beijing as a city that has lasted through 2,500 years of building and destruction. Jonathan Clements’ tour of the city starts with Peking Man and a jovial candy seller, and moves on through the Chinese dynasties with a readable flair. He comes well-stocked with tales that will be new even to long-time residents. It’s a book for a warm teahouse on a cold winter afternoon.” — Lucy Hornby, China correspondent, Financial Times

“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Jonathan Clements to compile a readable account of Beijing. Authoritative yet deliciously irreverent, his history of the city is an essential companion for the visitor and a treasure trove of vicarious delights for the chair-bound.” — John Keay, author of China: A History

“If New York and London dominated the global imagination in the twentieth century, Beijing is already in the process of usurping them in the twenty first. An extraordinarily exciting city, possessed of enormous optimism and expectation, it has a long, fascinating and complex history. Jonathan Clements unpeels the onion that is Beijing and in a highly readable and informative book gives us a wonderful glimpse of the history of a compelling city.” — Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World

All My Sons Remembered

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It was a running joke that when Japanese interviewers would ask Akira Kurosawa what his favourite film was, he would always reply: “The next one!” His answer changed in the 1980s, when instead he would say simply: “Ran.” Released in 1985, this epic, lavish samurai drama was intended by Kurosawa as his final word. Although he would in fact go on to make three other movies, he genuinely thought that this time he was going out with a bang.

Kurosawa saw himself in the character of Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), an aging lord who, King Lear-style, tries to partition his realm between his three sons. The youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), scoffs at his naive idealism, and is banished. But Saburo is right. Hidetora soon runs into old enmities long thought forgotten. His rise to the top was ruthless and blood-stained, and now we see his karma coming back to haunt him. His daughter-in-law Kaede (the fantastically swivel-eyed Mieko Harada), wants revenge for the deaths of her own family, and turns his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) against him. Before long, Hidetora is on the run from his own children, as they annihilate each other and the realm he helped to build. It is chaos, turmoil, tumult – in Japanese: Ran.

But not long before this triumphant return to form, despite being garlanded with accolades all around the world, Akira Kurosawa couldn’t get arrested in his home country. He had only made three other films since Red Beard (1965), the troubled production that cost him his friendship with his muse and leading-man of choice, Toshiro Mifune. His directing contract with Toho Studios had ended, throwing him at the mercy of the free market. After the box office failure of Dodesukaden (1970), he had even tried to kill himself.

Help arrived from unexpected quarters. In 1975 he directed the acclaimed Dersu Uzala, in Russian, in Russia. There was surely a bitter taste in its Best Foreign Feature Oscar for a Japanese director who had literally been sent to Siberia. But just as the noise over Dersu Uzala was dying down, George Lucas scored an international hit with Star Wars, proclaiming in interviews that one of his inspirations had been Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure movie The Hidden Fortress. Lucas and his similarly wealthy colleague Francis Ford Coppola came knocking, offering to bankroll the foreign release of Kurosawa’s next film, and thereby stumping up enough cash for even the timid Toho to take a punt. It was the ultimate in geekery – rescuing one’s student idol from the bargain bin of history. The resulting film, Kagemusha (“The Shadow Warrior”) was one of the top Japanese films of 1980. It actually made money, which took Kurosawa back from zero to hero. He was back in business!

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Eventually. It took another five years for Ran to get off the ground, in which time the septuagenarian director had ample time to storyboard every inch of every frame. With a $11 million budget (and this was when $11 million was a lot of money), he threw out every compromise in search of the biggest of impressions. He built an entire castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji, just so he could burn it down. He painted an entire field of flowers gold, to create a spectacularly surreal night scene, only to cut it in post-production (this scene can be seen in AK, the documentary included in the Blu-ray extras). He had literal armies of extras streaming along the hilltops and into massive battles, all shot from a numbing, alienating distance, with violence and terror reduces to swirling patterns of banners and firework displays of musketry.

From the film’s opening moment, at a fork in the road prefiguring the three-way conflict about to be unleashed, Ran is a triumph of symbolism. The characters are only depicted once sitting in a circle – whole and equal. Every other composition is broken and asymmetrical, daring the viewer to see further portents in the theatrical staging. And when it comes to home video, I would say its time has come. If you can’t catch it in a cinema, then at least most tellies are now big enough to catch all the expansive action, and modern media can capture every pixel. Go on, treat yourself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #8, 2016.

Skiptrace

960Over on the Funimation blog, I tackle the entertaining but also thought-provoking Skiptrace, Jacke Chan’s latest movie outing.

“Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese.”