Right-Hand Man

parasyte-the-movieThe Earth is under attack. Alien parasites have wormed their way into the brains of uncountable human beings, everybody from policemen to school teachers to noodle sellers. Teenager loser Shinichi (Shota Sometani) knows this because of a fatal flaw in the alien scheme – they can’t crawl in through your ears if you’re wearing headphones. Instead, his attacker Migi (Sadao Abe) misses Shinichi’s brain at the fateful moment and takes over his right hand, bonding them together for life.

Shinichi now has a wise-cracking alien attached to his arm, curious about world affairs, human relationships, and genitals. But he also has an ally in the war with the aliens, since Migi’s botched takeover turns him into a pro-human fifth columnist. Shinichi must somehow find out the aliens’ plans, without alerting the suspicions of his school teacher Miss Tamiya (Eri Fukatsu), whose blank-faced stare is sure-fire evidence that she has already had her brain eaten.

Japan’s first riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers came in the form of the as-yet untranslated Beautiful Star by the infamously loopy novelist Yukio Mishima, in which a group of fanatical nerds became convinced that they are Venusian agents tasked with starting a nuclear war. The same period, the 1960s, also saw the granddaddy of all tales of alien symbiosis, when the dying alien Ultraman fused himself inextricably with a passing human, kicking off an ongoing franchise of transforming heroes fighting rubber monsters. By the 1970s, Japanese children’s telly was awash with the likes of School in Peril, in which teenage angst found new outlets in missions to defy scheming adults who turned out to be alien stooges.

In 1988 when the manga artist Hitoshi Iwaaki published the first chapter of Kiseiju (Parasyte – the misspelling is a deliberate imitation of a similar twist in the original Japanese), his story was a knowing homage to such childhood chillers. But running in Afternoon, a comic magazine for adults, Parasyte injected heavy doses of body-horror and paranoia. In gleeful, blood-spattered imitation of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Iwaaki’s aliens let rip with visceral, fanged transformations, like weaponised Salvador Dali paintings duking it out for control of the Earth. But it was also witty. Migi’s oddball friendship with Shinichi was genuinely charming, and their encounters with the humourless alien invaders inevitably creepy or inadvertently funny.

The original Parasyte manga finished in 1995, fading from public view for the oddest of reasons. For several years, the remake rights were purportedly in the hands of James Cameron. The Titanic director’s interest in manga is well-documented, but in the case of Parasyte, the rights acquisition may have been part of a complex legal issue, acquiring it to prevent ambulance-chasing lawsuits about the similarities between its shape-shifting aliens and the abilities of the T2000 in Terminator 2. There were certainly moments in the manga that bore a coincidental resemblance to iconic scenes in Cameron’s 1991 movie, and as a result, Parasyte stayed out of other media for over 20 years. Despite winning awards in comic form and bagging itself a Seiun (Japan’s Hugo award) for best science fiction, it didn’t make the obvious jump to anime or feature film until 2014, when it suddenly exploded into both formats. This delay has done it no harm at all, not the least in its evocations of modern terrorism – Shinichi is a double agent inside a sleeper cell, committed to preventing atrocities on his home turf.

As if two movies were not enough, Parasyte was also adapted as animation – arguably a medium more suited to the sudden outbreaks of alien shape-shifting. But Takashi Yamazaki’s live-action version also benefits from a generation of falling prices in digital effects, allowing him to inject heavy doses of rubber-bodied violence. It doesn’t always work, with the nature of Migi’s host leading Shinichi to literally hold his assailants at arm’s length, but most of the time, talky scenes of threats and scheming convincingly erupt into savage collisions of snapping flesh, often part-hidden in the shadows or obscured on scratchy CCTV.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #7, 2016.

Advertisements

And a child shall lead them…

IMG_6356

Over at All the Anime, Andrew Osmond writes a long piece about my new book, Christ’s Samurai.

“And they had a hero, a Japanese Christian guru called Jerome Amakusa. Clements picks his way through the legends, stressing how little we know of Jerome with any certainty. According to some accounts, he was a strikingly beautiful teenage boy, ‘an eerie, white-robed child messiah.'”

Watching Paint Dry

landscape-1448043247-screen-shot-2015-11-20-at-18

This issue, we observe disgruntled film-maker Charlie Lyne, trolling the British Board of Film Classification by submitting a ten-hour movie of drying paint. Since the BBFC is obliged to scrutinise every second of every film sent to them, Lyne solicited online donations to send the censors the longest possible sequence of nothing, and to pay the boggling £7/minute fee required for all submissions. Paint Drying was passed on 26th January with the comment “no material likely to offend or harm.”

I’m not going to get into the ins and outs and the rationales for the existence of the BBFC – there’s a letters page for that, get stuck in. Instead, I want to talk to you about Lyne’s reasons for this Situationist protest in the first place: the tax on creativity he had to pay just to release a movie. Although nobody ever thanks me for pointing out how small the anime world is, we live in a world now where some releases underperform to the extent that their audience would literally fill a single cinema. When there is a likelihood, or even a mere risk, that a DVD will only sell a few hundred copies, the producers have to make some tough decisions about how much financial exposure they want.

Sure, I hear you say, but that’s the price of doing business. If someone’s forked out £5,000 for the rights to Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, they might as well have another grand on top to pay for the certificate, otherwise they shouldn’t be in the game in the first place. But for many anime, the BBFC fee is the last straw that kills off any extras.

Although this is rarely discussed among fans, extras also have to be certificated. That 30-minute making-of you wanted to see? That’ll cost over £300 just to get a BBFC nod. That feature commentary track you want to hear? That still has to be certificated at £7 a minute, even though it’s just some guy (usually me) talking about the thing you’ve already seen. I strongly suspect that the reason for the recent proliferation of art-books and sleeve notes in Anime Ltd releases like Sword Art Online and Durarara!! is because the £700 fee for certifying a feature commentary track feels like a protection racket. Someone could probably mount a legal challenge, arguing that a commentary was “educational” and hence exempt, but someone would still have to pay the lawyers to fight that corner.

But spare a thought for the BBFC, having to literally sit and watch paint dry for ten hours. They had to watch Legend of the Overfiend. Haven’t they suffered enough?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 148, 2016.

Christ’s Samurai

Christ's Samurai coverIn 1638, the ruler of Japan ordered a crusade against his own subjects, a holocaust upon the men, women and children of a doomsday cult.

The sect was said to harbour dark designs to overthrow the government. Its teachers used a dead language that was impenetrable to all but the innermost circle. Its priests preached love and kindness, but helped local warlords acquire firearms. They encouraged believers to cast aside their earthly allegiances and swear loyalty to a foreign god-emperor, before seeking paradise in terrible martyrdoms.

The cult was in open revolt, led, it was said, by a boy sorcerer. Farmers claiming to have the blessing of an alien god had bested trained samurai in combat and proclaimed that fires in the sky would soon bring about the end of the world. The Shogun called old soldiers out of retirement for one last battle before peace could be declared in Japan. For there to be an end to war, he said, the Christians would have to die.

This is a true story.

Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, is released on 7th April 2016 (and here in the US).

Gangsters vs Vampires

yakuza-apocalypseIn a Japan flailing through the recession, mob boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) faces surprise competition from a bunch of new arrivals, including a water demon and a violent anime fan. Dying from his wounds, Kamiura bites his lieutenant Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), passing on his vampire powers (yes, forgot to mention that) in a turf war that soon escalates into a Yakuza Apocalypse.

The enemy calls in “The Modern Monster” – a martial artist in a ridiculous frog costume, who steals the whole movie – and battle ensues, played for laughs but not scrimping on the athleticism and acrobatics. It’s aided in this by the presence of Yayan Ruhian of The Force Awakens in the role of Kyoken (“Mad Dog”, same name as his character in The Raid), but also by off-screen efforts by an insane cameraman who seems to want to wade into the middle of all the fight scenes.

Time to test your geek credentials, since any Japanese movie buff reading the above synopsis is sure to say: “This sounds like a Takashi Miike film.” And indeed it is, with all the hallmarks of this most notorious and beloved director, from a visceral, kitchen-sink-inclusive plot to the gory stand-offs and the social commentary. These yakuza (gangsters) are literal blood-suckers, draining the vitality from small-town Japan, while clinging to a ridiculously po-faced and archaic honour system like something out of a kung fu movie.

yakuza-apocalypse 2Organised crime has been an integral part of the Japanese movie world for a century, both on and off-screen. Isolde Standish, in A New History of Japanese Cinema, has no qualms about pointing out that one well-known studio was actually founded by gangsters, and there are many blood-curdling stories about the poaching and nobbling of stars, the abuses of hopefuls on a many a casting couch, and the super powers of mob accountants in burying money in supposed box office flops, or generating “hits” by intimidation and threats

It should come as no surprise that there should be an entire sub-genre of films in which such mobsters are the heroes, depicted as the last guardians of the samurai ethic by a movie machine that is literally terrified of the real-life versions. And this only makes director Takashi Miike’s satire all the more biting and brave, as he depicts yakuza protagonists as woefully stupid, belligerent poseurs, knifing each other over who gets to call himself the king of a particular street corner

Some of Miike’s snootier champions object to the popular image of him as a crazy scatter-gun creative, but even they have to admit that a man who has sometimes managed to notch up four or five movies in a single year can’t produce good work all the time. Legendarily, Miike just loves to work. He is addicted to making movies, and rarely stops long enough to read his worst reviews. There is a certain irony that the very accessibility, insanity and prolixity of Miike’s early work made him a darling of schlocky horror magazines and hungry young media academics. While some award-winning, worthy Japanese movies struggled to find foreign distributors, Miike’s B-movies and gross-outs often found themselves bundled in package deals or nestling somewhere in a bargain bin. This had the odd effect of putting him on the radar of a bunch of film students scouring Blockbuster Video for something to write about, and turning him into a much-discussed auteur

And while there are some truly awful films on his resumé, he has managed to pack several lifetimes of movie-making experience into his career, including some real gems. Every now and then, he creates a work of enduring appeal, like the grotesque stalker drama Audition or the horror musical The Happiness of the Katakuris. He also managed to make what is, to my mind, one of the best Japanese movies of the last decade, the gritty, intense samurai drama Thirteen Assassins

Miike loves to divide the critics, and Yakuza Apocalypse is no exception, lauded by The Daily Telegraph for its “demented brilliance,” but damned by The Hollywood Reporter as “numbingly idiotic.” Knowing Miike, he’ll want to put both reviews on the poster.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters.This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #5, 2016.