I’ve been watching more non-anime films lately, partly with the intent of connecting to influential works of geek culture. Today’s menu: 1982’s Tron.
My general image of Tron is shaped by my earliest days online, back in the 1990s. Being into things like video games and anime, websites would often laud Tron as a work that shaped perceptions of what the inner world of computers looked like, but also really appealed to nerds even as it was less well received by many movie critics and didn’t perform astoundingly at the box office. The grids and games of “Deadly Discs” and what-not carried a virtual cyberpunk aesthetic, even if the film might not be technically cyberpunk.
Now that I’ve watched it, I can see exactly why some would love it to bits and others would find it shallow and impenetrable. It’s the kind of movie where in order to enjoy it, you need to be in love with the aesthetics or at least highly appreciative of them. The world they depict, highly reminiscent of the arcade games of the 1980s mixed with a hauntingly sterile environment, carries a certain specific attraction that current artists try to capture through things like vaporware. As someone who is into this sort of thing, experiencing Tron could feel like a religious experience, or like a David Lynch or Oshii Mamoru work. The fact that the universe of Tron has programs as living entities who speak of their programmers in hushed tones of reverence (while a rogue program forces its fellow brings to renounce their creators) certainly adds to it.
But it’s in that basking that Tron can drag. Moments meant for viewers to revel in the heretofore unseen computer graphics and the eerie world around them can take a long time—enough to make even me impatient. For anyone who is not so on-board with the aesthetics, whether because they were a 1980s critic for whom “computer world” held no value or because Tron most assuredly looks at least somewhat dated to a modern viewer, these moments can get in the way of the story rather than complement it.
To compare Tron to later works might be an exercise in foolishness (what was once novel is now commonplace), but the first thing that pops to my mind is the 1990s cartoon Reboot. In a similar manner, that show depicts a world inside the computer where programs go on their own adventures and have a strange relationship with a being on high (the “player”). And given that decades have passed since Reboot as well, it might be worth revisiting just to see how its depiction of the universe inside electronics holds up today.
So Tron is definitely a nerd film that valued things mainstream critics often would not. Today, it might seem too plain. But its look and feel can still resonate today, amidst the enduring revival of 80s nostalgia. I feel like I can understand the past and present just a bit more.
There’s a general arc to the films of Hosoda Mamoru. Over time, they have been increasingly concerned with family and the raising of children, to the extent that his early works can feel like a distant memory. His latest work, Belle, feels like both a return to older titles like Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time that comes by way of his decade-long focus on parenting.
Belle (whose Japanese title translates to The Dragon and the Freckled Princess) is actually an incredibly difficult work to summarize, as it tries to be so many things at once. It’s the story of Suzu, a teen girl who inadvertently becomes the biggest music sensation in an interactive virtual community after being unable to sing due to childhood trauma. It’s also heavily inspired by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with the aforementioned Dragon being an online version of the Beast who picks fights with everyone and has to run from a Gaston-equivalent with the power of doxxing. But Suzu also struggles with the cruelty of social ostracization at school, a self-inflicted strained relationship with her dad, relationship woes, and much, much more.
I believe the way Belle harkens back to Summer Wars is obvious enough (virtual worlds and community), but when it comes to the teen aspect, I think Hosoda basically looped all the way back around. If works like Wolf Children and Mirai come across as explorations of how the feelings of small children influence how they behave and grow, then Belle is smack-dab in the tumult of puberty. Rather than entirely centering the world around teens, there’s a sense that the story is about watching over them as adults.
Belle is a lot, especially when you get into its various topics, including but not limited to: the Internet as a place to find oneself vs. the judgmental eye of social media, the way media facades can bring out positive qualities but also obscure dangerous ones, and the particular ways in-group vs. out-group dynamics run counter to the greater good, among others. At times, Belle seem like it’s going to burst at the seams, which makes it a full and rich experience but also at times thematically convoluted. The rich visuals and stunning musical performances help to tie everything together, keeping the package from falling apart at the end and delivering a complexity that has more merits than faults.
I don’t say this often, but I wonder if Belle would have actually been better as a long-format series. As 13 episodes or maybe more, all its components could be given more room to breathe, and the journey Suzu herself takes could have benefited from the real passage of time. The lack of a film-level budget might have meant a less exquisite presentation, but I think the themes could have rung truer.
I recently re-watched the awesome Mad Max: Fury Road, which has reminded me about something very important: Nux the War Boy is the most moe character of 2015.
Nux, like the other War Boys, is afflicted with cancer which makes him barely able to stand. Despite his crippling illness, he tries his best to achieve glory and be shiny and chrome.
Nux, though part of a religious cult that emphasizes death and war, is in a sense innocent. He has a sense of naive, wide-eyed wonder about the world and his glorious leader, Immortan Joe. He knows little of the world, but he slowly learns.
Despite his efforts, however, his clumsiness often gets the better of him, and it leaves you feeling sorry for him. Seeing Nux curled into a ball as he laments the fact that the Gates of Valhalla denied to him three times, you just want to give him a hug.
So moe I could live, die, and live again.
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I was recently on The Cockpit discussing the recent giant robots ‘n monster film Pacific Rim along with the host Patz, as well as the Reverse Thieves. The podcast is super spoileriffic so it’s recommended for people who’ve already seen it.
If you have any love for giant robots and/or giant monters, you might not necessarily love the movie, but you’ll at least like it a fair deal.
Last week was the beginning of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and with it came the international premiere of Miike Takashi’s film, Ace Attorney, or “Gyakuten Saiban” as it’s known in Japanese. Based on Capcom’s video game franchise of the same name, Ace Attorney follows a bumbling wet-behind-the-ears defense attorney named Phoenix Wright and is quest to figure out the truth behind a string of murders leading back 15 years (and defend his clients along the way) using a combination of wit, courage, and irrefutable evidence. Opposite him is prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, a former friend of Phoenix’s from childhood whose ruthless approach to justice is a far cry from both Phoenix’s ways and how he used to be.
(Note that the film was English-subtitled with the official English-language names, so I’ll be referring to the characters as such (Phoenix Wright instead of Naruhodo Ryuuichi).)
The Ace Attorney video games utilize a very “anime” aesthetic, and for anyone who saw the preview images or the trailer, the first thing that stands out is the fact that all of the characters’ costumes and even the sets are very close to the original source. Phoenix looks like he practically stepped out of the tiny DS screen, and when someone wins a court case in the film, even the way the background actors clap like stock animation looks like it came straight out of the games. However, what isn’t so obvious from the previews is the fact that, while the faithfulness of the dress results in distinctly spiky hair, frilly collars, and unique color combinations, the actual colors of the backgrounds and even the clothing itself are quite subdued. Phoenix Wright’s suit may be blue, but it’s a very toned-down blue that is a far cry from the bright, primary colors that mark the video games, and rather than clashing with the anime elements in the film, the more realistic use of color actually helps to bridge the gap between the iconic anime elements and the use of live actors. Whereas the original games’ aesthetic presents a world and motif unto itself, with the way the film looks there is a sense that our world could possibly someday turn into the larger-than-life world of Ace Attorney, however small those chances are.
In a way, this gives the film a rather prominent science fictional element, as if it’s asking, “What if the criminal justice system were like this?” Indeed, Ace Attorney even presents the unique gameplay of the video games (using evidence to find contradictions in witness testimony) as a transformation of Japan’s court system. In the story of the Ace Attorney film, the Japanese government has set up a new judicial method in order to deal with the increased amount of criminal cases. This “Bench Trial” is a court where evidence is king and which must conclude after a maximum of 3 days, giving both prosecution and defense a limited amount of time to make their cases before the judge (not a jury) makes a verdict. Moreover, in this court, evidence is presented in the form of Minority Report-esque holographic projections, flown to the center of the courtroom through the signature cries of “Objection!”, “Take That!”, and “Hold It!”, helping to bolster that larger-than-life feel. Just in case I’m giving the impression that the film is mainly serious business though, I have to point out that the movie will make the occasional sudden tonal shift like in a Tezuka manga in order to lighten the mood (and succeeds in doing so without disrupting the pacing of the movie).
The storyline and court cases of Ace Attorney is familiar to anyone who played the original, though it combines a few of them together, both for the sake of time and for all of the characters involved to have their own denouements by the end. As I have played those games and thus pretty much knew how the cases would go, I cannot comment on whether or not the narrative events of the film would be a surprise or difficult to figure out for someone new to the series. However, what I can say is that the actors do a very good job of portraying their characters, conveying a strong sense of both their personalities and their approaches to handling trials. For me, the two most outstanding performances in the film are by Phoenix Wright’s actor Narimiya Hiroki and by Ishibashi Ryou, who plays the wily veteran Manfred von Karma. Narimiya does an excellent job portraying Wright as a very clever and observant but inexperienced attorney; when he sees evidence of a clear contradiction, you can see him struggling to connect the dots that he knows have to be there, gradually forcing the words out until the crucial element comes to the surface of his mind. Ishibashi meanwhile comes across almost perfectly as a man who cannot be fazed, a man with a 40-year undefeated prosecution record, and who can even take some of the anime mannerisms from the game and actually make them look perfectly natural. If that isn’t amazing, I don’t know what it is.
Overall, the Ace Attorney movie is fun and exciting, and never feels all that awkward combining the anime aesthetic with the live-action atmosphere. While fans of the game will almost certainly enjoy it, I think people unfamiliar with the franchise and even people have been turned off by Miike’s work in the past (perhaps due to their ultra-violence) have a very strong possibility of coming out of the theater satisfied.
One thing that made this showing of Ace Attorney special was that Miike himself was in attendance. Before the film began, there was a 15-minute interview session with the director where he spoke about this film as well as his experience in filmmaking in general. Miike had actually last visited the Rotterdam International Film Festival 12 years ago with Ichi the Killer and some other movies, and he claims that the extremely positive reaction he received in Rotterdam back then was actually the launching point for his international success and why he’s able to do bigger-budget movies today. He spoke about his use of extreme violence not for the sake of violence but to show the strong emotions which drive his characters, and his desire to make films which surprise himself (something I find he has in common with the creative process of Getter Robo and Devilman creator Nagai Go). He also showed great respect for the original source material of Ace Attorney, but pointed out that a good deal had to be done to convert that game format to a film. I have to say that he did a good job in that regard, transferring the excitement of figuring out the cases as a player to watching the characters work to reach their conclusions.
After the interview was over, the person next to me turned to me and asked, “Spreekt u Nederlands?” After I responded “Nee,” we then had the following conversation: