Ghosts in their own ghost stories: Shokuzai

Shokuzai episode 3

“If it cannot break out of its shell, the chick will die without ever being born. We are the chick-The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without ever truly being born. Smash the world’s shell. FOR THE REVOLUTION OF THE WORLD!”
–Revolutionary Girl Utena

Shokuzai (Penance) is a story of people dying without ever being born. Exposed to a tragedy at a young age, it’s like they were frozen in time and encased within a shell of adolescence as they grew into adulthood. They were five girls in their school’s playground when one of them was abducted right in front of their eyes and murdered. 15 years later, we return to their lives and find them still struggling to come to terms with what happened. Stunted, empty, cursed; they could never break out of their shells. Thus began the 5 episode series Shokuzai, a 2012 Japanese TV drama directed by the horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse, Tokyo Sonata.)

When I began investigating Japanese film in 2008, Kurosawa fast became a favourite of mine. Like a Japanese Tarkovsky, his style is calm and atmospheric, using background noise and image to convey a strong feeling of alienation and disquiet. If you’ve ever seen anything from the anime directors Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost Hound) or Hiroshi Hamasaki (Texhnolyze, Shigurui,) you’ll know what to expect. Kurosawa’s made a lot of horror, but in a genre renowned for its visceral qualities, his films are unusually meditative and artful nightmares that play with the strange and surreal to emphasise an ugly and desperate reality. When even Martin Scorsese is a fan (the excellent Shutter Island owes a lot to Kurosawa,) you realise this is a filmmaker worthy of note.

Continue reading “Ghosts in their own ghost stories: Shokuzai”

Don’t give up: dying in pursuit of change and The Sky Crawlers

the sky crawlers anime

Mamoru Oshii doesn’t make forgettable anime. Be it Ghost in the Shell or Patlabor 2, the man injects so much personality into his films that it’s impossible not to recognise his touch. There is, of course, his famous basset hound, but there’s also a poetic side that transports this viewer into the ether. I can’t tell if it’s just that his films are ageing like fine wine, or if I’m now of an age where I’m better able to appreciate what he’s trying to say, but whatever the case, he’s now one of my favourite film directors.

I watched The Sky Crawlers for the first time last night. With Kenji Kawai and Production IG alongside him, it’s a film as thoughtful as it is beautiful. Set on an alternate Earth, the ageless Kildren (“kill-dolls”) are fighter pilots forever clashing amidst the clouds in a war that is at best extremely vague and at worst totally pointless. The story exists in a place that’s like Neverland gone bad, where the children’s only escape from the endless cycles of war is heavy drinking, sex and suicide: the sheer monotony of their lives is reflected in the film’s subdued colour palette, everything is so hazy and drained: an apt worldview for a doll. A doll isn’t alive. A doll doesn’t have memories. A doll is content with its place in the world because it knows no better.

Continue reading “Don’t give up: dying in pursuit of change and The Sky Crawlers”

The flower bloomed

Flowers of Evil anime

Before you decide to watch Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana,) please ask yourself these questions: do I purely want bishounen, or bishoujo, characters in my anime? Am I always looking for attractive characters? Should anime always look the same? If you’ve answered in the affirmative to any of these questions, forget about Flowers of Evil and watch something else. The sheer amount of invective aimed at its first episode is evidence enough that many aren’t able to see this series as anything other than ugly. I didn’t realise there was an objective example of ugliness, but apparently, Flowers of Evil is it. Thanks, anime fans.

Continue reading “The flower bloomed”

My name is Squealer

shin sekai yori

The end of a season is a bittersweet time for anime fans, as the joy of seeing a series reach its climax is undercut by the knowledge that this is the last hurrah for a story we’ve grown attached to over time. Such is the case with Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World,) a series that had me under its spell from the first episode on. Unpredictable, challenging and artistic are but three ways to describe the experience of watching it. Indeed, it has all the things that critics like me love to see in anime, but more importantly, this isn’t merely a cold essay on human nature, it’s emotive, and ends beautifully, with a trademark mix of the horrifying and hopeful.

Continue reading “My name is Squealer”

The Flowers of Evil

First, imagine an alternate version of FLCL, where Naoto hooks up with the loose-canon Mamimi and revels in her pyromania, falling ever deeper into her psychosis, burning away their boring world together. This is The Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana,) a manga series (and soon to be anime) that begins like any of the other thousands of stories written about teenagers. Bored, disillusioned and harbouring a secret crush, our main character is the whimpering Kasuga, the archetypal, spineless harem lead without a shred of pride. When he steals his crush’s gym clothes, a vortex opens through which the trouble-making Nakamura steps. She spied him stealing the clothes and blackmails him into becoming her slave.

Continue reading “The Flowers of Evil”

A distant light: Hyouka

Somewhere between its Autumn lights and shifting leaves, there’s a warmth in Hyouka. Warm is a good way of describing the series, emotional is another. Not emotional in a melodramatic sense, but rather, one feels a liveliness coursing through every table leg and dusty bookshelf in the series. It has the sense of a story lived in.

Continue reading “A distant light: Hyouka”

Anime still has it: Space Brothers

For a while there, I stopped believing that the anime industry was capable of crafting shows like Space Brothers (Uchū Kyōdai.) When I seriously started getting into anime, there were series like Planetes, Gankutsuou, Monster and Mushishi all being released in and around the same time. These were series not influenced by other anime and not trying to pander to an existing fan-base. At the time, I seriously thought anime would take over the world.

At some point, though, the bubble burst, and suddenly the idea of a 74 episode murder mystery set not in a Japanese high school, but in mid-Nineties Germany with barely a teenager in sight, seems more like a joke. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that a series like Space Brothers is actually being made right now: the story of a bunch of middle-aged adults chasing their dreams of becoming astronauts.

Continue reading “Anime still has it: Space Brothers”