Last Monday, I sat on the hardwood floor of my apartment, leering at the white cardboard box in front of me. The box, which contained a disassembled nightstand from IKEA, had been sitting under my bed for weeks. And one night after getting home from work abnormally early (before 8 p.m.), I did the adult thing – I put a load of laundry in the wash, ordered a pizza from Dominos, dragged the box out from under my bed, and put on “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”
“Kiki’s Delivery Service,” or Majo no Takkyūbin, was a 1989 release from Studio Ghibli about a young witch, Kiki, who leaves home with her talking cat companion Jiji on her 13th birthday, part of a custom where a young witch must be apart from her family for a year and find another town to live and use her special ability in. Kiki’s ability of flight seems like an ordinary witch power, but she finds that in her new seaside town she is able to use it as a delivery girl for a bakery. But her journey to using her talent doesn’t come without obstacles. After one delivery goes sour, she seems to lose her powers. She can no longer fly or understand Jiji and becomes deeply depressed before finally regaining her confidence in herself and her abilities.
That’s my immediate response to the title “Perfect Blue.” Granted, there are plenty of things to like about the 1997 release from directors Hideki Hamazumm and Satoshi Kon. It gives us a great, thrilling story, following our protagonist Mina, a popstar who is forced to drop her career and pursue an acting gig to remain relevant. Though the plot goes much deeper than that, because Mima’s sudden retirement upsets a devoted fan and she begins receiving threats, obscene calls, and things take a set of extremely upsetting turns.
This film is great in the ways of mastering suspense and using very human issues to do so, dealing with the pressures of fame and the horror of cultivating an identity that someone else loves or desires to emulate to the point of self-harm or harming others. The animation is gorgeous and uncomfortable, and I mean that in the best way. Unlike “Cat Soup,” where the visual can be stunning but often nonsensical and use that to create an air of uneasiness, Perfect Blue doesn’t dance around the issue. This is one of the first on-point animation films I’ve seen that deal with horror in a great way and use every facet to its advantage. We are meant to be shifting nervously while watching this. Facial expressions are extremely distorted at points, the line between reality and fiction is hard – even for the viewer – to follow. The film features a rape scene (though one done as a recording for a television show) and it pulls no punches. It made me uncomfortable. It would make anyone uncomfortable. And it should. For these things, I’m glad that Perfect Blue exists; it pushed the genre, and it opened animated films up in ways that were dark, complex, and very gritty and real.
But for all those good things that are built up in the first three-fourths of the film, the end just throws it all out. I won’t give away the ending by any means (because it’s a great twist that I really enjoy), but the very end shows this intense progress by our main character that seems incredibly hokey when it’s all said and done. It seems like the film has built up all this sadness, all this mental instability, but they felt required to stabilize things by the end. It just felt like a cop-out, and maybe when you check it out, you’ll know what I’m referring to.
But when the rubber hits the road, Perfect Blue did a lot more good than bad for the animated world. It’s a great thriller, paced very well and using a lot of symbolism to get the job done. I would offer the small critique of it being a little over-stylized, but I would say that judgment is a tick-tack one, if anything. I would say that I genuinely enjoy this movie because of the emotions it makes you feel. Are they good ones? Absolutely not. But I can remember getting the same feeling when I watched “Requiem for a Dream,” a film that is, by design, meant to make you feel unwanted emotions. And to know that film, especially animated film, is powerful enough to accomplish that, it can do wonders for the medium and the audience that watches.
If you’d like to check out Perfect Blue for yourself, the easiest way to get a hold of it is through Netflix’s order system. But it’s also available on Amazon and even in major retail chains like Best Buy. So, if you’re looking for an anime staple to add to your collection that really packs a punch, give this film a go. It’s not perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty darn close.
Akira is the type of film that many have heard of, but not too many people have actually taken the time to sit and watch, which is understandable. The film was a big deal when it was released in 1988, but now it mostly comes up as a nostalgic centerpiece for those of us who enjoy anime and have a strong love for its roots. If I had to make a list of films that I would say changed the history of animation, Akira would definitely be one of them (hence why it ended up on this list). But the first time I saw it, I was really impressed – and truthfully, really excited. Let me explain.
I saw Akira when I was maybe 12 or 13. And I came from a pretty conservative town, so those of us with any kind of inkling towards anime were immediately pegged as oddballs. Anime was viewed as this weird fantasy world filled with way too much violence and nudity and way too little plotline. True, those anime shows definitely exist, but they shouldn’t consume the entire genre or make animated films that do have a smattering of nudity or violence immediately get the “fan service” label. But Akira avoided that label, and brilliantly. The films was definitely known for its violence, and the plot – a psychic teenager in a dystopian version of 2019 Tokyo in the year 2019 — gives a lot of room for a lot of blood.
But when I first saw this film, all I could think was “It’s like The Matrix…but better!” And I think this is why Akira has such a great following, because it was really, really ahead of its time. Even watching now, I often find myself lost in the visuals and character design. Even the way the violence is depicted takes a lot of skill and is worth mentioning as artwork. But I love Akira because it brings up the question of what’s counted as permissible in anime and what’s permissible in live action by making a good quality film that mirrors a landmark film everybody knows. I’ve seen plenty of live action films with way more blood than Akira, but because Akira was animated, some reviewers were willing to criticize director Katsuhiro Otomo’s decisions when taking on the original 2182-page manga epic. In terms of plot, if you’ve read the manga, the restructured plot of the movie differs considerably from the print version, pruning much of the last half. But that’s not a reason to avoid it. This movie knows what it means to create a world and drop you into it with gorgeous visuals, great characters, and a lot of action.
But if you’re new to anime, think of Akira as your 101 course. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but it’s a landmark film, and it’s definitely one not to miss.
And speaking of animated films that were way ahead of their time, come back next week when I’ll be reviewing a thriller that dealt with performance personality before Black Swan’s Nina ever slipped on her ballet shoes.
It’s true. Ghost in the Shell is being made into a live action film.
A few years ago, that sentence would’ve spit out the same thought I get when people say there are ‘talks’ about a live action Cowboy Bebop or Gundam film: useless rumor. But with the recent news of Margot Robbie, the talented actress who played opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2014 smash film Wolf of Wall Street, being cast as the film’s protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell really seems to be turning into a reality. Because of that, and my general feeling about anime-turned-live-action projects, I’d say it’s definitely worth talking about.
Now when I say I have feelings about live action remakes, they aren’t neatly categorized ones. The notion of loving or hating a film before it’s even made is a real crapshoot and between the cast list, director, and screenwriter, there are still a lot of holes to fill. But if history shows any inkling of repeating itself, we’re not in for a good time.
But let’s start by talking about where the idea of producing a live action remake of an anime comes from. Anime series in Japan usually start out as a manga, or a graphic novel. The novel then can be transformed into an animated series. The manga can have a long-running series before it’s picked up and made into an animated series (like Dragon Ball Z), or be relatively new (like One Piece, which was made into an animated series in 1998, only two years after its first publication). Anime series also have been known to take risks and deviate from the plot of the original manga, and a good example of this would be Fullmetal Alchemist, debuting as an animated series in 2003. The plot included most of the same characters and the overarching themes, but writer Shō Aikawa took some major liberties in deciding the order of events. Then in 2009, another series came out, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. This new series played much closer to the manga and left fewer stones unturned, garnering a lot of praise. But within the realm of anime, plot change from the manga to the series is pretty forgivable – there’s a lot to account for when going from one medium to another, in this case book to film. And even if manga are typically more expressive and have much more illustration that regular literature, the process comes with several challenges, some of which result in some plot getting cut or a character arc being changed. And sometimes, animated series will get animated films of their own. Fullmetal has gotten two, and the Gundam series, Cowboy Bebop, and even Ghost in the Shell have their titles. These films are usually hit or miss, but it’s easy to see that the animators, writers, and voice actors are working their hardest to make their fan base happy.
But when it comes to taking an animated film and making it into a live action film, the problems are almost identical to that of making a book into a movie. Why? Well, for me, there are really three big reasons. One: anime is boundless. There isn’t much you can’t do with pens, paper, and a computer program or two. Characters can have big expressions and imaginative costumes or designs, actions and reactions can be overdrawn to represent raw, unfiltered emotion, and the location possibilities are endless. When you decide to move that over to film, you get a lot of this:
That’s a poster from Drangonball: Evolution, the remake of the popular anime Dragonball Z. It’s a film I’m still trying to bleach from my retinas. The character designs are laughable, the script so very forced, and the plot makes anime fans look immature, to say the least.
But that’s not the only time a remake has really scorned the people who helped make it popular, anybody remember Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender?
If not, be sure to use that two hours of your life to the fullest, because I can never get mine back. Avatar was proof that even if you had actors who were talented and smart and even knowledgeable of the material, a writer who doesn’t know what they’re doing can send everything down the drain at breakneck speed.
But I can’t completely blame the writer, because truth is, someone else (probably in marketing) is pulling the strings. And this is where my second biggest problem comes in: the demographic gets exponentially larger. When you’re making an animated movie from a manga, you know who your audience is. You started in animation, a demographic that is niche, to put it lightly. There’s a special kind of formula that goes along with writing, animating, and producing these sort of films, just as there is for any film. And just as with any other film, there’s an audience that comes with it. For example, if you’re a die-hard horror fan, you’re probably not going to catch the newest romantic comedy at the theater, because it just isn’t your cup of tea. And the same could be said of animated films, fans of anime know what they want (and no, it isn’t fan service), and filmmakers are well-versed in how to deliver a product that fills that need; they really aren’t out to draw in anyone else.
But once that movie gets put into the hands of a big name producer like Michael Bay, the demographic is blown wide open. Suddenly, this isn’t just for the people who have watched the series, this is a film for your everyday movie go-er, and that means a lot of changes that most fans won’t agree with.
I can’t tell you how much I don’t want the smash 1988 animated film Akira to be made into a live action film, which is set to film this Spring. Not because I don’t want people to see it, I’d gladly give anyone the copy I own, rather I think that Akira is right in the medium it needs to be, and I think this is where my third reason comes into play: anime just isn’t taken seriously. There’s this odd stigma to animation, like it’s something that can’t be a “real film” until it’s made into a live action version. There’s the stigma that anime isn’t art and that it’s all fan service, or that anime fans are somehow not in touch with reality because they prefer their films to be animated. To be honest, those are all part of the stigma of not being taken seriously – and that really needs to go. And honestly, it’s going to take a lot more than Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to make things better. But I’m afraid this is what’s going to happen with Ghost in the Shell. The protagonist is a strong female cyborg who leads a law-enforcement division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. Her basic job is to capture powerful hackers and bring them to justice. But all I can think of is people at the planning meeting saying, “So, we just need to make a lady Robocop, right?”
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this remake will set a standard and bring animation into a new world of possibility. Maybe we’ll do something right.
Or maybe you’ll find me in Spring with an Akira picket sign in my hand.