Kizumonogatari Tekketsu: SHAFT Ups the Ante for The Silver Screen

When first touching down in Japan in late 2011, the one big theatrical anime I was looking forward to feasting my eyes on was Kizumonogatari–at the time slated for release in Fall of 2012. As the story goes, the promised time would come and go with little more than a few promotional images. Years would pass, and the project would remain dormant as SHAFT embarked on other productions, including adapting other entries in the Monogatari series. While these tales proved to be very satisfying expansions upon the original Bakemonogatari story, the animated version of the highly-lauded prequel remained shrouded in mystery.

Flash forward to now: Apparently while I wasn’t looking, the powers that be decreed the movie’s opening date. Also, apparently it’s a trilogy? All news to me; which goes to show how I gave up on my futile pursuit of scarce information, opting for surprise. Aside from the head-popping-plus-ejaculating promo from 2011, my first encounter with any animated footage from the film was an ad at the Tokyo Metro Akihabara station. As far as surprises go, it was quite pleasant. The new visuals were above and beyond the originals from years ago, and did well to get me adequately pumped. The stars aligned, and I ended up needing to take half day off work to attend to certain business. Naturally, I took advantage of the opportunity to swing by the nearby theater and check out the new film.

The original Bakemonogatari anime from 2009 (!) alludes to Kizumonogatari without a second’s delay, frontloading the series with a delicious teaser of its prequel. While this teaser would prove to be juicy fanservice for fans of the novel, the anime-only crew (me) remained fixed to the screen with drool running down our jaws, wondering if this story would ever see full realization in anime form.

Thankfully in the brave year of 2016, the release of Kizumonogatari: Tekketsu has come to pass.

Being the first of three parts, Tekketsu focuses primarily on setting the stage. The film grants the audience a chance to witness Araragi’s first meetings with Hanekawa Tsukasa, Oshino Meme, and Shinobu–or Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade as she is known in Kizumonogatari. Watching this film is a fond reminder of how great the Monogatari characters are, and seeing their initial encounters proves to add more depth to their relationships, which will most likely grow deeper in subsequent parts. Along with making new friends, Tekketsu also reveals Araragi’s transformation into a vampire–the main focus of the plot.

Bakemonogatari infamously opens with Araragi basking in the glowing display of Hanekawa’s seductive underwear for an extended period of time, a scene this film revisits–turns out it’s how they first meet. Contrary to a typical smack into the stratosphere, Hanekawa smiles, hops a couple of steps towards Araragi, and launches into conversation with him–“When it comes to protection, skirts provide rather low security. A spats firewall is far more effective.”

This line comes following Araragi’s embarrassed and unconvincing “I didn’t see anything…”

After acknowledging each is aware of the other’s existence as “that loner” and “that honor student,” the two embark upon a discussion about the merits and demerits of making friends, performed at Monogatari’s characteristic keen and sharp clip.  Their discussion sheds light on Araragi’s lonelier days alluded to in the Monogatari series, and one gets the feeling that Hanekawa is a little lonely as well. Along with forcing herself into a relationship with Araragi, Hanekawa also speaks of rumors about a stunningly beautiful blond-haired vampire that roams the town at night.

In a somewhat welcome change of pace to my non-native-Japanese ears, all of the dialogue throughout the film is rather straightforward, opting not to focus on complex wordplay. The dialogue is also quite limited–comparatively, for Bakemonogatari–with heavy emphasis on character acting, especially in the opening half. In fact, it can be said that this film is almost the exact opposite of all the Bakemonogatari we’ve gotten to know so far–less talking, more showing. The film does not know how to stand still: Dynamic 3D camerawork, organic facial expressions, and insane body movement are the name of the game in Kizumonogatari. The gust of wind that inverts Hanekawa’s skirt is ferocious, sending characters’ garments and hair flying every which way, and in Hanekawa’s case the audience gets some Dead or Alive action in the chest area. In the film’s more tense moments, Araragi thrashes and contorts when running in fear, and his entire face will move for fierce nervous twitches and giant gasps of breath. Scenes in general are deliberately framed and directed to be very visually arresting. Even in the quirky montages of characters doing stuff overlaid with dialogue–par for the course in Monogatari–every single detail moves and is bursting with life.

The film’s most notable scene is likely the very first. Araragi finds himself in an abandoned cram school (Oshino’s secret hideout in Bakemonogatari) and figures out he’s a vampire by… stepping outside.  The scene probably lasts for roughly five minutes, is completely devoid of dialogue, and driven entirely by strong, striking visuals. The interior of the school Araragi makes his way through is complete with quirky SHAFT touches, such as placing an elevators’ up and down buttons on separate pillars in the middle of a sterile, white room. His movement is lifelike and fluid, with the realization of his situation coming when he makes his first step outside on the roof of the school, which is covered with crows. He immediately bursts into spectacular blaze, vigorously flailing around while screaming, with eyes rendered as white saucers, similar to a member of the Gorillaz.

Midway through the film, Araragi finds a badly injured Kiss-Shot in a wonderfully minimalist, vast, and engrossing subway station; her huge pools of blood shimmering, beautifully splashed in violent curves against the white tile floor. The severity and fear in both Araragi and Shinobu’s expressions is gut-wrenching, with Araragi’s over-the-top gasps of terror ever so convincing. There is also Oshino’s first entrance: A stunning exhibit of quick, stylish and well-rendered action animation. The film even splashes its pizzazz on the goofy scenes: Returning home upon seeing Hanekawa’s panties, Araragi sits in his room, frustrated. To attend to his needs, he heads into to town to buy an “Exciting Magazine” (as written on the cover). The train ride into town is characterized by our leading man running against stop-motion photos of train tracks, matched to steam engine sounds. Final cut: He overtakes a Shinkansen. It’s bonkers.

Visually, the film makes a somewhat unconscious and very appealing callback to older anime films of the 1990s–a period where a number of films and OVAs deliberately existed in a different visual universe from their TV counterparts. This typically came about because the production staff had more money and time to handle more ornate and complex designs differing from those in the original TV airing. Such examples include Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz, Nadesico: The Prince of Darkness, and the Ruroni Kenshin OVA. To a more extreme degree, franchises like Tenchi Muyou would have similar-but-different/completely  different designs, each series taking place in alternative universes. Even in the same universe, Tenchi would go crazy with the designs depending on the occasion.

Compared to the TV series, the visuals in Kizumonogatari are strikingly different, high animation quality aside. Character designs are most certainly Watanabe Akio, but there’s a classic contour and complexity to them, likely due to collaboration with 90s anime stalwart Morioka Hideyuki. The cram school receives a makeover to appear as colder, bigger and more imposing, while Araragi’s home is a completely different building, receiving a chic modern Japanese redesign, the likes of which one sees in Omotesando. This old-school approach of not sticking strictly to canon and creating new visual expressions is a great departure from modern-day anime that play it relatively safe when making the transition to the big screen, and is part of what makes Kizumonogatari a very exciting film.

The entire world the characters occupy is a wild mix of modern and classic architecture. While Araragi’s house and the train station exhibit a distinctly smart, modern and minimal aesthetic, the cram school is a strong, gray and functional structure that looks like something from the 1970s. The city the characters live in is redone to be a retro Showa wonderland, a fact that is played upon in one of the film’s few call-backs to classic anime, in which Araragi’s shadow is seen approaching the train station marching like Tetsujin 28 with music to match. Other stylistic notes: The series’ interstitial title cards are written in French, not in English or Japanese, and the film’s overall color-scheme is black and white with splashes of bold color–essentially, the perfect package for your pretentious Japanese anime art film.

Background music also makes diverse callbacks to genres old and new. While the film opens with Monogatari’s defining layered and atmospheric electronic tones, which return at a number of moments through out the film, a great portion film’s music draws inspiration from 1960s lounge music and Bossa Nova, the likes of Henry Mancini or Brasil ’66. This very deliberate stylistic choice is yet another manner in which the film establishes a very distinct tone, placing Kizumonogatari’s modern pop-culture tale in the contrasting retro context of the 1960s. The film also has beautiful orchestral swells, the standout moment coming when Araragi offers Kiss-Shot his blood, backed to a luscious performance via the studio orchestra’s string section. It is the sort of piece that plays at that moment in a classic film when the main couple kisses for the first time, and is a beautiful example of how the film blends a classic sensibility with its modern-day vampire story, putting a new twist on it.

The opening credits are another departure from the rest of the film both visually and musically, blending newspaper-style monochrome photographs, Buddhist imagery, and Kiss-Shot’s sword, underscored by a profound Taiko performance. I realize there is no political agenda to the scene at all, but the overall atmosphere got me expecting either Mishima Yukio or the Seppuku Pistols to bust out of the screen halfway through the sequence. It has this stern and traditional Japanese vibe that provides another intriguing stylistic tone within the film’s already varied pallet.

It would of course be remiss to not mention the voice acting, with the entire cast reprised for some bang-up performances. Araragi probably experiences the widest range of emotions throughout the film, effectively resulting in Kamiya Hiroshi stealing the show. Horie Yui puts on a grade-A performance during her one scene, maintaining her chipper inflection while shifting between being serious, playful and critical.

As is the case with most SHAFT works, Kizumonogatari: Tekketsu lays down the stylistic flair thick and heavy. With the opportunity to do Bakemonogatari on the big screen, SHAFT courageously rose to the occasion to produce one of their most slick and visually engrossing works yet. That said, the unique aesthetic touches are made to compliment the typical Monogatari-brand of quirkiness that is inherent in the original work, and both work hand-in-hand to create something genuinely compelling.

I can say it: Kizumonogatari was worth the wait. Now all hopes are on the next part actually being completed in time for its planned summer release.

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The Only O.L.H. Concert of 2015

O.L.H.

In response to the success of the musical Iyaounashi Ni earlier in 2015, Only Love Hurts (Formerly: Omokage Lucky Hole, AKA O.L.H.) held their first–and only–full-fledged concert of 2015 on June 27th. Titled O.L.H. plays Iyaounashi Ni, the group put on live performances of nearly all of the songs used in the musical.

But first, the opening act. O.L.H. shows typically open with a warm-up musical act, but this time proved to be quite different, with hilarious results. As the stage lit up, a young woman in completely normal clothing appeared in front of the audience. Aside from the fact that she was called Nakamura Ai, I had not read much about her prior to the show. I was immediately skeptical of her routine as she opened up with a series of self-depreciating jokes about how she’s not well known–things along the lines of, “Thanks for being nice and clapping!” But as her routine progressed, her genius began to come forth. The thing is, she’s not really an idol or anything–she’s just a weird standup comedian. She also happens to be a DJ on Japan’s BAYFM radio station–a frequency near and dear to my heart which used to lull me to sleep with its setlist of nostalgic tunes in the early days of my time in Japan. But I digress.

As her routine got into full speed, she started to claim that she was a magical girl, which lead to her shooting imaginary beams from her breasts and crotch, all while shouting onomatopoeia that translated to “squirrrrt, squirrrrrrrrrrrrt.” Transitioning to a set of sarcastic celebrity impressions, her act would climax with some very special magic.

O.L.H.

The first part of the magic act was based around a simple disappearing-handkerchief routine, but each time–without any prompt from the audience–she would exclaim, “What do you mean it didn’t actually disappear? You say I’m hiding it in my (article of clothing)? Do I have take off my (article of clothing) to prove it to you?” She would continue to do this until she was down to her undies, where she would strip off her panties to reveal… another pair of panties–this time loud and pink.

She moved onto card tricks for the second half of the magic act with the band’s shy and nerdy guitarist Tecchan while maintaining the rich stream of innuendo. Bubbling with nervous laughs, Tecchan was forced to recite magic chants mere syllables off from Japanese vulgarities. When he mispronounced one word,  Nakamura commanded him to say it again properly. She ended up in only her undies once again, with Tecchan nervously pulling his selected card out from her panties to close off the act.

Following Nakamura’s 15-minute opening act, O.L.H. took to the stage. The show being O.L.H. plays Iyaounashi Ni, the group went through a bulk of the songs featured in the musical with a few exceptions. For a huge fanboy like me, what this meant was that the band played a number of songs they hadn’t performed at all in recent years–songs I had not seen live before.

Among these was Hitorigurashi no Hostess ga Hajimete Shinbun wo Totta, one of the band’s tunes dating back to when they first formed–it’s on their first indie CD release, Melo. The song has a heavy R&B guitar and bass backing that sets an appropriately skeezy tone, mixed with a smokey trumpet to solidify the flavor. Tecchan’s guitar would come in with spooky riffs at just the right times, and took the lead mid-way with a quiet and poignant solo, followed by a smokey trumpet section by Ozawa to bring the song back to its initial grime.

Another treat was a trombone-driven rendition of Annani Hantai Shiteta Otousan ni Beer wo TsugareteSasuke’s hot skills took center stage, with the trombone’s airy yet assertive tones giving the song both new gravity and despair. aCky unfortunately had another one of his old man moments, singing a later verse too early–a realization made clear to everyone with a resounding “AH!” exclaimed on his part. Don’t worry aCky, that’s what we all like about you.

O.L.H.

Other rare songs included  Omisoshiru Attamete Nomina Ne and Oranda Hanayome. The former was a straightforward performance of what is a slow-moving ballad, but the latter proved to be a fresh take on what originally appeared on the Ongaku Girai album back in 1999. With ska-accented horns and a funky beat, the band breathed new air into a song about a man and his dutch wife.

There wasn’t much opportunity for MCing inside of the rather dense setlist–which still didn’t cover the full breadth of the musical–but aCky made the absolute most of the limited time, proving once again the true danger of the notorious O.L.H. MC.

He started by taking a keen interest in the types of people present, “Usually we only have subcultural pieces of crap attending these shows, but look at these guys–there are normal people here today! This is a high-class affair, guys.” However, to follow up, he offered the following rough bit of truth, “By the way, Furuta Arata and Koizumi Kyoko (famous actors who appeared in Iyaounashi Ni) won’t be here today, so I suggest you leave now to save time. Most of you will probably leave when you see what we’re actually all about anyway.” He went on to recount a tale of one Iyaounashi Ni performance that pushed out a normal theatergoer before it even started. “In one performance someone just came because they liked the cast, but when they heard our songs coming through the speakers before the show, they just up and left.” Between all the talking and singing, old man aCky was quite visibly tried as the concert reached its conclusion.

While this report is a half a year late, it is somewhat apropos that I use it to kick off 2016. With the exception of their free concert at Tower Records in early 2015, this was the band’s only real concert of last year. Their site remains without updates since, and their Twitter has been silent. It seems as if they have gone back into their ritual hiding, which could mean there’s something new on the horizon, or they’re just stuck for band members, again. Either way, while there may well be nothing in the pot, I eagerly look forward to whatever they may be cooking.

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Raised by Beasts: Bakemono no Ko

Hosoda Mamoru blew me away with his first original work–Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo–a story of love between two youngsters made bittersweet through the film’s science fiction premise. The manner in which he managed to mix SF and complex human emotion made Tokikake a work that really stood out in my mind, pressing all my buttons in just the right way. While his follow-up Summer Wars failed to impress me with its paper-thin ensemble cast and by-the-numbers narrative, Ookami Kodomo came right back with the mix of fantasy and raw, realistic human emotion that made Tokikake shine. How does his newest work, Bakemono no Ko size up?

Nine-year-old Ren loses his mother, with his father nowhere to be found. While his cold distant relatives try to take him in, he runs way to pursue a life on his own. Ending up in Shibuya, two non-human entities find Ren and take an interest in him. While initially frightened, Ren sees an opportunity in befriending them, following them into the beast world of Jutengai: A world filled with beasts who like to fight and other beasts who like to bet on said fights. One of these battling beasts is a bear-like creature called Kumatetsu, who just happens to want a pupil under him so he can gain some respect, and prove that he has what it takes to hold his own in a fight against one of Jutengai’s greatest and most respected fighters–Iouzen. Bestowing Ren with the name “Kyuuta” (due him being nine-years-old when they first meet) the two embark on a quest to become stronger as fighters, and as individuals.

What stands out first and foremost about the film are the visuals–this is Hosoda’s best looking film to date. I don’t know who he has working at his new studio–Chizu–but they know what they’re doing. The film’s setting is split between the beast world of Jutengai and modern-day Shibuya, both rendered in loving and convincing detail. Shibuya and all the ancillary Tokyo locations are rendered in painstaking detail, to the point where you can almost reach out and touch them. It’s a level detail that effectively grants the film’s real-world segments an engrossing air of familiarity, especially when juxtaposed against the film’s fantastic other half.  Jutengai has a hint of Japanese influence, especially in the names and appearances of the beasts that occupy it, but the actual world borrows heavily from middle eastern and European influences along with adding its own unique touches to make for an eclectic and fresh world.

The film makes heavy use of 3D computer graphics at points, which are all very polished, move smoothly, and blend seamlessly into the 2D animation. As is always the case with Hosoda films, the 2D animation is lively, smooth, and convincing. Ren and Kumatestsu’s scuffles are treated with the utmost of care to look as human as possible, a level of care which is echoed in every part of the film in its quiet moments, action scenes, and scenes of large-scale destruction.

Moving away from visuals, the film doesn’t quite possess the level of emotional complexity of Tokikake or Ookami Kodomo, but it is rich with character and very fulfilling. The emotional buttons it presses are certainly meant to be crowd-pleasing, but it has more going for it than Summer Wars did. The emotional core of the film focuses around Ren’s growth from a boy into a man, and the individuals he meets along his journey between the real world and Jutengai. While cliche, Ren and Kumatestu’s constant bickering is endearing, and mixed with the two other beasts–pig-monk Hyakushuubou and deadbeat monkey Tatara–a convincing family unit is formed.

The film gets more interesting when it puts grown-up Ren back into the real world, where he finds himself back in Shibuya unable to read or write due to years in his alternate universe. He has a chance meeting with a girl his same age–Kaede–and others from his life which make him reconsider where he should go–another example of Hosoda enriching a story by thinking about its fantastic premise realistically. Ren’s struggles adjusting to normal human life and his ambivalence between wanting to stay in Jutengai versus the real world drive the film’s second half. While the blending of fantasy and realism doesn’t offer the bittersweet or gut-wrenching feelings present in previous works, Hosoda’s distinct flavor is still quite strong in Bakemono.

The emotional climax presses the most crowd pleasing, “you’re definitely gonna cry,” button of all, but it works as a suitable punctuation for the film, wrapping things up neatly.

The movie also contains well-realized action. The film only really shows us Kumatetsu go at it against Iouzen, and the depictions of how these human-animal hybrid beasts fight is creative and visually arresting. The final villain kind of comes of nowhere and dictates the climax of the film, with his assault on our heroes bringing to mind Summer Wars’ crowd pleasing spectacle ending. However, given the film’s emotional strength up until that point, I’m okay with it.

As with most of his films, Hosoda utilizes normal actors for a number of the roles in Bakemono to give the film a certain texture most anime lacks. Of note is Sometani Shouta’s role as adult Ren, who I first got to know through the live action Kiseijuu films. While the rough, tough guy act he likes to put on didn’t quite work in those films, it works in Bakemono to make Ren effectively sound like a person who has been raised outside of humanity by beasts. On that note, veteran Yakusho Kouji puts on a stunning performance as Kumatetsu.

Hosoda Mamoru has finer works in his pantheon, but Bakemono no Ko is by all means a very, very good addition to his resume. While it lacks some of the deep emotional investment of Hosoda’s better works, it’s a well put together movie and impresses in a great number of areas. It’s a spectacular debut for studio Chizu, and I eagerly await their next work.

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