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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(2015/3/14) Only Love Hurts–Tower Records Shinjuku Acoustic Concert

Only Love Hurts (ex-Omokage Lucky Hole) made their first appearance of 2015 in a very understated fashion. After their big show in October, the band came out of hiding with low-key acoustic show in the middle of Shinjuku’s Tower Records.

The stage was tiny, and surrounded by loud displays for more popular acts like Perfume (I can dig it) and Sekai no Owari (This, not so much). I arrived about 20 minutes early, and the immediate area was already bustling with fans, with roughly 70 people in total gathering in the end. A man with slicked back hair and a nice suit–looking as if he walked straight out of the 1950s–appeared next to the stage to announce the momentary commencement of the show. The selections from ~Greatest Hits~ that had been playing in the background faded, and the band made their appearance. Being an acoustic concert in a small space, the band was at half-capacity with only six members–keyboard, Cajón, acoustic guitar, sax, chorus, and aCky.

aCky stepped upon the stage backed by the tango riff from Senaka Moyou, and with a “let’s go!” the band immediately launched into the set which was composed of PachinkoOnaji Tokoro DeCompassBeer, and Koushien.

I had initially set my expectations low for a free OLH show with the band at half-strength, but they did a stunning job of modifying their compositions for the format, resulting in really interesting takes on their well-known tunes. The inclusion of the keyboard and sax helped the songs retain their swagger, and matched against the Cajón and guitar, the whole set had a slight Bossa Nova twist to it.

Songs with more subdued compositions–Onaji Tokoro DeCompass, Beer–fared very well in the acoustic format. The low-key backing allowed for the vocals to stand out, carrying the songs’ drama in a fresh way. Okamotsu’s sax played a big role in the show, more or less filling in for what is typically an entire horn section. She also performed during all the instrumental breaks, once again adding a new–at times Bossa Nova-esque–flavor the songs. Fast songs like Pachinko and Koushien worked fine matched to the acoustic backing, but without the band’s full compliment, they lacked their edge.

The band made the most of the venue, playing off of it during songs and MC sections. During the morbid Pachinko, aCky would chime in after particularly grizzly lyrics with, “THIS IS LIVE ENTERTAINMENT, PEOPLE!” He would then point upwards to non-existent balcony seats and say, “C’mon, people in the balcony!” He greeted the audience with, “good afternoon, we’re Sekai no Owari,” mocking the displays for the band of the same name surrounding the stage.

During the call and response routine, aCky berated the audience for not cheering loud enough, “There’s no way the Oshmans downstairs can hear you!” Later on, aCky made everyone say “moral harassment”–Japanese-English that means “verbal abuse”–and referenced Lupin’s voice actor, in light of reports of Kurita Kanichi not being very nice to his wife. Acknowledging that they were performing in a public place in the middle of the day, the band made attempts–at times hilariously obvious–to keep the routines clean. During one performance, aCky made a reference to “grass,” but would later on go on say, “you know, like grass in the park or something.” Sharp pokes were also made at the audience, “Thank you all for being here during another busy end to the financial year–but of course none of you have anything to do with that since you’re here today, right?” And of course, the band made reference to the incessant inquires about their new name, “Only Love Hurts–people usually ask us why we changed the name–and we’re sick of hearing it, please stop.”

The show then closed as it opened–with the tango riff from Senaka Moyou–and the event transitioned to an autograph session. I got to meet face to face with aCky for the first time in a while, and he had this to say to me, “You know that Analog Housou thing you write? Keep doing that! Take us global, man!”

Well I try, albeit always two or three months late.

And on that note, the band has another concert–this time with the full compliment of members–at the end of this month, so you can look forward to a review of that some time in August or September.

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Lupin the IIIrd: Jigen Daisuke no Bohyou: Koike Takeshi Wins the Lupin Game

Lupin the IIIrd: Jigen Daisuke no Bohyou, is exactly the sort of thing I’ve wanted out of the Lupin franchise since I started digging into it years ago. While I really love Lupin III, in each and every Lupin work I’ve seen, there’s always been a lot of stuff I loved, but few things that could have been done better. This is not the case with Jigen Daisuke no Bohyou. It’s perfect. If it had any problems, it would be that at two episodes, it is entirely too short.

The story is exactly what you want out of a Lupin thing: It opens with a heist, expands into a bigger conspiracy, but in the end is all about two guys trying to one-up each other. This time around, the heart of it all lies with Jigen and assassin Yael Okuzaki trying to earn their place as best gunman in the world. Between the heists, conspiracies, and rivalries, every story thread comes to a neat conclusion, but Bohyou is very fast and loose with most of the details: Yes, they stole a mysterious book. Yes, it will most definitely effect these two countries at war. And yes, because of Jigen’s past jobs, he is being targeted by a big, crazy assassin, who prepares graves for his targets in advance (while making insane sex robots on the side.) Things like the original heist, its associated political intrigue, and the unique nature of Yael and his assassinations provide just the right amount of spice to season the rather simple story of a rivalry between two gunmen, resulting in a film with a variety of very strong and delicious flavors.

But rather than story, Bohyou sucks one in with atmosphere first and foremost: It’s cool and brutal; intelligent and stupid. Its approach to the material is very compelling, taking the edgy atmosphere of the original comic, streamlining it with sensibilities from the TV series, and adding its own spin. A strong odor of machismo permeates throughout the piece, and is a big part of what makes it work. Seeing as it centers around a battle of prowess between egotistical men, the work has an outdated Charles Bronson brand of rugged manliness one wants out of Lupin.

People punch each other hard, bullets rip through objects (animate and inanimate) vigorously, cars ram into each other at full speed, all with detailed shots of Fujiko’s exposed breasts dispersed between. More specific examples of brainless machismo include: Yael buying a giant steak after a job and eating half of it in one bite; a pianist from the Pervert Club freaking out and punching the shit out of Lupin for showing up uninvited; and Lupin and Jigen sharing a smoke in their car right at the end. There’s also a part where the camera hangs on a meticulously detailed shot of a gunshot wound for longer than it needs to. While this macho motif is old fashioned–and by nature stupid and sexist–it grants Bohyou with a healthy amount of compelling kitsch one looks for in old James Bond films, and what I happen to look for in Lupin III.

Among the several hats he wears throughout this production, Koike Takeshi is mainly on character design and direction, setting the tone with his sharp visual acumen. The characters look more or less the same as they did in Fujiko–a happy mix between Monkey Punch, Green Jacket, and Koike’s original style–but lack the crudely executed sketchy pencil look of Fujiko, this time rendered cleanly and clearly to bring out the full flavor the designs. Guest bad guy Yael has a design that is appropriately larger-than-life, and very cool. He’s big, imposing, and has large hands that can break people’s faces, but he just happens to prefer bullets. His biggest charm point is likely his individually drawn teeth, which make him look especially predatory and beast-like.

The film also impresses with keen color design, with Lupin donning a striking turquoise jacket, Jigen sporting a deep red shirt, and Fujiko rocking loud and orange gradient hair. This acute sense of color design also does well to establish atmosphere, from the warm colors of Lupin and Jigen’s hideout, the cool colors of the graveyard at night, to the dank gray of Yael’s dwelling.

The world the characters occupy in this outing is rich with much of the ornateness present in the Monkey Punch original, given a cleanup and streamline by way of Koike. Several objects at first glance seem like frivolous design elements, but actually actually play key parts in the story. Notable examples include the gargoyles present throughout Doroa, and the design on the one bullet in Yael’s arsenal that he saves for his final shot.

Stretching his Redline muscles, Koike’s Lupin is filled with flare, but retains a lot of the spirit of old Lupin. Early on in the film, Lupin and Jigen knock out two men in a car to assume their identities. Much like the old TV series, it cuts to a humorous shot after the fact with the two guys tied up in their boxers. However, rather than simply cut between shots like the old TV show, this film opts to show us a long shot of Lupin and Jigen getting away in the car, quickly zooming in on the two guys after the car goes off–appropriately struggling while tied up in their boxers, natch. This technique is also used effectively in serious moments: The camera immediately pulls out when Queen Malta is shot, revealing her corpse in the dead-middle of the opera house spotlight, emphasizing the shock of everyone in the vicinity; and the camera pulls in super-close on Lupin’s eyes to underscore his anger when he’s about to settle the score with Yael. Complementing Koike’s occasional camera games is a strong eye for dynamism throughout the entire work. Eyes are kept busy with energetic layouts, that work perfectly with the film’s lively animation. Character movement is top-notch throughout, with Lupin and Jigen flailing around like they always do, while Yael’s movements are efficient and speedy. As alluded to earlier, action scenes are animated to convey convincing force in the violence, and gunplay and car chases flow very well.

Shimoji James, who also penned the score to Koike’s Redline, enhances the film’s sleek visuals with a similarly sleek lineup of hot tracks. But rather than sounding like Redline, the music calls back to Red Jacket Lupin, particularly in the down-key moments. Much like in old Lupin, talking-head scenes are matched to very simple jazzy accompaniment–usually just a keyboard, and maybe some drums–adding the slick layer of cool that characterizes the franchise. Shimoji takes things in his own direction for action scenes, opting for a more blues rock flavor in the film’s intense, fast-paced action scenes that works very well. The ending theme sung by one “Gary Stockdale,” carries on in the same blues rock direction, closing out Bohyou with a bang. The lyrics and delivery call back to old James Bond, and the song’s composition is used as a leitmotif throughout the film’s soundtrack, reinforcing its already-strong musical identity.

I really want more of this. The film ups the ante at the very end with a scene featuring a glimpse of Zenigata, along with a certain villain that Lupin has not met since the 1970s. While the new Lupin series they have in the works with Miyazaki designs looks good, I would more than welcome a hard-edged series just like this film.

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