No thanks to shoddy network connections, I got stuck trying to complete the series I’ve put on the backlog. There were some necessary views–like certain Ghibli films (shoot me for not having watched all of them yet)–and a few old OVAs which tickled my fancy. As for manga, I finally got through finishing a Jiro Taniguchi work (which was great as usual, but I’m afraid of not living up to it if I wrote about it here), Biscuit Hammer (another good one; an anime by Bones/Gainax would be most welcome), and a few other seinen series (Bokurano was quite wonderfully depressing, but I’m sure most of you know that by now). Not of all the series I’ve caught up with were that good, though, and there were others–while not necessarily terrible–that were just plain mediocre.
Anime – The Rebirth of Buddha
At first I thought it was produced by Toei Animation–and it looked like it was, too–but I was surprised to see Group Tac being credited for animation production at the end. Surprising, yes, but regrettably so. This was hardly a convincing last hurrah from a studio on its last legs, but rather more of a whimper. Though, considering the circumstances behind the creation of the film, I could understand why Tac would bother going through with this.
Group Tac was one of the oldest animation production studios in Japan. I wouldn’t bother going in-depth into their history, but it should be known that one of its founders was Gisaburo Sugii, the director of the classic anime films Jack and the Beanstalk (1974), Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985) and the acclaimed Arashi no Yoru Ni (2005). Sugii came from Tezuka’s Mushi Production, and was involved in the Animerama movie trilogy (see my post here for a short write-up on one of the films in the trilogy). However, their 40-year run ended this year when they filed for bankruptcy, after one of their co-founders Atsumi Tashiro died in July. The studio would have produced another film overseen by Sugii, with script by Sadayuki Murai (Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue, Mouryou no Hako) had it not been for that–which is a waste.
Anyway, I don’t really like using any medium as a vehicle for propaganda, and this film is just an example of one. I had expected something profound and thought-provoking, but instead all I got was an anime with a terribly one-sided religious slant, and a badly managed narrative that borders on unintentional comedy. Rebirth isn’t your definitive Buddha film, but rather a mediocre attempt at using the spiritual figure as a device for an average message movie. Well, this is only par for the course from an adaptation of a spiritual organization’s leader’s book.
Art/Animation/Production Quality – TV anime are mostly excused for having sub-par production values at times due to time, budget constraints and the nature of the time-slot, but it shouldn’t be the case for a movie. Rebirth‘s production quality felt like something out of a low-budget TV anime, only stretched to a two-hour film. Throughout the film, you only get the feeling that you’re only watching a very long, drawn-out episode. Maybe Tac was already having budget problems at this time, but still, one would think an animated movie would have more impact and liveliness to it. Even the music was lack-luster. Not all feature films are Sword of the Stranger of course, but still one would expect something more out of an anime film.
Anime hasn’t shown its ability to integrate 3DCG technology into traditional 2D animation, and only a very few studios can manage to do it on a semi-consistent level. That weakness is again apparent in Rebirth. The 3D special effects thrown in the movie don’t mix well with the already crude 2D work in the film, and it’s especially jarring when used heavily, as is seen in the climax. I myself am of the persuasion that 2D animation looks best most of the time, and I think Rebirth should have tried to stick to it, at least for the most part.
The characters are quite dissonant, as well. Most of the characters certainly follow today’s anime aesthetic, in terms of its simplicity and broad appeal, but some of them feel like throwbacks to the older designs of the 80s which were then molded to fit the design of the other characters. It felt a little jarring, especially seeing two of the dissimilar characters in the same shot. To say the least, it was old-school–but in a not so nostalgic kind of way.
*One character looks like a certain antagonist from a certain manga with detergent for a name, though, so look out for him.
Story – For all those who were expecting a deeply thought-provoking insight into the mind and teachings of the religious icon Buddha, look away now. You’re not going to get anything of that sort here, but only a very heavy-handed attempt at putting his messages across. And if I’m not mistaken, the said messages even distort the basic tenets of Buddhism, which could be just normal coming out of a cult (don’t trust me on this one; I’m no expert on religion). It’s a wonder I managed to last through all 2 hours of this tedious exercise, and I should think the same for everyone else.
Anyway, the film is about some girl who can see spirits, and then goes to a certain leader of a certain religious cult for help. This certain cult leader calls himself the reincarnation of Siddharta Gautama, and uses his psychic powers to impress. Neither do they know that the real reincarnation of Buddha has his own religious group and they battle it out in a duel to decide who should be the one to follow. Oh yeah, the girl becomes a figurehead for the true Buddha’s group and helps him in his endeavors, even going as far as to fight off aliens for him. Yes, aliens.
Who could have guessed that a story about Buddha could involve an alien invasion? That’s merely a testament to the badly managed and written script that plagued the film for 2 hours. It could be said that freak occurrences and otherworldly stuff are only ordinary for anime, but its success only depends on how they are pulled off. If the fantastical elements are put within the context of the movie, they work most of the time. But in this film, much of the plot devices come from way out of left field that they break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief completely, thus turning it into an unintentional comedy. The damage was too large, that even explaining the circumstances behind it didn’t fix things. It was a case of too little, too late. I just laughed at everything the movie tried to put out after the alien bit. So much for immersion.
As you might have guessed, the plot is filled with numerous bits and pieces of propaganda that’s enough to make any neutral viewer drop it after 20 minutes. After they meet with the false Buddha, every other line in the script contains heavy-handed messages about Buddhism, and every other resolution contains a hamfisted philosophical/spiritual twist. It’s even worse than the worst Mamoru Oshii film in that regard. At least Oshii was quite neutral when it came down to it. If this movie aimed to convert people into joining the religious group that sponsored it, I’d say it failed quite spectacularly. Flashy displays of godly power actually serve as a deterrent, and the film would have worked better had it stayed low-key instead.
Characters – The film didn’t have characters, but avatars of the religious group. Nearly all of them spout the same tired message for 2 hours, and their character backgrounds don’t give any of them sympathetic value at all. They were standard anime-styled profiles, and I found all of them forgettable. There was little to no character development at all, save for the main character, but even that is riddled with one-sided ideological flavors. You will be forced to watch these megaphones of spiritualist ideology for 2 hours, and that is as bad as you think.
The film does have quite a stellar voice cast, though, and I felt they should be worth mentioning. I never would have thought guys like Hiroyuki Yoshino, Mitsuishi Kotono, Takehito Koyasu, Shinichiro Miki, and even Satsuki Yukino would be in it. When all was said and done, I guess the reason I lasted through the whole thing was these guys. Hearing Kotono outside of Eva, for example, was quite refreshing, and I liked it even if she didn’t display her full range as a voice actress here.
Verdict – Rebirth of Buddha is a tedious, extremely one-sided and preachy message film that fails to meet expectations. It’s a mediocre film with uninspired art and animation, with an even worse script. I don’t think it could convert a lot of people into joining the cult sponsors, and I say it can drive them away from it instead. For neutral viewers, this should be an example on how NOT to do a message film, and thus should be avoided. Two hours of your time shouldn’t be invested in this. Those who are looking for a definitive Buddha film, just wait for Toei Animation’s adaptation of Tezuka’s classic manga Buddha.
*More to come after the jump.
In contrast, I found myself enjoying this story which tackles roughly the same subject as Rebirth. It’s about similar things, at least superficially. Only, this one has a more low-key approach and a wickedly funny slant to it. Throw in some subjective reality at the end, and you have Believers.
Manga – Believers
Quite underrated as a psychological manga, Believers manages to go into the topic of cult believers more charmingly and more strangely than other such stories. The story itself is hardly groundbreaking, nor is it as incisive as say Hideo Yamamoto’s Homunculus, but it works well enough on its own, thanks to its weird yet witty sense of humor.
I myself have not been that immersed into the author, Naoki Yamamoto’s world, having only read his one-shot, Watching TV All the Time Makes You Stupid prior to Believers. The said one-shot was pretty inventive, with panel composition similar to that of a 4koma, and with the point of view being stuck on a stationary viewpoint for the duration of the manga. For such static artwork, Yamamoto makes it charming and smart enough to catch interest. I liked how he infused his quirky narrative and sense of humor into such an unusual style. Yamamoto was also responsible for the manga Arigatou and Dance ‘Till Tomorrow, and I think it’d be best to check them out as well.
Art – I think it’s safe to say that Naoki Yamamoto’s art isn’t really his strong point. His character designs are appealing enough in their simplicity, and they help emphasize the effects of his more raunchy scenes, but everything else is quite plain. Not bad in any stretch of the imagination, but rather they are just too plain, too bland. I admired his unique approach to panel composition in Watching TV… as it gave personality to his simplistic artwork, but Believers didn’t have the same amount of it. The characters and the backgrounds were detailed just enough, and they moved just right enough. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was just safe. Given that, however, Believers‘ charm isn’t in its art anyway, but rather in its storytelling.
Yamamoto draws quite admirable erotic scenes though, and the action during those sequences flowed quite well. Additionally, they were drawn in a tasteful kind of way; I didn’t see them as trashy or throwaway scenes at all. But that could just be due to eroticism being part of the overall narrative.
Story – Believers tackles the subject of cult believers–which could also be said of Rebirth, only it was done rather sloppily in that film–and revolves around their daily life while stranded in some abandoned island on a journey of self-discovery. Usual stuff, but still very enjoyable in its execution. The manga focuses on three characters, nameless, but going by the names of “Chairman”, “Vice-chairman”, and “Operator”. Of the three, one is female–“Vice-chairman”. Their leader is called “Master”, and there’s also another character who goes by the name of “3rd Division Chief”. “3rd Division Chief” is related to “Vice-chairman”, and he helps bring about the climax of the story in the second and last volume.
The three central characters spend their daily lives on the island, pondering the finer details and the intangibles of life within the belief set of their own organization. In stark contrast to Rebirth, the manga handles these quite deftly and smartly. It doesn’t try to put a clear message across, but quite subtly puts it in between the lines. Yamamoto’s approach to dialogue is still very inventive, with random words written in gibberish. The random words are explained to give the viewers flexibility in understanding the whole story–the readers are supposed to fill in their own interpretations in place of the random gibberish. I found that a very intuitive approach and adds a certain playfulness to the whole psychological affairs. Leaving hidden meanings to the viewers/readers has been a staple in manga/anime, but in here it isn’t quite as in-your-face as say, End of Evangelion, and I found that to be a good thing. Not all psychological/philosophical stories have to be deliberately obtuse, and some of them can even work better if done subtly, as is seen here in Believers.
Characters – Chairman, Vice-chairman, and Operator are portrayed as typical people dragged into a popular spiritual cult, and are done believably enough to be consistent–again, in sharp contrast to Rebirth. Their minds and mentalities have been warped by the teachings of “Master” and their conversations with one another display that quite starkly. As I went along reading it, I found myself intrigued and at times scared at the impact these kinds of groups have on people. These otherwise well-adjusted persons being transformed into rambling head-cases is a bit terrible to behold. Indoctrination does weird things to a person’s psyche, and this manga displays its effects quite plausibly and evidently.
However, the manga shows how people can break free from this sort of curse, as is shown by Vice-chairman and Operator. And yes, it is brought about by sex. Lots of it. Sexual tension is handled very subtly, and is used as a device for conflict. Vice-chairman is shown as a woman still grounded in basic human instinct, such as lust and the desire for sexual satisfaction. She is the most outgoing one of the bunch, and she is the vehicle by which we can see how basic human instincts can defeat indoctrination, no matter how deeply entrenched it is. Operator, while being devoured by carnal instincts as well, is shown as the meeker man–still having doubts as to the validity of their sexual escapades right until the very end. On the other hand, Chairman is depicted as the stubborn, hard-headed leader of their branch of the cult and stays that way until the conclusion. He isn’t necessarily immune to Vice-chairman’s womanly allure though, and he even breaks down halfway through the manga only to be shown retribution by their female associate.
The 3rd Division Chief is ultimately the first to succeed at completing the goal of breaking free from the cult. However, only his relationship with Vice-chairman is noteworthy, and most of the time he is forgotten. Characterization in Believers makes up for the lackluster artwork with its smart and strangely witty handling of the mental facilities of the three focal characters. Yamamoto’s insertion of his weirdly dry sense of humor successfully rounds out the three, and gives them a bit of personality and charm beyond their cultist selves.
Verdict – While hardly as unique or inventive as Watching TV… Naoki Yamamoto’s two-volume long manga Believers succeeds where the former just passes, which is mainly characterization and a bit of storytelling (comparing a one-shot to a full serial in these categories is stupid, I know, so forgive me). The premise of the manga is hardly groundbreaking, and the flow of the narrative until the conclusion even more so, but the effectively fleshed-out characters give the manga its personal edge. Believers isn’t what you should look for when it comes to thought-provoking, and incisive psychological stories, but it is great enough for what it is. It’s a simple romp through the minds and behaviors of ordinary cultists and whatever deeper meanings it has is just part of the package. It’s a good read, and I suggest you do so soon enough.