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Working Through Pain

Talking about the terrible disaster that struck Japan only a week ago is something I’d rather not do. It just depresses me, and I don’t feel right just commenting about it. Leave it to the pros, I say (only the reliable ones, that is). I just hope that the victims keep safe and stay hopeful. The world is behind them right now, and I believe they can bounce back from it.

Anyway, the third episode of Gundam Unicorn came out some time ago, and once again it proved to be worth the long wait. The original UC universe of the franchise has made its transition to the world of HD in a big way. I’m not one to think that the OVA is good merely because of the universe it’s part of, but I guess it is kind of ironic that it is the return to the original UC time-line which takes the spotlight in the Gundam revisits in recent years. Episode 3 of Unicorn stays true to the style of the previous two episodes: a smooth, streamlined flow of information balanced with enough bits of glorious HD mecha action to keep robot buffs happy. The latest episode, however, has a few climactic and emotional moments that strongly cap off the first half of the OVA series. Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Le Chevalier D’eon, Real Drive, Kenshin) is no stranger to franchise projects, but his work on Unicorn is impressive. I assume this must be his first foray into Sunrise’s signature franchise, and I’m impressed at how he’s handled the proceedings so far. The next episode should come later this year, promising more excitement. The OVA series itself will end in 2012, and I expect the rest of the episodes to be worth the long wait, as well. I think I can now understand how the people who kept up with Giant Robo many moons ago must have felt.

 

i wonder what's going on with vagabond now

 

Miyamoto Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai (Mizuho Nishikubo, Production I.G)

I’ve only heard of this film two years ago when I was lazily browsing through the internet, and I remember being impressed by what I saw. The trailer did a good job at misleading people into thinking that it was going to be yet another action-packed animated period film like Bones’ 2007 film Stranger , and I admit being one of those guys. However, those thoughts were soon quashed when the familiar name Mamoru Oshii flashed through the screen. Now I dreaded the end result of the film. I feared it was going to be yet another droning, needlessly philosophical and meandering piece of animation–his recent mode of operation. Since the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, he’s gone increasingly more brooding, capping off with 2004’s sequel Innocence. It was a technically superb film (as expected), but I felt it was bogged down with deliberately obtuse dialogue and emotionally distant presentation. But, that’s only speaking of his work as a director. He’s still an incredibly capable writer, as seen in 2000’s Jin-Roh. That facet of his talents as a creator should prove to be a consolation for some, for in this 2009 IG feature,  Mamoru Oshii is again credited as the writer (aside from being the original creator).

 

First of all, let me just say that Musashi is definitely no Stranger. Misplaced expectations are the root cause of disappointment more often than not, and I’d just like to get that out of the way. Of course, being a work created by Oshii, viewers have to change gears if they want to gain maximum enjoyment from it. He’s decidedly stubborn–he forces you to watch through whatever he wants to show, original premise of the anime be damned. The anime is presented in the manner of a documentary, an educational animated feature: something that is quite rare these days. Fortunately for me, Oshii only wrote the film, so I didn’t have to sit through a sleepy, dragging, and even boring 72-minute film. As is the case with many popular anime writers, he can also achieve a great dynamic in combination with capable directors. Yoji Enokido and Kunihiko Ikuhara combined for excellent effect in Utena, Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichiro Watanabe gelled really well for Bebop, just to name a few. While Nishikubo is no Hiroyuki Okiura, the former worked with the script well enough to make Musashi both educational and entertaining.

The legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi has been part of Japanese culture for decades. Numerous books, movies, manga, and anime have been dedicated to the man–some historically accurate, and not a few being creative with the facts. One of the manga I remember really liking was a Musashi biography, Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond. The manga was itself an adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s popular biographical novel. Vagabond was Inoue at his most mature form, a far cry from his past works Slam Dunk, and is much closer in tone to his other basketball manga, REAL. He’s at the peak of his powers now, both in art and in storytelling. Inoue captures the inner workings of a Musashi, how the man thinks, how he approached his sword art, and his overall view of life in a chiefly introspective manga laced with sumptuous pieces of action drawn in his beautifully signature, detailed artwork. What bugged me about the manga, however, was the fact that it was released monthly. It gave the manga a feeling of unintentional slowness. I haven’t read it in quite some time, so I wonder what’s going on now (heard Inoue was struck with an unfortunate case of fatigue and writer’s block, too).

Why talk about Vagabond, you ask? Well, because Takehiko Inoue is awesome, for one. But more importantly, the source material for the manga was referenced in this Musashi film. Not only was it referenced, it was mentioned as an example of literary works designed to glorify Musashi to further political policies during the period of Meiji. The film mentions a lot of apparent falsehoods in the history of the warrior, and I was intrigued. I can understand the politics behind the literature, but it was still surprising to find that out. In a sense, Musashi the film is not purely a piece designed to merely introduce the man, but it’s more of a piece designed to clarify. It aimed to clarify a lot of falsehoods bred from the mythical figure Musashi. The end result was an entertaining look into what the man was really like, showing a few tidbits of information unknown to me. The film didn’t come close to unraveling all the supposed falsehoods, but it gave a definite effort. It’s just a shame that I didn’t get to see what the younger Musashi was really like (it was one piece of hearsay mentioned in the film), though. I was eager to see how it contradicted the version of his early life detailed in Vagabond.

True to the nature of an educational film, Musashi presents us with delectable background information directly or indirectly related to the subject. Ranging from the origin of the knights to his famous duels with other popular swordsmen, the film tells an extensive array of information. Impressive is the fact that the film wasn’t weighed down by its very nature; the educational aspect doesn’t make the film a chore to watch, and ends up as a reasonably enjoyable view. I admit that I hadn’t garnered enough interest to really immerse myself in the anime, but I have to give it its dues–Oshii does a good job at selecting the essential historical facts, and Nishikubo also does a commendable job at adapting the presentation of his film to the demands of the script. Also, it was fun taking in the various historical assertions in Musashi and relating them to what I had read in Vagabond. I realize that I’m completely basing my history on manga and anime, so feel free to laugh at me. But I guess that’s also why I enjoyed the film as it is.

I’d rather not relate all the information released in the film as it would take too much space. Instead, I’d rather shift to the presentation of the film now. Musashi the film wasn’t purely a feature expressed in pure 2D animation, but it used an array of shifting styles to match the changing nature of the narrative. Opening with a nice action scene done in pure black-and-white, it then transitions into a scene done in 3DCG, where the “narrator” of the film is introduced. I’ve seen some comments about this shift, saying how jarring the change of style is. It’s certainly understandable, but for me it was a welcome addition. Personally, I don’t really approve of Japanese 3D animation. However, Production IG has been one of the few capable people for it, and their job in Musashi was pleasant. Still a little bit wonky, but still overall pleasant. The design of the narrator is childish, and I felt it gave the film a rather light-hearted feeling. I guess this is where the director comes in. If Oshii was in charge of this film, we would have seen something completely different. As he narrates the contents of the film, the narrator sees his surroundings change accordingly. Some spots are done in different styles–each as comical as the other–complementing what the narrator says. There are even generous helpings of live action footage, shown whenever an important location is mentioned. Those shots of nature are particularly nice to look at. However, sometimes the art distracts a bit from the narration, but overall the art and animation do impressively at staying within the background and fulfilling their complementary roles.

One thing that interested me from the time I first watched the trailer for the film was the mention of the name Kazuto Nakazawa. I’ve always liked how he designs his characters; they’re distinct, and they’re appealing to watch. His last job designing characters (that I recall) was for Manglobe’s House of Five Leaves, and I remember being impressed at how well he adapted Natsume Ono’s own personal art style into animation. He added a few touches here and there that separated his designs from the original in a more appealing and fun way. Musashi is a return to his original character designs, which I should say are reminiscent of his designs in 2004’s Champloo. This must be the style he’s settled into after all his years of working in anime. His designs mainly appear for the short battle scenes interspersed within the film–which I guess is about 45% of the anime. I can’t say for sure which of them were done by him, since they were quite short, but I was satisfied just watching his characters move about and fight.

I also spotted Koichi Hashimoto and Yasunori Miyazawa in the ending credits, which was a nice surprise. Well, Miyazawa isn’t that much of a surprise, since he’s kind of a regular at IG, but Hashimoto is someone I haven’t really seen in some time. I assume they were responsible for the fighting sequences, but since I don’t have much of a trained eye and the cuts were themselves quite few and far between, so I can’t say for sure which cuts they were actually responsible for. Nevertheless, for a film chiefly designed to be an educational affair, the presence of these guys and the pleasant action scenes give the whole thing an edge that is decidedly anime.

For something created by Mamoru Oshii, this film was a learning experience, in more ways than one. Not only does it relate welcome information discussing the much romanticized and glorified figure that is Musashi, but the film also shows how well Oshii selected his facts and constructed a feature out of them. It proves that the man isn’t really as bored and old as I think he is. The film isn’t perfect, but it’s composed tightly enough to make it an enjoyable watch. Oshii still has some juice left in his tank; it’s just that said juice isn’t for directing. He’d be better off writing for anime now, as I’d really rather not watch another film directed by him.

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