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Just use "that".
Last Exile -Fam, the Silver Wing- #1
Thanks to Animax Asia (here’s your clue to finding out where I am) seemingly being Gonzo’s number one fans, and thus reviving their same-day fully subbed simulcast of a selected TV anime in Japan–they started last year with FMA: Brotherhood but fizzled out after Maid-sama–I was able to watch the first episode of Gonzo’s effort at resurrection, the continuation of one of their most beloved original anime, Last Exile. The eight years that had passed between the first anime and this one saw many changes to the studio, ultimately ending up to their one-year or so sabbatical. Studios such as David Production and Studio Gokumi have since then split up from them and have gone on to produce their own TV anime, with varying success. And now, this new foray into an old series is the studio finally proclaiming, announcing to the world that they’re now back. But are they, really?
Two, maybe three weeks ago I finally managed to rewatch one of the earliest highlight episodes of the Kenshin TV anime, situated in the first few eps of the famed Kyoto arc (around the time when Saito is first introduced)–the episode in question being the one in which Kenshin decides to leave his home to do battle with his nemesis, Shishio, after the set of events put in motion by the introduction of a new character. Of course, the prior episode was good as well (Saito vs. Kenshin), with some deliciously intense action, bits of which contributed by no less than Norio Matsumoto himself (series chara designer Hideki Hamasu was there as animator as well), but it’s in the next one where the quality is upped to a higher level. Surprisingly, it’s not even an action-packed episode; rather it was the direct opposite, as instead it was an ep focused entirely on drama and character emotion.
Kenshin’s farewell, to my mind, was indeed one of the best episodes of the series because it successfully combined powerfully acted emotion and drama with the subtle, foreboding sense of dread and trouble of the slowly unfolding events of the plot in the span of only 24 minutes–ordinary TV episode length. It’s markedly different from the rest of the eps prior to it. The surrounding chain of events leading to our hero’s departure were masterfully spaced and greatly condensed with the clear sense of trouble and disaster looming on the horizon, steadily building up to the emotionally charged farewell scene between Kenshin and Kaoru, which served as a great, cinematic climax for the episode. The ep had more tension and impact than usual. Even the drawings themselves are of a higher quality than usual (aside from Yasuhiro Aoki’s eps as AD). It’s a testament to the effective work by the main team of the ep–Kazuhiro Furuhashi/Norio Matsumoto for storyboards, Kazuhiro Furuhashi direction, Masahide Yanagisawa animation direction (Yanagisawa also came to provide the designs for the subsequent Trust & Betrayal OVAs, whose designs I believe are the best in the series). I bet it was Matsumoto himself who’d composed the storyboards for his own section, the actual farewell scene at the end, which was a showcase of his skill as a great animator, not only in terms of action, but also in his handling of believable human acting. He had complete control over the entirety of the scene, which shows in the end result. Delicate drawings coupled with sensitive animation made the scene as rich as it was. It is another proof that anime is, in fact, capable of transmitting genuine human emotion to the viewer despite its different look; it only depends on the men behind the scenes.
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.