The Next Thing

Thoughts On Visual Culture

Month: May, 2014

On RUROUNI KENSHIN

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Rurouni Kenshin is an adaptation of the beloved manga/anime series. As such, it’s not a work that allows itself many liberties with the source material. Sure, it conflates a few things, adds in characters who shouldn’t be there and all that, but it pretty much sticks to the work. It’s a respectful adaptation, one that tries to honor the original work and its message. It’s also a really boring film. For the uninitiated, Rurouni Kenshin tells the story of a former legendary assassin who, after participating in the Bakumatsu war, has taken an oath to never kill again. He now wanders the countryside, wearing his reverse blade sword, and minding his own business. Of course, oaths are meant to be broken, and pretty much everything that happens in the film is direct challenge to that oath.

The director, Keishi Ohtono, mostly known for his work on TV, does not quite bring enough visual flair to the table. His main decision seems to color code certain scenes. Any big outside battle scene is done using dark, gray colors (or takes place at night). Ohtono emphasizes the bloody, grimy nature of the battle scenes. That’s fine as far as directorial decisions go. It suggests the chaotic, often morally fraught, nature of battle. But the fight scenes themselves aren’t really choreographed all that well. There’s no purpose in the camera’s movement; it’s simply a recording of slashes and blood. Ohtono captures all that stuff, but he simply edits in between different camera setups. He never really captures Kenshin’s movement as his camera is often too close to the action. He films his actions, but not their meaning and their logic. Ohtono shoots his daytime scenes with an almost golden hue that, at its worst, turns into an ugly, brownish beige. What all of this boils down to is that the film simply isn’t aesthetically interesting or worthwhile. No matter how faithful he is to the material, Ohtono fails to make it come alive.

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The film is mostly an adaptation of the first dozen or so episodes of the anime series. However, there are a few differences. Kanryu Takeda is the main villain of the film, and everything that happens is basically under him. The Oniwabanshu are not in the film (although we do get Henya, since he looks cool). Instead, Udo Jin-e is the person in charge of protecting Kanryu. Remember him? He’s the one with the freaky eyes who could freeze people in fear. Jin-e is also the person who pretends to be “Hitokiri Battosai” in the film, whereas in the series that fell to the former student of Kaoru’s dojo, Gohei Kimura. Saito Hajime even shows up, since he’s a fan favorite and who wants to wait until the sequel to see him. The film even puts material from the OVA as a quick flashback (it explains how he got one part of his scar).

This shuffling of characters and stories is fine, but I think they could’ve gone even further in that regard. As it stands, there are too many characters that the film has to include, and the film does justice to barely any of them. The film includes Sanosuke and even has him battle it out with Kenshin, but it doesn’t really give a reason as to why he should be someone we care about. Yahiko ends up being a complete background character. Hell, even Kaoru, ostensibly the female lead of the series, gets short-changed; which makes the final dialogue exchange (moving though it is in concept) ring false. I would say only Megumi’s story gets any sort of depth, and that’s only because it’s connected to defeating Kanryu. I would’ve preferred a more lean narrative that focused on the major characters and actually developed them more, even if it meant being a little more libertine with the source material. By trying to stuff so many of the expected character/narrative beats in the film, there’s just no room for any personality or life to come out. It’s disappointing.

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Although the film adaptation tries to be respectful and honor the original work, it fails to capture some of the more interesting thematic strands of the original. A lot of the characters in the series have been affected by the events of the Bakumatsu. It seems like every other character that Kenshin meets is someone who never quite got over what happened during the revolution. Some feel betrayed by the outcome; some just want to fight like they used to back then. The Bakumatsu is a deep, psychic wound for the characters. Their actions in the present are largely motivated by what happened then.

In the series, samurai are largely seen as an outdated concept; in fact, people aren’t even allowed to have swords out in public anymore. But samurai were incredibly important during the revolution, and they had a hand in building this new Meiji era.   There’s an uneasy tension between the violent men it took to build this new era and modernity itself. Men who haven’t been absorbed into the peaceful rhythms of the Meiji era keep popping up, violent aberrations from the way things are now. And then there’s Yahiko and Kaoru and Kenshin’s delightful “oro” and all the little cute things which might seem goofy or annoying if you’re solely into the action elements of the show, but actually serve a purpose – this is what Kenshin will fight for and die trying to protect. The beauty of Kenshin is that it allows both of these realities to exist alongside each other, stressing the ambiguity inherent in society’s progress. Plus they’re just both badass movies.

Kenshin is lucky that he’s able to find a new community, a new home to belong to.  Rurouni Kenshin is an optimistic work, but it never lets us forget the violent depths of our main character; it’s an optimism that’s truly earned, as it’s framed as a constant internal struggle. That struggle makes the eventual happy ending all the more greater.

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On Sion Sono’s HIMIZU

Since the website I used to post a bunch of stuff for went under, it’s about time I put up some of it here. Some of it will appear in slightly re-edited form.

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Sion Sono, over the last 5 or so years, has become a pretty big name in the contemporary Japanese film scene. The release of his epic 4-hour film, Love Exposure, brought him lots of fans, as it should’ve. Since then, he’s become extremely prolific, releasing one or two films every single year.

Himizu is an adaptation of a manga written by Minoru Furuya in 2001. It tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani), who ends up being abandoned by both his father and his mother. Left to his own devices, he continues to run their boat rental shop. The story is set in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster. Sono apparently was going to make a straight adaptation of the manga, but then later chose to adapt the story to reflect this new reality. It’s the best decision he could’ve made.

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The film is a raw, festering wound. It isn’t interested in subtlety, or nuance. It’s a film that bludgeons. It could exist no other way. Often, Himizu registers as a litany of punishments. First, Sumida’s dad shows up and beats the crap out of him. Then his mom leaves him and takes off with her boyfriend. Before long, the yakuza are looking for some owed money. The film does not allow, at any moment, for Sumida to feel any sort of internal peace. His world is in a constant state of chaos. Sono mirrors that chaos with his often ragged, hand-held camera, which plunges head first into the muck of every situation.

Part of the internal struggle of the Sumida character is that he deeply wishes to live a normal, ordinary life. But nothing that happens during the course of the film seems to allow for that possibility. Everyone around him seems on the edge of existence. Victims of the 3/11 disaster have set up small sheds on his family’s property, and although they seem to have become a sort of make-shift family, it isn’t one that will step in when Sumida is being beat up by his father. Only an older man, Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), seems to go the extra mile in trying to protect this boy (his little side story with a pickpocket is hilariously over the top, terrifying, and hopeful). But Sumida has no use for kindness and, for the most of the film, he goes about rejecting it and sinking further and further into complete despair.

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The beauty of Himizu lies in its complete awkwardness, its earnestness. It’s a shambolic, slapstick take on total suffering. The characters spend the entirety of the movie screaming and slapping each other, rolling about in the muck, trying to murder random people; it’s crazy. It’s a world where there is not just one, but two psycho-with-a-knife incidents. It’s a world where a mother makes a gallows so her daughter can kill herself. It’s a world that is conceived in complete emotional extremes. Whether the film works or not for you relies on the ability to buy into this exaggerated vision of existence. It’s a messy, imperfect work; but, as it’s young characters envision a happier future for themselves a in candle-lit dump, away from the world, it arrives at an emotional purity that is only able to happen because of the extremity of the approach. Sumida’s tears and eventual smile signal a message of hope that seemed impossible at the start.

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Released in 2001, Minoru Furuya’s Himizu marked a turning point for the author. In the 90’s, he had released works such as Ping Pong Club and was known for his comedic flare. Starting with Himizu and continuing with Ciguatera he began to explore darker themes in a more serious way.

Minoru Furuya’s Himizu differs from its adaptation in one significant manner. It lacks a social context. Sono situates his characters in post-3/11 Japan, and allows his observations and characters to stem from that environment. But Furuya’s Sumida – what forms him? Just like his film counterpart, he has a ton of bad things happen to him, but his rants and opinions, divorced from his socioeconomic situation, come off as adolescent posturing. Sumida’s point of view and character register more like seinen cliches, and less like a legitimate character. Furuya’s art and character design doesn’t help much, either. His designs are grotesque and exaggerated, and that lends the work an uneasy tension. Furuya’s self-seriousness is sabotaged, almost, by his unwillingness to play it straight. There’s always an awkward joke nudged in there, an unwelcome protrusion, that distracts. Ciguatera, his follow-up work, would find a better balance.