Film: Blue Eye Samurai

Blue Eye Samurai
published by Netflix

This is a gorgeous animated drama of a woman seeking revenge.

Mizu is an outcast in feudal Japan , a bi-racial child who narrowly escaped being killed at birth. She grows up determined to avenge her mother against the foreigner who ruined everything, living as a man and training as a warrior to achieve her primary goal: vengeance.

Bonding with other outcasts despite her efforts to remain cold and uncaring, she finds that her non-vengeance attempts at living push her back toward the violence she seeks.

The imagery in this series is strikingly beautiful, and I spoke to the television with delight over countless compositions. The lighting! The buildings! The skies! The waves! The reflections! Yes, this is a supremely violent action series, but it is also one of great beauty.

I love everything but the very end, though I understand it has been renewed, so the finality I seek (setting aside Mizu’s motivations) may yet be delivered in more gorgeous episodes.

Book: Uncollected Works 2010 – 2021 by Mateusz Urbanowicz

Book: Uncollected Works 2010 – 2021
by Mateusz Urbanowicz
published by MdN corporation

I’ve written enthusiastically about Urbanowicz’ Tokyo at Night book, and now I’m back for his book of drawings and paintings of Japanese scenes in different seasons and times of day.

These paintings show many types of structures, both traditional and modern, and have the same charm and attention to scale and detail that make Urbanowicz’ art so interesting. Unlike the store fronts, these are broader scenes and wider perspectives. (Yes, he works in anime also, and you can see how some of these could function as studies for both ordinary and extraordinary backgrounds for anime dramas.)

You can see scenes from the book at the artist’s website for this book:

I was happy to purchase this book at Kinokuniya (I can’t believe my SF store has already had a 50 year anniversary!), and appreciate Urbanowicz’ drawing styles, comments on watercolor pencils (I use them, so I laughed out loud), and the skill, sensitivity, and affection this artist has for his subjections.

If you loved Tokyo at Night, you might love this, too!

Film: Inuyasha by Rumiko Takahashi

This image is from Fan wikis are a great way to keep track of episodes and characters. The fandom page I used to track my progress through all 196 episodes is My iTunes seasons were broken into renumbered sub-seasons, so I have three episode 1s for season 6, and needed the fandom list to watch in order.

Inuyasha (seasons 1-6, plus Inuyasha: The Final Act; 196 episodes(!) total)
Based on the manga by Rumiko Takahashi
Published in English by Viz Media, LLC, San Francisco
2000 – 2004 and 2009 – 2010

So!  The last quarter of 2020 really got to me, and I needed a vacation for my mind. While poking around HBO during the holiday break, I came across Inuyasha by the remarkably talented Rumiko Takahashi, the same manga artist who created the most popular manga / anime stories of my youth.  [Imagine I’m narrating flashbacks from the late 80s and early 90s of going to university anime clubs, to see fan-subtitled or fan-dubbed versions of her work in overflowing lecture halls after classes ended!] I read about this series online – you don’t even have to finish wording your Google search before realizing that it’s a phenomenon, and people want to know WHY it is so popular.

It’s popular because it has so much going for it!

Why did I commit so many hours of my life (plus a few hundred dollars to purchase all seven seasons to watch at my convenience) to see the story through to the end? I WILL TELL YOU. (You knew this.)

First, a long-ish synopsis: Kagome, an ordinary Japanese high school girl in the modern world, travels through an old well to an alternate-universe-version of feudal Japan, where magic is real, demons (including harmless, friendly, nature spirits) are everywhere, and she is a reincarnation of a powerful priestess. She teams up with a dog-eared youth, Inuyasha, to save the world from evil once her magical jewel is broken and scattered across the land. A villain named Naraku is their main competition to reassemble the powerful jewel, and he is a part of Inuyasha & prior-Kagome’s tragic past.

There are TONS of other characters, weapons with special abilities, curses, incarnations of Naraku (characters made out of his flesh, but functioning as independent characters), love triangles, rivalries, discrimination, demons who look like monsters, demons that look like impossibly beautiful men, beautiful demons that have crushes on other beautiful demons, light physical comedy, teenage awkwardness, and a collection of small, shrill sidekicks who help explain the story to the audience by having things explained to them. (You annoy me, Shippo!) I will just write about my favorite elements of this.

I love isekai stories. My kindergarten notebooks have my early, handwritten stories of little girls who find strange caves and wind up in another world. These portal stories are so common in Japanese fiction that the genre has a name: Isekai ( Kagome’s trips between contemporary Japan and fantasy magical feudal Japan through the well put this in that category.

The isekai elements feel metaphorical. Even if this is just a “feudal fairy tale,” as the opening credits put it, it FEELS like it represents something else. Kagome has a really rough time balancing out her obligations in the contemporary world – the scenes where she freaks out in class because she doesn’t understand her math tests AT ALL are hilarious! – with her life as a demon-slayer in the feudal one. She has unique skills that her team needs in the feudal world, while she is just another student in the contemporary one! She literally saves lives in the feudal world, but this other life of hers is secret from her classmates. (Thankfully, her family is very supportive.) Having important parts of your life that no one knows about is a relatable structure.

I love the background art. There are more “realistic” styles of anime, but Inuyasha is illustrated in a “classic” style that Takahashi helped establish. Big eyes, big hair, tiny mouths – that’s part of what makes this style. Meanwhile, the background art, skies, sunsets, streams, forests, and seasons are all lovingly rendered. As a watercolorist, I really appreciate the effort that went into these!

Scenery in Inuyasha is rendered beautifully in these screen grabs. The watercolorist in me is impressed at the sheer volume of beautiful backgrounds that were produced for this – it is many lifetimes worth of portfolios!

If I created even a tiny number of works of this quality, I would be so proud!

In addition to the beautiful representations of nature, there are great, very specifically Japanese renditions of palaces, food, sword hilts, houses, temples, and other details. The sort of things I studied back when I was in architecture, and/or on visits to Japan. People who really LIKED these things drew them, and that inspires my appreciation.

Feudal life is harsh, and bad things happen, which raise the stakes. Characters die. Everyone on the team has lost at least one immediate family member to a premature death. Many of them are coping with past traumas, which make them vulnerable and give them emotional baggage. This is the only anime I’ve seen where the main characters REGULARLY spend time burying entire villages of slain bystanders. It makes the evil they are battling more real, and also explains the anti-demon discrimination and rejection their group experiences, even if their demons are ‘good guys.’ Even some of the villainous characters feel trapped in their situations, and the main protagonists sometimes rescue them; little truces and scenes of mutual assistance spring up from time to time, and some characters have ambiguous motivations…

Lord Sesshōmaru is beautiful. I figured this out on my own, but if I hadn’t, there are multiple characters who swoon over him to be sure I get the picture. I’ve burst out laughing with, “Lord Sesshōmaru is SO DASHING!” spontaneously when he has appeared on screen, because they trained me well. (Lesson: definitely leave offerings of food to beautiful men you encounter in forests. I’m just saying.) He is always impeccably dressed. And he doesn’t let losing an arm phase him, nor change the flow of his sleeves.

Sesshōmaru is a beautiful character. He wears the same color of eyeliner I do, but it looks better on him. He has fantastic hair. He always looks like he smells nice. He pretends to be uncaring, with his gorgeous case of ‘resting b*tch face,’ but he intervenes to save others too often for it to be as unintended as he claims. He is also super-powerful and effective – he gets stuff DONE.

The English dialog is skillfully done. There were EXCELLENT script consultants for Viz’s dubbed scripts! There’s a scene where two heros are bickering, and one of their friends remarks that both of the guys are “as dumb as a sack of hammers,” and that is EXACTLY RIGHT. I’m sure the original Japanese insult was amazing, but this shows great skill.

The characters develop. The protagonists each have their own traumas to manage, and each bears a separate grudge against Naraku, which they had planned to resolve independently. Over the series, they learn that they are more effective as a team, develop awareness beyond their own pain, and properly look after each other. Even Inuyasha, who begins as a self-centered man-child, and, um… stays that way for a very long time, eventually becomes aware of other people’s feelings. You WANT him to develop, because Kagome loves him immediately.

The story has a solid structure, and clear goals. The core story is the battle against Naraku and his increasingly strong/difficult minions, and it’s a clear, simple setup with plenty of opportunity for variations. There are episodes which don’t move the story forward, yes, including some back stories for minor characters (Shippo!?!?), but even when they can’t find the main villain, the protagonists pick up a skill, or reaffirm their values, or make friends. The episodes are about 20 minutes apiece, so you can knock out three in an hour and feel like something happened!

There are other things to enjoy about this series – that theme music for Season 6 is so good! – but I need to stop before I scare you. Like any creative product, there are periodic imperfections, but that’s to be expected in such a vast collection, and the quality remains very high. Characters look hastily drawn now and then; the restart after a long gap between Season 6 and Final Act felt abrupt to me as a binge-watcher (which was not the expected experience at the time it was made), and some of the tiny, loud characters get more screen time than I’d like. Happily, the last season really picked up pace once it got going, and was EVENTFUL. I’m glad I watched through to the end.

So: I highly recommend this classic, high volume, well-executed, charming series. Go reave some iron and steal some souls!

Film: Dystopian Anime: Iczer 1

Iczer 1
based on manga by Aran Rei
directed by Toshiki Hirano

Admittedly, this is a sci-fi horror story, not merely a dystopia. But… have you watched the news lately?

Overview: Humanoid aliens looking for a new home get mixed up with some creepier aliens, and by the time their ship arrives at earth, these alien “Cthulhu” immediately cause humans to have weird mask faces, become murderous, or explode in gory, bloody ways as they turn into an army of monsters. This approach allows the Cthulhu to take control of earth without having to have a destructive, conventional war (which humans still think they have a chance at!). A blonde alien with enormous hair and an even more enormous giant robot takes the humans’ side of this fight. All she needs is a sympathetic human girl to [take a deep breath here] get naked and use her emotions to power the giant robot, so she can succeed in battle. (I probably had you until that last sentence.). The Cthulhu also have a giant robot or two, and they fight back!

This embedded video is a link to a gorgeous, clean, fan-subtitled version of the film (via Reflex Studios)(YouTube):

Why I like it: It has everything – alien invasions, secret earth spaceships hidden near Mt. Fuji, light sabers, big hair, energy weapons, giant robots, fights that throw people into walls that they make craters in, parents that burst and turn into monsters, tentacle attacks, and a nearly all-female cast! (This particular version is CLASSY, so the tentacle scenes are brief! ) The timing and use of music is brilliant in several scenes, which I don’t want to spoil for you.

You’ll notice the summaries elsewhere describe the “body horror” elements quite a bit, and I’ll just say: it is definitely in the sci-fi horror genre, and the body horror is much like that of the film Aliens. So, while it isn’t realistic, just the same, the idea of parents exploding and becoming monsters isn’t exactly child-friendly, so don’t share this with little ones.

Film: Dystopian Anime: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
(Japanese original title: Kôkaku Kidôtai per IMDB)
based on the manga by Masamune Shirow
directed by Mamoru Oshii
1995 (Japan & UK), 1996 (US)

Continuing my new habit of watching dire futures as a way of tolerating the dire present, I went back and watched the first and possibly best version of Ghost in the Shell. GitS is another Masamune Shirow manga (I wrote about him previously when reviewing the translated Appleseed manga).

Overview: An anti-terrorist unit of a future police force has to battle an unseen hacker adversary who can ‘hack’ humans’ cybernetic minds, and turn innocent individuals into his violent henchmen. The protagonist is a female cyborg with human brain, who ponders questions about what it means to be human in an era of augmented individuals. Her philosophical exposition and debates with her coworkers break out between brutal scenes of hand-to-hand combat and cyborg-vs-tank battles in a visually rich future version of Hong Kong.

Here’s the original Japanese preview; if you are in the U.S. and over 18, you can watch the complete film subtitled in English on YouTube at this link.

Why I like it: The animation is top notch: real artists clearly developed the illustrations, which are colored well, and have just-realistic-enough lighting effects; the use of computer graphics is selective and well-placed. The music really sets a mood, especially the choral piece by Kenji Kawai (YouTube). The direction is excellent: there is a scene where rain falls quietly on the gun turret of a tank, and you are forced (at turret-point) to appreciate the effort that went into the many details of the scene. The protagonist looks intense, serious, and a bit unsettling (rather than young and playful, as protagonists are in many of Shirow’s manga) which FEELS RIGHT for a cyborg.

This is a different story with the same characters and settings as the 2017 live action version starring Scarlett Johansson: if you’ve seen that, you’ll appreciate the fidelity of that movie to the composition of certain scenes. That film was about the protagonist’s back-story, while this 1995 film is more of a standalone adventure, which ends on a very different trajectory for the main character.

Note that, the animator(s) and art director(s) are especially fond of women’s breasts, and even though there is no practical reason a cyborg would have nipples, you do wind up seeing them a lot. *shaking my head.*