Shangri-la (2009)

In a future where global warming has caused mass devastation, the world has implemented a carbon-exchange mechanism to control the amount of carbon produced. Japan has become largely desolate, either underwater or covered in a vast forest. The people live in partly ruined buildings, a shadow of their once great civilisation. The exception to this is Atlas, a large tower that rises high above the Tokyo skyline. The ultra-modern society that dwell there are in stark contrast to the ordinary citizens below. The only way they can reach this tower is by winning a lottery. The series begins with Kuniko Hojo (Mikako Takahashi) being released from jail. She is greeted by Takehiko (Kenyu Horiuchi), Momoko (Joji Nakata) and Miiko (Hochu Otsuka). They are part of Metal Age, a revolutionary group that aim to take down Atlas and allow the ordinary people to enter. Atlas itself is ruled over by Ryoko Naruse (Rei Igarashi), an authoritarian with sadistic tendencies. Also residing in Atlas is Mikuni (Yui Ariga), who lives the life of a princess with her handmaidens and attendant Sayoko (Rie Ishizuka) and Karin Ishida (Yuka Iguchi), a computer genius who has developed a programme to disrupt and profit from the carbon market fluctuations. She spends her time blackmailing foreign governments and amassing a vast wealth while the people outside the tower struggle.

“Shangri-la” is directed by Makoto Bessho (Death Note) with a script by Hiroshi Onogi (Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne) The series is based on a science-fiction novel by Eichi Ikegami, also made into a 2009 manga, and has some really interesting ideas. The premise of a world that is ruled by a carbon market as a way to tackle the climate crisis is one that is timely and inspired. It allows for the perfect set-up of the elites and the commoners, both in Atlas and in the outer city of Duomo. The series is also forward-thinking in having two strong transgender characters, Momoko and Miiko, who play an important role throughout. Momoko especially is hilarious, able to laugh at herself, resilient and fiercely loyal to Kuniko. There is a huge cast of characters and all are given plenty of time to shine. Many do take typical roles, such as the schoolgirl heroine Kuniko, with uncanny martial abilities; the almost dominatrix-esque Ryoko, with her harem of male attendants; the curious Mikuni, who early on seems to be in the wrong series entirely, speaking in antiquated dialect and surrounded by pre-industrial décor. The show fits comfortably the expectations of a particular type of anime fan. One example of this is the inclusion of Akihabara and the three old men who are running a shop there: one a military obsessive, one an idol obsessed camera-man, and the other dressed in schoolgirl clothes and speaking primarily in cutesy anime phrases. These three provide a lot of comic relief and it is fun to see that even in the apocalypse Akihabara, the holy site of all that is geek culture, has still survived.

Akihabara is one example of the fantastic design of the series. It shows a different angle to the one usually presented, as we see the recognizable billboards rising above streets that are underwater. The idea of a heavily forested Tokyo is also one that is unique and appealing, doing away with the normal depictions in favour of something that is more primeval, with overgrown foliage and dense treescapes. The depictions of Atlas in contrast are slightly lacking, being all shiny walls and sparse office space. This perhaps is an indication of the brutalist, money-obsessed, culture as opposed to the bustling real-world outside. The animation certainly has its high-points, particularly in the sequences involving bombing raids.

One of the weirdest things about the series is that it seems like two very different stories jostling for position. The early episodes set up a conflict between the outsiders and the elites of Atlas. We also see Karin as she makes stacks of money off the carbon markets. It seems that everything is set up for a socio-economic satire of capitalism and the climate crises. However, part way through the series we are introduced to several other plot strands. The introduction of Hiruko is where this comes through the strongest. Hiruko resides in a dark chamber in Atlas, with grotesque eyes looking out from the walls. He seems to be swimming in a vat of what may be blood and is covered in ancient scraps of parchment. We learn that he survives by possessing the bodies of poor unfortunates who are thrown to him when the previous body can no longer survive. This second strand of the story, with a magical element, involved Mikuni (known as the “Moon Child”) and increasingly becomes the central strand of the plot. While it is a fascinating story, full of twists, and with a complex history worked out, the focus on this mystical thread does mean that the ideas established early on do fall by the wayside. The story becomes much more a story of a “Chosen One” than a revolutionary tale. “Shangri-la” also has a couple of sudden tonal shifts that make it hard to understand exactly what it wants to be. One of the most jarring of these follows a daring escape from a prison yard via hot-air balloon. This kind of bizarre feat is something that happens a lot to the characters, who are rarely troubled by logistical or even logical concerns. However, it is followed by a moment in which the other prisoners are violently gunned down. It is shocking and unexpected, but it feels that the lack of a consistent world in terms of tone means that some of these moments perhaps don’t hit as hard as they should.

All that being said, there is a lot to recommend Shangri-la. They throw in a lot of interesting ideas, a large cast of characters, fun dialogue and some great action moments. It’s main failing is perhaps in attempting to do too much and following common tropes. It is clear that the creators had some excellent ideas and it would have been good to see them push these original concepts a little further.

The Cat Returns (2002) by Hiroyuki Morita

Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) is typical schoolgirl who lives with her mother. One day while she is on her way home with a friend, they spot an unusual looking cat carrying a small present across the road. The cat is about to be hit by a truck before Haru darts across the road, scooping the cat up in her lacrosse stick thereby saving it’s life. As she turns to check if the cat is ok, she sees it standing on two legs and dusting itself down before telling her it is grateful for her saving his life. Later that night Haru is visited by the King of Cats and his large entourage who arrive outside her house to offer their gratitude and to say that they will repay her. She is later told by a cat that they wish her to marry their Prince, the cat whose life she saved, and must come with them to the cat kingdom. However, a mysterious voice tells her to look for the Cat Bureau. Following a white cat, Mutu (Tetsu Watanabe), to the Cat Bureau, she is greeted by the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Yoshihiko Hakamada) and Toto (Yosuke Saito) a crow who acts as a gargoyle for their town. They warn her against the Kingdom of Cats, but Haru is soon whisked away and must attempt to escape with the help of Mutu, Toto and the Baron.

“The Cat Returns” is based on a manga of the same name by Aoi Hiiragi. The idea of discovering a secret world and being whisked away, of unwilling princesses, near-sighted rulers, and dashing heroes coming to the rescue, are all common tropes of the genre. However, having cats be the central focus of the drama transforms this typical fantasy story into something magical. There is something enigmatic about cats, often be seen lounging or padding around the streets, and this film takes the idea that they are living a secret life when they are not being watched and runs with it. Early in the film Haru’s mother tells her that Haru used to say that she could talk to cats. It is this sort of childhood whimsy that the film captures brilliantly. It highlights the power of imagination and creativity that abounds in our youth, but that most people lose as they grow older. As well as this celebration of imagination the film is also a coming-of-age story for Haru. She is a girl lost in a dream world. Although she has a strong relationship with her best friend, her only other obsession is with a boy at her school (understandable at that age). When she is whisked away and forced into a marriage she does not want, she comes to realise that in fact her own wishes should not need to be so narrowly defined. Visiting the kingdom of the cats, whether this is taken literally or as a flight of fancy, shows her just how wide the world really is and that only she can decide what her future holds. By the end of the film she is transformed into a character who is full of confidence and a desire to explore the world on her terms.

The artwork and animation is suited to the fantasy plot. Early in the film we get a great sense of the city, using depth of action to create the sense of a fully realised environment as traffic and pedestrians fill the streets and pavements. When the film heads into the world of the cats there is a shift to a much simpler style. There are some nice touches such as the cat palace being decorated with fish. The designs of the cats are also great, with a unique style for all the central characters. Another fun detail showing the Chinese and Egyptian cats gathered at the king’s court. The King of the Cats is a joy every time he is on screen, with his odd-eyes and tufted fur. A fun film for children and cat lovers, with lots of heart and a plot that never lets up in humour and action.  

Paranoia Agent (2004)

A series of interconnected stories tied together by the sinister figure of a roller-blading, bat-wielding assailant known as “Lil’ Slugger” (Daisuke Sakaguchi). The series begins with Tsukiko Sagi (Mamiko Noto), who designs a popular character named Maromi (Haruko Momoi), a pink cartoon dog; a mascot who becomes something of a talisman for her company and their most popular character. She is soon under pressure to create another success on that level, and while walking home is attacked by an shadowy figure wearing golden rollerblades and swinging a golden bat. As she recovers in the hospital, two detectives, Keiichi Ikari (Shozo Iizuka) and Mitsuhiro Maniwa (Toshihiko Seki) are put on the case, tracking down the young boy believed to be responsible for the assault. Throughout the series we are introduced to various characters, each of which suffer some kind of trauma, paranoia, fear, or stress, and all of whom are targeted by the mysterious figure of Lil’ Slugger.

Directed and co-written by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers), the film has a dark tone throughout, dealing with themes of violence, suicide, abuse, and having realistic and unsympathetic characters. Black humour is often used to alleviate some of the tension, but the overwhelming sensation while watching will be one of confusion. The stories often seem to break down into dream-sequences or other surreal moments, feature characters whose fragile psyches seem to be collapsing as the plot progresses. It becomes clear early on that this is not a straightforward mystery, and that there may be a supernatural or psychological element to the story. I was concerned that the ending would be a let-down, considering the fantastic premise and set-up, but I was not disappointed. There is a sense of fulfilment at the end of the story, a sort of catharsis for the characters, and the whole thing ties together thematically, if not strictly logically. The script is excellent, building up a sense of real characters, living in surreal circumstances, with great voice acting by the whole cast. Some episodes in particular are inspired, such as the episode centred on an animation studio and the various jobs that entails. Emphasising the dualistic nature of the series, the score by Susumu Hirasawa is likewise ominous and cheery by turns. It is best to go into this show not knowing too much about it, as there are some great twists and turns.

The series deals with some very serious themes, depression, anxiety, suicide, mental disorders, as well as painting a picture of a dysfunctional society. The character of Lil’ Slugger is left somewhat open to interpretation, as a psychological phenomenon conjured from the fevered imaginings of the protagonists, or as an elemental force that descends on people who are feeling life is too much for them. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys psychological horror, mystery, and something that will have you scratching your head throughout attempting to figure out the significance of it all.

First Love (2019) by Takashi Miike

Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an up and coming boxer. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) is a woman addicted to meth and prostituted out to pay off her father’s debts. Kase (Shota Sometani) is a yakuza about to betray his employers by intercepting a delivery of meth and selling it on. His partner in crime is a crooked cop, Otomo (Nao Omori). Their plan is to grab the drugs, and make Yuri the scapegoat by renting her out on the night of the theft. When Leo receives a terminal diagnosis, a tumour on the brain, he sets off into the Tokyo night, lacking all will to carry on. A chance encounter with Yuri gives him something to fight for and the two head off together, chased by Kase and Otomo, the Yakuza, the Triads and the police.

Miike creates a vibrant world full of colourful characters with a fast paced script that never lets up. From the opening cross cuts of the various storylines we are thrust forward into the action, constantly flipping back-and-forth between the main players in the drama. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, preferring the extreme or ridiculous rather than the mundane. This is evident early on when we see a severed head blinking in disbelief, and reaches its climax in a triumphant getaway chase beginning with a car flying out of a second story window. The film is packed with fantastic action, black comedy, and humorously idiosyncratic moments. There are two central plots: Leo and Yuri’s relationship and Kase’s drug heist gone wrong. Yuri is given a tragic backstory of abuse, and her attempts to find the boy who once helped her are touching. Her comedown from addiction is also well-played and provides an interesting angle to her character. Likewise, Leo is also a troubled individual, abandoned by his parents and struggling with the weight of his diagnosis. Both Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi give incredible performances and it would have been great to see more of them. One of the issues, if it can be called such, is the film’s dual structure, with both the couple’s relationship and Kase and Otomo’s attempts to discover the drugs taking equal time. As an audience you find that you want more of both of these stories, but are constantly split between them.

The acting from the entire cast is perfectly pitched between blackly comic and serious crime drama, a difficult feat to pull off. Outside the main cast are suitably chilling performances from Seiyo Uchino as Gondo the yakuza boss, and Mami Fujioka as the Chinese Triad Assassin. As in his previous Black Society Trilogy, Miike includes the Chinese underworld as an integral and symbiotic part of the Japanese criminal society, with their dialogue in Chinese. It seems an unusual point to mention, but with much Japanese cinema you would be forgiven for thinking of Japan as an entirely homogenous society with no foreign elements or influences.

Having worked in the genre of crime for his entire career Miike knows all the tropes of Yakuza stories and how and when to subvert them. Examples of this include Kase’s attempts to murder a potential witness to his crimes, being interrupted by her elderly flatmate, and the inventive way he decides to kill her. It seems also there is a knowing wink to the camera in moments such as Godo’s final scene and the Chinese gang member “one-armed” Wang (Yen cheng-kuo), creating a tension between drama and comedy. The design of the film is stylish, with great use of colour and framing throughout. It also manages to capture the grime of the Tokyo streets and run down apartments. Despite the fantastical nature of the plot the set design ensures it remains grounded firmly in reality.

Fans of Miike’s work will find much to enjoy here. “First Love” has almost everything you would expect from the director of “Dead or Alive” and “Audition”. He crafts an understated love story woven through the turmoil of a hard-boiled crime drama. The action sequences, including car chases and sword fighting are all expertly done, and there is a forward momentum to everything that makes it a joy to watch. If anything it is a film about finding your reason for living. In a world where you are beset on all sides by violence and chaos, you can discover that one thing that keeps you focused. At the beginning of the film, Leo has his boxing and Yuri is addicted to meth. By the end, both have found each other and something meaningful to fight for.

Highschool of the Dead (2010-11)

Following the outbreak of a zombie virus, high school student Takashi Komuro (Junichi Suwabe) is forced to fight against the hordes of the living dead. Joining him are fellow survivors including his former girlfriend Rei Miyamoto (Marina Inoue), an intelligent, rich-kid Saya Takagi (Eri Kitamura), martial arts expert Saeko Busujima (Miyuki Sawashiro), portly geek Kota Hirano (Nobuyuki Hiyama), and teacher Shizuka Marikawa (Yukari Fukui). The group must work together, putting aside any former differences to escape from the school and find their way in this post-zombie apocalypse.

“Highschool of the Dead” is based on the manga by Daisuke Sato with illustration by Shoji Sato. Sato’s previous work was mainly self-published and this was his first non-“adult” project. The show borrows heavily from the exploitation genre, with graphic violence, blood splattering everywhere as they take out zombies in often darkly-humorous ways. The female protagonists are all endowed with improbably large bosoms and the camera rarely misses an opportunity for a shot of jiggling breasts or exposed panties. The male characters, Takashi and Kota, who presumably act as the surrogates for the intended audience, find themselves in the unusual position of being at once surrounded by beautiful young women, and simultaneously threatened with a gory death at the hands of rampaging zombies. There are serious tonal shifts throughout from horror to comedy, and it often has the feel of a show entirely put together by people who had no higher objective than to bring to the screen exactly what their audience would want to see. Although there are any number of zombie shows, this one does keep things fresh and fast-paced, with constant changes of environment and new challenges for the group. The introduction half-way through the series of a young girl and a dog to the group further alters the dynamic. The animation utilises several techniques, with comic inserts, frenetic CG enhanced action sequences, and the art-work on the zombies is especially good. The rock soundtrack keeps up the energy, and I enjoyed that the credits for each episode are accompanied by a different track.

A simple zombie survival tale that will appeal to anyone who is a fan of sexploitation cinema and gory horror. At times the show rises above the ridiculous and there are some moving sequences when it seems that the enormity of their situation finally catches up with the characters, but these are usually followed by more outrageous action or sex-jokes to lighten the mood. I would highly recommend it as one of the standout examples of the genre, with excellent animation work and character design and a story that keep throwing up unique and exciting scenarios.