Paprika (2006) by Satoshi Kon

A new technology allowing people to enter another’s dreams has been developed at a research facility. The head of the research department, Atsuko Chiba, is using it to help a detective, Konakawa, with anxiety dreams he’s suffering. When the head of the department undergoes some kind of breakdown they realise that one of the devices, named the DCMini, which allow people to enter dreams has been stolen and is being used illegally. What follows is a chase through the dream world and reality to attempt to discover who the culprit is and how to stop them.

Based on a book by Yasutaka Tsutsui, director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) creates a mind-bending psychological drama, that blurs the lines between reality and imagination in a way that is perfectly suited to animation. Every scene is full of colour and vitality and there is so much room for invention on offer with the central premise that is used to brilliant effect. The sequences of the giant procession through the dreams is a particular marvel for the sheer amount of stuff on screen. The film may require multiple viewings to appreciate every nuance and background detail. Susumu Hirasawa’s score is a hyperactive blend of instrumentation and digitised noise that encapsulates a sense of floating in through a chaotic world.

Concerning itself with dreams gives the film the scope to analyse many tenets of human experience in the world. It looks at the link between dreams and reality, ideas of freedom, madness, alter-egos and more. Definitely a recommended watch for those who enjoy stunningly animated philosophical or psychological science-fiction.

Girls und Panzer (2012)

“Girls und Panzer” is an anime where the title really tells you everything you need to know about it. The basic plot revolves around an inter-school championship where all-girls’ schools compete in tank battles. The tank battles are fought with real World War Two tanks and live rounds though the teams are protected within by thick armour and a special ‘carbon coating’ which protects the inside. Being a comedy there is no death, no danger (other than tanks being immobilised) and the stakes are no more than winning or losing a match.

Written by Reiko Yoshida and directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, the story is very simple and will be familiar from many other Japanese shows and films; basically a hopeless team must compete against much stronger opponents to advance in the competition. Essentially, it is a novel take on the typical school sports dramas. While the story is predictable there is a good amount of humour, firstly from the juxtaposition of having a gang of schoolgirls commanding tanks, quoting Caesar, Churchill and other wartime leaders, but also character-based comedy. Each of the protagonists has their own side-stories; the lead Miho has transferred to avoid Panzer battles but is pressed back into it; Hana’s mother is disappointed she isn’t concentrating on flower-arranging; Mako is constantly sleeping in and so on. There are also plenty of in-jokes for people familiar with World War Two history, with the teams representing various countries (America, Britain, Russia and Germany), different terrains and tactics being deployed. Much of the humour derives from stereotypical portrayals of the characters, but there is nothing meanspirited, and the series’ constantly looks to the positive rather than negative traits.

The animation itself is bright and colourful and the detailed work on the tanks themselves, utilizing 3-D computerised animation, makes it an interesting watch. The battles are frenetic and action-packed, switching back and forth between the tanks and the girls piloting them. The music by Shiro Hamaguchi shows a love of military themes, with a very “war movie-feel” to the animation and the music.

I would highly recommend “Girls Und Panzer” to anyone as a fun light-hearted comedy, but people interested in military history might find it particularly amusing. The story can be criticised for ‘sanitising’ warfare; it focuses on the honour, leadership, determination, teamwork and other qualities necessary in operating a tank and fighting a battle, teaching these traits to a younger generation while ignoring the more unsavoury aspects of the war. But the story is so well-meaning, humorous, and entertaining you can’t help but be swept up with the girls’ enthusiasm.

Psycho-Pass (2012) Series One

Akane Tsunemori (Kana Hanazawa) has recently joined the police as an Investigator tracking down dangerous criminals. Due to advances in technology they are now able to determine an individual’s crime coefficient and take them down without the need for evidence or trial. The Investigators work together with Enforcers, people who have high crime coefficients but work on the side of the law, whose criminal tendencies make them ideally suited to tracking and capturing other criminals. They use guns known as Dominators, which give a reading and will allow either a paralysing or fatal shot to be taken. Among the Enforcers in Akane’s unit is Shinya Kogami (Tomokazu Seki), a man who was once an investigator himself, but whose obsession over a particular case led him to tip over into criminality. Akane’s respect for him puts her at odds with her superior investigator Ginoza (Kenji Nojima), who believes that Enforcers and Investigators are fundamentally different and that her role should be more that of a handler than a colleague. They soon find themselves on the trail of a serial killer named Shogo Makishima (Takahiro Sakurai) who appears to be able to outwit them at every turn. His apparent lack of a crime rating also leads them to question the morality of deciding right and wrong based on the “crime coefficient”.

An intelligent crime drama, “Psycho-Pass” takes theories of criminalistics and forensic psychology to their natural conclusion in a futuristic setting. In deciding that people can be categorised as criminal or innocent through a simple number based on various factors, society has given itself over to notions of right and wrong being determined by computer. In this world there is no room for nuance. There are no crimes of passion, crimes of necessity or opportunity, only crimes. The calculation of this number is opaque, nevertheless the police force have completely prostrated themselves before the technology – and the all-powerful Sibil System that controls it – no longer trusting their own judgement of a person’s character. As well as this criminological aspect, there is also a more philosophical theme running throughout. The notion that people are fated to be a certain way, and that in fact the moral or right path for a person is to do that thing they feel most suited for, even if that involves crime or killing. Essentially, the technology has taken away people’s free will as they are forced into behaving exactly as the machine wants them to, whether right or wrong. As the series progresses the various flaws in this seemingly utopian system become apparent. Ideas of good and evil are subject to question and various revelations regarding the characters leads the viewer to reassess what they have perceived about this world. In Makishima, the series has a villain that is a perfect foil to the protagonists. While they are bound to the law, he is entirely lawless, perhaps even in a Nietzschean sense “Beyond Good and Evil”, believing that the only moral path for a person is to do what they wish or are best at. A secondary villain emphasises this point even more, that criminality is often a matter of context; psychopathy often being a useful aberration in human populations, perhaps the desire to confront and destroy pre-existing systems being a necessity for humankind to progress.

The animation by Production IG (Ghost in the Shell) is exceptional. Textured surfaces, background details and lighting effects all help to create the sense of a real world. Likewise, weather effects such as the pouring rain in the opening episode, or wind rustling coat collars, work towards the noirish feel. There are a number of technologies in the film, such as the avatars that characters can create around themselves, that are interesting additions to the world. The visualisation of online spaces is also well done with unique character designs. The series does not shy away from depicting violent and brutal crimes, with abuse and murder both graphically portrayed. This all helps to create a sense of dread that pervades the story. You are aware early on that there really are lives at stake if the detectives fail to catch the killer. An absolutely thrilling ride from start to finish, with high-tension action sequences and a story that goes headlong for several important questions about how society is managed. A blend of all the best elements of cyberpunk and noir detective stories, with themes of criminality and societal control that encourage the audience to think about the potential implications of these things on our own world.

Rin Daughters of Mnemosyne (2008)

Rin Asougi (Mamiko Noto) works as a private investigator at Asougi Consulting along with Mimi (Rie Kugimiya). While investigating the disappearance of a cat, Rin meets Maeno (Nobuyuki Hiyama), who joins her at the detective agency. They are called upon to investigate a case involving a secretive research organisation experimenting on humans. Under the auspices of one Sayara Yamanobe (Rie Tanaka), they are attempting to uncover the secret of immortality, in the process producing an army of shambling zombies. Rin reveals that she and Mimi are actually immortal, having been touched by the Time Fruits from the tree Yggdrasil. Rin and Mimi are called upon to solve more cases, all the while fighting against the evil Apos (Akira Ishida) who seems hell-bent on destroying Rin. While women touched by time fruits become immortal, men who are touched become dark winged angels whose sole desire is to kill the immortal women. Apos is an intersex and as such possesses is a cross between the immortal and the demonic.

In six episodes the show manages to create an engaging and novel world, drawing on Norse mythology and Christian symbolism, with angels, seraphim and immortality all providing a colourful backdrop to the action. It is also interesting to see the episodes structured over a long time period, making the most of the protagonist’s immortal natures. We begin in 1990’s Shinjuku and end in 2055 Kyoto. This allows for the story to have different types of plot, with the earlier episodes being hard-boiled detective drama, albeit with plenty of comedic flourishes, to a more futurist science-fiction in later episodes, and fantasy in the final episode. It is a heady mix of various genres, foremost of which are graphic horror and erotic fantasy. The torture of women in the show is balanced by having the strong characters of Rin and Mimi at the fore. Rin and Mimi, due to their longevity, have almost preternatural intelligence, being much more than they appear on the surface. The villain Apos is deeply unlikeable and provides the perfect antagonist with his nefarious plot to destroy the immortals. The art style captures the dark streets of Tokyo with neon-lit streets and the golden sunsets over the city. There is great design work in the angels and some of the technologies seen in later episodes.

Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory and the show plays with the concept of time and memory in relation to a sense of self. Rin and Mimi never alter as the years pass and the idea that a person is shaped by their experience is one that is of particular significance to them. The villain, Apos, survives by eating memories, particularly painful memories, and lives to see others suffer so that they can grow stronger by consuming their anguish. Later in the series, Rin loses her memory, and in doing so is almost able to escape from her fate. The show seems to suggest that memories can be both a benefit in reaffirming an individuals sense of self, but also a burden that ties a person to their fate.

It is explained that the Time Fruits produced by Yggdrasil have differing effects dependent on who is touched by them. Women become immortal and unable to be killed. Men become angels, supremely powerful but doomed to a very short life. The immortal women are drawn irresistibly to the men, unable to contain their lust, and the men are likewise drawn to devour the women. It is an interesting dichotomy, of absolute power or immortality, and perhaps plays on the notion of men as a powerful but destructive force, and women as a life-giving and sexualised force. The ideas of Eros and Thanatos as contrasting yet complimentary drives in human nature is one that is shown in all its gory detail here. Definitely a worthwhile watch for those interested in erotic horror with a philosophical bent.

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.