Demon City Shinjuku (1988) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Following a cataclysmic battle with the demon Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), warrior Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) is defeated and an earthquake separates Shinjuku from the rest of the world. It becomes a place infested with monsters, abandoned by humans, and largely forgotten. Ten years later, Genichiro’s son, Kyoya Izayoi (Hideyuki Hori) is called upon to challenge the demon. The President of the Federation’s daughter Sayaka Rama (Hiromi Tsuru) enters the city and the two must fight their way to the heart of it, meeting friends and foes along the way.

“Demon City Shinjuku” is based on a 1982 novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is replete with monsters and martial arts, while the story is a typical fantasy narrative. Our main character is a wise-cracking playboy prompted to his quest by a spirit guide, he falls for the beautiful princess and they set out to defeat a dark lord. The story is rarely surprising, but on the plus side it is never pretentious. The designs of the demons are good for the most part and the horror elements are well done. Likewise, the deserted city of Shinjuku is atmospheric. The soundtrack is packed with amped up electronica to compliment the action and the headache inducing strobe lighting effects similarly are in keeping with the frenetic pace of the film.

The film ends with a reference to the myth of Pandora’s Box but this is as deep as the film gets. The character of Sayaka overcomes several obstacles through love and purity, in contrast to the horrors of the monster world. An interesting subtext, but one that the film never expands upon. Despite a lack of character depth or surprises in the story, the film works as a cheesy action flick with a couple of good one-liners, some exciting fight scenes, interesting monster design work and solid animation. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s or looking for something that is engaging without being overly taxing, then this could be the film for you.

Asura (2012) by Keiichi Sato

In a world suffering from famine a woman gives birth to her son. With starvation warping her sensibilities she almost resorts to eating the infant to survive. Terrified by the thought of what she was about to do she runs, leaving her child to fend for itself. Eight years later the boy (Masako Nozawa) has become feral, killing and eating people to stay alive. When he crosses paths with a monk (Kinya Kitaoji) he is little more than a beast, snarling without language and knowing only how to fight. The monk gives him the name Asura and tries to steer him back to a path of humanity, attempting to teach him Buddhist sutras. Asura later meets a young woman, Wakasa (Megumi Hayashibara), whose kindness encourages him to follow a better path. However, some people want revenge for the deaths he has caused and the darker side of Asura’s nature is always lurking just beneath the surface.

Based on a manga by George Akiyama, Asura is directed by Keiichi Sato. The animation style blends 3D computer generated models with a hand-drawn style. The characters have a sketchy design, with pencil lines visible on their features, which gives the film a storybook feel. This complements the plot which resembles a fable. There are some stunning sequences enabled by the digital art techniques, such as soaring aerial shots, and the final battle. The computer-aided graphics also provide some fantastic weather and lighting effects and give the world a tangible feel, further enhanced by great sound work. The music by Yoshihiro Ike, Norihito Sumitomo and Susumu Ueda includes a thrilling theme and an orchestral feel that offsets the drama perfectly. The story is tragic and the emotions raw. There are also a lot of bloody action sequences and the kinetic energy of Asura’s acrobatic fighting style is a joy to watch. The character of Asura is likeable despite his horrific deeds in the early part of the film and provokes genuine sympathy in his struggle to rein in his atavistic instincts in favour of more civilised behaviour. Again the look of the characters goes a long way towards making them memorable and the film as a whole has a unique feel.

Asura is at heart a simple morality tale about redemption and retaining ones humanity in the face of terrible circumstances. In the beginning of the film Asura has lost all semblance of humanity, having resorted to killing to survive. He moves and sounds like an animal and has no compassion for other humans. The priest and Wakasa, by contrast, are prepared to die rather than sink to the level of killing or indulging their worst instincts. Through their kindness Asura is shown another way to live. It is an interesting moral conundrum as to what should be permitted in order to survive. In a harsh world, where starvation leads people to desperate acts, is it possible to retain a civilised society? Alongside this question, the film also asks the audience to consider Asura’s position, having already committed terrible crimes. Can and should he be forgiven? Can he redeem himself? Some of those Asura meets treat him as a villain, others as a victim, and this impacts him in turn. A film that asks important questions of its audience, with excellent animation and a unique style.

Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki

The film begins with a young girl, Chihiro, moving house with her parents. Just before arriving at their new home, they come across a mysterious forest track, and at the end of the track, a wall with a passageway leading on into the darkness. Chihiro, at first wary, is forced to follow her parents through into what turns out to be an abandoned theme park. Things soon take an dark and unusual turn when her parents, gorging themselves on food lay out on an unattended stall, turn into pigs. What follows is a magical and spectacular adventure, full of dragons, witches, strange creatures and unforgettable characters, such as ‘No-Face’ and various nature spirits.

The film is a great ride from start to finish, following an odd dream logic that keeps your attention as it moves from one unusual character or scenario to the next. In spite of the dreamlike and fantastical nature of this other world, it is made to feel entirely real. The animation is fantastic, with every scene showing incredible attention to detail – from moss and flowers growing in the crevices of stones, to all the many signs on the spirit world streets. The scenes inside the bath-house are a particular delight, with so many characters bustling around, you are sure to want to watch again to make sure you haven’t missed any little expression or moment. The score by Joe Hisaishi is similarly brilliant, capturing the mood of the film perfectly, not an easy task as it drifts from whimsy to melancholy, from action-packed to thoughtful reflection. The story is constantly twisting and turning, and the unexpected nature of this world means that there are constantly new surprises.

At heart a coming-of-age story as Chihiro, who is moving house in her real life, is forced to cope with a strange new world, full of bizarre and often dangerous experiences. Woven through this is a message of environmentalism, with the spirits representing a natural world that is slowly being destroyed, or at least ‘stressed’ by modernity. Without over-emphasising the point it offers a poignant reminder of the importance of protecting our world. A fantastic film with incredible animation and a great message.

Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira opens with the devastating image of what appears to be a nuclear explosion tearing apart Tokyo in a flash of blinding white. 31 years later Neo-Tokyo has risen from the devastation, the urban sprawl of the city burying the secrets of the past. Motorcycle gangs, rioting and protests against the government are commonplace, and the city appears to be once again on the brink of societal collapse. Teenage friends Tetsuo and Kaneda, members of a biker gang head out to take on their rivals, the “clowns”, in a high-speed chase through the city. Tetsuo crashes into a boy who appears to have strange powers, his first interaction with a trio of mysterious children with telekinetic abilities. The government capture Tetsuo, who soon comes to realise that he is developing powers that he is barely able to control. Meanwhile Kaneda has fallen for a girl, Kei, who is working with a radical anti-government group attempting to uncover the governments secretive experiments on these children.

Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote the manga on which it is based, “Akira” is a stunning achievement. From the high-speed chase that kickstarts the action to the cosmic horror of the final moments, the animators go all out to create a world that is vibrant and alive. The backgrounds are detailed with graffiti and signs of decay that make the world feel real and lived in. Add to this the explosions, shattering glass, water and lighting effects, and there is so much visual information on screen at any one time that it demands your attention. This is a good thing as the story moves at a break-neck pace. The manga on which it is based runs to 2000 pages, which means certain characters and subplots in the film are addressed only briefly, such as the government discussions and the quasi-religious group who worship Akira. Characters such as Tetsuo’s girlfriend and the leader of the resistance movement are likewise underdeveloped. This does however go a long way to making the film’s world feel absolutely real, as there is always the sense that a lot more is happening off-screen. There are two main story threads, one involving Tetsuo and Kaneda’s relationship, and one involving the secret government experiments, both of which are engaging and benefit from the background information we do get. The impact of the score is one element that cannot be understated, with tribal drums and breathy vocals, chanting and bells, it creates a unique sound that is traditional and timeless. The blasts of sound are an assault on the senses in the same way as the striking visuals.

Akira is a film that is at once epic, dealing with themes of cosmic significance, societal collapse and man’s hubristic drive towards ever more destructive technologies, and at the same time deeply personal, dealing with the psychology of Tetsuo, a young orphan who feels mistreated by the world. The nuclear era has more than ever led humanity to confront its inability to control what it is creating. The scientists and military in the film are representative of the naïve attempt to control such weapons (in this case represented by the children they are experimenting on). In one scene of the film we see the colonel and the scientist descending in an elevator, looking out over the towering skyscrapers. This visual metaphor for the inevitable fall after the rise of civilisation is poignant, even more so given that what they are facing has already happened before. They are doomed to this cycle of destruction and rebirth. Kaneda and Tetsuo are oblivious to their machinations, living at street level they are unaware that there are grand schemes afoot. The tragedy of Tetsuo is that he is a victim of society who is suddenly given absolute power. He is jealous and insecure, but what is terrifying is not that he is a flawed individual, but that he is given a power that allows him to act out his most harmful urges. It is also possible to see in him a rejection of religious ideology. Those who believe Akira and Tetsuo to represent some sort of salvation are in for a rude awakening when they realise that ultimate power can be misused and in fact will rarely benefit society. It is a rejection of the notion that absolute power is a good thing and questions the belief that the relentless march of progress is heading in the right direction.

Blame! (2017) by Hiroyuki Seshita

In the future humanity cowers in a vast city that extends down to unfathomable depths and stretches away limitless in all directions. Humans lost control of the robots many generations before and now the machines continue without instruction, building the city and hunting down any remnants of humanity. A group of scavengers come across a mysterious traveller named Killy, who is looking for any surviving humans with the “Net Terminal Gene”, which would allow them to interact with their environment, thereby neutralising the threat from the roving Exterminators. When he reveals to them a potentially limitless food source in another part of the city, they agree to accompany him on his quest.

Based on a manga by Tsutomu Nihei, “Blame!” is directed by Hiroyuki Seshita from a screenplay by Sadayuki Murai. It features elements that will be familiar to fans of post-apocalypse science fiction: deserted cityscapes; robot killing machines; and humans struggling to survive in a world that has superceded them. One of the most exciting things about the film is the scale of the world that they have created. The art direction is mesmerising to look at, with vast expanses of uninhabited skyscrapers. There is an eerie atmosphere surrounding everything. Likewise the design of the scavenger, or “electro-fisher”, suits shows great care, blending both ancient samurai and futurist aesthetics. The scuffs and scratches on their helmets and the decrepitude of the buildings do a fantastic job of making the world feel lived in. The robots, with their insect-like look and movement, provide several creepy yet thrilling action moments. The film benefits too from having a relatively small cast, which we are introduced to little by little. There are three young scavengers, Tae, Zuru and  Fusato, their elders, Killy and a scientist Cibo whom they meet on their journey. The story is pared down to its essentials, and follows a straightforward quest narrative: mysterious outsider, small band setting out on a quest, and a final climactic struggle for supremacy.

“Blame!” differs from many cyberpunk stories in that it wears its pessimism about the future of humanity on its sleeve. This is a world that has quite literally outgrown humans. They are shown to be minute figures scuttling around in their meaningless lives, while the robots they created have taken over control of the world from them. This provides a rather dark and depressing backdrop to the story. The film also touches on the idea of a loss of history and culture. The people here are not only cut off from any other survivors by their distance, but they are cut off from the past. They cannot remember a time when humans were in control of technology. In this regard the film takes present concerns about the efficiency and dangers of Artificial Intelligence to a devastating conclusion. There are theological themes at work here. The main computer system is an almost god-like figure, while the humans appear to have no religious affiliation. It is interesting to consider a time when humans will no longer be the dominant power in the world, having ceded control to computers. “Blame!” is a hugely entertaining watch for fans of cyberpunk or apocalyptic science-fiction, with great design, exciting action and interesting underlying philosophy.