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.

Mardock Scramble (2010-2012) by Susumu Kudo

When Rune Balot (Megumi Hayashibara) is killed by gangster Shell (Kazuya Nakai) her biggest challenge is only just beginning. She is brought back from the dead as an android by Dr. Easter (Hiroki Tochi), who along with his partner Oeuf Coque (Norito Yashima), a shapeshifting entity, pleads with her to take the stand in court against her killer. Their intention is to get to the bottom of his criminal enterprise. “Mardock Scramble” is based on a novel by Tow Ubukata and the story is split into three films. “The First Compression” follows Balot as she is given a new life under the Mardock Scramble O9 Protocol. “The Second Compaction” leads her to a casino where she must gamble for the memories of women Shell has killed. “The Third Exhaust” brings the story to a thrilling conclusion as she takes on her killer.

“Mardock Scramble” follows in the footsteps of other classic cyberpunk, with its transhuman protagonist being another great role in the mould of Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell) or Deunan Knute (Appleseed). Unlike those characters she has suffered serious trauma and the films are certainly much darker in tone than many others in what is itself an often grim genre of crime and violence. Rune is a victim of incest and sexual abuse, falling into prostitution at a young age. She has little respect for herself and has isolated herself from regular human interactions. Her relationship with Oeuf Coque is one of the best parts of the story as the two must grow to trust one another. The art and animation do a good job of creating the world and it is a shame that the films do not explore more of it. Despite having one foot firmly in cyberpunk, it definitely has its own style. The “Paradise” they visit in the second part has a unique design and the film has its own aesthetic, with Easter’s transport and other details adding a lot of texture to the world. The script balances humour with its emotional moments. The first part has some fairly wacky concepts, such as Oeuf Cocque, which could have jarred against the serious subject matter of Rune’s trauma, but they work fine. The flashes of comedy grow more infrequent towards the end and the finale packs an emotional punch.

Mardock Scramble deals with many difficult themes, including sexual assault and rape. Underlying this there is a serious question about whether violence is ever justified, in revenge or self-defence in particular. Both Rune and Shell have been victims in an earlier life and this is given as partial justification for his actions. The idea of fate plays heavily in part two and ties in with this notion. The idea of transhumanism is also explored in some depth, with Rune being able to remotely operate electrical devices, Shell having his memories stored externally, and one character being no more than a head in a cage.

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.