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.

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.

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.