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science fiction: deserted cityscapes; robot killing machines; and humans struggling to survive in a world that has superceded them.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.

Full Metal Alchemist (2018)

Based on the popular manga and anime franchise “Full Metal Alchemist” follows the story of Edward and Alphonse Elrick on their quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. Beginning in a charming, rustic setting we see the two young boys as they witness the sudden tragic death of their mother. The two decide to attempt to resurrect her using the practice of alchemy. In this world, alchemy is a sort of magic allowing practitioners to create almost anything provided the users skill and observance of several laws. These include the Law of Equivalent Exchange, which means that for anything to be created something of equivalent value must be destroyed. The two fail in their attempt to bring back their mother resulting in Alphonse losing his body and his spirit being subsequently bound in a giant suit of armour, and Edward losing his arm and leg. Years later the two are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone and soon cross paths with the military police, other alchemists, and a mysterious trio of Lust, Envy and Greed, a terrifying triumvirate with their own nefarious plans.

With the success of the manga and anime it seems almost inevitable that a live-action film would at some point be made. To begin with the positives, the film’s opening scenes are well-put together. the backstory is told succinctly and emotionally, setting up the two brothers relationship and their fundamental motivation. The following action sequence stretches the budget of the production almost to breaking point, but is nevertheless a noble effort, creating an exciting showdown to get things moving. It is clear that all the actors involved are enjoying their time and the creators utilise the series humour to avoid it becoming a sombre affair. Unfortunately, some of the jokes don’t land and the over-the-top acting in an attempt to ape the art of the anime and manga is often distracting. By far the best scene in the film comes later when the brothers fight in a warehouse after feelings of sibling animosity boil over. In a moment we are drawn in and given an emotional beat that is largely absent from much of the rest of the film. For the most part attention is given to the fantastical and science-fiction elements rather than dwelling on the characters or themes for any length of time. In attempting to compress a long story down to a two-hour runtime we are given many scenes of exposition or plot advancement without much emotional investment. This becomes more apparent in the final showdown when everything does come together in a visually entertaining action sequence but with a stark lack of emotional investment in the characters. The film-makers did a great job with Al’s armour and the character was believable, but ironically it seems they struggled to bring Ed to life as effectively. Ryosuke Yamada seems too old for the character and jokes about his height fall flat due to his not being noticeably shorter than a lot of other characters. Yasuko Matsuyuki was delightfully devilish as Lust, and the rest of the supporting cast did a decent job with their interpretations of various characters.

Full Metal Alchemist has a surprising amount of ideas present for what will be seen by some as a simple fantasy yarn. At its heart the idea of losing something in order to gain something is a powerful trope in literature. The two brother’s exemplify this as they are on a quest to recover Alphonse’s body, which makes the audience question what it is they are losing at the same time. A darker interpretation of this may be that the two had to lose their mother in order to become proficient at alchemy and fulfil their roles as powerful magic-users in the service of others. Alphonse comes to question his own identity, knowing that he is no more than a spirit ensconced in a hollow shell and having been told his memories may be false, he is confronted with the deeply troubling thought that his existence may be only as a simulacrum. This opens up all manner of religious and philosophical argument about the nature of being which is later emphasised in the final act of the film. Another debate that is touched upon in the film is that of science’s importance and how far people should go in experimentation to the end of discovery. The ghost of Japan’s own past with prisoners of war and cruel scientific experiments is raised a number of times along with a more pointed critique of militarism later on. Overall, the film is likely to be seen as a missed opportunity, but it is for the most part an engaging fantasy tale that raises interesting questions albeit hampered by a constrained budget and occasional lack of imagination.

Metropolis (2001)

Based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka that is based on the film Metropolis (1924). The construction of a giant ziggurat by the Red Duke, leader of the Marduke group, brings huge crowds to the streets to celebrate this symbol of humanity’s progress. This is a city where robots and humans live side by side, although robots are often mistreated and hunted down if they step out of line. A detective from Japan, Ban, accompanied by his nephew, Kenichi, arrive in the city to find the killer of Professor Laughton. They are soon caught up in a plot involving the Red Duke, his homicidal protege Rock, a new type of robot, an anti-capitalist revolution, and more.

“Metropolis” does an incredible job of creating a believable city, with the bustle of crowds, airships flying overhead, machines whirring away, and the whole robot/ human society and interactions appear well thought out. There are so many details to take in that it is stunning. The influence of the original “Metropolis” is evidenced in the design of the city, it is sprawling with skyscrapers, motorways and street vendors. The jazz soundtrack gives this a unique twist on other science-fiction, and there is a blend of noir and steam-punk. The robots are clunking and unpolished, aside from Pero, the robot detective. The design of all the characters is interesting, with exaggerated features, bizarre haircuts and moustaches. It doesn’t attempt to go for realism but it remains consistent throughout. The story also does not shy away from violence, with several people being shot dead, and a number of quite emotionally distressing scenes.

The film has a lot to say about the direction that society is heading in. With increasing automation of jobs, robotics technology advancing, and the evolution of Artificial Intelligences. The haunting last words of the robot Tima “Who am I?” perfectly encapsulate many of the ideas surrounding  what robots are or may become. There is an interesting sub-plot involving the power and class distinctions between the Mardukes, a sort of Luddite religion that is strongly opposed to robotics, and the common people who have their own reasons for protesting robots.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Following an unknown conflict, Hokkaido (now renamed Ezo) has been separated from the rest of Japan. Ezo is now under control of “the Union”, while Japan itself is controlled by the United States. High school friends Hiroki and Takuya are intrigued by a large tower on Hokkaido, that can be seen even as far south as Tokyo. They begin work on a plane that will fly them to the tower, to see what it is. They decide to tell their high school classmate Sayuri about their project, taking her to see the plane. While there, Sayuri looks out towards the tower, seeing a vision of it exploding. The film then shifts to three years later. Sayuri has not been seen for three years, Takuya is working for a government program intending to establish the proposition that there are multiple-universes, one of which is being brought into view by the tower on Ezo. Meanwhile Hiroki has fallen into a depression due to Sayuri’s disappearance.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has crafted a beautiful film. Although the film does involve a war and talk about multiple-dimensions, the focus is kept largely on the relationships of the three main characters, with everything else serving to move their story forward, or work as a metaphor for their hopes and desires. The animation is truly stunning, with the artists having a great eye for detail, and a real love of the quiet countryside of northern Honshu. The pacing of each scene is judged perfectly, cutting between characters and small details in the environment. There are many short scenes fading to black, which help to cover a lot of time and ground in a relatively short run-time. With minimal dialogue you have a fully realised world. The music matches the animation, transcendently beautiful compositions for piano and violin heightening each emotion.

The film is a simple love story, though using various brilliant conceits to further emphasise what the characters are feeling. The tower acts as a symbol of the characters dreams, promises (with the boys promising Sayuri that they will take her there someday), and of the unknown future. It is ever-present, though always out of reach, representing whatever it is that the young characters are hoping for. I would recommend this as a beautiful love story, with fantastic animation and score. Although it is overly-sentimental in places, it does have a huge emotional impact.

In this Corner of the World (2017)

In this Corner of the World follows the story of Suzu, an absent-minded young girl, constantly daydreaming, and drifting through life quite contentedly for the most part. Born and brought up in Hiroshima in the 1930’s, she is fond of drawing and spends her days making up entertaining stories for her younger sister. When she comes of age, Suzu is married by arrangement to a man from Kure, a nearby town and moves in with his parents. As the Second World War begins to have an increasing impact on their lives, Suzu must navigate the various relationships and trials that she encounters.

Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the world of “In this Corner of the World” is a contemplative film about how ordinary lives are disrupted by war. Suzu is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist whom you can happily spend time with. Her daydreaming and escapes from reality are relatable and come to have a powerful significance later in the story. There is a gentle humour to proceedings, some subtle (such as her pondering the notion that caramel might soon cost 100 yen) which keeps the first half of the film quite light and enjoyable. While a story set during the war will never be entirely without tragedy, the film takes an interesting approach to the war. It looks at the everyday activities of a family that are interrupted by the war intermittently, a dark blemish on their rural idyll. There is the traditional Japanese focus on the passage of seasons, cooking, family life, and the entire film is infused with a melancholy for a lost world and that recognizable philosophy of trying to find happiness in an apparently mundane life. The animation style is gentle with pastel shades, though incredible detail in the natural world. There is an almost picture-book quality to some of the artwork, especially in scenes when the story drifts between the “realism” of what is happening and the “brush strokes” of Suzu’s imagination. There are also a couple of impressionistic techniques employed, with a shockingly effective black on white sketch-style employed during one dramatic scene. The voice cast do a great job of bringing these characters to life. The relationships between Suzu and her in-law family form several great subplots along with that of the relationship with an old school friend and even a chance encounter with another young woman in the nearby town. While introducing many characters and plots, the film is well-paced, with many short scenes strung together to give the impression of a full and vibrant world. This is especially effective when we see Suzu doing household chores and time passing. There are references to time throughout the film that take on a terrifying significance as the plot draws closer to the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, something of which the characters are blissfully unaware, with the periods of time growing closer together as the inevitable tragedy approaches.

The film takes an interesting approach to its story. Ostensibly about the atomic bomb and the experience of ordinary Japanese citizens during the war, it is largely about memory and loss and is effective often for what it does not show, more than what it does. The war and the impending atomic catastrophe are things that are always on the periphery and being largely ignored by the characters. Suzu is a established early on as a daydreamer, whose understanding of the world is coloured not only by experience but her interpretation of it. This theme is later emphasised when she imagines the bursting artillery fire over the town as splashes of paint. This is a more relatable way of looking at the world than an overly melodramatic approach, and becomes more effective when thinking back over the film as you realise you have almost experienced the war as many at the time would have, without the foreknowledge of what is about to happen. The horrific consequences of the atomic bomb are something that are hard to imagine and the film instead focuses upon what led up to it, so that people can understand what had been lost when the world moved into a post-atomic bomb era. A truly great war-time epic focussing on the lives of an ordinary family living through extraordinary circumstances.