Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Spike Spiegel (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unsho Ishizuka) are bounty hunters and the sole crew of the spaceship Bebop. The show opens with plenty of questions as to their backgrounds and relationship, not least in the intriguing noirish flashbacks we see featuring Spike. The pair live in a precarious financial situation, chasing bounties that just about ensure they have enough food to live. Their crew is later expanded when they unwittingly come into posession of a Shiba dog with  expermentally enhanced intelligence named Ein; and later a woman on the run from serious debts named Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara). Their motley crew gains another member when an orphaned super-hacker named Edward (Aoi Tada) joins them.

The strength of “Cowboy Bebop” is in its blend of genres, part-noirish crime thriller, part-western, with elements of science-fiction and comedy. This allows for a variety of storylines and the majority of episodes are stand alone, both narratively and thematically. The stories are fast-paced, necessarily so as they set up fresh villains, problems, concepts, worlds and solutions in the space of a single episode. There are a few episodes that could be considered throwaway or filler, such as the horseriding bounty hunter, but the majority do a great job in creating a novel challenge and cast of secondary characters that keep things interesting. One unusal aspect of the characters is that they seem quite isolated from themselves, more so than the usual odd couple relationship, they are simply five individuals who happen to be thrown together and the series only briefly touches on the relationships between them. Some of the best episodes are those that uncover the backstories of Jet, Spike and Faye, as these give a much-needed emotional counterweight to the visual bombast of gunfights and chase sequences.

From the opening double-bass strains of the theme song, the “Cowboy Bebop” score perfectly captures the atmosphere of a space western, with a fusion of twanging guitars and jazz. Most episodes have a musical link in the title and the score is clearly a huge part of the enjoyment of the show, giving it a sense of style and paying homage to great science fiction and western films. The visuals likewise exudes cool, with instantly recognizable characters whose design speaks to their character. It is also fun to note references to contemporary brands in the backgrounds. The animation of the fight sequences is one of the highlights of the series, with an incredible sense of movement and danger. This is helped immensely by some stunning editing that bolsters the frenetic sense of danger. All parts work in tandem, the design, editing and score, to create something that is eye-catching and engaging.

“Cowboy Bebop” gives us a future that is far from utopian, using its platform to comment on contemporary societal problems with a depressing prognosis that things are not heading in a postive direction. We see ecological catastrophe in the shape of asteroids that have decimated the planet earth; the ills of privatised medicide and unscrupulous companies; corruption rife in the government and police systems; and overall a lawless society where morality is ever shifting. References to both science-fiction and western genres, representing the future and the past, further emphasises this sense that humanity is doomed by the same weaknessess that have dogged its past, such as greed, crime, and selfishness. Despite advances in technology in the show, the society itself has failed to progress, with outlaws, bandits and criminals still barely kept under control, and an almost imperceptible line between bounty hunting vigilantes and offical law enforcement. This focus on time also plays a prominent role in Faye’s story and asks interesting questions on who we are and where we are going. Faye, suffering amnesia, is perhaps the best representative of the show’s philosophy as a whole, with no idea of either her past or her future. Human’s in “Cowboy Bebop” are simply buoyed along by the vicissitudes of fate, struggling against a deeply unfair system. A fantastic action sci-fi western with bags of charm, enjoyable characters, and a pointed satire on contemporary society.

The Drifting Classroom (1987) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Based on the horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, “The Drifting Classroom” follows a group of International School students in Kobe after their classroom is lost in a time-slip. Shou (Yasufumi Hayashi) leaves home after arguing with his mother, heading out to school where he meets up with his other classmates. Not long into the school day the building begins to shake. At first believing it is an earthquake, the teachers and children try to remain calm as they assess the damage. However, looking out of the window they see that they are in a mysterious desert-like world. They are later threatened by aliens attacking the school. They must learn to adapt and survive in this hostile new environment, while back in Kobe the people speculate about the sudden disappearance of the school.

“The Drifting Classroom” is a chaotic, action-packed, children’s adventure film with dark undertones. It shifts rapidly from a spirit of light-hearted comedy as the children explore this new world, their familiar surroundings made unfamiliar as they are now filled with sand, and terrifying horror as giant insect-like aliens arrive to terrorize them. The film mixes in other elements such as survival drama as they elect a leader and try to work out how to live on the supplies available in the school. The young cast do a great job, bringing a youthful exuberance to their roles. The primary characters are Shou, Mark (Thomas Sutton), Ayumi (Aiko Asano) and the youngest Yu, but the supporting cast do a fantastic job in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, such as you might expect in a school full of children in such circumstances. Obayashi’s direction is suited to this bizarre blend of science-fiction, horror, and adventure, with the sympathetic camera moving wildly in concert with the cast. The ambitious story, involving time-slips, other worlds, and aliens, is achieved with a blend of CG special effects, green screen, and stop motion creature work. It is a story full of twists that is endlessly entertaining.

While the premise of the film, a school caught in a timeslip, seems like it would lend itself to a relatively slight fantasy drama, there is a dark subtext to “The Drifting Classroom” that sets it above a simple throwaway adventure tale.

If you wish to avoid spoilers, please check out the film before reading further.

Part way through the film, Shou finds a memorial in the desert with the names of all the teachers and pupils he is stranded with. Other hints in the film, such as a character telling Shou’s mother that “children always go to the future”, and the slow pull out shot at the end of the film, indicate that in fact these children are marooned on a hostile post-apocalyptic earth, devastated possibly by nuclear war (an earlier scene sees one adult shouting “they finally pushed the button”). The film doesn’t shy away from death, with many students perishing due to a lack of food, and the aforementioned memorial. It confronts it’s audience, primarily children, with these harsh realities about life. The filling of the school with sand is an incredible visual metaphor for the timeslip they have gone through. They are literally trapped in the sands of time, left abandoned by previous generations thoughtless or reckless actions. Though there is hope at the end of the film, it is slight, with the children abandoned to their fate on this inhospitable planet, presumably ruined by those that came before. The ecological, anti-nuclear message is never made explicitly, but it is clearly there. A fantastical adventure with a troubling message about the world we leave to future generations.

Warning from Space (1956) by Koji Shima

A group of scientists work to avert a world-ending catastrophe in this atomic age science-fiction drama. When an observatory sees a peculiar light out in space, followed by electrical outages and sightings of strange star-shaped cyclopean beings, scientists Kamura (Bontaro Miake), Isobe (Keizo Kawasaki), and Matsuda (Isao Yamagata), begin investigating. These aliens, known as Pairans, have come to warn the earth of impending disaster in the shape of a large asteroid on collision course. Realising their appearance is discomfitting to the humans, they take on human forms, including that of a popular singer Hikari Aozora (Toyomi Karita).

Directed by Koji Shima, with a screenplay by Hideo Oguni, from the novel by Gentaro Nakajima, “Warning from Space” is an entertaining film, with a simple plot that nevertheless provides its share of great moments. The appearance of the aliens is slightly ridiculous (though of course there’s no way of knowing what alien visitors would look like). The ability to transmutate into humans means that there is relatively little screen time in their natural state. Most of the narrative revolves around the scientists and their attempts to first understand what is happening and second to come up with a solution. The film builds it’s sense of impending doom, coming to a thrilling conclusion with panicked citizens fleeing disaster. There is also a lot of comedy, perhaps recognizant of the film’s slightly far-fetched story, mostly revolving around the alien disguised as Hikari Aozora and her incredible, inhuman, feats of dexterity, speed and strength.

While the premise is fantastical, the story of “Warning from Space” is deeply human and speaks to widespread societal fears. The film evokes the fear of nuclear catastrophe and the memory of the recent atomic bombings. Characters using geiger counters to detect the aliens, and the initial plan to use the remaining stock of nuclear warheads on earth to destroy the oncoming catastrophe. The detonation of the first atomic bombs began a new age, putting humanity beyond a point of no return, with the capability of eradicating all life on earth now clearly demonstrated. It is this fear that the film speaks to, with the scientists stating their concerns about nuclear warheads, and the development of an even more terrifying weapon by Matsuda. The film balances these fears with a hope that such technology can be used for good, with discussions of nuclear power being a potential boon for humanity. The film’s science-positive message is also evident in the internationalism that it promotes. While the 20th century produced it’s share of horrors it also led to greater globalisation and an understanding amongst many nations that co-operation was preferable to conflict. We see this in the scientists contact with fellow observatories, hinting at the unifying power of science in the wake of a devastating global catastrophe. An enjoyable early science-fiction film that plays on many familiar themes, with a positive pro-peace message of internationalism and scientific co-operation.

Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time (2021) by Hideaki Anno

The final instalment in the “Rebuild of Evangelion” tetralogy brings things to a thrilling, poignant, and oftentimes shocking conclusion. This is in effect the third time that this story has been brought to a close. The original 1990’s anime series’ final episodes were criticized at the time for a left-field shift in style, with the use of repetitive visuals and sketchy animation, and, to many viewers, incomprehensible philosophical discussions around a collective consciousness. The manga series ends quite differently, diverging from the anime with more of a bittersweet ending. If you have seen the three preceding films in this series you will know that we are already in a significantly different timeline than either. Although there is a recap of the previous three films at the beginning of this fourth and final installment, it will make little sense if you haven’t seen those films, acting as more of a refresher for fans. This film begins with Mari (Maya Sakamoto) piloting Unit 8 in a spectacular battle with an evolved model of Eva. She is under the direction of Ritsuko Akagi (Yuriko Yamaguchi) as they attempt to restore some of the devastated earth. The film then reunites us with the trio of pilots left stranded at the end of the last film. Shinji (Megumi Ogata), Asuka (Yuko Miyamura), and the new-model Rei (Megumi Hayashibara), are recovered by an outpost of refugees who have formed a primitive communal society. They meet up again with former classmates Toji (Tomokazu Seki) and Kensuke (Tetsuya Iwanaga), who are now 14 years older and working to help the surviving humans. Shinji is still unable to come to terms with his involvement in and responsibility for bringing about the apocalyptic events that killed a large portion of the earth’s population. However, Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki) and Fuyutsuki (Motomu Yamadera) are continuing with their plan to bring about a final destruction and rebuilding of the universe through Fourth Impact, so he is once again drawn in to help prevent calamity.

“Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time” again sees the art and animation stepped up a notch, with incredibly picturesque backgrounds and detailed post-apocalyptic landscapes. Scale has always been important to the Evangelion series, with Evas towering above diminutive buildings, and here we see that captured perfectly, with Mari’s Eva battle dwarfing the city of Paris that acts as a backdrop for the action. In the refugee camp too we get a sense of the bustle of industrious humans attempting to rebuild their lives. The increased budget from a television show is evidenced here and it does justice to the scope of Anno’s vision for “Evangelion”. It is interesting to note that given this budget, a large part of the film is taken up with simple human interactions, conversations, meals, planting rice, taking a bath, that are given as much import as the mammoth battles for humanity’s survival. This is what Evangelion does best, juxtaposing and comparing the internal mental struggles of its protagonists, and seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life, with the large-scale world-changing events of Angels, Evas and Fourth Impact. The film shifts between dazzling, psychedelic battles, a raucous, almost transcendent experience wherin the viewer is bombarded with light and sound, and quieter, more reflective moments that ponder existentialism and human relations. There are moments to please fans, with the inclusion of particular characters, locations, even penguins, sure to raise a nostalgic smile. But the film also does its best to subvert expectations, giving you everything you could want, but not exactly how you expected it. This is evident in the length of time spent in the refugee camp, away from the familiarity of NERV, Evas, or anything recognizably “Evangelion” (aside from the characters). Of course if you understand the heart of the story, it is these characters and their relationships, so these moments are perfect in moving the story forward, while feeling not much at all like an “Evangelion” film. The film is highly inventive and creative, never content to play it safe. It doesn’t always work, with the CG feeling slightly out of place at times, but the use of sketch drawings, “film-footage”, and the mind-bending finale, shows that Anno is as always interested in providing a unique experience that challenges your preconceptions.

The film offers a stunning conclusion to this saga that should satisfy fans. There is none of the abstraction of the television series, instead we have a straightforward explanation for what happens (as far as Evangelion is ever straightforward). If you can follow what is going on to the end, many questions are answered about Gendo’s actions and almost all of the main characters are given a moment to shine, expressing the core of their feelings and beliefs. Rei’s existential crisis is brought into focus, and she acts as a conduit for us to examine human relations and society. Her questioning of why we shake hands, say ‘thank you’ or ‘hello’, subtly yet powerfully forces the audience to reflect on human interactions and norms. Katsuragi’s relationship with Kaji is referenced in a touching way. Asuka’s traumas are laid bare, as are Shinji’s fears of rejection and helplessness. We also finally have a moment between Shinji and Gendo that brings to closure a tension that has been present from the very first moment between them; that explains their strained relationship and also the difference in their characters. Exceling as both an action spectacular and a heartfelt emotional drama, “Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0” is an exceptional work that brings to an end a series that has meant a lot to so many people.

Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012) by Hideaki Anno

The third Evangelion film finds Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata) awakening from a fourteen-year coma following the cataclysmic events of the previous film. Shinji returns to earth to find Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi) in command of a large vessel attempting to protect the remnants of a largely extinct population. Asuka (Yuko Miyamura) returns, though she appears not to have aged (explained away as a side-effect of being an Eva pilot), as does Mari Makinami (Maya Sakamoto); one of Rei Ayanami’s (Megumi Hayashibara) doubles; and Kaworu Nagisa (Akira Ishida) (a character seen only briefly in previous films). The post-apocalyptic earth that Shinji returns to is almost unrecognizable. NERV headquarters are mostly destroyed, Katsuragi and Asuka are working for an organization called WILLE, whose goal is to destroy what is left of NERV. Meanwhile, Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki), along with Rei and Kaworu are working on completing the mysterious Human Instrumentality Project.

We are now in uncharted waters, with the third film in the “Rebuild of Evangelion”, being an entirely new version of events from the anime and manga series’. This film is certainly a more difficult watch in many ways compared with the previous two movies. The plot immediately takes you out of your comfort zone with the premise that fourteen years have passed, and the characters we knew and loved have changed. We feel the isolation and neglect that Shinji feels as we are in a world that is very different to the one both the audience and the characters knew. There is less humour this time around with the sombre post-apocalyptic setting and weighty philosophical and existential concerns consuming the characters. The machinations of NERV and SEELE become a little clearer here, as we discover what they are plotting. The animation blends traditional and computer generated images, utilising rotoscoping and other techniques, but maintaining the hand-drawn/ traditionally animated look. This allows for some epic battle sequences, including an incredible opening sequence in space. There are a number of quiet moments too that succeed in offering a moment of respite and a chance to contemplate what is going on and the portentousness of what is happening to the world. Shiro Sagsu’s score continues to be excellent, with both classical and rock pieces, similar to previous films, with piano music playing a major part in the story, used expertly to acknowledge both the mood and theme of the film.

This film plays on the theme of abandonment and loneliness. We see Shinji at the beginning being told that he is no longer a necessary part of plans. That, along with everything having changed around him, leads both him and the viewer to feel a sort of anger and sadness, that the world seems to have left us behind, going so far as to create an uneasy tension between viewers expectations and what is happening. This feeling is poignantly reflected in the character of Rei too, who we learn is a clone of Yui Ikari, Shinji’s mother, and therefore an expendable part of NERV’s plans. Rei’s sense of self is shattered on learning that she is not the ‘real’ Rei. This film is much more focussed on the philosophy and grand themes of human evolution and deicide than the first two. However, there are some great moments between Shinji and Asuka and Shinji and Kaworu that capture that sense of real teenagers learning about themselves and the world. As before the spectacular set-piece battles are a highlight of the film. “Evangelion 3.0” is quite different from the previous films, building on certain themes and relationships while taking things in a whole new narrative direction. The film ends with a note that it is to be continued, and it will be interesting to see where the story goes from here.