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DVD SAVANT
Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Reviews:

Full Metal Yakuza
and
A.LI.CE

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

Eastern Cult Cinema return with DVD presentations of two more recent Japanese fantasy films. Full Metal Yakuza is a genre-defying straight-to-video title by the maverick cult director Takashi Miike. The concept of straight-to-video features carries fewer negative connotations in Japan: for a talent like Miike it simply means he has the freedom to let his imagination fly in whatever direction he pleases. A.LI.CE is an interesting CGI animation feature and it was the first film in Japan to be presented digitally in cinemas, utilizing the Digital Light Processing system that was used for the digital presentation of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in the USA.


Full Metal Yakuza
Eastern Cult Cinema
1997 / Colour / 1.77:1 anamorphic / 103 m.
Starring Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Yasushi Kitamura, Shoko Nakahara, Ren Osugi, Yuichi Minato, Koji Tsukamoto,Takeshi Caesar, Tomorowo Taguchi
Cinematography Shohei Ando
Production Designer Hitoshi Nojiri
Editor Yasushi Shimamura
Original Music Koji Endo and Sound Kids
Written by Hiroki Yamaguchi and Itaru Era
Produced by Yuji Nagamori, Naoki Abe
Directed by Takashi Miike

Synopsis:

Hagane (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) is a trainee Yakuza but he simply hasn't got what it takes to succeed in the criminal underworld and is reduced to cleaning the toilets at the Mutsumi clan's headquarters. When his hero Tosa is released from prison, Hagane is instructed to drive him to a safe house but their destination is leaked to the rival Nakame clan and the pair are cut down by assassins. Hagane awakens to find that he now has a super-strength robotic body which has Tosa's brave heart beating in its chest, and his grand Yakuza tattoo grafted on its back, and he immediately sets out for revenge.

This movie is often described as being Robocop in a Yakuza setting, which in a sense it is, but it's also a whole lot more. Before his transformation, Hagane is a nice guy with a conscience who simply cannot bring himself to do the things that Yakuza foot soldiers must do in order to survive and progress. He's much the same after his transformation and his subsequent acts of violence are largely reluctant acts that are prompted by his "honourable Yakuza" outlook and his sense of loyalty to others. But he remains unable to come to terms with his new existence as a cyborg and, after avenging Tosa's death, seeks to distance himself from humankind: the sense of pathos and isolation associated with characters like the Frankenstein monster and the man-robot Andrew Martin is successfully evoked in this section of the film. But Hagane finds himself camped near the Tosa family's isolated tomb and all kinds of emotional complications arise when he meets up with Tosa's grieving ex-girlfriend (Shoko Nakahara) and begins experiencing flashes of Tosa's memory.

Some of Hagane's experiences are similar to patrolman Murphy's but while Robocop remained dark and brooding for the most part, Full Metal Yakuza is littered with crazy and silly, but thoroughly welcome and laugh-out-loud funny details and subplots. The fetish-clothed mad scientist (Tomorowo Taguchi) (a curious cross between Re-Animator's Herbert West and The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Dr Frank N. Furter) introduces himself with the words "My name is Genpaku Hiraga, self-proclaimed genius-scientist. But others call me the Nutty Professor." Hiraga teaches Hagane a logical but hilarious battle tactic to be used when advancing on armed enemies: turn side-ways on, cup and raise one hand to protect the face while positioning the other on its corresponding hip before employing a shuffling side-step (reminiscent of a geisha-girl trying to walk too fast in a dress with a very tight hem-line) to cautiously move forward. When his emotions go into overdrive and his robotic body, which is supposedly modelled on Tosa's in every way (right down to its rather large penis), begins to overheat, Hagane has to place one hand on his brow and chant "hush-a-bye baby" in Russian three times to activate a cooling down process. And if he starts to run out of energy he has to find and eat some small metal objects.

The film does have its share of grim and starkly dark moments though. The graphic, slow-motion execution of Hagane and Tosa captures the spirit of Peckinpah more effectively than most of the American director's Eastern admirers. The Mutsumi clan's "grooming" of Tosa's ex-girlfriend is a particularly brutal and intensely disturbing affair and some of the activities pursued in Hiraga's laboratory are quite disturbing too. And, of course, there's plenty of the type of violence normally associated with Yakuza flicks. The film is set in the present day and Hagane's choice of weapon is a sword which he swings with expert latent skills inherited from Tosa. When Hagane shows up for the final settling of accounts, he projects the aura of the heroic lone Samurai.

This is a low budget but finely executed film: Miike is supremely confident in the way that he mixes and matches material sourced from a variety of different genres. And he certainly knows how to hold the viewer's attention and interest, throwing in many inter-textual references along the way and successfully flipping between deadly serious and genuinely comedic ambiences. Shohei Ando's cinematography is consistently good, as is the film's colouring and lighting. And Koji Endo and Sound Kids cook up some great sounds on the music front, effectively mixing emotionally textured synthesizer pieces with cues that are more classical and melodramatic in nature. This is yet another fairly recent Japanese feature that possesses enough style, originality and attention to detail to prompt loose comparisons to the early stand-out works of Raimi, the Coen brothers, Caro & Jeunet, Jackson, et al.


Apparently shot on digital video, the picture quality of this anamorphic presentation is very good. The disc's sound is excellent, featuring the original Japanese soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles. The extra features include an insightful 35-minute interview with Miike along with a 15 minute interview with his regular editor, Yasushi Shimamura. The disc also includes a commentary track by Miike author Tom Mes.


A.LI.CE
Eastern Cult Cinema
1999 / Colour / 1.85:1 anamorphic / 86 m.
Production Designer Hirosuke Kizake
Original Music Akira Murata
Written by Masahiro Yoshimoto
Directed by Kenichi Maejima

Synopsis:

Alice and a robotic waitress find themselves being pursued through the wastes of the North Pole by hostile soldiers. They're rescued by a local youth, Yuan, and it subsequently transpires that a routine trip on a lunar space shuttle somehow catapulted the schoolgirl and the robot thirty years into the future to the year 2030. A computer expert called Nero has taken over the world and his Stealth Troopers are carrying out an aggressive campaign designed to significantly reduce the Earth's population. It turns out that Alice is actually Nero's mother: in 2015 she lapsed into a state of unconsciousness and Nero placed her sleeping body at the heart of an organic super computer. It seems that a resistance group, Nicoli's Liberation Forces, have transported Alice from the year 2000 with the intention of forcing her to use her unique brain-waves to hack into and disable Nero's deadly computer system.

This quite innovative attempt at CGI animation apparently made much use of real humans in motion capture suits as part of its production process. As a result, the characters' general movements and suchlike look and play particularly well. The use of actors in motion capture suits probably accounts for the quite traditional, but impressive, approach to camera movement, composition, framing and editing employed here too. But while the characters' bodies are represented quite realistically, some of them sport the decidedly generic faces more usually associated with Japanese Anime productions. The actual look of the show is quite original: the colours in general, and the aesthetic design of the future world's machinery and weaponry, reminded me of the look that Carlos Ezquerra gave the Judge Dredd comic strip when he first started experimenting with computer generated art panels.

The film's basic plot line (a kind of reversal of key elements from The Terminator) works well enough and any doubts about possible temporal anomalies are nicely resolved in the final chapter. The three main characters of Alice, Yuan and SS1X (the waitress robot dubbed 'Mary") are fairly rounded and likeable. Alice carries memories of an ecologically minded school friend who was deeply disturbed by mankind's propensity for destruction and pollution: (spoiler begins....) these memories are still held by the sleeping future Alice and they have had an impact on the actions of Nero and his super computer (....spoiler ends). Yuan is alone in the world since the Stealth Troopers depopulated his hometown while he was away. His anger has smouldered for years and when Alice declares that she intends seeking an audience with Nero he willingly offers to go with her. But SS1X/"Mary" is the star of the show: she's a super-smart, super-resourceful and super-sexy bodyguard who's a lot of fun.

Alice does eventually get to meet Nero but our trio of heroes experience several adventures along the way and these involve several well executed action sequences. The use of motion capture suits might well have had an influence here as well: director Kenichi Maejima rarely asks the film's characters to do anything physical that a real human (or a stunt man on a Hollywood blockbuster) couldn't conceivably do and this adds a noticeable sense of realism to the project. Maejima relies instead on interesting camera work, some good use of slow-motion effects and consistently imaginative staging to make his action scenes work. A couple of plot elements do prove to be quite predictable (spoiler begins.... Nero is more misguided than mad/bad, Nicoli the liberator is really a power-hungry megalomaniac who wants to control time, etc ....spoiler ends) but the show boasts a completely coherent narrative and it remains involving and enjoyable throughout. The film's soundtrack features a fairly generic but good electronic/synthesizer-led score that works just fine for this kind of animated Sci-Fi.


Picture quality here is pretty much excellent: the show's rich colouring shines through nicely and the early Arctic scenes are clean and bright. The sound is excellent too, featuring the film's original Japanese soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles. Unfortunately none of the film's credits appear to have been translated on screen, which is a bit of a shame. Author Jonathan Clements provides a commentary track and his Final Fantasies lecture (which also appeared on Eastern Cult Cinema's Blue Remains DVD) is included as an extra feature.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Full Metal Yakuza rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Interviews with Takashi Miike & Yasushi Shimamura, commentary by Tom Mes and bio/filmographies for Miike, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Tomorowo Taguchi, Shoko Nakahara & Ren Osugi
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 28, 2004

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A.LI.CE rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Bio/filmographies for Kenichi Maejima, Masahiro Yoshimoto & Hirosuke Kizake, commentary by Jonathan Clements and Jonathan Clements's Final Fantasies lecture
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 28, 2004




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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