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Anime special
Reviews by Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes

Kenya Boy
Rennyo and His Mother


Original Title: A.LI.CE
Director: Kenichi MAEJIMA
Cast: Kaori SHIMIZU, Mariko KODA, Chihiro SUZUKI
Running time: 80 mins.
Year: 1999

picture: scene from 'A.Li.Ce'The youngest person ever sent into space, Alice Hayashi finds herself crash landing on earth instead of reaching her original target the moon. Pursued by an army of robotic soldiers on snowmobiles, she is saved by the android Maria and a young man named Yuan, from whom she learns that she has landed thirty years in the future. Before long, another pack of warriors arrives to claim her and she learns that she holds the key to overthrowing the tyrant Nero, who rules the earth with an iron fist. Despite the help of Maria and Yuan, Alice soon finds herself a pawn in the battle between Nero's forces and a group of resistance fighters.

Allegedly Japan's first-ever fully CGI-animated feature (closely followed by Blue Remains, Malice@Doll and, of course, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), A.Li.Ce has already made the history books regardless of its contents. However, with the great strides technology has taken since the film was first released in 1999, it's precisely the contents that ensure that it also continues to live in the minds of its audience. And this, it turns out, is something of a problem.

With a premise culled from Buck Rogers and The Planet of the Apes and a plot recycling key elements from The Terminator and Back to the Future, A.Li.Ce rarely rises above the level of a perfunctory sci-fi story. Setting the proceedings in Lapland was a novel idea and the film contains some interesting design work (courtesy of Hirosuke Kizaki, who would go on to work on Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy). Care also went into creating likeable protagonists, making the end result never short of being moderately entertaining, but a decent writer would have had a field day with what now remain half-baked Christian and ecological motifs that are scattered like loose ends throughout the narrative. As it stands, the reference for early Japanese CG anime still remains Keitaro Motonaga's much more intriguing Malice@Doll.



Original Title: Appleseed
Director: Shinji ARAMAKI
Running Time: 103 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scenes from 'Appleseed'The year is 2131 and Deunan Knute, a hi-tech feminine fighting machine, roams the scorched earth of a planet ravaged by war. With her communication lines severed, she seems unaware that the fighting in fact ended long ago, until she is knocked out and picked up by a her former boyfriend Briareos and taken back to the gleaming metropolis of Olympus, where he now lives with the flawlessly pert Hitomi. All but completely destroyed in action, Briareos has been 75% reconstructed as a cyborg and no longer feels so much as a glimmer in his metallic loins for his former lover Deunan. Meanwhile, beneath the mill-pond surface calm of Olympus, mysterious conspiratorial shadows are looming.

Appleseed is without doubt a landmark in animation technique, with its motion-captured characters moving with quicksilver fluidity over a succession of intricately designed CG backdrops, battling it out in a series of slickly edited hyper-kinetic action sequences. No surprise to find that director Aramaki has come from a background in computerised special effects, previously collaborating with Appleseed producer Sori on the latter's directorial debut, the live action Ping Pong.

Like Final Fantasy, its most obvious predecessor, Appleseed has almost set itself up to be superseded. Interestingly, unlike Final Fantasy, these technical advances have not been so much put to service in an attempt at a perfect simulation of a cinematic reality, as to create the ultimate anime dreamworld for the otaku. From the latent eroticised undercurrent of the same-sex relationship of its two protagonists, Deunan and Hitomi, both possessed of wide limpid eyes and perfectly-sculpted breasts and buttocks, the tangible sense of inertia to the juddering "mecha" heavy machinery, and the sterile vision of a utopian metropolis moulded flawlessly from chromium and plate glass, we're in familiar territory here. Appleseed sticks closely to the genre's conventions, both visual and narrative, polishing and perfecting them, but ultimately not really adding anything more substantial than surface sheen.

The script, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, whose work also formed the basis of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell and Innocence, deals with the now overly-familiar cyberpunk tropes of Gaia, "the city as organism" and half-man, half-machine cyborgs. Of course, Shirow himself kicked off the wave: Appleseed was his first published work back in 1985, and was already adapted as an anime of the same name by Kazuyoshi Katayama in 1988. This remake could be could considered long overdue then, and witnesses the cyberpunk anime coming full circle in terms of its fusion of technological concerns with the latest state-of-the-art animation techniques. But whilst dwelling in the same territory, it is far less cerebral than Oshii's work, and doesn't give the viewer much to work with between the action sequences. Certainly the most visually slick offering in a crucial year for Japanese animation, Appleseed lacks the distinguishing character of its rivals. Nevertheless, it's still well worthy of a look.


Kenya Boy

Original title: Shonen Keniya
Alternative Title: Jungle Boy Kenya
Director: Nobuhiko OBAYASHI
Running time: 109 mins.
Year: 1984

picture: scene from 'Kenya Boy'1941, the Murakami family run a small textile trading business in Nairobi, the capital city of British-colonized Kenya. With the Pacific War about to break out between Japan and the Allied Forces, the young Wataru and his father leave the city and head into the bush. The two become separated when caught in a fracas with a highly-strung rhinoceros, leaving Wataru to roam the plains alone and his father in the hands of the British forces. Fortunately salvation is at hand for Wataru when he stumbles across an aging Maasai chief, separated from his tribe and in a poor state of health. "Ah, you are Japanese, so you must be courageous" the elderly warrior reassures Wataru as the young boy helps him back to his tribe, an act of kindness for which he is repaid with the gift of a spear. Two years later, and Wataru has gone completely native, and embarks on a series of adventures that bring him into contact with a hostile neighbouring tribe, a hidden valley of dinosaurs and a lizard-worshiping cult, and yet another jungle orphan in the shapely form of a flaxen-haired beauty from Scotland, named Kate, bosom heaving heavily beneath her leopard-skin one-piece.

From his origins in the 8mm experimental scene of the 60s by way of the highly-praised horror (in some quarters) House (1977) through the dismal piece of 80s pap Drifting Classroom (1987) and Sada (1998), a recent retelling of the incident made internationally famous by Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Obayashi's body of work is certainly an eclectic one. It's no real surprise then to find an animation nestling amongst it.

Released by Toei Animation, but with the influential clout of 80s movie mogul Haruki Kadokawa pulling the strings behind the scenes, Kenya Boy is a pretty lavish production. The most immediate thing of note is the quality of the animation. Though a little jerky, a large amount of work has evidently been poured into the dynamic rotoscoped battles between the assorted savage creatures of the savannah and the intricately drawn images of charging herds of big game, in an attempt to keep things as physically realistic as possible. A little creative leeway in scenes such as a battle where a hippo bites off a rhinoceros' leg is perhaps not too surprising, given Obayashi's background in the fantastique, but the near-photographic attempts at zoological verisimilitude soon fall in the name of dramatic license, with the appearances of a black puma who has wandered in from a completely different continent and a giant toad the size of a horse. From then on events take a rapid dive into the realms of complete fantasy as Wataru and crew find an unlikely ally in the form of a 50m-long giant serpent and stumble into a Nazi hide-out, anachronistically kitted out with video screens and gleaming lab equipment, where its fiendish jack-booted overlord is developing a nuclear bomb.

Kenya Boy is based on a popular character developed by Soji Yamakawa, the old man seen in the live-action scenes bracketing the film. A highly popular writer of picture stories, serialised in children's magazines and precursors to the modern manga format pioneered by Osamu Tezuka, Yamakawa was pivotal in popularising notions of the untamed continent of Africa with the generation raised in the 40s and 50s in vivid Tarzan-styled adventures such as Shonen Ohja (Young Boy King) and Shonen Taigaa (Tiger Boy). Shonen Kenya was also adapted to the screen in 1954 by Yotoku Iwasawa.

Undeniably striking yet conceptually messy, and with a tangible nationalistic undercurrent, Kenya Boy can't help but be anything other than fascinating, though perhaps not always for all the right reasons.


Rennyo and His Mother

Original Title: Rennyo To Sono Haha
Director: Kihachiro KAWAMOTO
Cast: Masaaki DAIMON, Misako WATANABE
Running time: 92 mins.
Year: 1981

picture: scenes from 'Rennyo and His Mother'From his debut in 1968 with Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (Hanaori) to his contribution to A Winter's Day (Fuyu No Hi, 2003), an animation omnibus taking its cues from the renku poems of Matsuo Basho, under the original encouragement of the near-legendary Czech stop-motion animator Jiri Trnka, Kihachiro Kawamoto has consistently turned to Japan's own rich aesthetic traditions for his inspiration. His haunting doll animations never fail to draw gasps of admiration from their viewers. For his first feature-length work he was joined by two of the most highly-regarded men in their respective fields within the world of Japanese film: composer Tohru Takemitsu (Woman in the Dunes, Kwaidan) and screenwriter Kaneto Shindo (Naked Island, Onibaba), adapting Kiyotaka Hirai's fictionalized novel about the historical character Rennyo Shonin (1415-99).

Rennyo was the key figure responsible for the restoration of Shin Buddhism in Japan, in particular the Honganji lineage, during a slump in its fortunes during the Middle Ages. According to legend, his motivation was a pivotal childhood incident at the age of just six when his mother summoned him and informed him of his destiny to revive the fortunes of the Honganji school to which he was the next in line. She then mysteriously disappeared from the temple. Taking her words to heart, from a background of great poverty and hardship, at the age of 16 he set out to spread the word across the land.

Kawamoto's two previous works, Dojoji Temple (Dojoji, 1976) and House of Blaze (Kataku, 1979), both 19 minutes in length, were most remarkable for prioritising mood over narrative and their progressive experimentations in technique. Taken as moments, this rarely-seen work (no video release exists) is still impressive, though there's nothing quite to match the fearsome serpent attack of the former nor the fiery finale of the latter, and, perhaps inevitably, it suffers from the need to sustain momentum over a 90-minute length. There's a masterful use of light effects, and some mesmerising depictions of characters travelling through majestically-modelled landscapes during the various animated episodes in Rennyo's life, punctuated with an interesting integration of live action shots of the locations mentioned in the original text. Also, the level of detail in the supporting cast of hundreds of dolls, like Cabbage Patch Kids each sporting a unique expression or facial tic, provides a great deal of peripheral amusement. Overall, an amazing accomplishment, but the results perhaps may seem a little too much like a cultural history lesson to win over most viewers.