Cutie Honey: Tears (2016)

In a world that is split into the rich, living in ultra-modern skyscrapers, and a poverty-stricken underclass consigned to the lower levels of a multi-storey city, an unlikely hero arises in the form of a beautiful android. In a dramatic opening scene we see a tense confrontation on a precarious walkway high above the city. Hitomi (Mariya Nishiuchi) is being taken to safety by her “father”, the professor who created her. Lady Jiru (Nicole Ishida), who has seized control of the city, is hunting down the pair for reasons that will later become apparent. Following a fall to the city streets below, Hitomi begins working to fight the “Sodoms” or military police that terrorize the citizens of the lower levels. She soon meets the journalist Hayami (Takahiro Miura), who is involved with a resistance movement. He explains to her that the AI that controls the city is causing the pollution on the lower levels and they intend to bring it down and end the tyranny of the Lady Jiru.

The character Cutie Honey first appeared in the manga by Go Nagai. This film is a huge departure from earlier incarnations of the characters, and almost unrecognizable from the Cutie Honey portrayed in Anno’s earlier live-action adaptation. Hitomi’s ability to change into any form means the film fits more into the superhero genre, though science-fiction and cyberpunk are also major elements. Cutie Honey: Tears does a good job of creating its world, and contrasting the dismal lower quarters with the pristine upper class lifestyle of the villains. It owes a debt to Metropolis (with the opening scene in particular a possible homage to the end of that film) and includes many ideas seen in other films, drone cameras and mass surveillance, Artificial Intelligence, inequality and the darker side of technological advancement. Director Takeshi Asai is clearly a fan of the genre. Cutie Honey: Tears makes use of some great sets, with gritty urban cityscapes and near-future high-rises creating visually interesting environments for the action. Occasionally, the world building feels a little haphazard, sometimes perfectly evoking a sense of place, and other times forgetting rules it has previously established. Mariya Nishiuchi is charismatic as Hitomi/ Cutie Honey, and I wish there had been more martial arts sequences as she sells the fight scenes well. Nicole Ishida plays the cold-hearted counter-point to Hitomi’s sympathetic protagonist with suitable hard-edged style. The climactic battle between the two women, an archetypal struggle between a rational, calculating villain and our warm-hearted, determined hero, gives both actresses a chance to shine in their acting and action roles. The special effects are good for the most part, though the CG effects lack polish at points. It is good to see a lot of practical effects and the design of the Sodoms, the costumes of Hitomi and Lady Jiru, and other details are great.

The film’s central plot is familiar to many science-fiction stories. Essentially a divided society in which the wealthy elites live in a rarefied world while those below struggle. The film ties in an ecological message to strengthen this point as it is the high-rise dwelling rich who are poisoning the lower classes with noxious fumes from their new AI technology. While nothing new the film does contain a fair amount of action and excitement and Hitomi is an interesting protagonist. There are few twists or surprises, save one shocking turn in the final act, and for the most part it is a by-the-numbers science fiction film. However, fans of this kind of anti-capitalist cyberpunk will find things to enjoy here.

Cutie Honey (2004)

An office worker by day, Honey Kisaragi (Erika Sato) has the extraordinary power of being able to change her appearance at will with a press of her heart necklace. She keeps her power up by eating copious amounts of her favourite food: onigiri. Her alter-ego Cutie Honey is a powerful crime-fighting superhero who as well as being able to transform into various costumes and disguises is virtually indestructible and fairly handy in a fight. When the Panther Claw group, led by Sister Jill along with her four supervillain underlings, Gold Claw, Cobalt Claw, Scarlet Claw and Black Claw, appear causing trouble, Cutie Honey steps in to save the day. She is assisted by Natsuko Aki (Mikako Ichikawa) and Seiji Hayami (Jun Murakami).

Directed by Hideaki Anno (Love and Pop), the film revels in a hyperactive comic-book style. Rather than attempting to turn the fantastical premise into a real-world drama, it instead embraces its origins in manga and anime. The manga was written by Go Nagai and later adapted into several television series. The opening scenes, with outlandish costumes, wacky special effects-driven fight sequences, frenetic editing, and ridiculous levels of destruction setthe stage for much that is to follow. The film is an out-and-out comedy and there is rarely any serious threat or emotion on display. Cutie Honey is a likeable lead. Kisaragi is absent-minded, obsessed with onigiri, while Cutie Honey is strong, resourceful and more than capable of taking on the bad guys. A great performance and Erika Sato excels in both roles. There are also nods to the somewhat exploitative anime version with former model Sato either in the bath, or in her underwear. The supporting cast gleefully ham things up in this comedic melodrama. Cutie Honey is full of surprises, unrestrained by a desire to be realistic, such as when one villain introduces themselves with a song and dance number. The extravagant costumes of the villains show an attention to detail and a desire to faithfully recreate the feel of a live-action anime.

Cutie Honey has some great visual gags and is clearly aimed at a younger audience. An entertaining protagonist and the film’s sense of anarchic freedom gives it an exciting edge. A lot of live-action adaptations shy away from the silliness of their source material, whereas Anno embraces it, attempting at every turn to outdo the original and utilising every tool in his arsenal to do so. The character has a good, if predictable, message about friendship and doing the right thing. But it is surprisingly fitting for the character, whose admirable qualities outshine her apparent naiveite.

The Whispering Star (2015)

Yoko works for the Space Postal Service, delivering packages to distant planets. Her only companion is the onboard computer, which seems to be malfunctioning. Yoko is a humanoid robot who spends her days engaged in everyday chores, making tea, cleaning the ship, and listening to old tapes that she recorded detailing her travels. This existence is punctuated by her arrival on a number of different planets where she must deliver packages to humans sent from relatives. We discover early on that due to some unknown catastrophe many of the humans in the universe are dead, meaning planets are sparsely inhabited and people separated by great distances. Yoko interacts with several of these people as she performs her duties, before setting off again in her ship. Throughout she wonders why it is that humans, and only humans, feel a need to send each other things.

Shot in black-and-white the film is based on a very early story idea from director Sion Sono. Better known for his violent and outrageous films, this film seems somewhat unusual in his filmography. The Whispering Star is a very contemplative film, with little dialogue for long stretches, but it does a great job of visual storytelling and finding humour and interest in seemingly everyday things. An early example of this is the dripping tap on the spaceship. Intercut with title cards showing passing days, Sono manages to convey the length of time spent on a ship, the out-of-place feeling occasioned by a lack of reference in space, it melds humour and melancholy perfectly without the need for dialogue or explanation. Many more scenes follow this pattern, using repetition of chores to highlight the monotony of Yoko’s journey. The set design of the ship is charmingly retro, with inside and out looking like a traditional home, complete with sink, plug sockets and things which again give the film a wry comedic edge when the audience contemplates the absurdity of such a set-up. It harkens back to old science-fiction films, and could easily have been made at any time in the last half century. The ship computer is likewise reminiscent of a traditional, early 20th century view of the future, with flashing lights and an old fashioned radio design. The terrestrial scenes were shot around Fukushima, with its abandoned towns and decimated landscapes providing a poignant backdrop for the drama. This also allows for some incredible shots without the use of special effects or set-dressing, such as boats grounded in the middle of a field, crumbling buildings and deserted streets. The cinematography is spectacular and each scene is shot with care. Megumi Kagurazaka is incredible as Yoko and carries the film for large parts single-handedly. Despite being trapped with her on the ship for long stretches, there is enough nuance and charisma in her performance that it is not hard to spend so much time with her.

The Whispering Star is a film about isolation and a post-apocalyptic society still clinging to some sense of normality. The small communities scattered throughout the universe are attempting to reach out to one another through sending gifts and this speaks powerfully to the human urge to social interaction. Life is fragile and transitory and it is during this brief span that humans must attempt to connect and make sense of their surroundings. It is also a film about memory and the past. As Yoko listens to her recordings we are forced to think about time passing, again referenced by the eternally dripping tap on the ship. The passage of time is important as it takes so long for Yoko to travel to each destination. The finale of the film is a spectacular sequence that wordlessly takes Yoko on a journey through various stages of life, though expressed almost as a shadow-play while Yoko herself is at the forefront. Each of the worlds Yoko travels to seems to be only an echo of what it used to be. In one scene she arrives late to deliver a package, again emphaising the importance of time, and the urgency of humans to live their lives.

Modern Love (2018)

Modern Love tells the story of a young woman Mika, who is struggling with the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend, Teru. When a new planet appears in the solar system its presence presages several inexplicable phenomenon. Mika comes into contact with her own doppelganger, and then a third lookalike Mika. These are revealed to be parallel universe versions of Mika, though the circumstances of each are slightly difference. For one, she has just met and begun dating Teru, for the other Teru has committed suicide and she has largely come to terms with his death. The three then become trapped in a time-loop and must work together to understand how to break out of this eternally recurring day. This leads Mika to uncover the mysterious Agartha, a name she had previously been introduced to by an odd customer at the travel agency where she works.

Writer and director Takuya Fukushima has crafted a compelling drama with science-fiction elements never detracting from the central themes of love and loss. The idea of parallel worlds is an interesting way to explore Mika’s psychological struggles by externalising her confusion and anxieties. The mysteries established are enough to hold your attention throughout and the sense that the world is falling apart and anything could happen makes for an exciting story. The side characters are less strong and add little to the film other than basic exposition. The direction is good and in particular the use of locations such as the empty bar and the later scenes in the rustic European setting for Agartha. Azusa Inamura gives a great performance as Mika (and the two alternate Mikas). We sense her loss and confusion as well as her various relationships with Teru. Takuro Takahashi’s Teru is also given time to shine, though less so than Mika and the two have a good chemistry.

Modern Love is about a journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with loss. Mikas psyche is fractured between her memories of Teru and her present situation of dealing with his loss. This is demonstrated in the three versions of herself that converge in the same world. Likewise the idea of being stuck in a time-loop will be familiar to those suffering with depression as it seems that she cannot move on but is forced to relive the same memories while not progressing with her own life. Particularly interesting is the concept of Agartha, which is an esoteric idea of a land that exists at the centre of a hollow earth. In this film Agartha is used both as a sort of heaven or afterlife, as well as symbolising an exploration of the human soul or psyche. In her journey to find this place and uncover its secret, Mika is in fact delving into her own mind to attempt to unravel the confused feelings of loss and try to discover a path back to her own life.

Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.

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.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the  end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.

Appleseed (1988)

Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, Appleseed takes place in a future world ravaged by a Third World War. Humanity has constructed a utopian society called Olympus, ruled over by computers and bioroids (an elite of cybernetic individuals). Our protagonists are SWAT-team members Deunan Knute and Briareos, who has a fully cybernetic body. When life in Olympus is threatened by  a terrorist plot led by humans who have become disaffected living under the rule of robots, Deunan and Briareos must work to stop it.

We are thrown straight into the action with the film beginning with a suicide and a hostage situation that SWAT are dealing with. Throughout the script is incredibly efficient. Within a run-time of a little over sixty minutes it manages to establish the world, the idea of Olympus, bioroids and GAIA (the computer system that controls the city), set up several themes and ideas, and develop its protagonists. We discover that Deunan and Briarios are romantically involved as well as being partners, and while the film rarely dwells on this it is nice that they did not choose to omit complexity despite being a short movie. The film is much more humorous than later installments in the franchise, perhaps heavily influenced by the decade in which it was released. You can certainly sense the 1980’s buddy-cop vibe. It is hard not to draw the comparison with those films, which use a lot of the same material and expand upon Shirows creation. Writer and director Kazuyoshi Katayama does a good job in crafting an enjoyable science-fiction action film. Although the animation has dated a little it is still great to see this more light-hearted interpretation of the characters.

The film deals with a number of issues relating to the interplay between robots and humans in the future, something that with each passing decade becomes more and more pertinent. While most humans have learned to accept their roles in a world with superior beings, many still insist on fighting for their individuality, or belief in human dominance. There is a sub-plot involving a discussion of the rights of bioroids and also a hint towards possible psychological issues involved with an increasingly technocratic society, such as the characters feeling they are trapped in a prison, rather than having any real control over their lives. Overall, this is a great watch for Appleseed fans as it shows the first attempt to bring the characters to the screen and also features many elements that will be recognizable from later films.

The Machine Girl (2008)

Ami is an ordinary high-school girl. She and her younger brother are orphaned. When her brother, Yu, is bullied and killed by a local gang, whose leader, Sho Kimura, is the son of a violent Ninja/Yakuza boss, Ami vows to take revenge. She begins killing the bullies responsible for her brothers death. When her arm is cut off after being caught by Sho’s father, she approaches Miki, a mother grieving the loss of her own son at the hands of Sho’s gang. Miki, a mechanic, makes a machine-gun arm for the girl and the two of them set of together for revenge.

The film is an over-the-top splatter comedy and shouldn’t be taken seriously at all as any form of high art. The plot is paper thin and characters are painted very broadly and show little development. But the villains are suitably repulsive and the heroine suitable likeable. The violence is extreme, blood fountaining from arteries, severed heads, limbs and other gruesome spectacles abound. The direction is pretty good at capturing that frenetic comic-book style and there are many cruel jokes that cross the bad taste line in staggering style. In places the film lacks a certain sheen and looks very amateurish, but it is low-brow in the enjoyably inventive sense and never lacks pace even if it lacks a coherent narrative.

Not for the squeamish or those looking to be intellectually challenged, but if you’re a fan of gore and violent spectacle and can appreciate the tongue-in-cheek black humour this might be for you.

Casshern (2004)

Casshern is a sci-fi action film with some great ideas, but which sadly get lost amongst an overly convoluted plot. The film is set in a future world where the countries of Asia have merged into a huge empire which has crushed the European Union. This totalitarian superstate is engaged in a war with outlying rebels. A young man, Tetsuya, disobeys his family’s wishes and goes off to fight. Meanwhile his father, Dr. Azuma, is working on developing ‘new cells’ which mean that limbs can be regrown and the dead brought back to life. When Kazuma’s experiment results in an army of undead breaking out from the laboratory, being violently gunned down and vowing revenge it sparks a war between the recently re-animated corpses and the government forces.

The film has a number of problems, but first I’ll list a few positives. This is a science-fiction film which does bring up some interesting ideas, with the new lifeforms wishing for acceptance from their creators, before turning on them because of their violent ways. It also has a strong anti-war message and there are some moving scenes towards the end when the naïve young soldier realises he was misguided in believing that joining the war would end it. On the downside many of these ideas and philosophies are lost amongst the myriad competing plots and subplots, some of which are mentioned once and never again, others only skimmed over. Often plots are re-introduced which you have forgotten about and have no interest in. It would have been better to focus on one story, either the ‘new human”s or Tetsuya’s fall and redemption.

The film is based on an anime series from 1973 and it certainly felt at points as though it rushed parts of the story or didn’t explain them. It seemed like there was too much story to tell. An example of this is the fifteen minutes in which the new lifeforms escape, flee to a mountain castle, build a robot army and attack the city again. The film changes tracks between story arcs with no attempt to tie them together until the final scenes, by which time you are not sure what film you are watching.

The set design and some of the effects work is impressive on what is evidently a limited budget. There is a steampunk feel to the visuals, and as with many Japanese films heavy metaphorical hints with sunsets and flowering gardens indicating the fall of empire or the flourishing or dying of family ties. There is an odd mix of black and white photography, pure CG and more natural shots which don’t really blend well. I think the film would have benefited from being less ambitious, focussing on fewer characters and telling the story through action without long exposition scenes, or scenes laying out the themes of the film.

Honestly, when I think back on the movie I’m inclined to forgive its sins as a noble effort at a thoughtful science-fiction epic, but I feel that the script and some of the directing decisions killed off what chances this had of being a great film. There were a few scenes where it was not clear whether this was a comedy or drama and more than one occasion when I hoped that it would soon be over.