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.

Cyborg She (2008)

When hapless loner Jiro is met by a beautiful young woman on his birthday he cannot believe his luck. After a night of hijinks, the mysterious stranger tells him that she has travelled from the future and must now leave. A year later, the same woman walks back into his life and he discovers that she is a cyborg, sent back by his future self to protect him.

The premise is about as silly as they come, but the film-makers manage to weave an emotional story between the more outrageous comedy. As you might expect there are plenty of slapstick moments involving the robot, such as her malfunctioning after drinking alcohol, or slamming various men into walls when they try to touch her. Haruka Ayase gives a great central performance as the cyborg, perfectly capturing the robotic motions while managing to exude a degree of charm and humour. Along with Keisuke Koide, who plays the bumbling geek Jiro, they are a good comic partnership, with his ineptitude matched by her cold confidence and attempts to learn how to be a human. There are moments that go beyond ridiculous such as the cyborg running at impossible speeds, and as usual the time-travel paradoxes are best not to think about too hard. I was most surprised by the films tender moments, especially the scene where Jiro is taken back to his childhood. The film almost stops while we explore this past world and the music and direction create a poignant vignette of childhood memories. The main issue here is that the tone swings wildly from slapstick to sentimental, occasionally such a drastic change as to feel like a separate film. Writer and director Kwak Jae-yong  has cobbled together something bizarre and abstract, heavily influenced by science-fiction and romantic comedies that have gone before, that nevertheless is strangely enchanting. There are scenes reminiscent of Terminator and Star Wars, and the entire plot is a sort of mix-tape of greatest hits moments from other love stories. Some great special effects work, stunts and larger scale action sequences, make this an enjoyable watch. But throughout there is a clear focus on characters and story that is heartfelt.

This film surprised me with its quality as from the title (Japanese: My Girlfriend is a Cyborg) and premise, you might expect a cheap knockabout comedy, with gags about her not fitting in. While this is partly true, there are some genuinely amusing scenes and a real warmth to what they are attempting here. I feel as though the film was misnamed because at its heart it is a film about the past, rediscovering lost memories, love and loneliness, and a whole collection of things that aren’t quite captured in the comedy title. A good romantic comedy with science-fiction elements that is unexpectedly impactful in emotional content.

Cyber City Oedo 808

Three violent criminals serving out multiple life sentences on an orbital penitentiary spaceship are given a final chance for redemption: help the police track down criminals on earth in exchange for shortened prison terms. The show pulls you in immediately with this concept. You are almost forced to root for these bad guys, as they in turn work to outrun more bad guys. They are equipped with collars that will explode if they do not complete their mission within an allocated time period. The idea is simple, but the execution is brilliant, with a fun soundtrack, lots of sci-fi elements such as cities run by machines, the evolution of technology, as well as some horror elements with references to vampires and lashings of blood and gore on top.

The main characters are likeably rude and violent, contrary to the typical image of a hero. Most of the action is set in Oedo, a futuristic Tokyo, which has been entirely overtaken by computers, everything is run by machines and there is a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere of metal walls and towering structures.

There are only three episodes of this show, with each episode following one of the main character on a mission. Worth watching, with some great animation, music, and fast paced action scenes.