“Ghost in the Shell: Arise Parts 3 & 4” Review

I always love coming back to the world of Ghost in the Shell – a fully realized future that is amazing to get lost within its police procedural setting. It’s richly intricate detail in every aspect of its society that rarely slows down, but always feels involving. It’s very dense and even a tad overly expositional to be sure, but that is part of the fun in trying to decipher Ghost in the Shell. It takes a hard science fiction approach to a plot dressed up with layered politics and thrilling action sequences. It’s that rare exception of a sci-fi series that can have its cake and eat it too.

In the third episode, Motoko finds herself being drawn back into a dark organization just as she is starting to form her own law-abiding unit of cybercrimes. While her team investigates a conspiracy involving faulty cybernetic legs, she is caught between her love of a cybernetics designer and her allegiance to a secret society. Motoko has been given much more character than she has in other versions of Ghost in the Shell, but this episode gives her much more to work with. Her attempt at trying to form a romance and distance herself from her past life of violence really brought an extra dimension to the stoic woman.

The mystery of trying to unravel the conspiracy of murder and cybernetic materials is as engaging as it ever was, but boosted all the more by some astonishing moments of character. I also appreciate how the more-human-than-cybernetic Togusa is slowly brought into the fold of Section 9 as the family man cop. He’s always been a moral glue to this cold universe of cybercrime and there’s more a reason to root for him as she rushes to the aid of his pregnant wife.

The fourth episode is one of the most action-packed of the series thus far. It begins with a bang where an operation to find a terrorist during a press conference leads to a mass-hacking which leads to a mass-execution. Riot officers are manipulated into firing at a crowd of protesters and then at each other as the conferences quickly descends into violence amid the city streets gleaming with Christmas lights. Another conspiracy is uncovered involving international politics and the technological crime of “ghost dubbing.” The plot itself is pretty much par for the course of usual Ghost in the Shell cases, but there are some nice touches in the form of rampaging robot tanks and a unique cyber-vision of Wizard of Oz characters.

I can’t reiterate enough how much I love this OAV for actually feeling like an OAV series as opposed to a shameless excuse for animated beach episodes. The budget for these episodes were well spent with such vivid, detailed and lively animation. Just pause any exterior shot and look at all the little nuances in the backgrounds of a glowing metropolis. It’s one of the few anime series I enjoy getting lost in without feeling guilty for lack coherent writing. Given that this appears to be the last episodes of the series – being followed up by a movie – I’m pleased that this OAV went out looking so good. It didn’t end with a bang, but a consistently strong tone.

This latest release of Ghost in the Shell: Arise renews my faith in OAVs and reaffirms my love of the franchise. Though not as robustly dense as its various animated adaptations, this series is well-worth the time of any Ghost in the Shell fan, new or old. It’s more than worth a purchase for an anime series that has more intelligence, detail and thrilling action than any other anime currently on the market.

“Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F” Review

While the previous Dragon Ball Z movie managed to win me over by taking a new spin on the fantastical fighting formula, Resurrection F finds the franchise going back to its old bad habits. The villain this time around is the purple-domed alien Frieza, the most powerful warlord of the series that just can’t seem to stay dead. He is once again revived by his crazy zealots and once again seeks out Goku so he can once again get his revenge. This is a character that was once fearsome for controlling the galaxy’s greatest army and more than able to handle any warrior that could be thrown at him. But with this movie marking the second time he’s come back from the dead, he has lost that edge as a worthy antagonist. Even our heroes seem to be underwhelmed by his presence since they already know the outcome.

It’s not that Frieza doesn’t have any unique aspects to make him a great villain. He was once the ruler of the galaxy – lording over the villain-turned-hero Vegeta after having decimated his planet and his Saiyan race. Having been beaten twice by the Saiyan race which he once slaved has consumed him in rage. He lives only to see that Goku and Vegeta are dead. But after failing at this exact revenge plan once already, what has he learned since then? Apparently not that much. He builds up a new army to rule over the universe, but they serve as little more than a large amount of fodder for our lesser heroes to fight. Frieza has acquired a new form, but doesn’t have any new powers or surprising traits. And for a being that is revenge-driven, he sure spends a lot of time laughing manically and monotonously monologuing.

Resurrection F goes back to the direction which made Dragon Ball Z both iconic and deeply flawed. Whereas the previous movie Battle of Gods had character, this movie is mostly just fights. Veteran characters Gohan, Krillin, Piccolo, Tien and Master Roshi finally get a chance to show off their fighting abilities in how they dispatch wave after wave of Frieza’s forces. I had forgotten that Master Roshi – as old and feeble as he appears – could bulk up like the Hulk when he’s ready to fight. They all get to battle and show off their trademark special moves that I’m sure will make the hardcore Dragon Ball Z fans cheer to see these attacks once more.

Despite some rousing chase sequences of warriors battling through caves and woods, the fights become simpler and cheaper per Dragon Ball Z‘s budget-tightening animation. Characters will fight in blurs of action lines when in closeup and in spherical explosions when fighting from a distance. Blasts of energy are fired off as big, blinding lights that consume opponents. It’s amazing how this feature-length animation can have such rich colors of design and still revert to the old dog tricks of the series.

I suppose that given my familiarity growing up with the Dragon Ball Z TV series and its movies that I should be having some nostalgia for all this. There is no doubt in my mind that those who grew up on the franchise will have a soft spot in their heart for Goku delivering a Kamehameha wave or Frieza gnashing his teeth in rage at those pesky Saiyans. Memories are most likely surfacing of weekday afternoons huddled around the television to see what Goku would do next. Maybe I’m getting too old, but nostalgia just doesn’t do it for me anymore. After 14 of these Dragon Ball Z movies, I’d expect the resurgence to be something more than the same old thing. Would it kill the franchise to give just a little more depth and personality to Frieza?

But it’s Dragon Ball Z – why would I come in expecting more character than fight? It’s because Battle of Gods actually gave some character and humor in addressing the flaws and finding the stronger points. The past villain Beers, the galactic god of destruction, was such a welcome presence from the usual that he’s actually trotted out in this movie to give some comedic support. He’s just such a great villain as a lazy cat creature that refuses to destroy Earth as long as they keep providing him with ice cream and pizza. Beers grabs the attention of nearly every scene that it’s such a shame his purpose is to provide the most overused third act plot device of the sci-fi genre. They even announce this plot device early just so it doesn’t appear as though the writers just pulled it out of their butts when needed.

At its best, Resurrection F will at least hold your attention. I didn’t like how Frieza was so underwhelming, but was amused at how Goku and Vegeta were so disinterested in him as a threat to fight over who will destroy him. The day jobs of the Z warriors are only addressed as lip service, but still very much appreciated to see Krillin as a cop and Piccolo as a babysitter. These are all nice touches, but they still adhere to the usual formula as being minor strokes of character amid fight after fight. The only thing that truly feels different about this movie is the color palette. The new Super Saiyans have swapped out their yellow hair for blue and Frieza has ditched the white and purple exterior for gold and…purple. I guess the new purple is a shade darker so there’s at least some effort present.

“Robot Carnival” (Discotek Release) Review

Robot Carnival acts as a deluxe sampler for the best of Japanese animation. Developed by some of the freshest talent of the late-80’s – most being animators just starting to direct – it’s an anthology film with shorts centering around robots. Some are humanoid androids that interact with humans on dates. Some are human-controlled giants that do battle. And, in the case of the opening titles, some are in giant collectives that plow through towns to announce a movie.

What I found most unique was how Katsuhiro Otomo – one of the most notable names of his anime for directing the landmark animation AKIRA – saddles himself with directing the opening and ending credit sequences. He transforms the title of the movie into a grand machine that roams the lands with an arsenal of robots and explosions. As one of his early animation directing projects, you see his style take shape that would lay the groundwork for his anime future animated features of epic carnage. A robot orchestra provides the soundtrack with musical instruments – the trumpets shooting exploding rockets. A gaggle of robotic ballerinas twirl and descend to the ground where they bow to the populace before exploding. It’s strangely detailed and hauntingly amusing as per Otomo’s trademark style for violence. And that’s just the bookend segments.

Koji Morimoto, an animator who would later work with Otomo as well, takes a stab at robotizing the classic monster story of Frankenstein with “Franken’s Gears”. Through the power of lightning, a mad scientist brings his robotic creation to life with a result both tragic and hilarious. Hidetoshi Omori directs “Deprive”, a heroic tale of one android trying to save his human counterpart from an alien invasion. It’s a decent tale of rescuing the girl with a Terminator-style twist, but it’s more admirable for boiling down its story into a few short minutes. It hits all the right beats for just long enough as not to bore those who have seen this story before.

One element I haven’t mentioned yet is that most of these shorts have zero dialogue. One of the first to actually have some speaking roles is “Presence”, a period romance of a man trying to build female robot to escape his wife and family. And even though there is some dialogue, director Yasuomi Umetsu thankfully doesn’t rely on it as he keeps the short more visual than expositional. This is also a blessing for the sake of the English dub script and voices which are surprisingly lackluster for being produced by Streamline Pictures way back in the early 90’s. You can see this at its worst in the most dialogue-heavy short “A Tale of Two Robots” which adds in too much for the English script. There might be some vindictiveness given how the short appears as World War 2 propaganda with the Japanese and English facing off in a 19th century setting with rickety giant robots. Despite the national leaning, it is rather hilarious for its limitations of technology, the amusing English dialogue recorded in Japanese and that this short is staged as third part of a trilogy that does not exist.

There are some more light and artistic additions as well in the form of “Cloud”, Mao Lambo’s segment about a robot walking through time to eventually become a real human. It’s beautifully rendered the way the rise and fall of humanity is portrayed through flowing clouds. This is a sweet and somber short that helps break up the frenetic energy of other shorts.

The most stereotypically 80’s of all the shorts would be “Star Light Angel” (even the title sounds very 80’s). A teenage girl after recently experiencing a breakup finds herself getting lost in an amusement park where a robot employee begins falling in love with her. Complete with laser-light shows and bright neon colors, I can’t think of any other Japanese animation that encapsulates the decade so perfectly with its bubblegum tone of a music video. There’s even a shameless plug for Coke included which could only be more 80’s if Max Headroom was drinking it.

Last and certainly not least is “Nightmare”, a post-apocalyptic vision of the future where robots rule and one drunken human finds himself escaping death. There’s a tremendous amount of inspiration from the likes of Fantasia and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s the most noteworthy of the batch not just for its stunningly intricate animation, but for touching on serious tones of robotization in a playful manner. This is perhaps one of the most defining aspects of anime that can achieve a thoughtfulness to darker subjects and find a way to transform them into unique works of art.

As far as anthology films go, Robot Carnival offers a lot of bang for the buck with a large number of shorts from tremendously talented artists. There are so many styles and tones present that there’s a little something for anyone seeking an animated sci-fi experience. With its operatic presentation and breathtaking animation, it’s the anime equal of Fantasia. And I’m aware that’s a lofty mantle to bestow, but it’s deservingly so as a unique experiment and a springboard for the talented anime directors of the 1990’s.

“.hack//G.U. The Trilogy” Review

The world of .hack has grown far too meta and silly for its own good by the time it reached G.U. One glance at this movie and you’d swear you were watching a video game which is what .hack//G.U. happens to be. It’s a movie based on a video game about people playing a video game using video game animation. So even though you’re watching another cliche pastiche of anime action, it has the angle of being a video game that is hardly taken advantage of. But .hack can’t spend all its time trying to make its world a convincing online gaming environment. To do so means that the convoluted story would crumble under its own templated ambitions.

The online world of .hack//G.U. once again asks the viewer to put aside all semblance and rules of reality (literally). Pretend that the only way to solve an issue with video game users being thrown into comas with a video game is to actually go in the game and recruit players to solve this mystery. And by solve I mean wander around in the game and pretend to stir up drama. You can’t just shut down the game and debug this very serious issue. If the developers of the game did that, then we’d have no story.

The story is a-typical anime affair. Emotionally scarred hero befriends perky/shy girl. Girl is attacked by evil, emotionless man. Evil man and emotional hero fight for an extended period of time. I could make some ironic joke about how these fight sequences look like watching a video game instead of a movie, but I’ll keep it simple by just saying how blah the animation appeared. By 2007 standards, it’s not terrible CGI. In fact, it’s actually slightly higher on the scale of cel-shaded 3D animation. But it’s only used for moments of stilted dialogue and minimal-keyframe battles. It’s amazing how computer graphics can offer up something entirely different from hand-drawn animation, but this movie seems to be focused on replicating all of anime’s limitations – as if it were its own style to animating less.

There’s one big glaring problem with this whole setup and it’s that we never see the real world outside of this video game. It would really help sell the danger if we could actually see some of these players in reality being affected by the game and put into comas. Instead, the movie just expects you to take its word for it. For all we know, the characters we watch are not actually avatars of real people. They could all just be programs that are not aware of who they really are. We never see any of these characters not in the game so it’s entirely plausible.

As with all the .hack franchise productions, this title shares the same fundamental flaw of failing to take advantage of its own concept. You rarely feel as though you are witnessing a game world and more of a fantasy realm where sometimes an electronic display will pop up. In between all the dull-as-dishwater fights are some brief glimpses of creativity for the digital world. As a female avatar descends into a coma, she is confronted by ascending bubbles that burst with the snickers and gossip of those that judge the player in real life. There’s something here – something that could be capitalized upon to bring some character and world building to this anime. But the bubble bursts and it’s gone.

.hack//G.U. continues to expand the lore of its world and does nothing to bring outsiders into the fold. If you haven’t watched the previous anime series or played any of the .hack games, there isn’t anything to latch onto in this movie (or trilogy or whatever). On the basis for being so run of the mill with its design and story, I can’t find much of anything in this release to warrant even a rental.