Friday, August 12, 2011

Paradise Kiss - 2011

Director: Takehiko Shinjo


Unimpressive film of the popular girls comic series.

Part of the shoujo (young girls) manga scene, Paradise Kiss is a live-action adaptation of Ai Yazawa's five volume tale. If the concept of young girls manga isn't enough to put you off in the first place there are a plethora of other reasons to persuade you. The characters are, by and large, paper-thin caricatures of stereotypes that will fill you with a desire to inflict severe physical pain on them from the off. This is in no way helped by a painfully over-long story. No matter how much you've had enough of the three-act rom-com structure, you will never think of it more fondly then when this film launches into its annexed fourth act of unbelievable nonsense. As one for the kids Paradise Kiss, naturally, has some sensible little life morals at its heart, but when they are delivered by such incredibly, self-obsessed, preening buffoons it feels akin to taking anger management lessons from a psychopath.

The story tells the trials and tribulations of Yukari Hayasaka's (Keiko Kitagawa) fledgling steps into the world of fashion and modelling. She is a struggling high-school student, buckling under the pressure of all the entrance exams and a demanding mother, pushing her since she was a toddler. By chance one day she is accosted in the street by the permanently agitated fashion student Arashi who, along with transvestite Isabella, persuade her to come to their design studio, the titular Paradise Kiss. There, Yukari is introduced to the other members of the gang, ditsy girl Miwako, and leader, the self-titled 'genius', and all round immense prat Georgy Koizumi (Osamu Mukai). They introduce the 'frumpy' (read stunningly beautiful) Yukari into the world of fashion college. Before she knows it she has left her high-school, high-school sweetheart, and family behind to move in with Georgy and agreed to be their model for the end of year fashion show. These initially unusual people will surely have some nuggets of wisdom to impart on our heroine. Perhaps it could have something to do with everyone telling her, and then repeating it over and over again in voice-over flashbacks, "You don't even know who you are yet." Unsurprisingly it does.

One of the only members of the cast to emerge without their reputation lying entirely shattered in pieces on the floor, though there are some sizable cracks, is Keiko Kitagawa, as Yukari. She gives her performance some gusto, and is at least likable. She is strikingly beautiful and the transition from clutsy high-school girl to attractive model is perhaps not quite as pronounced as was intended due to this. Nonetheless, she holds her own and at least has some screen presence. Mukai plays the arrogant, egotistical, and condescending student designer Georgy. Hat permanently at a 45 degree angle and a constant smug grin, he is easily one of the most irritating characters to wander around a cinema screen in a long time. The single most frustrating part of this performance is that it is obviously intended to come across as ice cool, whereas anyone with a mental age of over 17, and you'd hope even those a little younger, will surely see him for the swaggering arse he is. He assumes the role of mentor for Yukari trying to get her to come out of her shell. Alarmingly, one of the ways he does this is by taking her to a love-hotel and forcing himself on her. If, like me, you don't buy into the absurd idea of him as a plausible love interest, then it negates anything he has to say and makes the final 40 minutes an unbearable slog.

The rest of the cast rarely rise above filler. They clearly had much larger roles in the comics, but here they must make do with the odd thirty seconds of screen time allowed. Arashi (Kento Kaku) bizarrely is inexplicably angry whenever he is involved. Like a drug addict going cold turkey he shouts at everyone. Except he isn't a drug addict, and their is no real reason for these constant outbursts. Isabella played by Shunji Igarashi is fairly decent and is a believable transvestite, he just has very, very little to do. Their inclusion was obviously essential, as dictated by the source material, but if they have nothing to contribute it doesn't stop it from being pointless. In terms of performance quality, it is hard to give a solid opinion. I wondered whether the actors were attempting to imbue this with a feel of the manga, or simply just not very good at acting. There were lots of unnatural and exaggerated shots of surprise, shock, and so on. It was decidedly cringe worthy in parts but I suppose the benefit of the doubt is required here as there are plenty of other things to moan about.

Though not quite Lord of the Rings, Paradise Kiss just refuses to end. One of the saving graces of romantic comedies is they almost never over-stay their welcome. They reassure us with their predictability, fluttering nicely around the ninety minute mark before floating into the end credits. In a way they are not unlike a dream, you have a rough idea of what happened but little tangible memory of it. Things seem to be going nicely along with the program here, and just when you think you sense the fade to black around the corner, another thirty minutes are mercilessly tacked on. I appreciate the requirements of adaptation, and that clearly a lot of sacrifices were made to accommodate the running time (the TV serialisation took twelve episodes), but when a film this formulaic in every other respect steps out of sync for even a moment it jars, sticking out like a sore thumb.

The production values are quite high for a film of this nature. Things do generally look quite nice, and there isn't so much of that TV movie feel that sometimes plagues low budget Japanese movies. However, the fashion isn't going to fool anyone. Believe me when I say I am no fashionista, not remotely. But, if even the jeans and T-shirt brigade can sense that something is a tad amiss in the haute couture stakes, then you have a problem. The dresses look like a flower threw up on them, as though they were designed by a particularly giddy seven year old. Everyone taking everything so incredibly seriously and raving about how inspired it all is, just adds to the silliness. I know that the age-group this is aimed at are not known for being the most grounded members of society, but there is something borderline offensive to all these 17-20 year olds acting like they are the center of the universe and all humanity. If anyone has had the misfortune to watch Gossip Girl where pre-teens stalk New York as if they ruled the world, it will be a familiar sense of over-whelming nausea.

Paradise Kiss clearly has a target audience, and I'm sure that its members will be able to appreciate this for what it is. For non-fans there is nothing here worth turning your heads for. Even viewed as a simple rom-com it comes up wanting. Having been translated into over eleven languages and recuperating over half of its budget in its opening weekend in Japan alone, it is easy to understand why Fox International were interested in getting this made. This, however, is definitely not a flattering example of Japanese manga up on the big screen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Japanese Manga in the Movies.

Just as in Hollywood, comic book adaptations are a big deal in Japanese cinema. However, where Western adaptations are largely restricted to the adventures of caped crusaders, the more diverse nature of Japanese manga allows for far more genres within the genre. Animations, live-action films, American re-appropriations, chick-manga-flicks, all make up large parts of this immense, and increasingly global industry.

For many cinema-goers the first point of contact with characters that inhabit blockbuster comic-book adaptations like Spiderman, are with the films themselves. In Japan with manga ubiquitous and almost entirely stigma-free this is never the case. A visit to a manga cafe, round every corner in the big cities, is a revelation. Every wall of these enclosed, windowless emporiums is an enormous bookshelf, which heave with comics on every subject imaginable. Visitors pile selections into shopping baskets before retreating to dimly lit booths and reading their hearts out. Walking past a convenience store after 6.00pm anywhere in Japan will see a row of white-shirted salary-men and school students in the window, normally two deep, pawing through the latest releases. The immense importance of manga in Japanese cultural life means that when a comic does get made into a movie it is a major event on the cinema calendar, and comes attached with a dedicated fan-base who queue up for tickets in droves.

Around 300 films have made the transition from paper to camera. The overwhelming majority of which, have been turned into animated films. Household names such as Doraemon a cat-like alien who helps the hapless elementary-school student Nobita, Detective Conan a crime-fighting 17 year old high-school student, and the bizzare pirates of One Piece with super powers like elasto-arms, churn out summer movies to capitalize on the kids school breaks. The jury is out on the merit of these films as their stories exist externally to the narrative of the manga. They are generally perceived as light-weight cash cows. Try telling that to one of the millions of kids who dragged their parents to see One Piece: Strong World in 2009. Despite being the tenth film in the series it pulled in a hefty 48 million dollars to make it Japan's second highest grossing domestic film of the year. The first, incidentally, was an animated Pokemon film.

This is not to imply that animations in general are in any way inferior to their live-action counter-parts. Some of them are genuine landmarks in cinematic history. One of the first to arrive internationally was the brilliant and renowned Akira in 1988. It is the story of Neo-Tokyo in 2019 with rival gangs ravaging the dystopian metropolis. Visually sumptuous and genuinely epic, just like Blade Runner it is one of those rare films that depict vivid futures and somehow manage to remain undated as the decades roll by. Only eight years away from 2019, rioters in London are doing their best to make it look prophetic. Ghost in the Shell, about cyber-police protecting the mainframe from virtual criminals, is another essential moment in anime history. Adult in presentation, but even more so thematically, it has been sighted as a major influence on films like the Matrix. It's sequel Innocence, an official selection at Cannes, is of the same high standard, using animation augmented with CGI technology to give it a really striking beauty.

Ghibli, with Pixar, mark the pinnacle of children's animation. Generally releasing original stories, their one foray into manga adaptation is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Maybe not quite in the same league as Spirited Away or Princess Monoke, it is still an exceptional film. A typical Ghibli piece with strong female lead and resonating with the environmental concerns that are a key element of all the studio's work. One slight aside is that with a lot of animations like these, especially the older ones, the English dubbing can be clunky, wooden, and down-right bad. Japanese audio and subtitles is almost invariably the way to go.

Live-action films are less frequent, yet with the advent of cheap CGI technology are going through something of a boom. This said, they tend to float around two extremes, as in brilliant or just down-right awful. The re-release this month of Battle Royale is as good a place as any to start. Dividing opinion all over the world, banned in the U.S following the Columbine massacre, and forcing Japanese politicians to create a committee on violence in the media, it's probably the most memorable release of any Japanese film. It's kind of a sociopathic Lord of the Flies about high-school students forced to kill each other to survive, brilliantly directed, unflinchingly brutal, and darkly comic. If that's not quite sadistic enough for you, then Ichi the Killer is more than a few steps up the twisted ladder from even that. Capturing all the blood-splattering, unbridled gore of the comics it is the story of the under-dog madman Ichi in his fight against the sinister yakuza. A tough watch, but for people with the stomach for a bit of ultra-violence, it doesn't come much more ultra than this.

The Death Note series, about a boy who has the power to kill people just by writing their names in a notebook, was immensely popular in Japan. An interesting concept with a clear attempt to maintain a feel of the comics in its acting. It is worth watching, if verging on the light side of things. There is no better live-action adaptation though, than the masterpiece that is Old Boy. Part of Korean director Park Chan Wook's trilogy of revenge films, the story is lifted from the manga series and given its own spell-binding spin. Live Octopus eating, incest, maniacal violence, bags of style, and a phenomenal performance from lead Choi Min Sik, this really is as good as it gets.

Comics don't strike most people as a particularly feminine pursuit. In most cases fanboys generally do tend to be boys. This though, is another intriguing difference in Japan. Not only do girls enjoy what might be viewed elsewhere as simply for the boys, there are huge swathes of the industry dedicated solely to girls. These kind of comics are referred to as shoujo, which means young girls in Japanese. Content wise they tend to revolve around love and friendship, there are some oddities just as in male orientated manga but to a far far lesser extent. They tend to be either super-serious or light-hearted. Just watching the trailer should make it fairly easy to determine which angle they are going for. For non-fans of Shoujo I can safely verify that light-hearted is considerably less vomit inducing, and sometimes, dare it be said, embarassingly watchable.

Recent examples include, Kimi ni Todoke (From Me To You): a geeky girl (naturally, a very pretty one) winning over the affections of the high-school heart-throb , High School Debut: Sporty high-school girl asks the coolest guy in school to coach her in romance in a film that plays up its manga origins, Honey and Clover: love triangle at art school, and Koizora (Sky of Love): based on a series of mangas only originally available on cellphones. It tells the story of the girl that falls in love with the punk-kid with a hidden sensitive side. They are immensely popular in Japan, cheap to make and guaranteed to do well, it is easy to see why studios are so enamored with them.

The Japanese film industry and Hollywood have always enjoyed a close relationship. Early Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa influenced Hollywood for decades, even Star Wars' C3P0 and R2D2 were even lifted from two peasant characters in his Throne of Blood. In the '90s Hollywood began rehashing the back catalogue of J-Horror films ad nauseam like The Ring, and The Grudge, with little fanfare.With fanbases in place, and considerable riches available to the successful adaptation it is no surprise that Hollywood, which pilfers ideas from all corners of the globe, is trying to get in on the act. However, and illustrative of the importance of manga to Japanese cultural identity, Western versions of Japanese comics are distinctly frowned on. Regardless of the higher production values and sharper effects, they just can't seem to make a mark in their spitirual homeland.

The shockingly bad Hollywood incarnation of the internationally popular Dragon Ball Z - Evolution was universally despised in its motherland. As the posters went up around Tokyo, dissenting voices began wondering why America thought it could kidnap an inherently Japanese story. Said voices were all vindicated on release as it was panned across the globe. The Disneyfied Astro Boy a collaboration between an American and Japanese studio, but with an American director and team of writers at the helm, fared better critically but was still a bit of a box office non-event in Japan, so too the Wachowski brothers (Matrix) Speed Racer. Interestingly, and perhaps instructive in the reasoning behind Hollywood's motivations, the films have all been relatively rewarding successes in China.

However, things are not all smooth-sailing with Japanese productions either. On paper the comics can go on eternally finishing each episode with a cliff-hanger, leading straight to the next edition. The sprawling nature of the books can be detrimental to the tight cohesiveness required of their silver-screen counterparts. The recent Gantz made this crystal-clear. The first of the two films was structured neatly around the first episode of the comics. It allowed for a tightly paced, neat, and accessible, film, which thoroughly deserved all its plaudits. The second was not so fortunate. Required to be the work-horse of the two, it took on far more than its fair share of narrative. It left some plot strands under-developed and frankly pretty confusing. Additionally, perhaps acutely aware that some of the more sci-fi elements of manga doesn't appeal to core female demographics, the lead roles frequently go to pop stars and teen idols in a bid to concrete a more broad interest. Their acting ability is sometimes as sketchy as their music. Yet, this is unlikely to change, as it is clearly working with Japanese manga adaptations religiously featuring in the annual box office top tens.

Manga in the cinema has undeniable ups and downs, the downs being in the majority, too. But, when they come good, they represent some of the best films to come out of Japan. With public demand increasing, production costs decreasing, and spurred on by the spiralling box office stats the number of live-action films will continue its upward trend. The afore-mentioned Akira and Ghost in the Shell films have both been optioned by major Hollywood studios for live-action remakes, with Spielberg behind the latter. They seem to continue to come up against stumbling blocks in the pre-production stage, but it would be interesting to see if Spielberg could break the American rot. At the end of the day with such large amounts of manga making it into cinemas it is unrealistic to expect it all to be of the same high standard. There is a lot of rubbish out there, but the occasional gems make it worthwhile.