Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chapter 45: In Which I Give Big Ups to Yoshiaki Kawajiri

A wide shot of four skyscrapers, pitch-black silhouettes. The camera pans back, revealing the clouds which cling insignificantly to the buildings, while far below the rest of the city spreads out endlessly. It is daytime. It will be night soon enough. Over the ambient soundtrack, a voice narrates the precarious situation. Our world coexists with another: the Black World. For centuries, a truce has existed between the two, but now the terms must be renegotiated. There are those entrusted to protect the human race from Black World radicals and the war they desire. Cut to a nighttime street. Cars locked bumper to bumper in the road, honking without cease. An underground after-hours club. An average-looking Japanese salaryman is having a scotch at the neon-lit bar, conversing with a suave bartender. Cut to a closeup on a woman's mouth, a hand with lilac nails sharpened to points holding lipstick, filling in the lips with red. Before the mirror stands a woman with pearl-white skin, her black bangs forming a straight ridge above her eyebrows. Her too-perfect hair falls straight down on either side of her angel's face. She smiles at her reflection, puts the lipstick in her purse and leaves the ladies room. The camera pans down to a hand on the floor, right in the front of the shot, the fingers clutched and rigid.  The woman approaches the man. This is a quiet bar, on a slow night. They are the only customers. Small talk is exchanged before they leave together.

Recently, I was asked to attend the very first FOGcon convention in San Francisco. I'm sitting on two panels, one of which is with Jeff Vandermeer, which is all sorts of cool. The theme for the con is "The City in Science Fiction and Fantasy." As an urban fantasy writer, I love this. For so many years, the main setting for fantasy has been this very rural, mythological pastiche of medieval Europe. However, there were always writers who bucked the trend, looking for magic in the crowding, filth and stagnation of urban areas. Fritz Lieber is the notable old master. Nowadays, with the paranormal romance thing, the city has become a major setting, and it's about time. I don't know what it's like to be a squire riding around Europe on a horse, but I do know what it's like to be within the majesty and mystery of New York City or San Francisco. The inaugural FOGcon has all sorts of panels about the city in genre fiction. Honestly, I wish they had put me on more than two, because I could gab all day about such things.

I'm writing an urban fantasy piece now. When it's done, I'm hoping to find a pianist to compose a classical soundtrack for it, and play the music while I read. The story is pretty harsh, content-wise. I like the idea of having beautiful music accompanying the characters' descent into darkness. I'm having a blast writing scenes that take place in apartment complexes and abandoned warehouses, neglected playgrounds and parking lots filled with gravel, highway underpasses and urban gardens. After all, I grew up in an industrial city, so these kind of landscapes are beautiful to me. When it comes to writing the fantasy aspect, I can see the impact a certain director had on me: Yoshiaki Kawajiri, creator of Wicked City, X: The TV Series, Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Now class, if you can open your books to Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rt9skBLVI0

Love it. Absolutely love it. Anime battles, apocalypse and mysticism all rolled into a contemporary setting. I was very young when I saw Demon City Shinjuku, in which the ruins of the Shinjuku district are the setting for an epic battle against the forces of Hell. Naturally, I loved the fight scenes. What really grabbed me, though, was the detail of the city itself, truly making the setting a character. With a photographic eye, Kawajiri transfers Shinjuku locales straight to the film, only now they are in ruins. This all fits with his dark vision. After all, cities are man's greatest shrine to himself. Instead of living within nature like other animals, we destroy nature and replace it with edifices of our own construction. Completely man-made areas that extend for miles. They are the ultimate statement of our dominion. So what happens when these places are wrested from us by creatures out of nightmare, molded to reflect the hells they come from, and we're forced to hide like rats in the sewers?

Theses are the questions that Kawajiri asks. Simply looking at his titles let's you know his obsession: WICKED CITY. DEMON CITY. CYBER CITY. His directorial flourishes are instantly recognizable: breathtaking fight scenes, graphic sex, monsters, body horror, duplicitous old man characters who completely invert the Yoda archetype, apocalyptic imagery, and a focus on urban areas. His character designs are distinctive: realistically rendered human characters, by anime standards, with square-jawed men, porcelain-skinned women, gangly villains with aquiline features and widow's peaks, and brilliantly detailed monsters. His demons are of the medieval variety, aka representing lust as well as avarice. Back in the day, witches were thought to gain powers by sleeping with Satan, and this association of black magic with sex has lasted through the ages. In other words, don't be surprised when Kawajiri's characters sprout tentacles.

Kawajiri does nothing by half measures. Every single setting in his films is gorgeous, be it gorgeously ornate, gorgeously futuristic or gorgeously decayed. The obsession with detail is what sets his work apart. He figures, if you're going to put fantasy in a contemporary setting, it should be the most fully rendered contemporary setting. What his movies lack in plot they make up for in some of the most beautiful cityscapes ever put to animation. In his world of fantasy noir, cities are monstrous things, black buildings reaching ever higher, streets that seem to descend into the earth's bowels, the powerful observing their domain from Towers of Babel. Demon City Shinjuku is one of those movies where I can turn the sound off and just enjoy the power of the visuals.

His style lent itself well to adaptations of work by Hideyuki Kikuchi, the creator of Vampire Hunter D and, in my opinion, one of the greatest pulp writers this world has seen. Kikuchi loves mixing the paranormal with the apocalyptic, and Kawajiri adapted no less than three of his books into pictures. He also wrote the screenplay for A Wind Named Amnesia, a Kikuchi adaptation that is wonderful in its sheer quixotic nature. The mix of action, science fiction and horror sets a precedent for Kawajiri's later genre-blending work.

Kawajiri's heyday was the '80s and early '90s, when anime was hyper-violent. I don't think I'm dipping into nostalgia when I say that, no, they really don't make them like this anymore. Sometime in the last fifteen years the anime industry toned down the gore significantly. Kawajiri is working within the same body horror genre as his contemporaries, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. Because he is making cartoons, he can take his exploration of the grotesque further than they did. Kawajiri is interested in the way the body can be mutilated, infected and destroyed. Humans get eviscerated in all kinds of ways, but the greatest danger is from within. The idea of the body turning against itself is only appropriate for films in which civilzation is attacked from the inside. In keeping with the subject matter, Kawajiri's color palette is dark, with light and shadow combining to make his eerie cityscapes. The effective use of music and diagetic sound gives a feeling of creeping dread to his films, just as body horror disgusts. These are terrifying movies, made by someone who understands horror.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_LQ3vINzeg

In his movies, the city is usually a staging ground for good versus ultimate evil. Needless to say, there are casualties. Tokyo often takes a beating. He is interested not just in the city, but the destroyed city, the megalopolis turned anarchic. The dead city where most of the population are corpses, turned into a playground for devils. At the heart of his films is the message that there are other things out there. They're older than us, stronger than us, and they're ready to strike.

Take for example, Wicked City, the film whose intro I described in the first paragraph. It takes place in Tokyo in the 1980s, and focuses on a member of the Black Guard, a Men in Black-style organization fighting to maintain the truce with the Black World. He and a Black World woman are charged with guarding an ambassador from otherworldly terrorists. In true anime fashion, the ambassador is a lecherous old midget. This movie was one of my earliest introductions to "hidden society" fantasy. You don't have to go through a magic portal to find otherwordly things. They're hidden in plain sight, in that girl giving you the eye at the bar, or that perfectly normal-looking hotel you drive by. Magic is in the city, and it's dangerous. Those who fight black magic also live in the city, their mystic temples situated amid the more modern buildings. Nowadays, there is a proliferation of stories about elite fighters who protect you from the vampires and werewolves stalking the dark alleys. Kawajiri was telling those stories decades ago, and with what style! In his world, environment matters. I'll never forget the scene in Wicked City where the heroes are driving through a tunnel, and strings of giant spiderweb appear across the windshield, until they can't see a thing. Before they know it, they are tangled in a giant web right in the middle of this tunnel, getting slashed to death by a black widow spider woman. Or how about the battle on the airport runway, when the kung fu and gunshots are accentuated by airplanes taking off and runway lights glowing through the fog?  That's in one movie alone. Every train yard, parking garage and bar can be the scene for an epic struggle. Construction sites become the setting for Sergeo Leone-meets-Dario Argento showdowns. There is a playfulness to this approach. Even today, I walk into hotels and imagine what kind of superhuman battles could take place in the massive lobbies. Kawajiri takes material that could have simply been pulp, elevating it to art through the level of design.

Here's a sample. In German. I apologize if you are allergic to German. It's the best I could do.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eT509OelcU&feature=related

Another example: Goku--Midnight Eye, his OVA about a superpowered detective who wears a suit jacket, tie and no shirt. He's barechested with a necktie. Like Huckleberry Hound. Even by anime standards, that's a pretty weird wardrobe choice. Goku is a mindnumbingly stupid anime, the kind of thing you put in the VCR when you don't want to think about anything. It's got a guy named Goku who has a staff that can shoot out forever, which I guess makes it a scifi version of "Journey to the West," and has as much to do with the classic tale as a fox hunt has to do with foxes. What makes Goku stand out are the beautiful urban designs. It takes place entirely in a seedy urban landscape, where there is a continuing feeling of claustrophobia. Kawajiri's directing skills are on full display here. There is a scene in which Goku skydives out of a helicopter and uses his extending pole to polevault over the town, the city lights shining like a million gems in the background, that is absolutely dreamy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5_5vWKXrIQ&feature=related

As I mentioned, Kawajiri is a cross-genre artist. In other hands, Cyber City Oedo 808 would be a forgettable shoot-'em-up. Instead, it's a masterful cyberpunk actioneer, thanks to the beautiful animation and Kawajiri's well-defined sense of place. I included the clip from the classic Manga Entertainment dub, which set the gold standard for needless yet creative profanity in anime. The premise of the OVA is tense enough: convicted felons are fitted with exploding collars, and are employed to hunt down cyber-criminals in exchange for years off their life sentences. If they fail, the collar blows up. This OVA perfectly demonstrates the genre-bending nature of Kawajiri's work. Yes, the intrepid hero is fighting a cyborg, but the way it is filmed the robot might as well be a demon from Hell. The skyscraper becomes a tower where, basically, a knight goes one-on-one with a dragon. The "scientific demon" motif occurs throughout the series; the villain in the first episode is a dead architect whose conscious inhabits a building's computer mainframe, a nightmare vision of a decaying corpse surrounded by elecrical wires. The villain in the third installment is a biotech-based vampire. In short, this is Lovecraftian scifi. Kawajiri loves molding the accoutrements of the contemporary and/or fuuristic to fit his horrific visions. I can recall no less than 4 movies in which the evil overlord rules the city from the largest building in the place, looking down like Sauron over his domain. Thus, the natural heirarchy of the city, in which the rich and powerful occupy shining towers, is taken to mythic levels. Cyber City Oedo 808 is unfortunately only three episodes, but Kawajiri packs enough mystery and action into them for a whole series.

The urban landscape doesn't mean there isn't a larger world in his films. Ninja Scroll starts with the hero roaming through fuedal Japan. Cyber City Oedo 808 starts in space. However, the heroes inevitably end up in urban areas, fighting for their lives in abandoned Shinto shrines and mountainous skyscrapers. In a way, the city becomes a version of the labyrinth. If these desperate characters ever want to leave the city, they have to fight their way out. Kawajiri bucks this trend in Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, which is a quest story, the titular hunter tracking his quarry across a post-apocalyptic landscape. In Kawajiri's movies, the city has been invaded, occupied, stricken with plague, and reduced to ruin. In Bloodlust, it's wiped out entirely. The freaks who the Black Guard fought against have taken over.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05eqezxZHxo&feature=related

Some directors lose their style doing adaptations. Kawajiri is someone who works best playing in somebody else's sandbox. He's adapted from concepts by Leiji Matsumoto, Russell Mulcahy and the Wachowski Brothers, to name a few. Just watch his contribution to the Matsumoto anthology The Cockpit.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wsIG7DHPeI&feature=related

It's Matsumoto. It's also Kawajiri. I figure it would be a challenge to update Matsumoto's distinct style to a modern look, yet Kawajiri  does so with aplomb. His focus on setting works well with Matsumoto's gear-head aesthetic. Here's some more classic cyberpunk, off the Neo-Tokyo anthology:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUtr2gUZ_SE

The excesses of his films are as famous as the artistry. The sexual aspect--well, let's just say it's a reason why a lot of people hate anime. It's something you have to take into consideration when considering his work, the same you'd do with Cronenberg or Miike. Kawajiri made "erotic" thrillers, but the sex in them was hardly ever romantic. Out of Goku, Wicked City and Ninja Scroll, there's only one consensual sex scene in the bunch. While Wicked City is his most pornographic film, I cut it some slack because of its tongue-in-cheek nature. It has (SPOLIERS) a spider woman with a fanged pelvis, a woman whose body melts to entrap the midget ambassador, and, for the operatic climax, a mesmerist whose whole torso turns into a giant pulsing vagina. These demons are portrayed as powerful villainesses who constantly get the drop on the heroes, and their particular ways of entrapment say as much about visions of sex at the start of the AIDS era as does Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction. Also, the female protagonist Maki is a capable fighter and integral to the plot, in spite of the abuse she is sometimes subjected to.

It's harder to put a spin on other things, like the dog/hooker/motorcycle hybrid in Goku. I am pretty desensitized to this stuff, since I grew up watching it, but I understand how others would not want to watch his movies. I always found the apologist mindset to be pretty lame, so I don't do it. Is Ninja Scroll a sexist movie? Of course it is. The ninja girl Kagero is introduced as an interesting character, but she exists in the movie only to be molested, tormented and, ultimately, killed. The hentai elements detract from the film more than add anything. In Kawajiri's next movie, Bloodlust, which some consider his masterpiece, he adds dimension to his female characters and removes the rape stuff. This level of restraint, I should add, is not present in Kikuchi's original novel, Demon Death Chase. The sexual victimization of women is standard stuff, both in Japanese extreme cinema and stories involving demonic possession. I still find the movies entertaining. Others might not.

His arguable best movies are Ninja Scroll and Bloodlust. One takes place in athe Tokugawa era, the other in a highly detailed post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's interesting that the definitive director of urban fantasy anime had to move away from the city to do his best work. I would also suggest watching X: The TV Series, in which Kawajiri gets to do a whole storyline around the end of the world, and goes ballistic with Biblical references. His work is daring, horrifying, visionary and, to this day, he is the only person on Earth to direct a good Highlander sequel. He has slowed down his output, but I am excited for whatever he does next.

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