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FANTASIA 2005! Cbabbitt

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make it to FanTasia this year, I started talking to Cbabbitt, a young film geek from here in LA who did a nice job for us last year interviewing Mamoru Oshii. He’s a fanatic for Asian cinema, and it makes perfect sense that he’d be headed up north, so why not ask him to report in on everything he sees?

This first film he reviews is one of the three movies it most pains me to miss this year. I thought CAT SOUP (aka NEKOJIRU-SO) was a bona-fide masterpiece, and I picked it as my number two favorite film of 2001. To know that there’s a feature from the same director getting the kind of response this one is... oh, man... I need to see it NOW!!

Mind Game:

I guess it’s tradition for Fantasia to screen one immoral anime each year. In 2004 they gave us the tasteless and vulgar anime nightmare DEAD LEAVES and evidently they wanted to follow it up with something even more maniacally warped.

Hence, Mind Game, the single most insane, outrageous, and crude cinematic grenade I’ve maybe ever experienced.

One thing is apparent from the outset of the film - there are absolutely no rules as far as cinematic narrative is concerned and absolutely no limits to how extreme, perverse, and prolonged the violence, sexual innuendo, and raw humor can be. Basically, the director included anything and everything he could possibly imagine that would sufficiently disgust, provoke, and shock you so completely that you’re desperately searching for an exit. And I honestly don’t mean that in a negative way. If nothing else, Mind Game is a perfect example of unhinged narrative lunacy let loose onscreen. The film is a wild amalgam of almost every style of animation you can think of. It’s like Dead Leaves, Waking Life, Osamu Tezuka, Peter Chung, Matrix Reloaded, and hentai all in one with a mouth that would make Kevin Smith proud. The director, Masaaki Yuasa (Cat Soup) plays with traditional, cell, and cgi animation and throws in rotoscoping bits so outlandish it’s almost a sensory overload.

Take for instance, the chase sequence - one of the most psychotic displays of violence and humor that unfolds like a deranged film geek’s wetdream. In this sequence Yuasa give you an extended look at how incredibly giddy massive destruction and pulverized bodies makes him feel. It goes on and on and on, and just when you think it’s over something new and disturbing hits you like a fucking freight train. You have cars exploding, excessive gunplay, wacky humor, and best of all he figured out a way to include an enormous whale. Since I’m sure you’re thinking “what the fuck?”, I can explain.

Here’s the plot: Nishi is in a bar with the girl he loves and her boyfriend she plans to marry. A ticked off soccer player and Yakuza cognate enters the bar looking for an older man that screwed him over. All hell breaks loose and he beats her boyfriend close to death and attempts to rape her. Nishi is scared shitless and gets his brains splattered all over the floor. So, he goes to heaven where God openly mocks him for being a sissy, decides he’s had enough with being afraid and vows revenge, comes back to life to undo the situation and rescue the girl and her sister (which he does), and ends up getting in huge trouble with the Yakuza. But wait, it gets even better. That’s only the first twenty minutes of the film. What eventually happens is that Nishi, the girl he loves and her sister are swallowed by said whale and discover a small home INSIDE its stomach built with any objects scattered around by a man who has been trapped for thirty years. And for the next hour we watch as they eat food, play ridiculous games, go completely insane, fuck each others brains out, and eventually try to escape. The escape, by the way, is the meth version of the semi-sequence in Cast Away.

The audience went nuts for this thing. Even though I felt it went on too long in some places, I kind of agree with their reaction. Unfortunately, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I know that means I probably have issues, but that’s just something I’ll have to deal with. I’m ashamed to say it’s entertaining, but it is. Mind Game may not be essential anime, but it’s certainly an unforgettable explosion of pure animated exploitation. Watch at your own risk.

The Taste of Tea:

I never expected director Katsuhito Ishii (Sharkskin Man & Peach Hip Girl) would make a film remotely as good as THE TASTE OF TEA. This film is unlike anything he’s done and more original and enchanting than just about any American drama you’ll see today. Many filmmakers attempt to portray the many eccentricities and emotions in real life, but few can accomplish the humor, conflict and drama in truly honest ways. The Taste of Tea gets it right.

The story centers on a small family living in Osaka (I think) taking a considerable and necessary amount of time with each member and their personal lives. There are the children - a shy young boy desperately in love and his even younger sister preoccupied with trying to overcome her visions of an imaginary giant version of herself. Todanabu Asano plays their uncle - a quiet and charming older brother figure in what might arguably be his finest performance. Their parents are loving and caring, and take good care of their slightly odd grandfather. I’m not going to delve into much detail about the plot because the less you know, the better. Discovering every hilarious, quirky, sad, tragic, uplifting, bizarre, and magical moment in this film is something you deserve as a film lover. Every single moment of the story feels honest and profound, no matter how serious or peculiar the situation is.

I can’t express how madly in love I am with this film. The closest thing it reminds me of is Takeshi Kitano’s excellent family drama Kikujiro. Like that film, The Taste of Tea takes its time establishing the characters, tone, and atmosphere of its story. Many people may dismiss the pacing, feeling it’s entirely too slow or dull. I felt the pace perfectly fit the characters and gave the film a mellow, soothing, almost Terrence Malick like quality. The environment is just as important a character as any of the people and the beautiful cinematography absolutely stuns.

Discover this film. Katsuhito Ishii has crafted one of the finest pieces of contemporary dramatic cinema. This is one of the very best films I’ve seen this year and arguably one of the top five Asian films of the decade so far, which includes Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, & Spring, Ping Pong, Oldboy, and The Isle. Just my opinion, of course.

The Taste of Tea is a masterpiece.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days:

Could have been an animated triumph, but unfortunately gets dangerously close to being an absolute disaster. The Place Promised in Our Early Days is an exercise in patience, dragging along during its second act in the most tedious and uninspiring ways. It’s really a shame, because the story and characters initially set up are wonderful. The film is a sci-fi love story about three friends that make a promise to uncover the truth behind an enormous, sky-high tower that looms over Japan, thought to be a source of great, unknown power. Taking a fatalistic approach of several other animes, the tower is actually a device that connects with parallel worlds and could destroy the universe with a large enough reaction.

The first act of the film is exceptional. It’s masterfully constructed and incredibly fascinating with a beautiful sense of innocence and warmth surrounded by an engaging, mystical edge. When that innocence is lost, so is the film. It’s amazing how quickly this film falls apart. It gets worse and worse and worse the more it explains itself. Ugh! The animation is tremendous though. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful looking animes of recent years. It’s so fucking predictable though and the middle section feels like it’s 7 hours. If only the filmmakers knew how to pace the story like Ishii does.

The Place Promised in Our Early is not completely awful, but nowhere near successful. It could’ve been so great, too.


Excellent work, Cbabbitt. Keep it up, and we’ll look for more reports in the days ahead.

"Moriarty" out.

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