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Friday, Dec. 5, 2008
Sword-fighting omnibus easily makes the cut
Mamoru Oshii is a world-class animation director, but his films, from the 1995 dystopian SF "Ghost In the Shell" to this year's air-war epic "The Sky Crawlers," are not for the masses. Instead they often explore heavyweight themes that appeal to anime otaku (ultrafans), from the dissolving boundaries between the human and the digital ("Ghost In the Shell") to the meaning of love and death in an alternative world where war is entertainment and warriors are ageless, recyclable youths ("The Sky Crawlers").
But Oshii also has a lighter side, as seen in two anthology features he supervised and contributed to — "Tachigui Retsuden" ("Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters," 2006) and "Shin Onna Tachigui Retsuden" ("The Women of Fast Food," 2008) — whose lead characters eat and then run out of restaurants without paying. I found the humor elephantine and in-jokey, but the animation, if limited in the extreme, was gorgeous.
His latest such project, "Kiru — Kill" ("Kill"), is a partial followup to "Assault Girl," his own segment in "Shin Onna Tachigui Retsuden." It is also similar to "Five Bullets on Killers," a 2003 anthology film Oshii supervised, in which Oshii and four other directors tried their hand at gun action, while keeping the preliminaries to a minimum.
In the new four-part film, the weapons of choice are swords, but once again, exposition is cut to the bone, the aim being to showcase what we kids used to call the "good parts."
Oshii's three collaborators — Kenta Fukasaku, Takanori Tsujimoto and Minoru Tahara — all clearly enjoyed this assignment — their entries brim with a "how cool can we make this shot?" attitude and ambition.
Oshii's own segment, which is by far the shortest, also reaches hardest — typically, for a larger point. That point, underlined by a Biblical reference, is obvious enough: The battle between good and evil in the human soul never ends. That said, his short is the film's most stylish piece of work by far, with a correspondingly larger effects budget.
The first segment, Takanori Tsujimoto's "Kiliko" (note the pun on "kiru," meaning "cut"), is a gleefully over-the-top collection of common tropes, beginning with Ayako Morita's sword-wielding, kick-ass title heroine. She begins as an ordinary-enough office worker, but once she learns that her younger sister has been kidnapped by a swaggering, snarling yakuza mobster (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) and his creepy masked underlings, she morphs into Avenger Woman.
The swordplay between Kiliko and her male opponents, starting in a narrow hallway and continuing into the archvillain's lair, is of an often-seen variety, occasionally rising to coolness, but a bizarre plot twist sends the story in a new, Frankensteinian direction.
The second segment, Kenta Fukasaku's "Kodomo Zamurai" ("Boy Samurai"), is a silent samurai swashbuckler, complete with benshi (silent-film narrator), but featuring modern-day kids as characters. The hero, Ryutaro (Takuya Mizoguchi), is the son of a deceased samurai, who left him a treasured sword, but forbade him to draw it. So, pledged to nonviolence, Ryutaro transfers to a new school, where he stands pacifically by as his new friends are subjected to insults and indignities by an obnoxious bully and his allies. Then the dam of righteous anger bursts.
Fukasaku, the son of famed action director Kinji Fukasaku, has imitated the look and feel of the old silents with a loving precision, from the flowery period dialogue to the headlong action scenes. It's a reminder why the samurai swashbuckler was the Japanese audience's most beloved genre almost from the start — the moral logic of Fukasaku's plot is easy for a 10-year-old to understand, while his swordplay bursts with showy, elementally thrilling bravado.
The third segment, Minoru Tahara's "Zan-Gun," packs an entire fake mythology into its brief running time.
A Meiji Era (late 19th-century) soldier (Kazuki Tsugimoto) stumbles across a pair of mysterious swords in the woods — and is possessed by the evil lurking in the longer one, which transforms his rifle into a super-powered sword-cum-gun.
Switch to the present, where an elite Special Assault Team is searching for a coldly efficient mass murderer. One of its members (Yuma Ishigaki) absorbs the power of the "good" shorter sword, and when he confronts the killer — the seemingly immortal soldier — he has a super sword-gun of his own.
The ensuring duel, in which the opponents fling bullets from their weapons like stones from sling shots, is passing strange, but Ishigaki seethes with an intensity and charisma reminiscent of action icon Tetsuya Watari in his prime.
Oshii concludes the film with his dialogless segment "Assault Girl," which begins with a white-clad angel (Yoko Fujita) sitting amid tall grass in the rain, then slowly works up to her confrontation with a black-clad angel opponent (Rinko Kikuchi). This duel takes several eye-popping, mind-bending turns I won't spoil by describing — only to say that Oshii has combined a fascination with leather straps, World War I tanks and Biblical imagery into a dazzling, if hard-to-parse, whole.
To use an old show-business expression, he kills. His only weapon — the imagination.