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So interweaved are elements as science, philosophy, cyberpunk, police procedural narratives, conspiracy, comedy, and action, the work blends conventions to invisibility just like the technological binding holding each characters’ spirits in a bodies. No saying that any of these elements is up to the par set by succeeding entries in the series, but Shirow’s original was the first, and the first to do it right. This in itself is compelling; from what I understand of the man’s earlier works, The Ghost in the Shell came out of nowhere in terms of pure Shirowesque creativity. The first volume of the manga is a stand alone work, where a story arc is uncovered across a series of smaller stories. We follow Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team of elite Japanese police known as Section 9, a cyborg special-ops squad dealing in anti-terrorism. Like 24‘s CTU, but more high-tech and with less betrayals. As they tackle troubles of the day, they explore some pretty lofty ideas that often coincide with the artist’s more cartoonish tendencies in the illustration.

Going into the manga, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. Shirow has often attracted criticism (at least, from the three anime-related podcasts I subscribe to) for being the idea-man, and nothing else. He’s given the world Ghost in the Shell, but really he gave Mamoru Oshii Ghost in the Shell, and he made something great with the material. Having finally read the thing for myself, I can say that this is not entirely true, but not unfounded either.

The chief issue one familiar with the anime might find paging through the comic is its tone. Whereas the two movies are deadpan serious, and the series feels very western in its handling of light-heartedness (in moderation), the comic is relentless in its plain goofiness. The humor itself isn’t necessarily terrible, but its presence is felt, and it feels inappropriate. Every issue ends similar to how some of the Stand Alone episodes of Stand Alone Complex do — the Major and Batou solemnly discuss the philosophical or psychological undercurrents of what just happened. Sometimes this will include a panel of the guy who’s been hacked to believe he’s got a wife and kids, and this moment is pretty sombre, but also a satisfying conclusion. Classic Ghost in the Shell. But then we get one more panel at the bottom with superdeformed Aramaki barking some order and the Tachikomas, or Fuchikomas, squawking about a farcical robot rebellion.

It’s not fair to say that this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics, because the last time I reviewed a manga it was Phoenix, and that was consistent in art style and tone throughout. At the very least, it was balanced, confident in its tone. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that indeed this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics. Why else would Shirow include it? He’s got to be playing to a culture, a rich history of titles with these types of jokes and breaking the seriousness every once in a while.

That would be perfectly fine were it not for what the humor sidelines often distract from. The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow to me was like the bible for the rest of the series — from this point stories were drawn for elements in Innocence, episodes in Stand Alone Complex, and the arc for Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society. Because of this, the stories are a delight to behold. It also takes the approach closer to the series than the movies in terms of the characters; Saito and Pazu and Boma aren’t seen a whole lot (I’m pretty sure “Paz,” as he’s called, never makes an appearance), but they’re there, where they never show up in the films (except for Saito for a frame or two in the first movie, without his eyepatch).

The artwork, when it isn’t superdeformed, is in my opinion pretty superb. I qualify with “in my opinion,” because my experience with the medium is limited, so it’s difficult for me to judge what truly great comic art should be like. The cityscapes and robot designs are particularly striking; Shirow undoubtedly has an eye for design, which I suppose is why Shinji Aramaki gets hired to bring his stuff to the silver screen. Guns are another big thing for me, and they get their due, as do the vehicles.

Most impressive would have to be the cyborg stuff. When somebody gets shot up real bad, the metal gets all jagged and wires stick out. Sometimes — as in the making of a cyborg — we see heads split open and mechanical brains inside. The detail in these drawings is inspiring, and we couple that with footnotes provided by the author that discuss the ludicrous science behind it all.

It’s certainly a unique experience, and though it’s been recognized time and again that The Ghost in the Shell exists mostly to create a formula for other things, its own merits should not be undervalued. There is a great deal of entertainment and provoking thought to be had in the volume, and if you’re as big a Major fan as I am, it’s always nice to see her in more adventures. I suppose that if you’re a real Major fan though the series would constitute as the “more adventures,” but whatever. To each his own Ghost in the Shell.


It’s an alternate 1985 where God exists and he’s American, a retired hero must rescue people from a fire to get hard, and a vigilante screams out to be killed in a world that’s turned its back on justice. Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel from Alan Moore, the man who coined the term, and it remains, after all these years, an incredible story that weaves hard-hitting images with political, philosophical, and revisionist text. A sharp tale making an entire medium of entertainment take a look in the mirror – it’s small wonder Hollywood’s been scrambling for ages to get the film produced. But Watchmen is like The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t belong to Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, or DC Comics. No, no, no. It belongs to its fans, and they are many.

Fans claimed that Watchmen was unfilmable, just like the aforementioned Rings. Indeed it does feel like an unsavory prospect; we open these pages and see superheroes sharing panels with scenes of sex, superheroes behaving rather like Mad Max in the original Mad Max, superheroes who’d rather blame the blue guy in the room for shooting a pregnant Vietnamese woman than take the responsibility for himself. Aside from graphic content and themes, Watchmen is of course a 12-issue comic, and each issue is an episode. One episode jumps around in time – how do you do that in a movie and keep things moving forward? All too often filmmakers don’t appreciate the disparaties in mediums, and believe that translations will always work.

Perhaps that is what happened here, but the end result was a fantastic experience, a movie version of a great story that maintains the great story and embodies the spirit and feel of the comic’s panel-to-panel nature. Every shot is thoughtfully composed – no doubt these guys took the Rodriguez/Miller route and went to the comics for the storyboards – the lighting and colors create a hyperreal image that only stops moving when the slow-motion button is hit. Just like in 300, Snyder’s use of slow-motion is appropriate because it slows on actions that were originally read on the page with eyes that linger and focus. It also gives the action an unusual rhythm as we move through hard streets and cavernous corporate buildings.

There’s a simple joy that fills me when watching a good adaptation, but it isn’t unqualified. As much as I like to study what actors were chosen and how well the themes translate, there’s something almost uncanny about hearing dialogue you’re familiar with. This was a major issue for me with movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and other flicks where I read the book right before watching (that one was for school): it feels very artificial when actors are speaking dialogue that originates from somewhere that’s not a screenplay; it’s difficult to fool yourself that these words came from the character’s head.

There’s also the issue that Watchmen is actually unfilmable, but I don’t believe it’s in the way that the collective masses tend to say. The problem is that Watchmen was a post-modern comic, and to nail this home (as if opening with Captain America’s death wasn’t enough) we have a comic-within-a-comic, which is read by a minor character throughout the story. We get glimpses of the macabre tale, Tales of the Black Freighter, every now and then, and it serves a purpose. Unless you’re watching the Ultimate Cut, a version that’s over 3 hours (the Director’s Cut is 2 hours and 40 minutes), you don’t get to see the Gerard Butler-narrated comic-within-a-comic. I haven’t seen it as standalone nor in the Ultimate Cut, but it doesn’t matter – it wouldn’t have the same effect.

Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen the movie would have no purpose because Watchmen the movie isn’t a comic. A movie that’s revisionist towards comics doesn’t have the same effect as the source material – it’d be like if Once Upon a Time in the West or Pulp Fiction were novels, and we had movie references from Shane and High Noon written out on the page.

I do feel like the problem is mitigated somewhat by the filmmakers – we hear the Ride of the Valkyries as the Comedian rides into Vietnam on a helicopter, a song that might as well just be called the Apocalypse Now song. That’s what it reminds us of, and coupled with Vietnam War imagery, we’re in familiar movie territory. That’s one instance where Watchmen the movie takes advantage of the medium’s asset to make it uniquely a movie.

I suppose that the superhero genre in film by the year 2009 was also in need of a revision, but of course Watchmen the movie made very little impact and like the equally R-rated Punisher War Zone a year before, didn’t make a box office splash. At least, not for a Watchmen movie. Hollywood would go on to take little notice, making Captain America, Iron Man 2, Thor, Green Latern, The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight Rises, another Superman, another Spider-Man, Kick-Ass, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Jonah Hex, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from 2009-2012 (fingers crossed for Nelvedine/Taylor’s Ghost Rider). Aside from Scott Pilgrim, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and thought it was the dumbest crap ever, with precisely three seconds of gold (a wonderful reaction shot to a gazing Stryker during a ‘tense’ and ‘dramatic’ scene).

Without speaking for all of those above, X-Men Origins: Wolverine really captured what was wrong with the superhero genre. It’s stale, and it panders to a fan base. Instead of rich characters we have to fill out a quota of characters – alright we got steel man, invisible man, laser man, blue devil man, mega man, ultra man, woman man, cat man, Poke mans – and instead of a compelling premise from which to draw a decent story we have oh-my-gosh-let’s-pull-pages-from-this-this-this-and-this, ‘this’ referring of course to the bountiful source material in the case of X-Men.

Watchmen, to get back on topic, isn’t of course new, but is akin to Unbreakable and The Incredibles – yes we have superheroes, but we have a different type of superhero story. Many say, and I agree with this, that Watchmen is more a science-fiction story than a superhero one. It deals with cold war anxieties, experiments gone wrong, and at the end, alien invaders and outer limits – staples of the genre. Because we have a science-fiction structure with superheroes as the players in a greater tale rather than the center of the spotlight like the bat symbol, we open up so many narrative and thematic possibilities that modern filmmakers dare not tread. At the end of X-Men we’ve learned nothing – in fact nothing has changed for anybody. There is really no point except $300 million, or however much that particular movie made.

Maybe that’s cynical, but it did feel like a very, very commercial picture that didn’t go for the bar. Not that it was set high but anyhow Watchmen had aspirations, as a comic and as a film. As a movie, it had to hit upon what the fans wanted – an easy task, as everybody involved was a fan. It had to tell a cinematic story, not a simple adaptation. And most importantly it had to maintain what Watchmen was all about, asking questions about the measure of heroism and the morals of justice. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Watchmen treats every frame delicately, and the product is an extremely well-made film that looks amazing even during the most mundane bits. It’s violent, but not overly so where anything extreme, like sawing through arms or repeated strikes to the head with a cleaver, are very obviously CG and don’t look so great.

It’s a very nearly literal adaptation, but it’s a smart one. The filmmakers realized that 100% direct translation wouldn’t work – perhaps they heard the shouts – and went about constructing a slick, often disturbing, sometimes affecting, and always throught-provoking experience.

If you’re worried about the length of the Director’s Cut, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I’m no good with long movies, and I watched this over the course of two nights. Personally I don’t see it as a problem because I like that as much of the comic was reproduced on screen as possible; this Watchmen is truly the definitive movie version – disregarding the Ultimate Cut, there will never be a more complete version, although the lack of the newstand guy and Black Freighter reader was noticeable.

Why I saw this movie is a long, almost embarassing story that I won’t suffer you to read here. While I suffered in watching it, I felt compelled to report back here on this blog, because I actually had something to say. Something negative.

After seeing just this one entry in the lengthy franchise, in addition to twenty-minutes of Final Destination 2, I can’t fathom why anybody would ever return for 4 and 5, or even 2 and 3. These movies are formula, and their movie-as-formula isn’t exactly the problem, it’s the formula itself. The template these are all based on – vision, no one believes him/her, it happens, more deaths, more people don’t believe him/her – is built on frustration. The hero/heroine’s (let’s just go with heroine in reference to Wendy from 3) efforts to save people are frustrated, she is frustrated by the other characters’ aggresive ignorance, and the characters are goddamn frustrating to the audience because they’re drawn to fill out one role.

The frustration stops when a clamp comes down on somebody’s head or a truck tears the back of their skull of. These gruesome death scenes are the only moments when the story moves forward, so it’s nearly cathartic in its alleviation of the frustration, but in a really bad way. In addition, Final Destination the series trades on its death sequences. But the problem with a medium like this – movies – is that the death sequences are tethered to and held back by the plot, which is crucial to the formula. As a result, there are only five or six death scenes in the movie, and the only one longer than a split second is far from entertaining – tanning booth death.

The premise to the series is actually pretty good; it feels like an episode of The X-Files. I bring that show up specifically because the writers and directors and producers of several entries in this series were James Wong and Glen Morgan, huge contributors to the long-running television show. The difference between the show and the movie series is something that could have made this series legitimately good, and not almost-half-average: adults.

If the series had adults instead of teenagers, maybe there could have been a sense of engagement in any facet of the movies rather than none. Why does there exist the requisite that all modern horror movies must have screamy teenagers? Because they’re cheap? Because of Halloween? Some of the most famous horror movies of all time have adults – Alien and The Exorcist spring to mind. Teenagers can never be well-rounded characters in this context of light horror because adults have difficulty writing them both in general and for a teenage audience. They assume that we’re expecting a certain thing, and what we get is boo-yah douchebags and womanizers and OMG orange tan chicks, where characters are defined by their stereotype.

The problem here is that the key demographic – teenagers and younger – are notorious for being dumb. That must be how they’re seen by the writers, because these characters don’t have complex characterization or subtle nuances; the audience understands them because they tap into various, specific parts of the cultural lexicon.

I think that the series could benefit if not only we had adults dealing with this problem, but if it was a detective story. The detective must solve these crazy accidents before he goes too, though nobody believes him and he must endure being witness to bizarre fatalities. It could be a gritty, dark story that would work once, but it would work well. Final Destination 3 has a scene where characters – the fringe weirdos – are talking about how death is inevitable, and it made me think that if we were dealing with characters who weren’t just going for the laughs we could actually tackle interesting themes about life and death.

But the series has never been about themes. In fact, one of the themes in Final Destination 3 is control, where Wendy is a control freak. How do I know that? Because whenever anybody, even Wendy, is describing her, they say she’s a control freak. I swear ‘control freak’ is the most frequently used term in the entire movie. She likes to control things, and this conflicts with death, who also likes to control things. Okay, that’s fine, but what does it mean on a higher level? Nothing, it’s just superfluous motivation for our character Wendy to have conflict with death, as if dying wasn’t enough.

Final Destination 3D takes a more hackneyed detective approach, which isn’t nearly as good an idea to keep the premise fresh as seen in Final Destination 2, where a bunch of people were gathered into a room and tried to stay alive. That could have been cool, but I never saw the rest of the damn thing. In Final Destination 3, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy took a bunch of photos and notes how they correlate to the deaths. Shoddy theory, but that’s why she pulls a photo of the World Trade Center and notes how a shadow of the plane on the building anticipates that a plane was going to fly into it. What the fuck?

So she goes out with her friend, Kevin, and they try to save these morons before they’re killed. None of them want to stay alive. They’re all antagonistic, and I guess the effect here is that we’re supposed to be rooting for death to kill them. Either I’m just not cynical enough to ever think that these people deserve what comes to them, or I just can’t distance myself from these characters to appreciate them as characters who actually, really, want to die.

Another problem is that the only interesting thing about the movie is the relationship between Wendy and Kevin. I was surprised but I actually liked their budding friendship, but of course – it didn’t add up to anything. The ending is ambiguous, so maybe they all died. I’d have to watch The Final Destination to find out if they did, or if they’re still cool.

God, the acting is so damn bad in this movie, and I don’t want to do what I used to do when I wrote my little movie reviews for the school newspaper (go down the list, you know, the directing sucks, the acting sucks, the script sucks, the editing sucks) but I need to make an exception here. If they didn’t have Mary Elizabeth Winstead, maybe I wouldn’t notice, but a lot of these characters are poorly portrayed, if only as a result of the weak writing. It’s not atrocious writing, it just feels synthetic and a product of little effort. Even Winstead can’t salvage it because Wendy, like I said, is a control freak. That is her character. She is not a character. Control freak is not character.

As a last note, this series has the worst string of titles ever, more stupid than First Blood, which goes
First Blood
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Rambo III
Just take a look:
Final Destination
Final Destination 2
Final Destination 3
The Final Destination
Final Destination 5
It’s comical because there is exactly one that stands out. I’ve never seen a horror franchise that actually goes back to the numbering after they’ve dropped it, which is the trend nowadays, not to have numbers. I guess I give them credit for 5, but hell – I’ll never see it.

After Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, this is one of the first movies of one of Japan’s most well-known filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki, whose body of work has inspired environmental attitudes, joy in people of all ages, and retrohate. His other celebrated movies are Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and most recently his Ponyo was released in America with another strong English voice cast. Miyazaki can be approximated as the Japanese equivalent of Pixar – while other anime movie directors like Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon were making movies aimed at an older audience, Miyazaki continued doing family-friendly films that all ages could enjoy.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is no exception; as much as this movie is simply amazing, I think it’s a really important film to show to a growing child. All too often American animated movies that are aimed at children (100% of them) seem to be made just for the laughs, for example every Dreamworks movie, and some of the lesser Pixar flicks. They also rarely tackle the realities of the world, and this is because of an implicit attitude that goes into creating an animated film, that this world should be entirely removed from our own, and that violence and death are better left to the PG-13 animated movies, and the last one of those was… Beowulf? Star War: The Clone Wars? Cool World? These are really rather rare.

There is violence here, and there is death, but these aren’t gratuitous. In fact, everything that happens is deliberate and serves a higher purpose in the whole of the movie, and this should be a good stepping stone for children in their own journeys through early development. It’s a whole movie just as it is wholesome, with heroes and villains and brilliantly realized landscapes and creatures.

The themes dealt with in Nausicaa on the surface are environmental, that we should make peace with nature and live in harmony with the planet, but if Miyazaki never made another Nausicaa-esque picture (he did with Mononoke and countless others) the major theme we’d extrapolate from the environmental ideas is living in harmony with each other. It’s an anti-violence film just as much as it is an environmental one, something of an Avatar, but less overwrought in its message. It’s more subtle, and the characters aren’t simplistic archetypes.

Eponymous heroine Nausicaa in particular is a wonderful character, a perfect role model for kids, and – in this is significant to the themes of the movie – a female. Once again, if Miyazaki never made another movie, one would think that Nausicaa as a female was deliberate, but almost every other one of his movies has a young female hero, and they all look the same. It would seem deliberate here because action movies – never mind science-fiction action movies – rarely feature women in the heroic roles, unless they end up being romantically involved with our manly man hero.

And that really pisses me off.

*spoiler alert*

In Nausicaa, it works particularly well because there is a theme of progression. It tells of a world that exists long after ours, where nature has reclaimed the Earth after the people of the past (us) destroyed it with pollution and war. Because it was the men who make war and instigate women’s rights eras and lead the politics of the world in the past, it will be up to a woman to change the world for the better in the future; essentially, guys, we’ve had our time in the sun, and we failed. This is made most obvious in the prophecy noted early on in the film, where it’s been said that a hero clad in blue will save the planet, and the accompanying picture on the tapestry depicts a male. At the end of the movie, we find that the prophecy has been fulfilled, but it’s a woman clad in blue.

*end spoiler*

Of course, there are other things that make our heroine compelling, and one of my favorite element to her character is that she’s complex. Just as she kills several badguys in a fit of rage, she breaks down and cries; she’s realistic, and in this way we can begin to sympathize with her plight. It doesn’t hurt that the adventure she goes in is equally compelling; in the events of the movie Nausicaa traverses a massive land whose scale is expertly laid out and builds up to creating a weight to the situation by the climactic battle at the end.

We are witness to giant flying snake-like creatures, the mighty Ohm, and of course, the larger-than-life God Warrior, as animated by another famous name in anime, Hideaki Anno (see my Evangelion review for more info on that… dude). The world is also full of natural wonders and even history – there is a grand sense of mythology permeating the story, and it’s also implied that an older civilization came before, but was completely obliterated.

What also makes Nausicaa a great movie to show to the younger is that this is pure storytelling, surprisingly streamlined and made simple. It’s surprising because there is a lot going on in the narrative. We have warring nations, a major threat from the planet itself, conflicting agendas, the aforementioned mythologies and prophecies, and round characters on all sides. The professionalism in the way the story is told can be analogized in the God Warrior. What’s explained isn’t what the warrior is aside from an old world-killer, but what it’s importance is in the narrative. Here we have scifi storytelling not bogged down by extraneous world-building, because that wouldn’t be appropriate in the context of the film.

Not only is the story told well, but the messages are conveyed just the same, though if I do have one complaint, it does have to do with that message. All too often does Nausicaa say “We need to stop with this violence!” and other bits of dialogue repeat to get the same points across. These instances are few, but there is some minor sense of telling but not showing in this way.

If you’re a parent, I highly suggest that this be one of the earlier movies your kid sees – it’s bound to spark imagination just as it will progressive thought in terms of feminism and environmentalist thought, and it’s realistic about death. It’s also a good entry way into the medium of Japanese animation, which is an entity very different from American animation, as we’re sure to see later.


Death Threats

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