Manga Talk: Bio-Booster Armor Guyver

151Guyver is a classic — the manga began early in 1985 and is still published to this day. Written and illustrated by Yoshiki Takaya, it follows a high school student named Fukamachi Sho, who stumbles upon a strange device that envelopes him, and subsequently allows him to transform into the Guyver, which is a sort of bio-engineered alien bodysuit. Sho and his friends then find themselves pursued by a mysterious organisation with an otherworldly origin named Chronos, who want to reclaim the Guyver unit.

The manga was promptly adapted to anime in 1986. The fifty-five minute original video animation was titled ‘Guyver: Out of Control’ and made its way to Western audiences in the early 1990s. For many, it was among their initial exposure to anime. This was followed by two more adaptations: a twelve episode series in 1998, and a twenty-six episode series in 2005, which covered the first four and ten manga volumes respectively. It was even adapted to film in 1991 and starred none other than Mark Hamill. Apparently it had some degree of success, as there was a sequel in 1994, although without Hamill.

I must credit the 2005 adaptation as my introduction to the series. It remains the newest interpretation of Guyver, and has certainly aged the best. It was part of the ADV line-up, with the company also helping to produce. I love this anime for two reasons in particular: its accuracy in adapting the manga, and its ending. It did not cut corners, or attempt to alter the plot, and was not afraid to end on a rather perilous note. It serves as a terrific platform to launch viewers into the manga, which utilises the long form of the medium to stage some spectacular revelations and surprises, which I have seldom seen in a series that seemed to begin as an analogue shounen.

Warning! Spoilers below.

The reason I’m writing about Guyver today is because I was recently on the hunt for an anime where either the villain is the primary character, or one in which the antagonists win. To my surprise, there really isn’t that many, or at least many good ones. On the other hand, there are a wealth of manga series with a significant focus on the antagonists. Guyver is one of these, and the 2005 adaptation actually ends with the villains winning.

In episode twenty-three the heroes are easily defeated, and in episode twenty-four the evil organisation Chronos takes over the world. The swiftness of this transition really struck me. The takeover is portrayed in montage in both the anime and the manga, with multiple world leaders simultaneously revealing themselves to be Zoanoids (a sort of super powered monster of which Chronos is comprised) on what would become known as X-Day. They are battled, shot at, and even nuked, but all to no avail. Then we cut to a year later, and the entire planet is under Chronos’ dominance.

150Our hero Sho is nowhere to be seen. In fact, he was freshly vaporised by one of the founders of Chronos, who was literally created by alien-like Gods who spurred the onset of human evolution. What else had beset our hero before then? Well, besides his life being ruined simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was knocked unconscious while in the Guyver suit by one of the villains. The suit subsequently went into ‘autopilot’ and ended up killing Sho’s own father (with Sho still inside), who had been unwittingly transformed into a Zoanoid. At this point, the manga was still published in Tokuma Shoten’s Shounen Captain magazine, with Guyver being a mainstay from the magazine’s inception until its dissolution. The magazine was home to other gritty manga like Trigun and Grey.

I feel like Guyver is a bit of an outlier these days. Sure, there are manga with similar concepts — such as Zetman and Ultraman — but I feel as though none quite match the level of depth and engagement present in Guyver. A lot of it sounds very strange and rather far-fetched, but it is deceptively layered and wonderfully organic. The story ultimately spans hundreds of millennia, with a gripping and sinuous mythology, and although some of the characters are terrifically funky-looking, they all have personality, or at least a sense of plausibility and depth. Many of them are flawed; they make controversial decisions, and are rash and swayed by personal interest, which lends them a degree of authenticity.

Characters switch sides — villains become anti-heroes and protagonists are turned against their comrades. It’s not so black and white, or good versus evil. Sho is betrayed multiple times by Makishima, one of his very limited number of Guyver allies, who ends up establishing his own questionably wicked faction. He even takes advantage of his childhood friend who obeys his every command, and eventually snatches away her livelihood altogether by transforming her into a Zoalord (which is essentially an all-powerful Zoanoid) condemned to live a tragically short life.

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I feel it’s a testament to the manga’s depth and intrigue that it began publishing in 1985 and is still going more than thirty years later, albeit the updates are few and far between.  Nonetheless, it does feel like a remnant of an older time. There are no harems or flashy protagonists in Guyver, nor does the hero try to balance his super powers with an ordinary school life. It’s amusingly contrasted with almost every manga serialised within Monthly Shounen Ace magazine, which is currently home to Guyver.

The pages are dominated by cutesy female characters as seen in the likes of Kemono Friends and Gamers, which the covers then paint as almost gaudy and super contemporary. You could scarcely guess it is the type of magazine in which Guyver would reside. Nonetheless, there it remains, holding on after thirty-one volumes. The manga sadly has almost no presence in the West, and has itself been absent in Japan due to a hiatus, but to me, the day Guyver comes to a close will be one of the most momentous days in the history of manga — one of the true greats of an older time will have concluded, leaving behind a terrific legacy and a tragic void. I feel it’s one of the heavyweight ‘superpower’ series, and I wonder if the Marvel obsessed masses of today would afford it a new audience.

One can dream.

Alita: Battle Angel — Trailer Impressions

I am currently swamped with deadlines, fighting off procrastination, and trying to whip up thousands of words a day before I succumb to the indolence of the Christmas period, but I had to give myself a break, for something momentous has occurred. The first trailer for the live-action adaptation of Battle Angel Alita has arrived.

Battle Angel Alita is one of my all-time favourite manga series, and I wrote about it over twenty months ago here on my blog. I ended by saying to drop by in a couple of years for my thoughts on the film version, which will undoubtedly be here come July, but before that, I must comment on the trailer.

My immediate impressions are that it looks very promising. I am impressed with the look of almost everything — they have replicated the world and the content of the manga extremely well. I’m eager to see more of the setting, but certain sequences from the trailer seem to match the manga shot-for-shot.

Thus far, the cast are looking quite exceptional. Besides Jennifer Connelly, who I believe is playing an original character, every character is immediately recognisable to me as a fan of the manga. Dr. Ido in the manga is a mixture of somebody very brave and charming, but also rather vulnerable and sensitive. I believe Christoph Waltz will be able to match his temperament considerably, and Mahershala Ali looks as though he may bring a sense of menace to the character of Vector. In the manga, Vector is very sly and often acts a lot tougher than he is, but I am wondering if they will expand his role given the popularity and presence of Mahershala Ali.

Rosa Salazar as Alita seems to be the biggest talking point from the trailer. Long before production began, Cameron teased the possibility of Alita being all CG, and it looks as though they’ve certainly played on that idea to some extent. Her big eyes are the most immediate feature, and something that I didn’t expect to see, but I really love that they’ve given Alita a sort of uncanny look. In the manga, she’s very obviously the main character — she has an extremely distinctive appearance, and her main characteristics throughout are always her big eyes, octopus lips, and buoyant hair. Here’s a comparison I put together (and another at the end of this post).

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I’m extremely pleased about Makaku’s appearance, too. Often during adaptations, it seems as though certain characters are deemed to difficult to work on screen, and are thus changed, but Makaku—who is the first villain in the Alita series—appears just as he does on the page. Some of the special effects do look as though they need more refinement, but as this is just the first trailer, I fully expect them to look better implemented in the final product. There are also a couple of tantalising spots for people familiar with the manga, such as a small glimpse of Ido’s Rocket Hammer.

There are also a couple of changes. It appears as though Gonzu—Ido’s close friend—has been completely replaced with another character, and judging from this trailer alone, it would appear as though Motorball is no longer going to be included. Cameron had previously commented that his adaptation would include elements of the first four books, including the Motorball arc, but either things have changed since handing over to Rodriguez, or they’re saving it for a later reveal. On a personal note, I did feel as though merging four entire volumes would be a bit much to fit into a single film, but nonetheless, I was excited to see some big screen Motorball action.

Nothing too solid is revealed about the plot. Scenes from the manga are in there, but it’s difficult to speculate how closely they’re sticking to the original structure. Two lines in particular—”They will come for you,” which is spoken by Ido to Alita, and “I’d give you my heart,” which is spoken by Alita to Hugo—did throw me off slightly.

Early in the manga, Alita strives to live a relatively normal life, and the only person who is really after her is Zapan, who is played by Ed Skrein in this film. But this occurs much later, even after the Motorball arc, and it seems as though Ido is referring to a group of people, rather than one person.

The second line seems to really nail Alita’s obsessiveness over Hugo, but I don’t recall her ‘heart’ being an object she can whip out and have a look at. No doubt, this is some sort of subtle exposition for later on.

All in all, I am feeling relatively upbeat about this adaptation. I’ve had a look at the larger response online, and it seems rather mixed, but I feel as though they’ve implemented many key aspects of the manga. I found the Death Note and Ghost in the Shell adaptations extremely disappointing because of their disengagement with the source material, but here it actually looks as though the creative team are familiar with Yukito Kishiro’s work. It helps that the project was first devised by James Cameron, and that he remains on board, as he is an enormous fan of the manga, and a project like this needs enthusiasm and passion behind it.

I genuinely hope this is a success, because the world of Alita is so enormous and rich with detail and scope. The manga is one of the essential cyberpunk series, and an adaptation has so much potential. Arguably, the best material and some of the most exciting characters, such as Jashugan, Berserker Zapan, Figure Four, and Desty Nova, are not introduced until after the first couple of arcs, so if the adaptation were to become a trilogy, it has the ability and substance to continually outdo itself with each installment.

Here’s hoping! Alita: Battle Angel is set to be released on 20th July, 2018.

Alita

My Hero Academia and the Horrifying Nature of Quirks

My Hero Academia is one of the most bizarre anime series I have ever seen. Not because it’s challenging, or intricate, or even that high concept, but because it lacks any semblance of logic. Now, that’s not to say I don’t like My Hero Academia. On the contrary, I watched both seasons with great enthusiasm, and enjoy much of the comedy, action and characters. However, when you really think about the setting, and the concept and apparent boundless nature of quirks, it is really quite strange and even horrifying.

I started thinking about this when the character of the Principal was introduced, who is essentially a very small polar bear. He is, according to the Wikipedia entry, a rare case of an animal manifesting a quirk, which is the show’s name for a super power. His power is that he has super intelligence, and thus he is treated just like a human, and is even in charge of Japan’s most prodigious school. Imagine the logistics of that — one day a polar bear is placed in charge of your education. You could devise a court room drama about him fighting to be recognised in society.

But if that seems outlandish, know that a dog is in charge of the police force. Unlike the Principal, the Police Chief appears to have been born human — only his head is that of a nonchalant beagle.

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In the show, people are either born with their quirks, or they manifest by age four. That means one of two things: either his mother gave birth to a baby with a dog’s head, or one day as a child, he woke up in the morning to find his human face had warped quite spectacularly into a canine’s face. I wonder what would be more horrifying. Imagine the struggles this man has known and all he has overcome to reach the respectable heights of Chief of Police.

He isn’t the rarest specimen, though. During one of the early story arcs, the protagonists are attacked by a league of villains, many of whom sport terrifying features. There’s somebody with a Venus flytrap for a head, one is literally a black hole, and some are just beyond description. Just look at that cyan-coloured dinosaur thing and that paper man plastered in eyes. No wonder these people are villains, what do they have to live for!

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Being born a monster is difficult enough, but imagine you’re born a regular person, only to lose your humanity one day when you transform into an abomination. Forget Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the chilling imagery of Cronenberg’s The Fly, the real horror stories are in My Hero Academia.

Early on in the story, the protagonist is terribly upset that he does not have a quirk of his own, but in a world where you could end up a monstrosity, I would count my blessings. The characters themselves are never fazed, though. Nobody bats an eye when some nightmare fuel walks past, and even the weird looking ones are strangely content. At one point, Mina — who is a pink skinned girl, with black scleras and wonky horns — proudly declares herself the alien queen. That’s some quality self-assurance, right there. What a world it would be, where humanity more closely resembled an unearthly population of creatures. I would probably die of trauma if I awoke one day to find I had turned into a boulder, but these people rejoice.

Now, I know this is an action shounen series, and you could rightly deride me for taking it all so seriously, but it isn’t a straight-forward parody like One Punch Man. It takes itself seriously enough for me to take it seriously, and when you create a functioning, fictional world, you generally expect some semblance of sense. My Hero Academia is a special kind of ridiculous, but I kind of love it for that reason. Half the time I’m watching with a befuddled expression, but it’s so outlandish that it’s fascinating. It’s unproductive, but I love to ponder at the would-be traumatic pasts of all these surreal looking characters.

Movie Review: Death Note (2017)

Title: Death Note
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Willem Dafoe
Released: 25ᵗʰ August 2017


In the process of adapting a book or television show to film, there are undoubtedly numerous considerations. However, before deciding what material to exclude, what to include, and how your version will differ in getting from point A to B, the first point of call is surely to read, watch and understand the source material. Once you know what makes the original work so compelling and unique, you can focus on those components when moving it over to a different format.

This is a terrible adaptation, pure and simple. It’s an utter bastardisation of the Death Note manga and it’s anime adaptation, and barely resembles what it is apparently based on. It’s as though the original work were a third or fourth reference, rather than the immediate source.

The major issues are in the plot and characterisation. The original version of Death Note is a psychological thriller and part police procedural, in which law enforcement attempt to track down a seemingly supernatural serial killer known as Kira, who begins cleansing the world of criminals. But at it’s heart, it’s a game of cat and mouse, where Kira and an enigmatic detective named L exchange metaphorical blows as they strive to put an end to each other.

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The Netflix film contains none of what made the original so compelling — no cat and mouse play, no cunning machinations, and none of what you loved about the characters. It is vapid, with the Death Note itself a gratuitous weapon that exists simply to set up a series of elaborate and violent deaths as the movie crudely maneuvers from one beat to the next. Tsugumi Ohba, the original writer of Death Note, employed the notebook in involved and Machiavellian ways, but its use here is neither ambitious nor inventive.

The characters are a crowd of husks which exhibit very little range. Audiences enjoyed watching Light in the original for the same reason they enjoy watching Frank Underwood; because he is utterly devious, compelling and charismatic. This new interpretation is simply unremarkable, and L has devolved from a calculated and level-headed oddity into an irrational hothead who lacks any sort of distinctive personality.

The characters are wearisome and banal when following them should be thrilling. Willem Dafoe and Shea Whigham give respectable performances, but their parts are extremely minor and Ryuk has been reduced from an amusing and impartial observer to something resembling a devil on the shoulder, which takes away all his quirks and charm.

The story itself follows a similar premise as the original, but does not contain any of the same progression, set pieces, or plot points, and is utterly forgettable and at times so terrifically brainless. The plot is essentially complete within fifty-one minutes, and the rest of the movie is a very dismal, convoluted and ungainly effort to weave some twists and action into the film, which ultimately makes for a crudely dramatised and terrifically tedious culmination.

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It contains numerous holes and many scenes that appear very manufactured and coarse. It’s one of those movies were events occur and are set up in ways that make you question the integrity of the plot — it doesn’t have any fluency or sense to it. It is extremely rushed and hesitant with details, and appears more concerned with getting to the end rather than telling a coherent and developed tale.

For example, how serious is Light about cleansing the world of criminals? We don’t really know. Such little time is spent establishing the motivation and clout of Kira himself, and we barely even see Light write in the Death Note. Further to this, how can the law enforcement even reliably keep track of Kira’s victims when the vast majority appear as accidental deaths? How does Kira gain a following and become an entity unto himself? In the original, Kira’s victims are identifiable by their shared fate (sudden heart attack), which is not the case here. It’s as though the writers just expect you to follow along, without adding a sense of comprehension to the plot. It’s all very vague.

It’s difficult to take the movie seriously when it lacks so many components, no only from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective, but also as an adaptation. Events that were so astounding, atmospheric and dramatic in the original work are all too often glossed over or missed entirely here. There were so many opportunities, and the story was already written, it need only be condensed. How such an absorbing and well-plotted thriller was moulded into something so tedious and inadequate is beyond me. What’s even more insulting is the ending, which is a major cop out and seems to lead into a sequel. If two movies were planned, there is just no excuse for how rushed, yet barren this movie is.

So, is there anything that actually works in this film? Well, it’s competently shot. The cinematography is not bad, and some shots were quite alluring and stylish. The score was rather unexceptional, but it is passable, although the music played during the climax came across to me as rather cheesy. That’s about it, though. Even as a stand alone movie for someone unfamiliar with Death Note, it’s lusterless. The original work was so groundbreaking and captivating — it’s a travesty this adaptation exists. It is Death Note in name only.

Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell

Title: Ghost in the Shell
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenplay: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt
Released: Mar 2017 (US & UK)


Well, what do you know. They’ve only gone and made a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. This would have been a dream come true for my teenage self, but sadly the Rupert Sanders film is a far cry from the original manga and its various incarnations.

The main problem with the new Ghost in the Shell is its simplicity. The 1995 film isn’t as philosophical as it’s often remembered being, but it has a meditative ambience and the idea of the ‘ghost’ is well expressed and worth pondering. Here, the ‘ghost’ is reduced to a simple noun — a word for an individual’s consciousness and nothing more. There is no commentary on humanity or singularity; in fact it bares such little weight on the plot, they could have done away with the concept of the ghost and simply given the principal character drug-induced amnesia. Here, the main theme is how actions rather than memories define a person.

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By doing away with the philosophy and changing the film into a mystery-vengeance story, where Motoko is the “first of her kind” and seeks answers about her obvious past, they’ve gone a well trodden and thoroughly uninspired route, which is bolstered by some terrifically mediocre writing that is filled with clunky exposition and many contrivances. At one point, the head of the company behind Motoko’s synthetics orders her to be terminated, after which there’s a disagreement between the head and a cybernetics doctor who clearly cares about Motoko. The company boss then instructs the doctor — the sole person who sympathises with Motoko — to do the honours. Where do you think this is going? It’s painfully predictable and lacks so much of the nuances present throughout the franchise.

There’s also a scene where the cybernetics boss says to one of his creations; “you came close, you freak.” I don’t know if the character is supposed to be a supercilious ass who doesn’t quite realise he made the ‘freak’ or if the writers just don’t think about the implications of certain dialogue. Either way, the dialogue is often heavy-handed, inconsistent and partial on details.

The plot itself is an amalgamation of various Ghost in the Shell products, but namely the 1995 film and the Stand Alone Complex series. There are a couple of shot-for-shot sequences that match well the aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation, along with some subtle references only fans of the franchise are likely to notice, but sadly they serve more as a reminder of better material than a homage. Still, the ‘shell’ is at least present. The world of Ghost in the Shell is fully realised and they include direct reference to the prevalence of cybernetic enhancements, though there is little commentary on transhumanism.

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The visual effects are top-notch and the practical effects and props made by Weta — though utilised far less than I expected — were impressive. I thought much of the cast had a good likeness to their anime and manga counterparts, too. Effort had gone into making Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk and Takeshi Kitano resemble their illustrated equivalents. The performances and the action scenes were satisfying, but nothing particularly applaudable.

One aspect that was tremendously unsatisfactory was the score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. I generally enjoy Mansell’s music and adore his work on The Fountain, but here the music just isn’t notable. It lacked a presence and was neither emotive nor thrilling. At certain points, it contains tiny fragments of Kenji Kawai’s original Ghost in the Shell score, but does not attempt to hone or replicate the composers enthralling sounds. Then, almost as a joke, Kawai’s prominent ‘Making of a Cyborg’ theme from the 1995 film is played during the credits, as if to say — this is what you could have had.

As a generic action movie, Ghost in the Shell is passable, but relatively unexceptional. However, as an adaptation of such a breathtaking and esoteric franchise, it misses the mark entirely. It is formulaic and devoid of any substantial philosophy — ultimately another great concept dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator. It’s frustrating, as the allusions to the prior material generally translate well to live-action, but the vast alterations and perplexing union of sources hindered what could have been a terrific film. They couldn’t even commit and go whole hog with the ending, which seemed to be going the direction of Oshii’s initial adaptation before fizzling away and becoming completely vapid. It seems the ghost was far too much for them.