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Through the lens of Oshii

There's no questioning Mamoru Oshii's vision in animation -- but the Ghost In The Shell creator's live-action film work is in a class all its own

Sit back. Close your eyes. Envision, with your powerful brain, just the name Mamoru Oshii. As the words finish forming on your mental screen, let your thoughts create a visual flowchart of all the things you associate with the name Mamoru Oshii.

I sit back, and I get all these flashes. Big police robots, surly engineers, intimidating body armor, mind-controlled robots, cyborgs, Red Riding Hood. Images not at all dictated by any real-life physics, but a series of flowing mental images in purely animated form. In my mind, I thought: "Mamoru Oshii - Creator of Animation". Patlabor Mobile Police, the late-eighties brilliance about a police force of robot pilots; Ghost in the Shell, one of the most popular and influential pieces of science fiction cinema in the nineties; Jin-Roh, an alternate time-line, a Japan in turmoil, two opposing forces drawn together. For years, I've garnered incredible respect for this dynamic writer/director and all that he has brought into the animation genre.

Part of this image was shattered with the realization that Oshii did not limit himself simply to the moving cels.

Mamoru Oshii is primarily known throughout the world as one of the great masters of animation. Ever since the release of Ghost in the Shell during the mid-nineties, film aficionados, as well as animation freaks, have revered Oshii as a true innovator in animation, skilled in maximizing the medium's potential in order to tell convincing, heart-questioning stories.

While I knew of his latest feature film, Avalon, the three films presented in Bandai Entertainment's box set, "The Mamoru Oshii Trilogy", came as a splash of incredibly cold water in my face. After I wiped my proverbial face, I spent two hours coming to realize that Oshii not only offers much to animation, but to the world of cinema as a whole.

The earliest film presented here is his mostly black and white film, The Red Spectacles, a truly odd piece of cinema, a visual journey that I wasn't quite expecting from the mind of Oshii. Utilizing brilliant cinematography, an almost psychotic presentation of the plot, dream-like yet horrifically banal scenery, and bizarre characters, Oshii weaves an odd tale about a violent cop who returns to the town after an absence of three years, attempting to discover what has gone down since he escaped the fires of tribulation in the new, cleaner government regime.

Koichi, Souichiro (or "Ao"), and Midori were three members of the Kerberos Riot Group, a special ops unit dedicated to dealing with the increasingly violent and harsh criminals who developed in the late 20th century. The Kerberos Team, using that old fire fighting fire theory, were known for utilizing extreme violence against crime. These tactics performed the task in an exemplary fashion, but left the Kerberos Team in a bad position after their job was done. The government, systematically taking down the team, caused Koichi, the leader of the Kerberos Team, to attempt to escape with Ao and Midori. In this action packed scene, Koichi is the only one to break free, regrettably leaving Midori and Ao to face their eminent capture by the new government.

Three years have gone by, and the Age of the Dogs has passed. The Age of the Cats has come, symbolically and almost literally, and the world no longer requires the services of the Kerberos Riot Group. Koichi returns to this town, where he has become a discarded item of the past age, and his harsh techniques only attract the attention of those in authority who wish to pin him back down. This is the world of the Red Spectacles.

The film delineates the drab current existence with the film stock, utilizing a slightly sepia-tinged black and white film stock, compared to the traditional color used to differentiate with the more understandable past and to the hopes for the future. This is not the only example of Oshii using techniques other than the story and dialogue to convey certain moods. When Koichi runs back into Ao, the distinction Oshii creates of Ao's new life lies in his room, which has been meticulously decorated with cat images, suggesting his domestication at the hands of the new society.

The film also utilizes a bit of the old ultra-violence, from the mass-murdering slaughter of the civilians intent on capturing the Kerberos Riot Group at the beginning of the film, to the Bruce Lee-esque combat scenes with Koichi versus the Army of Cats who try and capture him. The violence is offset by Oshii's introduction of an almost ridiculous level of comic relief, such as Koichi constantly being poisoned with diarrhea-inducing drugs or being attacked by a group of mimes. Even the overly violent action scenes turn more into a form of slapstick comedy, even going as far as to use the sound of a beer can being crushed when Koichi crushes the neck of one of his attackers.

Oshii paints an incredible world out of tiny details. Take, for example, Koichi's search for an old school, stand-and-eat soba shop, a contemporary staple of urban Japan's nightlife. The new government has outlawed such late-night eateries in order to control crime, leading to the establishment of underground soba stands. As Koichi searches for both such an underground institution as well as an old contact from his former life, his journey takes him through a movie house, where an out of order toilet stall leads to an underground cellar, where the few fortunate and forgotten customers, clad in trench coats, eat the bland soba that's left. Or the posters of a girl's face, that seem to decorate every public wall. Or again, Ao's room in the new age, completely decorated with images of cats, in order to portray by visuals the changes he has made in his life. The sets also utilize both simplicity and repetition, in order to further create the cold atmosphere of this alien town.

Mingled with the moments of extreme ludicrousness are certain images and sounds intended to convey extreme paranoia and nervousness. The scenes when Detective Bunmei, the representative of the new government, captures Koichi are especially nerve-wracking. They combine the somehow disturbing visuals of the detectives arriving on an underground rail line, the air filled with the sounds of the standard Japanese morning exercise tape, a mixture of old-school, strict routine with the inherent discomfort that can be felt as an underground train car comes to a halt in front of your torture chair.

Poignancy in the film comes with the reintroduction of the two lost dogs, the unraveling of the fates of Ao and Midori. Each has been absolutely broken by the new government, with Ao living as a poor gambler, Midori becoming a kept woman bound to Detective Bunmei's whims. Each betray Koichi at first, attempting to broker their own survivals in the Age of Cats. Even in the face of this betrayal, Koichi's fight for the survival of his own individualism is maintained, helping to bring his two comrades back from their new life to once again help to save him from this new world.

The film is almost Lynchean, not only in its use of disturbing imagery in order to put across certain ideas and values, but also in Oshii's prevalence for making certain scenes distinctively weird, for the sake of creating an image which is refreshingly, if disturbingly, memorable. Oshii refuses to rely on standard, commercial forms of telling his story, preferring to place the viewer outside of the standard experiences of cinema in order to make the images that much more jarring.

Or at least, I could call it Lynchean, if this film wasn't made prior to David Lynch's distinctive style being produced in Blue Velvet. Oshii and Lynch just share that sort of cinematic reasoning, of not only bizarre symbolism, but also the candor to create disturbing imagery out of what would otherwise be considered inane, everyday objects.

Oshii shows an amazing amount of directorial achievement in this early feature, providing a demonstration of the potential he had before he made a name of himself as one of the greater creators of animation. Thanks to Bandai Visual, Oshii fans in America now have the opportunity to discover Oshii contributions to the live action cinematic landscape. And this is just the first film. Man, I'm really excited to see his more recent projects, if I was so amazed by this venture. Plus, the next one, Stray Dogs is a sequel. Stay tuned next month to see if that movie was super-plus good or complete "teh suck".

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