What can I write about Shinichiro Watanabe’s seminal, acclaimed, hugely influential anime Cowboy Bebop that has not already been discussed, in greater detail and with more eloquence, by people before me? I came very late to Cowboy Bebop; I’ve mentioned before when reviewing anime that aside from a handful of exceptions, like Ghost in the Shell, I hadn’t watched much until a few years ago. Cowboy Bebop was one of the landmark series that I’d somehow missed out on, and it took me seventeen years – the series aired in Japan in 1998, but not until 2001 in the west – to correct that grave mistake. Fortunately, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) gives me an opportunity to discuss the series as a whole and the film in particular. Set between episodes 23 and 24 of the original 26 episode run, the film works as more of a “lost episode” than as a either a capstone to the series or a truly standalone adventure. I imagine a casual viewer could approach it without having watched the series, but that would leave them missing out on much of the world- and character-building that went into the show – and as the film is set largely on Mars, it misses out on much of the swashbuckling, spacefaring charm of the series.
Last year, Netflix released the first film in a planned trilogy of CG-anime Godzilla movies, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. It managed to take a promising concept, where humanity had ceded the earth to kaiju and has returned from the stars to attempt to reclaim it, and loaded it down with stilted animation, loads of exposition, and a near impenetrable script full of sci-fi and pseudo-religious jargon. As the sequel, Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018), approached I did hold out some hope that the second entry in the series could shed some of the baggage that the first had. The world was established, the animation would hopefully improve, and a lot of the kinks would be ironed out. City on the Edge of Battle picks up almost exactly where Planet of the Monsters left off: humanity’s landing party is in dire straits, its hero missing, and their last best hope might be found in the ruined remains of a failed attempt to build Mechagodzilla before they fled earth in the first place.
When it was announced that Hideaki Anno, alongside Shinji Higuchi, would direct the next live-action, Japanese-made Godzilla movie the question in my mind was: how closely would it hew to his classic, cult Neon Genesis Evangelion? It seemed like a perfect fit – after all, Evangelion revolves so heavily around the kaiju-like angels that it would only be natural for Anno to step in, and as the Godzilla series has frequently used its giant monsters as not-so-subtle allegories for other issues that it was surely ripe for Anno’s brand of symbolism. The result is the rebooted Shin Godzilla (2016), Toho’s first new movie since 2004’s Final Wars, and coming in relatively hot on the heels of Legendary’s American-made Godzilla (2014).
Given my love of Ghost in the Shell in all its many iterations, I would be remiss in not reviewing Ghost in the Shell (2017) – the US remake from director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and starring Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Under the Skin) as the Major. Remakes in general are always a tough sell, and while I think there are some good examples on both sides of the equation (The Ring is a strong adaptation of Ring, Yurusurezarumono is a fantastic adaptation of Unforgiven) the general expectation is that any piece of world cinema being adapted for Hollywood is going to lose something in translation. I wanted to approach it with some degree of open-mindedness – perhaps it could be one of those rare examples of a remake that transcends its source material, or if nothing else, perhaps it could stand alone as a decent film even if in failing to surpass the original version it winds up feeling unnecessary (not unlike the recent RoboCop remake).
As Netflix plunges more and more cash into original content, one of the areas it has ramped up production in is Japanese drama and anime. The acquisition of Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017) for global distribution was a big symbolic gesture, one that teamed Netflix up with Polygon Pictures (Blame!) for another CGI anime movie. The result is the first part of a planned trilogy of movies pitting the future remnants of humanity against a massive, nigh unstoppable Godzilla that has conquered the Earth and now rules a kaiju planet.
By the time I got around to seeing Your Name. (2016), it was already a phenomenon. It held the top spot at the Japanese box office – before returning for another three. It was the second largest box office for a domestic Japanese film behind Spirited Away, and the first non-Miyazaki anime to pass $100 million dollars. Critical praise was high, and the fandom was intense. People were going on pilgrimages to locations featured in the film. As time slipped by and I still hadn’t seen it, I grew worried that it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations – or worse, that all that hype would undermine even an above average film. In the end, I needn’t have worried: Your Name is visually stunning and has a story to match.
Mamoru Oshii’s challenging follow-up to his breathtaking original film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) is a post-cyberpunk, post-human foray into the vanishing line between humans and machines. Set some time after the conclusion of the first film, the sequel follows Batou and Togusa, newly partnered up, as they investigate a series of grisly murders involving gynoid sex dolls. Despite being overshadowed by its predecessor, Innocence remains one of my favourite anime film.
Netflix delved into original anime filmmaking with Blame! (2017), adapted from Tsutomu Nihei’s manga of the same title. Set in a distant post-apocalyptic future where the last remnants of humanity cling on to survival in a vast, machine-controlled city, it’s a refreshing take on a number of familiar sci-fi and anime tropes. Directed by Hiroyuki Seshita (Knights of Sidonia, Ajin) and produced by Polygon Pictures, a Japanese CG animation studio best known to me for their work on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Blame! is worth a look for any anime fan with a Netflix subscription.
It wasn’t really my intention to limit my anime reviews to Production I.G’s films, but I wound up watching Psycho-Pass: The Movie (2015) and here we are. The film follows Psycho-Pass (2012) and Psycho-Pass 2 (2014), both television anime series. Like Production I.G’s own, earlier Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the subsequent Solid State Society film, and not unlike what they’d later repeat with Ghost in the Shell ARISE project, this anime film follows an existing series and doesn’t truly stand alone – something to keep in mind before deciding to watch it.
Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (2015) is the feature-length follow-up to Ghost in the Shell ARISE, the third animated iteration of the Ghost in the Shell franchise (after the original films and the Stand Alone Complex era of the early 2000s). In Japanese, it’s called ‘Shin Gekijōban’, which is akin to ‘the new movie based on an anime or television series’. This explains both the clumsy English language title and the reliance on characters and plot elements from ARISE that, enjoyable or not, prevents it from excelling as a standalone experience.