Firefly Dreams/Versus/Final Fantasy

Don Brown the8thsamurai
Mon Oct 15 22:39:37 EDT 2001

"Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu", or "Firefly Dreams" doesn't seem to be pulling 
them in down in Osaka (morning shows only at the one cinema it's screening 
at), but I think that's more to do with the locals' apparent apathy towards 
non-Hollywood fare.  
  The film's major shortcoming for me was the idealisation of the Japanese 
countryside as some unsullied idyll where city dwellers can be rejuvenated 
and reborn.  There seems to be a tendency for Japanese filmmakers to take a 
rose-coloured approach to such locations - there doesn't seem to be much 
cinematic mileage in looking at the desertion of rural areas by the young 
and educated, or the environmental impact of agricultural and industrial 
pollution, and white-elephant public works schemes.  I suppose it makes a 
change from the reverse treatment it often gets elsewhere, where life 
outside the cities mostly consists of either inbred blood orgies or futile 
battles against banks and local authorities to save the family farm.  
However, in terms of recent films I can only recall Harada Masato's Inugami 
as an example of a movie that took a less than sympathetic view of rural 
life.  Typically for Harada, it took a recognisably American approach to 
the remote mountain village, painting it as a hotbed of incest and ancient 
superstition.  Even so, it still looked gorgeous and untainted thanks to 
the sweeping cinematography and rich lighting.      
  All that aside, "Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu" is a great film.  Leisurely 
paced, slowly unfolding.  Director John Williams' story of a young city 
girl steered a little closer to the straight and narrow by her elderly 
guide had a whiff of other recent and similarly themed films (usually made 
by elderly Japanese male directors), but without any of their moralising 
and sermonising.  Great performances, beautifully filmed, well written.  I 
hope this small film reaches the audience it deserves.
  Then I saw something at the other end of the scale: Kitamura Ryuhei's 
"Versus".  The programme touted a supposedly upcoming sequel - not much 
point really.  A story and characters worth revisiting would be necessary 
for that, I would think.  I had heard the film described as one long fight 
scene, and that was not far off the mark.  The action scenes were generally 
highly kinetic and well choreographed, and well edited.  Besides that, not 
much to praise.  According to one of the official websites for the movie, 
the aim was "Super Cool and No Rules".  Like Ishii Katsuhito and other such 
young directors of that ilk, their idea of "cool" seems to encompass 
egregious mugging and posing on the part of the cast, dodgy manga-esque 
dialogue, and a disregard for coherent plot and pacing.  Perhaps this was 
the meaning of "no-rules".  The attempt at mixing the horror and action 
genres was a well meaning one, and it avoided the usual cliches by steering 
away from some conventions, but given this treatment it perhaps would have 
been better suited to a video game adaptation.  This overbearing style is 
becoming something of a cliché itself, an extrapolation of 
Tarantino, Woo, Peter Jackson and others in that "demographic".  Made for 
(and perhaps by) the perpetually adolescent Japanese male.  And it is LOUD, 
both in attitude and in sheer volume.  Much screaming and screeching, in 
dialogue and on the soundtrack.  Alright for the first few scenes, but in 
the end I just wanted to scream "SHUT UP!" at the screen.  Plus I was sick 
of the "hero" prefacing everything with "Ore wa na,?".   A chauvinistic 
fantasy.  For a much more well-crafted boys own movie, "Electric Dragon 
80000" is a far safer bet.          
  After seeing Final Fantasy in a near-deserted multiplex theatre last 
weekend, I have to say that based on what I saw I don't think it deserved 
to tank so badly at the box office.  It wasn't the failure I was expecting, 
nor was it a herald of some bold new frontier for animation either.  Put it 
this way: there have been far worse movies that have made much more money.
  So the plot wasn't anything amazing, and neither were the characters.  
Nothing very memorable about it, except perhaps the translucent "phantoms". 
 The hyper-realistic computer animated "actors" did have a certain 
Thunderbirds-crossed-with-GI-Joe quality to them, and as previously 
mentioned on the list, the celebrity voices were often ill-matched with 
their CG shells.  
  But it looked fantastic up on the big screen: the lead character Dr. Aki 
was animated fluidly with painstaking attention to detail (perhaps at the 
expense of many of the other characters), and the action/chase sequences 
were staged adequately.  Faint praise perhaps, but I find it difficult to 
justify the film's poor performance at the box office solely on the basis 
of its creative shortcomings. 
  On reflection, it often felt like a blown-up version of the little CG 
interludes in one of Square's video games, rather than possessing much of a 
cinematic quality.  Perhaps this was due to the general absence of human 
characters outside of the main "cast".  This coupled with the lack of a 
decent villain, let alone scary monsters, lent the film a somewhat empty 
and barren feeling.  It's a shame that the failure of Final Fantasy most 
likely means the (hopefully temporary) end of such large scale computer 
animation in Japan, and the current usage of CG as a complement to 
traditional animation techniques looks likely to remain the norm.  
Don Brown

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