Rising Suns #03: I AM A HERO (2016) [アイアムアヒーロー]

One-sheet of the I AM A HERO movie based on Hanazawa Kengo’s 2009 manga.

What was the best zombie series of the last 15 years? No, it wasn’t the fucking Wanking Dead. Anyone who knows anything about comics knows it’s hot (cake) garbage but the power of marketing, merch and a duff TV show led to unfortunate things. Like a virus, it spread and infected people into thinking it was more sophisticated than it actually is-was. It’s an unplotted pile of shit that’s thankfully ended and been buried, despite continuing to spray AMC and smartphones with piping-hot liquid excrement. If it had been a carefully crafted series with an endgoal in sight, I would look at it more kindly in hindsight. When it was a mere comic series, the first 20-30 issues were seen as a revelation for being brave enough to print in black and white, the brash pronouncement it would never end, and the twists that now seem tired like a stunned horse. As a persistent stench upon popular culture, it opened the doors to the comic dross that is now inescapable on streaming services that I don’t have the interest in wasting my time on when there are real books waiting to be read. The past is a treasure trove if you’re willing to dig deep enough to find the strands, not the Xeroxed copies of brief successes and excesses.

I AM A HERO is the antithesis to the shite yank Zombie fad of the 00s-?? and was wonderfully tied up in 22 volumes by Shogakukan and my much missed friends and colleagues at Dark Horse Comics, who finished the English translation and publication in 2019.

Just before a real pandemic forced its way into the world.

When the series reached its conclusion in Japan, I drove through long, dark, winding roads at 4am to buy a copy of BIG SPIRITS to devour the final chapter and its huge colour double-page spread of its poignant conclusion. It was, and still is a monumental piece of storytelling and cemented in my mind that mangaka Hanazawa Kengo had finally realised his ambition to tell a GREAT horror story for adults which was concise, violent, obscene, outrageous and tender all at the same time. TWD could never achieve that due to its inexcusable overwriting, 200 word monologues, the same narrative voice for all the characters (that being the grossly obese Robert Kirkman who I saw sweating and panting heavily at NYCC 2012)… need I go on? No. Let’s not.

In fact, I feel it’s insulting to Mr. Hanazawa’s talent to even compare his work with anothers as it stands tall as a work of art, rather than a media monolith that leaves most people cold.

I AM A HERO span out into four volumes of additional stories by new and major Japanese talents like Ito Junji, and a live-action movie in 2016, supported by a brief late-night mini series on TV that acts as a prelude to the movie (but to be honest, all good stories start small and we don’t need to know the origins of literally fucking everything; this is my major criticism of the dire Disney+ Star Wars spin-offs).

Now, let’s bite into the juicy meat of the brain. The movie. I’m a huge fan of Oku Hiroya’s GANTZ series which came out around 2008/9 in English translation, but the live action movies were failures in terms of narrative but not casting and design. The movies share the same director as IAAH, I only recently found out. Many manga gets optioned and turned into movies before the series is completed so the creators are leaving their work in the hands of studio writers with no idea how to turn in a satisfactory conclusion. The second GANTZ film was based on aspects of the manga but sadly unsatisfying (I do however highly recommend the GANTZ: O movie, which is the closest you will get to a truly satisfying fusion of manga and movie).

The same rationale can be directed at the I AM A HERO movie, however there are so many things RIGHT about it, I can forgive truncating 22 books totalling thousands of pages into two-hours. The cast is spot on, the costumes exact, the scenes in the first 30 minutes are ripped from the pages of the manga itself as if they were storyboards. Suzuki Hideo is a 35 year old manga artist who had won a newcomer award in his twenties but never managed to capitalise on this initial spurt of success. He becomes an assistant to another mangaka who is churning out a series he’s not interested in, nor does he raise his voice to question why he’s even doing what he’s doing (this doesn’t do you any favours in making real comics or books by the way, because you always get shot down by people with no interest in the medium who think they know better than you). The work relationship breaks down when a spate of attacks across Tokyo turn out to be (possibly?) a zombie/virus/mutation that causes people to attack and infect each other. Yes, sounds familiar. So what makes it fresh? The POV of the protagonist, without doubt. Instead of going gungho with his shotgun (gun use is not legal in Japan, except for hunting or sport in which case you thankfully need a license, unlike some countries where you can shoot up schools), he is constantly at odds with himself about using the weapon, the ramnifications of violence and his own destroyed confidence.

Later, he meets high-school student Hiromi, who has been infected partially and exists in a semi-infected state that comes into play at various points in the manga series. While the movie doesn’t quite expand on her role like the manga, she still provides a welcome counter-point to the on-screen excessive gore. The movie covers the bulk of the earlier volumes, but doesn’t make it to the final volume as it had yet to be published. However, what you do get is a concise, action-packed and faithful live-action event that deserves more than a single viewing.

When Routine Bites Hard, And Ambitions Are Low…

Thanks for hanging in there and reading my blog every day. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Oh wait. I haven’t posted anything in six years.

Well, the fact of the situation is I lost total interest in writing a blog, the reviews, or doing much of anything really after I translocated myself across to the other side of the world, starting a new band (which died after about 18 months), getting (over)worked and trying to start a new life in a country where I’m frequently greeting with the WTF expression because I’m a white. Sometimes its up, mostly its down. The grass is always greener, and all that.

In that time, some people have left my life sadly (ad some fortunately, I’ve met some right bellends here), some have left the face of the Earth, and even my hobbies like MTG which I was devoting an enormous amount of time and dedication to decided to go all “PC-And-Charge-$300-For-A-Box” so I decided to give that the boot. Very sad thing too, all this giving up stuff. Boo hoo.

And of course we have China. Thanks for your contribution to World Peace. You deserve the Nobel Prize for Not Knowing How To Wash Your Fucking Hands Properly. Particularly after using those squatting toilets, which are a shitting disgrace. I should add they have those in Japan too, and if you’re willing to piss-skate over the puddle of effluent to risk dropping one, then be my guest. Thankfully they’re on the way out. A bit like the Japanese population, actually.

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Ian Curtis: He’s dead.

To raise my spirits in the past fortnight I’ve been listening to upbeat British music such as Joy Division and Joy Division and Wire, with some Joy Division thrown in for good measure. Sadly, one of them topped themselves after his wife broke his copy of Low, which to be fair, is a mixed bag.

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“Mixed Bag”: Bowie’s LOW

I also lied to the general public and said that a follow up to A HERO OF OUR TIME would be out by the end of 2018, and as usual sailed past that deadline with not a care in the world. In fact, I hadn’t even done the raw exports on most of the tracks except about 40-50 rough sessions which I listened to driving around mountains at 3 in the morning wondering what the hell to sing over them. During those moments, I imagined Simon sitting at his desk in London in his suit thinking “What the fuck is that lazy bastard doing by not recording anything?”. Well, having a bit of a holiday really I suppose.

It was only after I stopped trying to write new songs for ATK, which in the end was like pulling splinters out of a wooden leg for various reasons, that I discovered a new form of drug: the PS4. Thus, like another genius before him called Trent Reznor, spent the next 18 months playing FPSs and not actually doing anything remotely creative (his problem was DOOM, mine is DESTINY 2).

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Destiny 2: Crack Is Bad For You

Without any specific trigger, such as someone standing outside my house shouting GEORGE FLOYD (no relation to PINK, apparently), I ended up writing and recording every day and annoying Simon via iMessage about all the wonderful and terrible creative things coming his way, which has probably given him a migraine because suddenly there’s this spurt of activity after years of bugger all from my end, for which I am entirely and solely to blame. Sorry Simon and Lex (and Tom). I’m a lazy fucker.

2020 has been a total write-off for many reasons. The best things about it I have no intention of sharing with you, as I don’t know who the fuck you are, but maybe I’ll bring back some of my fabulous complaint posts which annoyed a couple of people at Jesmond Pool in Newcastle (which I imagine is made up now of 96% faecal matter since I last visited).

If you made it this far, I pity you.

 

 

 

Three-Minute Review #11: Ichi The Killer (2001)

ichi-the-killer

I had my mind completely blown by mangaka Yamamoto Hideo’s (山本英夫) incredible Homunculus this week, a manga so powerful and compelling I read all 15 volumes in 24 hours.  Until I read up on the creator on Wikipedia, I had no idea that he had also written and drawn Ichi The Killer some years prior. I’d seen the movie back in 2001 and considered myself something of a scholar of Takashi Miike’s work [as an aside, please stop calling him ‘Mike’, as in ‘Mike the plumber’ or ‘Mike Jackson, the dead pop perv’; it’s pronounced ‘Me-eek-kay’]. I was unaware that it was based on an extremely violent yakuza manga. As soon as I’d completed Homunculus, I started in on Ichi. The two stories are poles apart visually and story-wise.

Returning now to the movie, thirteen years later, is a very different experience from when I first watched it in horrified silence in the company of friends. It’s become a byword for extremity on-screen, something cooked up by a disturbed mind from the Far East where the torture scenes conjure up harrowing memories of Unit 731, Abe Sada or centuries of unchecked violence under feudal rule. Watching it now, it’s a superbly black comedy that rarely strays from the original source material. It’s an almost-perfect comic book adaptation.

If you aren’t squeamish, the violence is utterly absurd, the characters over-the-top and universally despicable, and the amorality of the film couldn’t be more ironic if it tried. Violence begets violence, it’s as simple as that. The only scene that stuck out in my mind from the original viewing was a scene in which a yakuza is suspended with hooks Hellraiser-style while a slit-mouthed man pours hot oil onto his back. Kakihara dresses like the Joker in the movie version: wide-mouthed and dyed hair on top of a purple trenchcoat. Ichi himself is a proto-Batman in his all-black superhero bodysuit with a bright 1 on his back. It’s a perverse refraction of the DC character down to the abusive and violent childhood which created the ‘hero’, a questionable characteristic considering he spends his evenings indecently assaulting people.

The comedy is amplified in Takashi’s version: yakuza bumble about in a slapstick fashion when the boss faints after seeing Kakihara slice his own tongue off. He even takes a call, not reacting to the pain, while spitting fresh blood onto the boss’ table. Ridiculous rather than horrifying. The main difference is that the focus of the movie is on the villain of the piece rather than Ichi himself. In the first 50 minutes of run-time, Ichi appears only in three very short (but memorable) scenes, and is detached from the yakuza narrative completely.

Of course the sexual violence in the movie is deplorable, as it is in the manga, and these scenes are actually less graphic than the source material which makes for deeply uncomfortable reading. Yamamoto forces you to confront darkness you may not have seen before in comics on such a scale. It’s handled in a very gratuitous fashion that Western publishers wouldn’t dare print it lest they come under heavy fire from all spectrums of the media, but worst of all is essential to the story. The moral dilemma left me drained (contrasted with the vile use of a rape in Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass 2, which cemented my resolution never to read any of his work again).

What was confusing about viewing the movie in isolation was a lack of understanding about Japanese culture and customs, not knowing it was an adaptation, and regarding it as a sequence of extremely violent moments only loosely linked by the odd word here and there that barely composed a script. In actuality, the story makes much more sense after spending 10 hours reading the original, which may defeat the object but enriches the experience ten fold.

Synopsis (with spoilers): Ichi is a pawn of Jiji (Old Man), sent to do hits as and when he’s requested to do so. Old Man’s team consists of a junkie and a Chinese pimp, both of whom are equally dispensable. In a block of flats in Shinjuku, a dangerous part of Tokyo where prostitution, drugs and violence appear to be a part of daily life there (from experience of visiting the place, it’s not), a yakuza boss called Anjo and his mistress are killed by Ichi and their bodies cleaned up by the rest of the group. Kakihara, one of Anjo’s disciples and possible lover, refuses to believe his boss has done a runner with all the gang’s cash with his mistress. He sets out to find him, only to be misdirected by Old Man who claims other gangs within the same apartment block were behind his disappearance. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as Kakihara attempts to find what happened to his boss. He reveals his masochistic side on numerous occasions, such as his penitent removal of the sweet part of his tongue in front of his superiors. Eventually Kakihara faces Ichi for a typically bloody Takashi showdown.

Return to this film. Watch it with filtered sunglasses on. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top nonsense. It is not an endorsement of violence or abuse, anything but. Takashi is taking the piss out of gangs and out of his audience because he knows at the end of the day you can’t take a joke.

Why so serious?

Amy Blue: The Making of “A Hero Of Our Time” (Or: Why Does It Take 5 Years For You To Record An Album?)

Yesterday, I uploaded the new Amy Blue album, A Hero Of Our Time. For most people, that’s not particularly interesting. For the band, who are not world famous or signed to a major label, it ended up becoming our “difficult” second album. Yet, I’m sitting here now wondering why did take so long.

Some of the songs were written as far back as 2008 but were never considered for our (shorter) first album, The Fortress & The Fatalist. That was our first trip into the studio and was of course an eye-opening experience. But having been in the studio and seeing what it takes to record, I think we all realised that there were other ways of getting the songs done without having to spend so much money and go through the stress and misery of having to plan for a full day out with cars loaded up with gear, grub and grumpy bandmates. We felt the pressure of the clock and at the time were frustrated with the bassist who failed (or refused) to make it to any of the sessions.

Simon and I recorded the bass parts ourselves, though I have never been confident in my own bass playing. Totally different discipline and I end up playing it like a six string. So inevitably, the parts weren’t complex.

When we booked our studio time to record AHOOT, we didn’t have an album title in mind nor a real direction – just a bunch of songs that we’d been collecting since Trev joined the band as the new bassist. He’d brought with him a positive attitude and a sense of humour (later, this became somewhat contentious for everyone as he insisted on telling deeply offensive jokes he’d written for Sickopedia online and had since had them scrubbed from the internet).

We loaded up a couple of cars with gear, grub and tired bandmates (we weren’t grumpy at the time) and headed to Random Colours in North London to record with Rich Johnston, who’d produced our first record. This time, we’d decided with Rich to try a different approach to the recording – to capture our live sound by playing together in the open studio space. It didn’t turn out how we’d hoped.

The night before, I was pretty wound up from driving through London past lunatics and from the anticipation of recording. I didn’t sleep a wink. Recording is one of my favourite things to do, and I was looking forward to the sessions. We got to the studio early, set up, had a cup of tea, then cracked on. It was January, and the studio was freezing cold. We had fan heaters blasting and I must have drank about 10 cups of tea before lunch. We cut ‘The Language of Ghosts’ first, a song that Simon and I recorded as a two-piece for our first EP back in 2006 but as a four-piece. This version was heavier and more intense than our electro/demo version and we’d been playing it around London as a full band for a couple of years. I do generally believe that you shouldn’t go back and re-record a song as there’s always something new to be working on, but I was particularly fond of ‘Ghosts’ and felt we could transform it into something more intense (and shoegazey, which was the original intention).

We recorded as quickly as possible, but by the end of the day the strain was beginning to take its toll, and I nearly collapsed during ‘Scissors’, the longest song we had written to date. The band continued working without me while I took some time to lie down in the studio next door in the dark. I was worn out, overtired, stressed out, anxious. At the time, I wasn’t in a very good way. Lex drove me home later where I crashed out, burned out. The next day we were back at the studio to continue the sessions. But I was deeply troubled at the time with life and work pressures that were taking a physical toll on me.

After hearing the mixes, I think we all agreed that the performances were shit.

Lex was right in saying that we worked best in our rehearsal space, close together and without other parties looking over our shoulders. We needed the pressure off to do our best. Even though there was a bit of ‘Urgh, we have to do it all AGAIN’, we… did it again. This time, we kept things simple – recording the drums and bass and a lead guitar track. No vocals, no extra guitars to muddy the basic take. After this, we sifted through these recordings and ditched the duffers – false starts, missed beats, etc. Then comes the overdubbing, which means recording more parts on top of the basic take. Simon and I like this stage – we’re often still writing new sections or melodies up until this point, plus it gives you opportunity to experiment in your own time. Finally, the vocals go on top and the thing gets mixed, mastered, released.

This time, there were some decisions made that resulted in Trev leaving the band. Simon was unhappy with his part on one of the songs and ‘did a B0lly’ (as we called it) where he took the executive decision to re-record the part himself. With all of us working, and most of our rehearsals taken up with working on a vast set of new songs that had been written in the months following the January sessions, there never seemed to be the time. I don’t think either Simon or I felt that Trev wanted to put in the extra time to re-do his parts either, or that he may get upset that it was decided what he’d done wasn’t good enough. While he did turn up to the sessions to record, he became unreliable when it came to rehearsals, and his ego was being stifled by the two songwriters so perhaps he felt sabotage or being obnoxious was the best way to deal with the situation. In hindsight, it was deeply immature. He could have tried to air his issues but chise not to do so.

You could argue that ‘doing it yourself’ is not the way to handle this sort of situation, but of course, you aren’t in our band or know the personalities involved. I Trev decided to walk out because of this slight against his “talent” but failed to grasp the simple fact that doing a half-arsed job and not bithering to make the effort to do his parts again caused the friction in the first place. I don’t think he ever truly wanted to commit to the band. He did however come to the mixing sessions for at least half of the songs and gave his feedback and I think he was pleased with how things were going.

We mixed for around six months. Rerecorded guitar parts. Redid vocals. Our friend Tom came in later on to help with the mixing and I think improved what we’d done a great deal. Tom would later play bass on the Unwinding sessions between 2013-2014.

By the end of 2012, the record was pretty much done with the exception of the artwork. At this point, I sat on it, listening to it over and over and agonising over various things that irked me. I sent it to friends around the world and asked what they thought. The thing got sidelined for a bit while I was playing in A Thousand Knives, and for my short attention span had become a bit stale after 18 months of writing new songs. The UK contingent of Amy Blue (Lex and Simon and Tom) took a break. Tom and I later left the country, with me taking the still unfinalised tracks with me.

I’m glad AHOOT is finally out there. It was a slog, but I doubt you’ll hear any of that in a 3 minute pop-punk song. Simon really carried the weight on this one – the artwork (I’d also like the thank AJ for helping out with the cover design), the title, the extensive recordings. It is very much his baby and we’re both proud of it.

[This post was originally written in 2013 and is reposted here with some corrections and additions.]

 

Rising Suns #02: I really need to stop watching ガキの使い, but it’s so damn funny.

I know this one is going to take some explaining.

I’m addicted to a TV show that you’ve never heard of, seen or even imagined. It’s Japanese, so for those who do know me that’ll be somewhat of a non-revelation. It’s a weekly comedy show and has been running continuously since October 3, 1989 on NTV. And it’s so damn strange that a critical analysis for a gaijin such as yourself is going to make me sound like the mentalist for liking it in the first place.

First up, the title just trips off the tongue: Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! (ダウンタウンのガキの使いやあらへんで!!). Downtown are a comedy duo who’ve spent pretty much the last 20-plus years on Japanese TV, and are probably the most popular comedians working there today. Perhaps only Beat Takeshi is more popular, though for Western audiences we know him as a brutal gangster, bastard of a policeman or a guy in a funny hat who presides over a castle where people snap ribs trying to break in

It’s through that show that I came to find out about Gaki no Tsukai (the shorter, more Brit-friendly way I pronounce the show’s title). As a child, I used to like shows like Crush A Grape, Fun House and It’s a Royal Knockout (repeats). Today, that’s replaced by Total Wipeout on BBC1 presented by Richard Hairmond. If you’ve not seen Takeshi’s Castle, you’re missing a really funny/painful/public humiliation/trial of the human spirit/wtf? tv show. The UK edition is narrated by Craig Charles and has been running on digital for quite a few years now.

Once I’d had my fill of that, I was out of ideas of what to watch next. Not knowing any Japanese (at the time), there’s no way you can just google this stuff up. Then I was told about Gaki‘s ‘infamous’ batsu games. Check this out:

Gaki’s stars, the duo known as Downtown (Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada) hail from Osaka, the lovely foodie part of Japan. Having been there and eaten the udon, I can vouch for the friendly atmosphere and people, and the less hectic lifestyle compared to Tokyo. The concept of the batsu developed early on, when one of the pair would lose a bet and be forced to accept a punishment. Often this would be something ridiculous like Matsumoto dressing up as the NTV bird and providing the beeeeep! of the colour test, to Hamada having to fly to France in a day to retrieve Evian from the glacier where it comes from. Then things started to get more serious. As in, funnier.

The first big televised event was in March 2000, where Hamada, plus three other cast members (the duo Cocorico, and the hard done-to Hosei Yamasaki, a favourite of mine) had to spend 24 hours playing tag in a school gymnasium. The twist in this case was that the taggers, once you were caught, would then exact an awful, and often painful, punishment upon the victim.

Full video, with subtitles:

[continued…]

Rising Suns #01: A Brief Guide to GANTZ

This article originally appeared on totalscifi.com before the UK release of the first Gantz movie.

You’re at the train station and a drunk man falls onto the tracks. People shuffle nervously towards the yellow line to peer at the lifeless body. Everyone remains motionless, hoping somebody courageous enough will race forwards to help the guy to safety, but no one comes – until, eventually, one brave soul jumps down from the platform. He struggles to lift the lifeless, overweight body onto the platform’s edge. To your horror, he recognises you as a childhood friend. Something clicks within you and you’re standing next to him on the tracks. The light bearing down on you from the darkness of the tunnel makes you wish you’d remained passive like everyone else…

So begins the very first episode of Hiroya Oku’s manga sensation Gantz, the hyperviolent science fiction epic that’s currently being serialised in Weekly Young Jump magazine. Since its first appearance in October 2000, it has spawned a 26-episode anime series, two live-action movies, two novels, a PS2 game and a horde of merchandise that’s had a surprising cross-cultural and cross-gender appeal. The first 27 volumes of the manga has surpassed 10 million sales in its home territory, and Dark Horse Comics, who publish the English edition, have also had tremendous success (they’re currently up to volume 15).

 

The concept is simple: at the moment of death, unfortunate souls are transported to a locked room where a black sphere known as “Gantz” prepares them for battle against unusual and deranged non-human combatants. In some respects, it’s like a real life videogame where black-costumed contestants start off learning to use time-delayed explosive pistols and netting guns against spring onion-headed children, giant Buddhist statues and stripy-shirted robots that house angry birds. Rest assured, the situations are both familiar and completely alien. They’re also utterly demented.

Therein lies the appeal of the series: this is not your typical shoot ‘em up. In fact, the relationship that develops between the initially cowardly Kei Kurono, Masuro Kato and Kei Kishimoto is what keeps Gantz relatively grounded and compulsively readable. Its use of violence and sex is no more shocking than, say, Fist of the North Star or Beserk, but the real life setting makes it easier for us here in the West to jump into.

Viz Pictures acquired the rights to screen the first of two Gantz live-action feature films in the US in January, with the second, Gantz: Perfect Answer, due for release in Japan in April. With a $22m budget, it’s a no-holds-barred and thrilling experience, and the awesome, surreal set-pieces ensure it has plenty of appeal for Gantz newbies.

Two of Japan’s hottest young actors are up front and centre as Kato and Kei: Kenichi Matsuyuma and Kazunari Ninomiya. Natsuna Watanabe, a Japanese ‘idol’ (a word often used to describe attractive celebs in the country), plays eye-candy Kei. Director Shinsuki Sato has pulled back on the sexual content in the manga to make it more accessible to a teen audience, but the OTT violence still remains; one particularly explosive scene in a garage, where a group of contestants face their first true test, leaves the walls dripping with blood and limbs.

The climax at the temple (which also features in both the manga and the anime) boasts some truly stunning special effects that lift the movie from being your standard niche-market adaptation into an all-out action spectacular with wide appeal. In brief: for a condensed version of the Gantz experience, it hits the mark exactly.

Gantz the series is still running in Japan in its ‘final phase’, meaning the creator’s vision will soon be fully realised. If you’ve not had an opportunity to check out one of Japan’s hottest sci-fi exports, there’s plenty of time to get in on the act. Just don’t blame us if you find yourself with a new addiction…