Symbol (dir. Hatoshi Matsumoto): polished and slick slapstick comedy on nature of the universe

Hatoshi Matsumoto, “Symbol” (2009)

A slapstick comedy about interrelationships and the impact one person can have on events around the world, “Symbol” is the second full-length feature by Hatoshi Matsumoto who is best known in Japan as one-half of a long-running comedy act. The plot splits into two parallel stories that occur on opposite sides of the world, Japan and Mexico. In a small rural part of Mexico, a middle-aged man resignedly prepares for a tag-team wrestling match where he stars as Escargotman; his aged father and small son worry about his physical condition (chubby and pot-bellied) and his attitude in his pre-match routines (no hyping himself up or doing warm-up and limbering exercises). At the same time an unnamed man (Matsumoto himself – let’s call him M) wakes up in a large white-walled room with no furniture or windows in an unknown location in Japan. Images of cherubic male angels appear briefly and fade away, leaving behind only their genitalia on the walls and floor.

Throughout the film the action jumps back and forth between these two scenarios: the man in the room, pressing on the tiny penises, discovers that with each press a hole in a wall (not necessarily the same wall where the pressed penis is located) opens up and spits out an object he can use. Eventually the man works out that he can plan his escape from the room but the plan demands considerable lateral thinking as to how to open a hole up in a wall that leads to a locked door, get the key to that door and the right numbers to unlock the combination lock on the same door. Escargotman meanwhile prays at the family shrine, has his sister (a nun) drive him to the match venue, puts on his costume and mask and goes out to the ring. He waits on the side ropes while his partner gets beaten almost to a pulp by two more pumped-up wrestlers and then goes into the ring himself. In the audience Escargotman’s father and son anxiously sit and wonder if their hero will also get thrashed.

On their own each story isn’t remarkable in itself and viewers mightn’t feel much sympathy for Escargotman and the very real probability that Tequila Joe and his partner will humiliate him absolutely in front of his home crowd. As Escargotman hardly talks and shows little emotion, and on top of that his story shares screen-time with Matsumoto’s protagonist, there’s little tension building up to the wrestling match. M is essentially a comic-strip character in kidult pyjamas and kooky mop-top hairstyle who occasionally has something interesting to say but spends most of his time wordlessly trying out strategies that, comic strip-style, spring up in his head; the strategies work but only after much trial and error and temper tantrums for comic effect. It’s only when M finally escapes from the white room littered with objects and enters a second room where adult angels come and go and leave behind their genitals for our hero to press that the action becomes more interesting; every time he presses a penis, Escargotman lands a punch on his opponents. At this point the two stories become one and viewers start to realise that M isn’t just any ordinary man and the rooms he enters aren’t just any ordinary rooms on our particular plane of existence; each room represents a higher or deeper level of being and in each our man acquires more influence and power over the affairs of Earth. The tale of Escargotman becomes one of many on Earth that M can change. Naturally he insists on continuing to the next room beyond which the punchline awaits him.

The plot falls flat partly because Escargotman and his family are presented as flat though eccentric individuals and the wrestling match could be one of many in several parts of Mexico. For a quirky comedy the Mexican scenes have few quirks to them and become just stereotyped foreign exotic locations with stereotyped characters: Dad trying to make a living, Mum doing housework and nagging people all the time, Grandpa and Junior bonding together and anxious for Dad to prove himself a hero all over again and Aunty utters endless strings of expletive at her rundown truck. Although M helps Escargotman in his match, the influence is one-way only and this insinuates that Escargotman is a mere puppet. The implication behind that, though meant to be comic, is sad. Do Escargotman and his family exist merely for cheap laughs? (I guess so – don’t Third World nations and people exist to be pushed around?) This kind of philosophical black comedy has probably been done to death before and “Symbol” has nothing new to say on the matter.

In spite of the film’s polished presentation which includes a sharp, bright style of filming, computer animation and special effects that look real, and a steady pace driven by M’s desire for escape and meaning, “Symbol” ends up delivering a message that’s clever and slick but not profound. The movie’s worth is mainly in how it manipulates viewer expectations about the plot, its main character, the nature of his prison and how the Escargotman sub-plot ties into the main plot. You laugh at yourself for thinking that because you’re watching a movie, everything there has to make sense or connect with everything else in some way for a clear plot; but expected connections never materialise and unexpected ones do. As M goes from one maze to the next, viewers quickly realise he’s undertaking the metaphorical equivalent of human spiritual and intellectual evolution but whether he realises the importance of the journey himself – it looks as though enlightenment comes to him only during his swimming journey in which, sperm-like, he advances to “the light at the end of the tunnel” – is another matter entirely. Any thoughts he has about his journey, what he learns from it, and what awaits him at the end – and what he plans to do – are never revealed. The punchline could be more effective if M had broken the “fourth wall”, having done so a few times through the film already; he could just raise his finger and look quizzically at the audience before the camera cuts abruptly to the end credits.

“Symbol” is on a par with films like “Inception” and “eXisteNZ” which position the universe as similar to a videogame with various levels that require more skill and expertise in playing the game. The structure of the film into three parts “Education” where M teaches himself the strategies to leave the room, “Implementation” and “Future” suggests as much. Viewed this way, there’s no need for “Symbol” to say anything profound other than that a search for meaning in life is meaningless in itself and the universe may be one big cosmic joke. Films of this nature often seem superficial perhaps because if the universe is seen as a cosmic videogame, then there’s the inference that players enter the “game” on the understanding that they can’t change the “rules” of the game and free will only extends as far as the rules and parameters of the game permit. You as the player are no different than hamsters running on wheels in their cages, no matter how elaborate the wheels are or how far they go.

Secret Agent (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): morality of espionage is questioned in an ordinary film lacking suspense

Alfred Hitchcock, “Secret Agent” (1936)

The surprising thing about this film is that lead actor John Gielgud plays such a wooden and unappealing “hero” here after a distinguished background of Shakespearean heroes on stage. But that’s one of Hitchcock’s hallmarks: getting actors into roles opposed to what they usually played at the time. This also applies to another actor featured in this film: Peter Lorre, better known for playing movie villains, plays (or perhaps overplays) a comic and eccentric assassin known only as the General. Other Hitchcock motifs in “Secret Agent” include a MacGuffin figure in the form of a character, Caypor (Percy Marmont), who is also an innocent / wronged man (two motifs in one), a spiral staircase (wow, another two motifs in one), a cool blonde bombshell in the form of Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), a love triangle, grand locations in Switzerland and significant plot developments that take place on a train travelling through central Europe. With these and a story promising lots of suspense and a murder or two, “Secret Agent” should be a great Hitchcock film, right? Unfortunately for once, the Manager of Suspense doesn’t manage with all his weapons at hand, an excellent cast and a script based on two stories by noted British writer W Somerset Maugham to deliver to his high standareds. “Secret Agent” provides well-paced entertainment but the suspense is just not there.

The main problem with “Secret Agent” is its uneven character development. Gielgud’s would-be hero Ashenden, a former writer who fakes his death so he can carry out a mission to assassinate a mysterious German spy, gets almost nothing to do apart from dithering and wringing his hands about the morality of his work.  Peter Lorre’s General who’s supposedly his sidekick does the work hunting down and killing enemy spies – he’s a professional assassin after all. Maybe Ashenden himself is the MacGuffin figure to provide cover for the General, the real hero spy. Ashenden meets Elsa as the spy assigned to be his pretend wife; she’s all gung-ho about being a spy while Ashenden takes on the assignment rather reluctantly. As the mission progresses and the General disposes of the wrong man, Elsa realises the true danger involved and wants out of the mission. At this point she’s in love with Ashenden who, on discovering Caypor’s innocence, determines to find the real spy. Surprise, surprise, the real spy is a rival for Elsa’s affections: Robert Marvin (Robert Young) who completes the love triangle that encompasses Ashenden and Elsa.

While Gielgud’s acting is very understated here, the same can’t be said of Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre who all but eat up the screen between them. Lorre displays great comic talent and timing, particularly in the chocolate factory scene where he notices a piece of paper sticking out of a chocolate box on a mass assembly line and doggedly follows the note, even going up a fragile spiral staircase. He over-acts with rolling eyes and exaggerated expressions and he delivers his lines (which include comic one-liners) awkwardly but his cartoony, stereotyped foreigner presentation is a foil to Gielgud’s dour style. Viewers might get the impression Hitchcock was feeding Lorre lines for pure comic effect – someone should have told him when to stop. Carroll is shown off to great effect by hat brims, close-ups and camera angles that emphasise the sculpted structure of her face and her glossy blonde curls but in spite of (or because of) her character’s efforts at agonising about her mission and feeling torn between Ashenden and Marvin, Carroll makes less impression as a feisty femme than she did in her previous effort for Hitchcock (“The 39 Steps”). It falls to Robert Young to provide much needed charm, glamour and requisite menace as the German spy posing as an American playboy.

The DVD copy I saw didn’t mention digital remastering and the quality of the film stock used in the transition to DVD was poor.  Some of Hitchcock’s skill in setting up scenes was lost to me.  Some scenes looked dark or flat and I missed tiny nuances in people’s acting and facial expressions. There are some stand-out scenes worth mentioning though: an early one takes place in a church where Ashenden and the General attempt to meet a fellow spy; organ music in the background is stuck on one sinister chord that gets louder and louder and increases the tension of the scene until the two men discover the man they’re after – lying dead across an organ! Another scene is Caypor’s death scene which actually takes place off-screen in a clever way, Ashenden, voyeur-like, witnessing the murder through a long-range telescope.  Unfortunately Hitchcock ruins the scene by featuring a telepathic dog in another scene and cutting between the prophetic pooch and Ashenden watching the dog’s master being killed. The film’s opening scene of a funeral, done entirely without  dialogue, is a great introduction that harks back to Hitchcock’s former days as a director of silent movies.

On the other hand, the British air raid on the train and its derailment are too much a deus ex machina ploy to resolve the problem of the three British spies escaping Marvin and a whole unit of German soldiers. Miraculously the four main characters survive the crash while the soldiers around them are killed! After the climax in which Marvin and the General confront each other, the movie hurriedly relieves Ashenden and Elsa of their onerous duties as spies and they are free to live their lives together without moral anguish. There’s little suspense in this important part of the plot and viewers may ponder what exactly Ashenden has done in the aftermath of the crash scene that gets him a medal. Is he taking the credit for what the General actually does? Now who’s the morally upright person here?

The lesson of the film is that espionage is an unattractive business in which people must swallow their moral scruples and only those who are a bit psychotic, like the General, or who are sociopathic, like Marvin, can be successful spies. Yet it’s a necessary if distateful way of avoiding or winning wars as shown in the montage of news headlines right at the end of the film. Deception is a necessary part of the spy game as Elsa learns, almost at the cost of her life; it’s also part of the love triangle she’s caught up in – does Ashenden truly have feelings for her? and does Marvin really love her as well? Is there no better way for people to transact normal affairs of daily life or affairs of global importance without resorting to deception and subterfuge that compromise their morals?

This is one of several British films Hitchcock made in the thirties that he could have remade at a later date. It can be argued that he did (sort of) remake it in “North by Northwest” which also carries much of Hitchcock / Carroll’s other collaboration “The 39 Steps”. Viewed chronologically, several of Hitchcock’s films appear as variations of one meta-movie that must have been continuously scrolling in his head throughout his life; films that he kept on refining but never capturing completely the film in his head. “Secret Agent” is just one such movie – and a fairly average one at that. While the bulk of the story is credible enough, leaving aside the train crash that mysteriously spares some people and not others, there’s very little tension and suspense in the film, particularly in the love triangle, and a lot of that is due to a lack of chemistry between Gielgud’s underdone spy and Carroll’s more frivolous character.

Aelita, Queen of Mars: a multi-plot story with a moral about living in fantasy versus living in reality

Yakov Protazanov, “Aelita, Queen of Mars” (1924)

This silent Soviet film from the mid-1920’s can be seen in nine parts on Youtube.com thanks to contributor Ishexan. Most current interest in the movie focusses on its sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).

Los’s fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can’t be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet’s chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there’s a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie’s running time flits from Los’s work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev’s on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha’s shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focusses on one man’s attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences’ attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.

All this means that “Aelita …” can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920’s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film’s plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los’s daydreams which the film deliberately doesn’t separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov’s treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.

Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don’t usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film’s message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won’t help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.

The film’s production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aritstocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage?

Ultimately for most people the main value of “Aelita …” will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.

Frostbiten: comedy/horror vampire story lacking in teeth

Anders Banke, “Frostbiten” (2006)

‘Tis a Swedish vampire movie that begins with a shot of the night sky against which light snow is seen falling softly but all other resemblance to that other Swedish vampire movie about two children in a dreary Stockholm apartment block ends there. Action switches instead to an abandoned farmhouse in Ukraine, 1944, where four Swedish soldiers, fighting as members in a unit in the Wehrmacht, take refuge after narrowly surviving a shoot-out. What they find there in the farmhouse proves far more deadly than several divisions of the Red Army and just one man, Gerhard Beckert (Per Löfberg) barely escapes – or does he really?

Cut to 60 years later and Beckert (now Carl-Åke Eriksson) is a geneticist in a hospital in a city in northern Sweden; he is working on a vaccine for a mysterious virus and his guinea pig is a young woman who has been comatose for a year. Into this environment arrives Dr Annika Wallén (Petra Nielsen) who’s been keen to work with Beckert for a long time. Her daughter Saga (Grete Havneskold) tries to adjust to her new high school and social set which is dominated by Goth girl Vega (Emma T Aberg). Vega invites Saga to attend a party which will include among its guests various medical students taught by Beckert among others; students like Sebastian (Jonas Karlstrom) who, seeing the red pills Beckert feeds the comatose patient, swipes them for the party. Those viewers well-versed in vampire film lore will know straightaway what those little red balls will do to Sebastian and the other party-goers (save Saga) and during the evening when the party is in full swing with people getting drunk and high on all kinds of recreational designer drugs, behold, kids start clawing and necking one another, mayhem and trashing of furniture and the party venue follow, and the neighbours frantically phone the police to complain about the kids’ monkey antics. While the police have their hands full dealing with real-live teenage / young adult ghouls and party-pooper Saga tries to fend off Vega’s sudden interest in her (or in necking her rather), mum Annika discovers Beckert’s secret and the real aims of his experiment and tries valiantly to stop him from going further with it.

Intended as a spoof and homage to schlocky comedy /horror vampire movies of the past (demonstrated in the way one part of the plot “scrolls” to another plot strand), the movie is basically about a stock mad-scientist character trying to keep his life-work of perfecting vampires as Ubermensch replacements for real humans under wraps, continually refining his experiment until he believes it ready to be unleashed in its full glory, only for other people to thwart his personal ambitions and unwittingly release the vampire plague into the outside world. Along the way, characters and situations are milked for laughs as well as suspense, and an ingenious use for garden gnomes is discovered, and once Beckert is out of the way and the police find themselves outnumbered by kids who can resist capsicum spray and tasers, the comedy /horror story has run out of steam and the movie has the good grace to get off the screen pronto.

The special effects used are very good and the sub-polar background with the long dark winter night and need for people to gather in groups provides the right environment for a vampire plague to take place. Pity that a Christmas theme is not used here for extra laughs and horror! The acting is just enough to maintain some credibility and there’s not too much over-acting though the camera lingers a little too long over howling Sebastian and blood-lusting Vega once they are fully undead. The best scenes for suspense, mood and substance are the early wartime scenes in which the soldiers first encounter the dormant vampire enemy. Unfortunately after the special effects and cinematography, there mustn’t have been much money left over to hire a decent script-writer as the story lacks a climax and stops in mid-flight. Viewers are left wondering what will happen to Annika and Saga and whether they will ever see each other again after the end credits start rolling. The sub-polar environment and its night that lasts months are nothing more than a background over which the plot chugs along until it loses blood and bite.

Corruption, authoritarianism, oppression of women and intolerance are a hidden presence in “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages”

Benjamin Christensen, “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” (1922)

Intended as a study on how superstition and lack of knowledge about mental illness could have led to the witch-hunt craze and persecutions in Europe during the period from the 1500’s to the mid-1700’s, this Danish / Swedish co-production is a remarkable silent film that mixes a documentary style with fictional enactments of mediaeval beliefs about witches and how a persecution of someone accused of witchcraft might have proceeded and led to more people being accused and charged of being witches. All the way through “Häxan …” is a very detailed, earnest approach that assumes its audience knows little about witches but is intelligent enough to absorb and understand the information presented here. Although the film deals with a topic that might be assumed to interest only historians studying European culture of the time mentioned above, aspects of the witch-hunt are sure to resonate with modern audiences: in particular, the use of torture to extract confessions, usually false, from people accused of witchcraft who would then implicate other people around them, often as a way of avenging themselves, might strike people as disturbingly similar to the methods used by the US and its allies to prosecute its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the world.

The film splits into four parts, all of them highly informative if perhaps heavy-handed with an attention level bordering on obsessive and fetishistic. The first part deals with ancient and mediaeval cosmologies and how these gave rise to beliefs in Heaven, Hell and the existence of Satan and devils. This can be dry and didactic with little pointers on the screen demonstrating the obvious on animated diagrams, reproductions of naive drawings and Christensen’s own reconstructions, and this might well be the point at which most people will tune out. Leaving of course those with an interest in the history of witch-hunts to stick out the rest of the movie where the real rewards lie. The second part consists of a series of fictional vignettes, some very comical and slapstick, of witches concocting love potions, riding brooms to celebrate their sabbat or dreaming of meeting the Devil. The special effects and animation used look primitive to modern eyes but are very effective in making coins come alive or creating the impression of an army of witches in flight.

A mini-movie in which a beggar woman is accused of having bewitched a printer and causing him to die by the women in his family constitutes the third part which makes up the bulk of “Häxan …”. Much of this drama involves the woman being forced under torture by monks to confess her “crime”. The most sinister aspects of this section illustrate how readily other innocent people can be dragged into a witch-hunt panic: in one scene, a monk has sexual fantasies about the printer’s wife so the woman ends up charged with having bewitched him. The film concludes by showing parallels between the witch-hunts of the past and modern practices in dealing with mental illness and phenomena such as mass hysteria and challenges us as viewers to consider whether we are just as prone as people were in the past to fall prey to prejudices and beliefs about the nature of certain mental phenomena like somnambulism and hallucinations that led to so many people being persecuted and killed as witches.

In spite of its broad range, the film flows fairly well from one part to the next which attests to Christensen’s concept and careful construction of it as a self-sufficient whole. The actual joins can be clumsy (especially between the last two parts) but all four parts connect through common themes in the subject areas of witchcraft and demonology and of the social attitudes towards witches and other outsiders. Production values look rudimentary and in some scenes the lighting is poor or the props and sets look the same in spite of the changed context. All the acting was done by amateurs and Christensen himself plays the part of the Devil so viewers shouldn’t expect much out of the cast used; it’s enough to say the actors look and act naturally in a period of film history where professional acting could be exaggerated and look hammy. Close-ups of actors’ faces invite sympathy from viewers; when the same filming method is also applied to various torture implements and how they are applied, the effect on viewers might be unsettling. That iron collar with the spikes pointing inwards certainly doesn’t look comfortable!

Depictions of the Devil and celebrations of the witches’ sabbat are lurid and there’s always the possibility the scenes were played up as much to titillate audiences in a po-faced way as to educate them. Some nudity is shown and witches are shown kissing the Devil’s bum and eating food obtained from corpses. What’s missing from these scenes and others which would have enriched the documentary and made it more relevant to the general public then and now is some historical context: the actions as portrayed visually and as described in the intertitles are a satire on Christian ritual and the practice of Holy Communion or Mass, and might suggest that, in many parts of Europe during the height of the witch-hunting craze, Christianity or its public face at least was resisted by many people for various reasons. After all, contrary to popular belief, the European witch-hunts didn’t actually take place during “mediaeval times”: they actually took place in a period that overlaps with the spread of the Renaissance in Europe outside Italy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states like England, Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands and their empires in other parts of the world, and the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. The implication is that intolerance and authoritarian behaviour in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity increased with the rise of learning and alternative opinions that might have threatened the power of the clergy.

A sub-text of women suffering oppression within male-dominated structures and institutions in society, the results of which manifest in peculiar behaviour that might be interpreted as witchcraft practice, is present in “Häxan …” though whether Christensen was aware of this sub-text is another thing. Possibly he was but this was a touchy topic that was outside the scope of his research. At the time, psychology was still a new science and Sigmund Freud was still developing his theories of psychoanalysis. Certainly the fourth part of the film in which nuns are afflicted with a contagious dancing hysteria and young troubled women are diagnosed by male physicians as having hysteria suggests very strongly that incidents of mental illness in individuals and groups might have a cultural or social origin.  Had Christensen made his film at a later date, most likely he would have tried to incorporate some psychological theory and study to strengthen his argument about mental illness being a basis for suspicion of witchcraft and he might even address the question of why more women than men were persecuted as witches. There are also several scenes in the film showing monks and abbots denying their faults by placing the blame for them on women so there is an issue of corruption within the established Christian churches that Christensen could have addressed openly but most likely dared not.

The film can be slow in parts and the drama of the beggar woman and her accusers gets cut off just as it becomes really interesting. The visuals are perhaps the best part of the film and the last section that posits mental illness as a possible explanation for behaviour that got women in trouble as witches is interesting though limited in its scope. Christensen as a tubby Devil is laughable – WTF was he thinking when he took on that role? was he trying to make the Devil into something comic? – and scenes of the witches celebrating sabbat bring into question his aims in making the documentary: did Christensen just intend “Häxan …” as a documentary or could he have been striving for something else beyond? The film as is suggests that the art and creativity of movie-making could have gone far beyond both strictly fact-based documentary and the visual story-telling typical of most feature films that are taken for granted today: “Häxan …” is at once fact and fiction, and is more than the sum of two parts.

Assassin of Youth: “educational” soap opera that titillates with flashes of sordid behaviour

Elmer Clifton, “Assassin of Youth” (1937)

It’s a laughable anti-marijuana screed but “Assassin of Youth” at least has a comic drama going for it. A reporter, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardiner), goes undercover in a small US town to investigate a gang of marijuana dealers intent on corrupting the teenagers there. In particular these fiendish fellas are in cahoots with a local woman Linda Clayton (Fay McKenzie) who wants to discredit her cousin Joan Barry (Luana Walters) so that the girl can’t claim her inheritance of money from her grandmother’s will, subject to a morals clause, and the cash will go to Linda and her husband instead. The way Linda will discredit Joan is to feed her with marijuana through smoking and cakes, encouraging the lass to misbehave at wild parties and get involved with strange folks of dubious moral reputation. Joan falls for every ploy and scheme Linda can dream up, sullying her reputation as a good girl until there’s more mud clinging to her than little sister Margery who at least attempts to murder another girl at a party. Brighton conceives a daring plan that will get Joan off the hook and incriminate Linda and the no-good drug dealers she’s getting the grass from but the police interfere, Joan ends up in the slammer, Brighton himself is whisked back to the office by his employer and the reading of the will happens to take place the next day. Can Brighton get back to town in time to stop Joan from being deprived of her inheritance and the money going to her undeserving cousin?

Essentially a soap opera, the film is slow for much of its running time: one after the other, there are several parties where the kids do little more scandalous than get Joan bathing nude in a lake (while Linda is burning her clothes), smoke pot, dance a lot and keel over from the effects of the drug. There’s a diversion into a film screened by Brighton’s employer for the reporter’s benefit in which a narrator bangs on about the history of marijuana, its early uses and its current evil effects on young vulnerable people. Action perks up when Brighton hatches his bold plan and gets Joan to co-operate. Plenty of comedy is provided by local milkbar owner, “Pop” Brady (Earle Dwire), who hires Brighton in his undercover disguise and who exposes the local gossip Henrietta (Fern Emmett) as having been less than snow-white virginal herself as a teenager and the judge (Henry Roquemore) as the man who might have deflowered her all those years ago, at the court hearing. The acting is competent enough for the film’s requirements; McKenzie as the glamour-puss blonde schemer and Dwire, who creates havoc in the court-room to delay the hearing so that Brighton can get there in time, are the most memorable actors. Production values are quite bad with some scenes hard to make out due to poor lighting conditions at the time, and the quality of the film stock used and the way it has aged do not help either.

Modern audiences will get a chuckle out of the shock-horror tactics used by Clifton to hammer home the anti-marijuana message. All kinds of evil, deviant behaviour like skinny-dipping in a lake at nights, trying to knife a girl smooching with your boyfriend, and falling into a coma and being at death’s door are detailed to the extent that any real side-effects cannabis might have become invisible. The snooty pedant in me sniffs that the kids’ behaviour is due to being in a group free from adult restraint in environments where small-town customs and traditions no longer matter.  It seems very likely that audiences in the 1930’s didn’t take this film seriously and simply watched it for the melodrama with its promise of nude bathing, youngsters imbibing alcohol, female violence and a teenage girl sleeping with a strange man in a hotel room. In those days of strict censorship and alcohol prohibition in the US, film-makers there wanting to titillate audiences with racy stories that would get past the censors made so-called “educational” films about the dangers of drugs or sexual intercourse outside marriage and this may well have been Clifton’s intention.

Worth watching at least for the attitudes and social mores of the period in relation to drug addiction and teenage freedom and sexuality, and how American society, in particular small-town society, might have dealt with issues affecting adolescents. Some aspects of American youth culture and fashion may interest the social historian in some viewers. Apart from this, don’t expect  much in the way of fine acting, cinematography or direction – just sit back and enjoy the fluff.

Rififi: godfather of heist movies with a morality tale of redemption

Jules Dassin, “Rififi” (1955)

A film about a technically perfect crime, only for its participants to be totally undone by one small action by one of their number, “Rififi” is outstanding mainly for its 28-minute heist centrepiece during which there is absolutely no dialogue or music and the only sounds heard are those that are a natural consequence of the criminals’ actions. Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), a jewel thief, has just been released from jail and is contacted by his friends Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario who are interested in stealing some baubles from a jewellery store in a Paris locality. At first Tony refuses but after looking up his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) and discovering that she has moved in with his old enemy Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of “L’Age d”Or” night-club, he changes his mind after beating her and joins his friends on the condition they hire a safe-cracker. Mario suggests his friend César (director Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) who’s happy to oblige.

Much of the first hour of the film is about the four men making their contacts and preparing for the crime. Tony and his men stare daggers at Grutter and his men at the night-club where singer Viviane (Magali Nol) performs the song that gives the movie its title. The heist, when it comes, is a great piece of film-making: taking place at night with the men trying to balance their use of light so as to avoid detection yet striving to finish the job and collect the jewels before daylight, the crime gives many opportunities for Dassin to play with contrasts of white, black and all shades of grey in-between, literally and figuratively. Cutaways from the thieves’ actions of drilling a hole in the floor to a clock-face or to the night-sky and back help to illustrate the arduous and time-consuming nature of the crime; the thieves drill the hole for two, three hours before they have a hole big enough to put a rope through and climb down to where the safe is kept. They collect all the debris in an umbrella. While Tony plugs up the security alarm with spray, César gets to work opening the safe and he needs another hour or so to do that. Close-ups of the men’s perspiring faces reveal strain and uncertainty. You find yourself hoping that the men can get the jewels, zip out through the hole again, pick up their tools and escape before daylight comes! Suspense and tension, unrelieved by music or dialogue, build and pile up to an almost unbearable level. A patrolling policeman passes by, stopping to examine a piece of litter, then he goes on his way – whew! When the first rays of the sun appear, the men are already scrambling to clear out; César pauses to take a ring for Viviane.

Sure enough, news of the theft is all over the papers the next day and not long after Grutter sees the injured Mado clearing out of his place and spots César giving the ring to Viviane. He now knows that Tony and César pulled off the heist and he puts his men onto them both. César is captured and forced to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. From then on it’s downhill for all the men who were involved in the heist. Suffice to say that pushing daisies, not pulling them, is the only thing all the men including Grutter are able to do when the dust clears for the last time. From this viewers can infer that crime pays only if people are total cold-blooded cerebral machines that can suppress their natural inclinations to rejoice and share their bounty.

A gangster code of loyalty complicates Tony’s life which leads to a second outstanding montage of scenes, also done without dialogue, in which he rescues Jo’s small son Tonio from Grutter’s men and despite being seriously wounded frantically drives the child back to his mother through countryside and Paris streets. Heroically if foolishly Tony battles city traffic, flagging consciousness and an unrestrained child (the last one not really) to race to Jo’s apartment and the camera sympathises with him, showing Paris landmarks and the bare branches of trees flashing by, street scenes zooming in and out of focus as Tony strives to avoid hitting people and cars. Multiple points of view are shown from inside the car, outside and front in a series of quick edits, emphasising the urgency, speed and delirium of Tony’s last quest to redeem himself by saving a life before his own blacks out. Some viewers may find this last sequence ludicrous (why would a gangster even think of saving a child’s life?) but after what we have seen of Tony before – a jaded, cynical man with self-interest as his only goal – the series of image shows Tony as he might have been once and becomes in the last moments of his life: a caring human being who sacrifices himself for others and who perhaps sees in Tonio (note the similarity of the name to Tony) the potential which in himself was wasted. Tony’s rescue and return of Tonio becomes the film’s true climax.

As Tony, Servais who had a history of alcoholism before making “Rififi” is suitably bleary-eyed and wears seen-it-all weariness as a second skin. The acting overall is more efficient than outstanding but it suits the structure of the film and its purpose as a heist flick hiding a moral tale. The women in the film serve to illustrate aspects of the thieves’ lives as caring husbands and family men; only Tony behaves as a stereotypical hard-man, hitting and scratching Mado for being unfaithful to him, and forcing Jo and Mario to change part of their plan to rob the jewellery shop.

The film’s pace can be uneven: it’s slow for much of the first hour with Viviane’s singing and the silhouettes of a man and woman dancing in the background the main items of interest; then it picks up during the heist scene and is very fast in the film’s last 45 minutes. Director Jules Dassin’s structuring and portrayal of the heist and Tonio’s rescue lift “Rififi” from being a run-of-the-mill film-noir movie into the realm of film art so in that respect the movie is worth watching, if for nothing else. The morality aspect can be heavy-handed as bullets fly and the body count piles up; no-one survives to learn any lessons, making the post-heist part of the plot superfluous in a way. What’s the point of the shoot-out if there’s no-one at the end to make sense of it all?

Downhill: Hitchcock comedy is early showcase of technical innovation and flair

Alfred Hitchcock, “Downhill” (1927)

Before he found his niche as Master of Suspense, the young Alfred Hitchcock made a few films in several genres that include comedy: this early effort, the fifth full-feature film of his career, is a comedy lampooning the customs and attitudes of British upper class society of the late 1920’s. The plot is structured in a way that it probably won’t hold most modern audiences’ attention to the end – it comes in chunks so there’s no flow and as a result tension building towards a climax isn’t possible – but students of history might find some value in the way the story unfolds that reveals people’s attitudes toward money, appearances and reputation at the time. The real worth of “Downhill” is in the techniques and methods Hitchcock used to film the story and emphasise aspects such as mood, atmosphere and the direction of the plot. Motifs that he would use in later films such as “Vertigo” and “Psycho” make an early showing here. We see a keen and eager eye, maybe too eager, for technical innovation and a flair for experimenting with different points of view: the use of the camera to draw in audiences and make them voyeurs and participants in the action that began in the previous film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is now coming into full flower.

The plot is a threadbare coming-of-age / downward-spiral story. Teenager Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello), in his last year at an exclusive boys’ school, is undone by an incident involving his best friend and a waitress for which he’s entirely blameless. He’s expelled by his school and disowned by his father. Berwick’s reluctance to rat on his friend (who needs to stay at school to get a university scholarship) forces him to accept the humiliation of expulsion and rejection so he leaves home to venture into the big bad world. He’s clearly out of his depth; each adventure he has plunges him lower and lower into social and financial misery until rescue and reconciliation arrive at the eleventh hour. In each mishap including the original incident that gets him expelled from school there’s a woman who exploits Berwick for his looks, his money or his youth.

At 34 years of age, Novello was old enough to play Berwick’s old man but as he was co-writer of the play on which “Downhill” is based, I’ll leave the criticism there. Hitchcock must have enjoyed throwing Novello into situations where women manipulate him; Novello’s homosexuality was an open secret in the British arts and culture scene, he was strikingly handsome and presumably well-off in a varied career that included writing songs and plays, and all these aspects of the real-life man are hinted at in his character’s encounters with women. A couple of very early scenes suggest Berwick is uncomfortable with women and may be homosexual which would give an extra frisson to the manipulation that follows. If we allow for overly expressionistic acting which was common in silent films of the period, the acting is not bad and in parts is even natural; Hitchcock allows the actors to talk normally on screen and audiences have to guess what it is they’re saying, there being very few dialogue or title cards. One side-effect is that it’s difficult to tell who or what characters some actors are playing, and even the MacGuffin incident that gets Berwick in trouble isn’t clear: the Internet Movie Database says it is theft, Wikipedia says it is making the waitress pregnant.

The plot is fleshed out by camera shots that use odd angles, unusual points of view, overlapping images and deep focus shooting to emphasise where the plot gets serious, to capture a mood or emotion, or to warn audiences of what’s ahead, among other things. Perhaps there’s too much story-telling rather than narrative at some points in the movie: the bird’s-eye view of the escalator scene, in which viewers see Berwick going down the mechanical steps from the top, is a heavy-handed portent of what’s to befall the youth (the scene takes place just after he leaves home). From a technical viewpoint, the film’s stand-out scenes come near the end where Berwick is packed off home from Marseilles on a ship by some kindly sailors and he suffers delirium and seasickness. The camera hovers from above, like a bird, to suggest dizzyness; and superimposed images in which circles and spirals – and even pumping pistons! (ooh, that’s phallic) – appear in Berwick’s dreams to suggest a disordered mind affected by sickness and starvation. Berwick’s old enemies come together in a dream to jeer at him. Once Berwick is back in London and trying to find his way home on foot, the camera adopts his point of view and staggers with him, with jerky, unfocussed, doubled-up or overlapped images – this is as close as Hitchcock gets to filming in a style modern audiences associate with handheld cameras. Personal points of view are prominent in “Downhill”: in an early scene, an actress leans far back on her chair to see things upside-down and the next camera shot, done from her point of view, is upside-down. Hitchcock also enjoys playing with particular points of view and subverting the assumptions that come with them: in one scene, Berwick appears to be working as a waiter at a restaurant, only for the camera to draw back and show that he is actually a stage actor in a musical revue!

Significantly the only people who treat Berwick kindly and don’t see him as a money-pot are poor and of black or foreign origins: a black woman feeds him soup and kicks a couple of sailors (one black, the other white but definitely not English) into action to help him to the ship. This was one of the rare times Hitchcock made a movie that featured black people sympathetically if stereotypically. There is no indication though that Berwick is thankful for the help or that they are repaid. Though the film is a comedy – and there are plenty of comic moments including the gag of Berwick’s young wife still retaining her ugly, middle-aged lover! – there are plenty of dark moments throughout the odyssey, all highlighted by contrasts of light and shadow that reflect German Expressionist influences.

Whether Berwick learns any lessons about the superficiality of the world that made him or the really important lesson that in his level of society money and appearances talk louder than moral integrity is never clear. Does he become wiser about how the world operates and how it eats up its own innocent children? The film’s resolution and ending suggest maybe not. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on what Hitchcock would have done if he had decided to remake the film years later with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal: he would have changed the ending to something more ambiguous and very dark but Berwick might then achieve some kind of enlightenment, self-awareness, redemption and healing. A Freudian psychological subtext would be added to plump up the story and make it more credible.

In spite of a flimsy and out-of-date plot, “Downhill” is worth seeing for the flair and confidence Hitchcock brings to  making the story work. There are many motifs and symbols that appear here which the director would later use in “Vertigo”, especially in its psychedelic dream sequence, and the early film might be seen as a test-drive to that more famous Hollywood work.

The true Hitchcock universe begins with “The Lodger: a Story of the London Fog”

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927)

Only the third film made by a young Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger …” already has many of the themes and motifs that would bring its director fame and fortune in a career that spanned nearly half a century. The central theme  revolves around a man who is suspected by police and society at large of being a serial killer: not only is he innocent but he has also resolved for personal reasons to find the killer himself. At the same time, the central character dresses and behaves in ways that encourage people around him to believe he is the criminal: the innocent man and the actual criminal become doppelgängers, another recurring motif in Hitchcock’s world. (Makes you wonder whether H had lost a twin brother  at birth.) There is a wilful blonde woman as well – there are blonde women a-plenty here! – and a love triangle that involves her, the innocent man and another man who is a police detective. The detective is portrayed as a boorish, unlikable character and the police as shown seem ineffective; any constructive work they do takes place off-screen.  A hostile attitude is expressed towards figures and institutions of authority, especially male authority such as the police; on the other hand, female figures of authority such as mothers have a greater psychological hold on men, especially if the men are their sons. A MacGuffin is needed in the film to set off the chain of events. As with other Hitchcock suspense films to follow, the love triangle and the emotions and tensions within take centre stage against a background of rising suspense and suspicion.

London is gripped by a series of murders of fair-haired young women committed by the self-styled Avenger who leaves his calling card of a triangle outlined around his monicker on the victims’ bodies. Just what he’s avenging himself against is never known but the print media goes into a frenzy of reporting the story of his latest outrage, printing it and distributing copies to news boys. Even the back of a paper delivery van is “all eyes” if not ears. Against this context which lasts nearly 20 minutes, viewers meet Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), a showgirl-cum-model reading the news backstage and chatting to her colleagues; she then goes home which is a boarding-house run by her parents. There we see her fiance, Joe (Malcolm Keen), a self-assured police detective who is given the case of searching for and arresting the Avenger, chatting to her folks. During the evening, Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault) takes in a new boarder (Ivor Novello) who is never named but is known only as the Lodger; he is dressed in mysterious dark clothes and carries a black bag. He behaves oddly: on seeing pictures of blonde women in his room, he turns them over and asks Mrs Bunting to take them away. Hearing the newsboy outside his window shouting about the Avenger’s exploits to sell papers, the Lodger shuts the window and closes the curtains.

Over time, the Lodger warms to Daisy and a romance develops between them. His routines arouse the suspicions of her parents and Joe; Joe in particular is jealous of Daisy’s closeness to the Lodger. He obtains a search warrant to search the Lodger’s room and sure enough finds a map, newspaper clippings and a photograph that appear to incriminate the Lodger as the Avenger. The Lodger is handcuffed but before he is led away, Daisy creates a distraction and the Lodger escapes police custody. The two lovers later meet at a pub but arouse the suspicions of the staff and customers. Daisy and the Lodger try to escape and they separate but a mob catches up with the man and beat him severely.

In those days of no dialogue, film-acting was often exaggerated and very mannered so that audiences could see characters’ emotions through their body language. “The Lodger …” is no different in this respect. The Lodger and Joe, as the two rivals for Daisy, contrast strongly in their behaviour and looks. Joe is macho, brusque and assumes proprietorial “rights” over Daisy, declaring that he’ll handcuff the Avenger and then put a ring on Daisy’s finger, as if she’s been colluding with the killer. The Lodger is gentlemanly and sensitive, even effete, and his appearance is refined and beautiful. In a memorable sequence of intense, almost overbearing romantic love scenes, Daisy grabs the Lodger almost savagely while draped over a lounge and a severe minimalist close-up scene shot against a black curtain highlights the lovers’ profiles as they kiss. The passion here is very raw in spite of the two keeping their winter-woollies on! Viewers wanting a more “modern” acting style should note the performances of the actors who play Daisy’s parents; they are outstanding in their ability to show a variety of emotions and thoughts by their facial expressions and body language, and move effortlessly from comedy to seriousness and back.

Influences from the German Expressionist art movement show up in the use of lighting and shadows to create suspense and mystery in several scenes, and in the title cards that indicate the passage of time or a change of scene. Mrs Bunting’s bedroom with the shadow of a window framed on her wall has an almost abstract air. A couple of scenes in which the Buntings and Joe look up at the chandeliers in the kitchen and “see” the Lodger walking on the floor above, and Joe looking at the Lodger’s footprint on the ground, in which a parade of images pass as though on an escalator, hint at Hitchcock’s interest in using film technologies available at the time to their maximum capabilities to express people’s thoughts. The film’s opening shot of a blonde woman screaming as she is being attacked, her hair around her face lit up like a halo, is worth noting: Hitchcock had the actor lie down on a sheet of glass which was lit from behind. Objects like chandeliers and that familiar Hitchcock fixture, the staircase, are given prominence: the staircase comes into its own in a bird’s-eye view shot of the Lodger quickly descending down the stairs, only his hand visible on the bannister as it slides down, and the centre of the staircase-framed shot a huge void.  For all this information, Hitchcock was still finding his way as a film director: there are some editing discontinuities, the sequence of scenes in which the Lodger is attacked by burgeoning crowds looks amateurish and unconvincing with some cringeworthy Christian symbolism, the film’s pacing is slow and the assured confidence of Hitchcock’s later films is yet to develop.

“The Lodger …” strongly suggests that the path to romance and marriage (and the proper conduct of sexual relations) is fraught with danger and violence, especially for women, and there is no surefire safe way of treading that path: both the Lodger and Joe are shown to have a dark side in their natures. If Daisy chooses wisely, she will be rewarded with riches; if not, she may become a prisoner. The film also comments on the role of media (and by implication, film itself) in influencing opinion and generating a particular community mood or emotion that could literally spell the difference between life and death for an individual. Worth watching mainly to see the evolution of a master film-maker and how he develops ideas and themes in a particular film format that would come to full flower in his later work; in particular, fans should watch out for a voyeuristic bathtub scene!

For once it’s a good thing that the ending of “The Lodger …” was changed from Hitchcock’s preferred ambiguous ending which would have made the film a run-of-the-mill thriller. Little did the studio executives who forced the change realise that they were doing Hitchcock a massive favour.

Profound themes of evolution, maturity, cycles of life and death, and Japan’s modern history in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” (1988)

In an alternative but parallel universe in 1988, a scientific experiment using young children as test subjects for research into superhuman mental abilities goes awry when a child loses control and causes a huge explosion in Tokyo that is taken for a nuclear bomb attack and leads to a global war. Cut to 30 years later and a new city, Neo-Tokyo, has arisen on an artifical island in Tokyo Bay, the old city having been completely annihilated. Neo-Tokyo has become a thriving, wealthy metropolis but it’s also plagued by political corruption, anti-government riots and terrorist activity, and a seedy underbelly of crime, drug addiction and violence; and the scientific experiments that led to old Tokyo’s demise continue apace. In this context, two motorcycle gangs fight a turf war racing down the city’s highways and a member of one gang, Tetsuo, comes to grief when he hits – or appears to hit – a small child with aged features. His fellow gang members led by his childhood friend Kaneda quickly come to his aid but before they can take him to hospital, several military helicopters arrive and take Tetsuo and the small child to a military hospital. Kaneda and his gang are arrested by soldiers for questioning over a recent anti-government demonstration that turned violent.

At the hospital, Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities similar to those of the children being used in the secret experiments, now conducted by Dr Onishi under the supervision of Colonel Shikishima. The boy is operated and experimented on and the tests awaken his psychic powers which begin to develop of their own accord. He escapes from hospital and is reunited briefly with his girlfriend Kaori and Kaneda’s gang but is captured again. As Tetsuo struggles with his hallucinations and headaches, and discover what they are leading him to, Kaneda sees a girl, Kei, he met while in army custody and follows her; she leads him into a secret plot to get Tetsuo out of the military hospital. While the plotters battle to infiltrate the hospital, various incidents there bring Tetsuo’s psychic powers into the open to his advantage and Tetsuo himself, flushed with and revelling his new powers and the authority they give him, commences on a quest that he believes will give him even more power.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex but runs at a brisk, energetic pace so for most people two viewings of “Akira” might be necessary to fully understand what happens. The movie is a commentary on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, embodied in the development of Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo itself, and what that implies about the post-1945 history of Japan and forecasts for the country’s 21st-century future. The use of anime rather than a live-action feature to bring the original “Akira” comic to screen is appropriate: the exacting technical detail of backgrounds and machines against and on which the plot depends captures the close and complicated relationship modern Japanese culture has with technology, at once beneficial, malleable enough to seem harmless, cute even, yet also highly dangerous. Tetsuo’s transformation is a metaphor on several levels: on a grand scale, it mirrors the evolution of life itself; on a global scale, it’s a parallel to Japan’s development as a modern society dependent on technology; on a more mundane level, it represents growth and maturity in human beings; on the very personal level, it traces an individual’s adolescent development and adjustment (or not) to adult life. Tetsuo’s inability to handle his psychic powers and allowing them to take over his body can be interpreted as a warning of the potential for moral corruption that having too much power, in whatever form it takes, without having the understanding, experience and knowledge to use it responsibly can pose. Tetsuo’s upbringing, parts of which are seen in flashbacks, shows that he didn’t get much moral guidance or understanding from adults, and was bullied by adults and children alike so he harbours a deep resentment and hatred towards other people and sees his newfound abilities as giving him opportunities for payback. He goes out of his way to kill Yamagata, one of his gang-mates, for having derided him in the past. Tetsuo’s powers are too much for him to handle though and he ends up killing his faithful girlfriend Kaori.

Other characters reflect aspects of Tetsuo’s dilemma: Dr Onishi who oversees the experiment on the boy, is too swept up in his enthusiasm to see the destruction Tetsuo causes and he pays for his tunnel vision with his life; he’s a stock figure representing scientific and technological hubris. Likewise various people, representing a society trained to obey, who follow a New Age guru or trust in Tetsuo as a new messiah to replace the mysterious Akira figure, are destroyed in various ways as a result of their blind, unquestioning faith in an external power. Overall, character development in “Akira” is fairly weak and only two characters can be said to be significant in that respect: Tetsuo and Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is the most complex figure: iniitally looking and acting like the most obvious choice for Head Villain in the film, he is a tough, stern soldier who dislikes the chaotic disorder and lack of direction characterising democracy and liberal society and seizes the first opportunity he can to impose his idea of good government on Neo-Tokyo. Yet he cares for the remaining original test subjects of Dr Onishi’s experiments and has no taste for grubby politics where money speaks louder than principles. In an ideal world he would be father figure to Tetsuo and would guide the boy to the wisdom and understanding required to use his psychic powers for the benefit of humankind; but the Colonel has adopted a narrow military frame of mind which prefers order, conformity and discipline over individualism and tolerance for a multiplicity of ideologies and cultures within the one society, and Tetsuo has grown up in an environment where power means being able to throw your weight around and kicking little people (like him once upon a time). Both Tetsuo and the Colonel can be seen as complementary figures in the use of power: Tetsuo needs some restrictions and the Colonel would impose too many, and both are oppressive in their own ways; and Japan as a society that has used political, social and military power to control people perhaps isn’t an ideal place for the two to meet in an imperfect world. As for Kaneda and Kei, the other major characters, they are flat compared to Tetsuo and the Colonel; they are best seen as stock teenage / young adult character types who are basically good and, while easily led astray, play expected heroic roles in a plot that has no need for heroes and doesn’t use them.

The climax of the film in which Tetsuo transmogrifies into a monster on contact with Akira and has to be absorbed, along with the remaining test subjects of Dr Onishi’s ongoing experiment, into an implosion that takes most of Neo-Tokyo with it to leave behind a gaping crater and the rest of the city in ruins, is a sheer mindfuck of animation knowledge and technique limited only by the technology available in 1988 to portray what virtually amounts to birth of a new universe in several dimensions and the animation crew’s own collective imagination to consider what such birth might look like. Indeed, the black-and-white montage of simple images looks like a jokey reference to the way films made in the past often begin, a series of encircled numbers counting down to zero. It’s arguably nowhere near as good as the surreal bedroom scene in which Tetsuo is attacked by giant toy animals that bleed milk – that scene qualifies as the standout for its combination of the cute and conventional notions of bedtime horror when things under the bed crawl out to menace children.

True, the detailed animation often threatens to usurp the plot, characters and action but the movie couldn’t have been made otherwise at the time without an astronomical budget or advanced CGI technology. Otomo’s aim is ambitious and the film’s scope is tremendous but perhaps the narrative as it pans out doesn’t quite justify the ambition, the philosophical concepts and what Otomo is trying to say about the nature of power. Is it possible to know if Tetsuo feels triumph when he unites with Akira and the other test subjects in a new universe? Is his final anaemic-sounding utterance “I am Tetsuo” an expression of self-affirmation or its opposite – or even both? If Tetsuo had changed his mind about pursuing power and gone back to the Colonel or to Kaneda, would that be a form of denial? It’s hard not to feel that the plot reaches an impasse beyond which the choice to be made will be an unsatisfactory explanation or substitute way for using power: either become God in your own universe (hmm … seems petty) or turn it over to others whose motives may be suspect. Is a third way at all possible?

As for other aspects of “Akira”, special mention should be made of the music used: a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese instruments and musical styles, it’s used sparingly to create and emphasise a scene’s mood or the action in it. Otomo also takes care to show parts of the city from different angles and points of view: the film appears to zoom from a very intimate point of view in some scenes to ones where people appear as ants scurrying around a vehicle on fire. The suggestion is that Neo-Tokyo itself is a major character though this idea is not fully realised in the narrative.

Western viewers might wonder at Japanese pop culture obsessions with the destruction of Tokyo, the grotesque body horror and the fetishism of technology and cuteness. There is present a sense of the Buddhist notion of non-permanence, tying in with the theme of evolution as a continuous, dynamic process in which humans are but a stepping-stone. There is something of the horror of ageing which is related to the body-horror aspect: the test subjects remain child-like but age to the point where they become corpse-like, and Tetsuo’s body merges with metal and runs riot as his powers, reaching maturity, overpower their human vessel. With so many themes flying under the radar in “Akira”, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t collapse with the weightiness and profundity of them all; instead it flies determinedly with relentless energy with hardly any let-up all the way to the end and beyond. In spite of its being over 20 years old and the animators overlooking or unable to predict certain technologies – people are still driving cars and still using pen and paper to write – “Akira” appears to have dated very little though whether the same can be said by 2018 or 2019, the period in which the movie is set, is another thing.