Monday, March 31, 2014

Film Atlas (Madagascar): Souli

Country: Madagascar
Title: Souli (2004)
Carlos is a Spanish student who has come to Africa in search of the Thiossan tale, a legendary story long considered lost. He believes that Souli, a reclusive but once internationally famous Senegalese poet and griot (a storyteller who relies on oral tradition), knows the tale. On his way to seek out Souli in a small fishing community, he is given a ride by Yann, a disgruntled French middleman whose access to ice has given him a monopoly bringing seafood to market. Yann’s current relationship with Abi, a local girl longing to study abroad, is strained by his lingering feelings for Mona, a white woman who left him for Souli. Mona now teaches in the village, runs a community center and works in semi-secrecy to undermine Yann’s exploitation of the fishermen by creating ice through ammonia distillation. Souli is skeptical of Carlos, especially his motives for wanting to publish the Thiossan tale in his upcoming thesis, but Mona is immediately taken with Carlos and tries to convince Souli that he is the apprentice they have long awaited. Yann, bitter and boozy but sharp-eyed, uses Carlos to drive a wedge between Souli and Mona.

Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the film’s first two-thirds, Souli is a Malagasy adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello (a quick key: Souli = Othello, Mona = Desdemona, Yann = Iago, Carlos = Cassio, Abi = Emilia). Director Alexander Abela had previously adapted Macbeth as Makibefo and he clearly has a strong grasp of how to take classical themes, in this case jealousy, pride and greed, and work them out through a contemporary African context. Carlos, as the Cassio character, is now central and although rather blandly benign, his position as a European outsider demanding access to a sacred African story gives him an imperialist tint that justifies Souli reticence. It’s never clear rather Carlos himself fully acknowledges all his motives (curiosity, preservation and dissemination, yes, but isn’t he also after fame and success?) and his disinterest in becoming an actual apprentice griot is also troubling. A pivotal scene where he and Souli hear each other out, on a sunlit sailing trip, is left beguilingly off-screen, in keeping with Abela’s elegant minimalism. Souli, calm and a bit aloof, seems like a wise man, but he’s also unsympathetically detached from the rest of humanity and his pride and protectiveness make him vulnerable. Yann, compare to Iago, lacks the gift of the silver-tongued, but he’s also more human (and thus more interesting to my mind) and clearly menaced by his own demons: a mixture of jealousy, guilt, self-loathing and alcoholism.

Perhaps one of Abela’s savviest innovations to the story is jettisoning so much of Shakespeare’s beloved dialog (a decision echoed by the crucially absent ‘Thiossan tale’) in favor of predominantly internalized performances led by the talented international cast which includes Eduardo Noriega (The Devil’s Backbone, Thesis, Burnt Money) as Carlos and Aurelien Recoing (Time Out, 13 Tzameti, Blue Is the Warmest Color) as Yann. I also want to make special mention of the film’s striking Malagasy-instrumental soundtrack and warm cinematography that brings out the golden hues of the white-hot beach and loose-weave timber sets.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Film Atlas (Macedonia): Before the Rain

Country: Macedonia
Title: Before the Rain / Pred Dozdot (1994)
Taking place in London and the border region of Macedonia and Albania, Before the Rain is a tragedy in three acts. Each act follows a different main character, but the parts are linked to each other in an intentionally logic-defying loop. In the first part a young monk leaves his order to help an Albanian girl flee a blood feud. In the second, an editor (Katrin Cartlidge, who also appears in Bosnia's "No Man's Land") begins an affair with a war photographer whose talent and courage she admires, but the two are pulled apart by conflicting moral and political imperatives. In the final story, Aleksandar, the photographer from the previous story, returns to his war-ravaged homeland of Macedonia and an old flame from the Albanian side of the conflict. She asks him to find and protect her daughter, the Albanian girl from the first story. Each act includes a romance that ends tragically, but for different reasons. Each act is shot with different lens filters, increasing the sense that life in different parts of Europe can still be worlds apart.

Before the Rain is easily one of the most multifaceted works to emerge from the Balkan conflicts. Its locations, cinematography and historical context transport you immediately into a specific time and place, and even if the eye-catching and exotic elements don’t capture your attention, its unusual structure and universal themes should keep you engaged. At heart are its characters, who are deeply human and yet deeply flawed. They are love-starved, trying to make unenviable tough decisions and struggling out from the narrow confines of their isolated perspectives only to be cut down by forces larger than themselves: warfare, terrorism, crime, vengeance, violence, hatred, fear, misunderstanding. Their deaths are senseless, but their lives are just the opposite: highlighted by acts of passion, love, bravery, activism, resistance. Are their deeds swept away by their deaths? Are they lost in obscurity and statistics? Certainly the cycle of war and reprisals spins on without discernibly skipping a beat. Director Milco Mancevski’s intentions, like the issues that immerse and finally inundate his characters, aren’t cut and dry. His pessimism isn’t the cynicism of an artist who has given up on humankind; it’s the constantly-revised results of a man trying to think through the daunting madness of century-long conflicts.

My Favorites:
Happy New Year '49
Before the Rain

Major Directors:
Darko Mitrevski

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Film Atlas (Luxembourg): Little Secrets

Country: Luxembourg
Title: Little Secrets / Perl oder Pica (2006)
The Olympia general store in Cold War Luxembourg sells two brands of typewriter, identical in every way except the typefaces: Perl or Pica (hence the original title). Norbi, age 12, sleeps above the shop, operated by his smothering conservative father when he’s not serving as a stone-faced priest for hire. Norbi and his sister Josette, both longing to stretch their wings as budding teenagers, don’t get along with their dictatorial dad and find little solace at school, where they have only corporal punishment, schoolyard bullying and an outmoded curriculum to look forward to. 

Norbi spends his free time investigating local mysteries: an Italian tenant who might be a murderous gangster, a grocer’s assistant whose father was a yellowshirt (a collaborator with the Nazis) and the letter P that his father furtively marks in a private ledger at certain intervals. The father, meanwhile, wants to figure out why his son continues to wet his bed at such a late age, consulting both doctors and mystics while failing to realize that it’s his own overbearing presence driving Norbi’s neurosis. Similarly, Norbi’s own mysteries have simple, unexciting solutions. It is not until he gives up searching others and brings his own secret thoughts and feelings to the surface that he finds the sense of satisfaction that eludes him.

Compared to most of the coming-of-age stories in the Film Atlas series, Little Secrets is a rather down-to-earth optimistic tale set at a time of relative peace and stability and more caught up in the politically insignificant but personally formative adventures of youth than the larger and more abstract contexts of the legacy of the war or the tide of 60s liberalism that the movie occasionally brushes up against. It’s actually rather nice, as it allows Little Secrets’ period setting to slip unobtrusively into the background while the film observes a boy grappling with authority, friendships and curiosity while gradually finding confidence, maturity and personal expression. 

While not breaking any new ground in what it says about growing up, the themes of reality being both disillusioning and empowering and the importance of questioning and confronting authority are tackled ‘the hard way,’ without the fantasy-coated fictions and exaggerations that are customarily considered more palatable to children (a brief flash of barely-motivated nudity is another hint that the film is, rather unnecessarily, targeted towards a post-pubescent audience). Pol Cruchten, one of the few directors to emerge from one of Europe’s smallest countries (and he has notably sustained a healthy career), does an admirable job not making preadolescence anything more than it is, which is to say: incredibly important to the person going through it.

Major Directors:
Pol Cruchten

Friday, March 28, 2014

Film Atlas (Liberia): Johnny Mad Dog

Country: Liberia
Title: Johnny Mad Dog (2008)
Johnny Mad Dog, a member of a gang of child soldiers known as the Deathdealers, fights under the command of General Never Die in an unspecified African civil war. He leads other boys with names like No Good Advice and Small Devil in a raid on a civilian village, the destruction of a government TV station and finally a siege of the capital city. We see them initiating a kidnapped child by forcing him to kill his own parents. We see them pillaging and looting for their supplies and donning whatever clothing suits them (which leads to fanciful touches like butterfly wings or a wedding dress). And we see them constantly inundated in violence while furiously screaming, threatening and killing. Their anger crests as they realize their expendability, superfluity and impotence, excepting their capacity for violence. With the war coming to an end, there is, presumably, some change in political power, but it takes place beyond their immediate sensory perception, which might as well be on another planet. Their future (where to live, how to live, what to live for), especially in a country which no longer has any use for them or their exclusively lethal skill set, is now a big question mark. Crossing Johnny Mad Dog’s purely self-serving trajectory is Laokole, a girl who is trying to get her young brother and crippled father to safety.

Johnny Mad Dog is a powerful and passionate work, but it is also incredibly hard to engage with and, more so than any other film in this series, it felt like an inadequate response to the issues it raises. Perhaps this is because the endemic use of child soldiers is a global trauma on an impossible to fathom scale, incapable of being addressed through conventional approaches. But just as there are great films striving to cope with the immensity of the Holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bombs, we are starting to see the brave first attempts at tackling the topic of child soldiers (Nigeria’s 2007 film Ezra being another example). Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala and French-Liberian director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire have captured the kneejerk response, the anger, bitterness and moral numbness, and although they often capture it quite well, it occasionally feels hallow in the absence of exploring deeper implications. But to be fair, the film is intentionally delving into the pointlessness and emptiness of war, and particularly the confluence of child abuse, cyclical exploitation and genocidal violence in which respect for human life is utterly eradicated.

Where Sauvaire succeeds is in showing the underlying mechanics of the brainwashing process: The way children are systematically broken and disempowered and then given a surrogate sense of control in the form of a gun. The way authority, peer pressure and alienation can warp the social growth of youths and aim their confused rage at arbitrary targets. The way cultish chants and hard drugs can rev up mind and body into a frenzy beyond fear or thought or personal responsibility. Potentially even more disturbing is that Johnny Mad Dog doesn’t show, or even suggest, a way to undo these processes nor even an intention on behalf of the victors to try. Saurvaire also possesses an attention to detail and visceral intensity that makes the scenes or combat preparation and execution (especially the crossing of a half-collapsed highway bridge as the children enter the capital) chilling and immediate, though the absence of psychological insight prevents us from investing in their fates and the crutch of rapid cutting and exaggerated shaky-cam distracts and detracts.

I was left wishing that Johnny Mad Dog had been even more ambitious. I wanted it to tackle the lives of these children from before they were twisted into human weapons, through the end of the war and into their reintegration or mutual-rejection of society. Showing only the blood-splattered chaos at the center has all the sensational impact, but little of the desperately needed context. This was a conscious decision by the makers (the name of the country, its president, the war, the two sides and their respective causes are all conspicuously never mentioned), but I’m unsure rather it makes the film timeless and universal, as intended, or just vague and inaccessible.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Film Atlas (Lebanon): Where Do We Go Now?

Country: Lebanon
Title: Where Do We Go Now? / W Halla’ La Wayn (2011)
Where Do We Go Now is an unexpected warm-hearted musical modernization of Lysistrata set in the Middle East, in which the women of an unidentified landmine-ringed village, a mixed Christian and Muslim community, go to extraordinary lengths to prevent their menfolk from realizing their country has descended into violent sectarian conflict. Christian café-owner Amal (director Nadine Labaki), who is in love with Muslim painter Amal, is one of the first to learn about the bloodshed outside, and begins a campaign of sabotaging the few sources of outside news like the town’s radio and TV. But despite her best efforts tempers rise and misunderstandings mount following incidents at the town church (the cross is accidentally broken by a boy repairing a loudspeaker) and mosque (untended goats wander into the holy threshold). 

Soon the once-peacefully cohabiting congregations are at each other’s throats, and women devise a harebrained scheme to strand a busload of sexy East European dancers, temporarily redirecting the attention of the trigger-happy males. But it’s only a matter of time before the violence spills over and yields real casualties, leading to the film’s final scene where a funeral procession hesitates between the Christian and Muslim cemetery’s leaving a pallbearer to ask the title question, “Where do we go now?”

Though met with critical reserve, Where Do We Go Now proved a popular success, offering up a tongue-in-cheek, feel-good take on the Middle East’s interminable cycle of sectarian strife. The film dabbles liberally in musical, romantic and comedic modes while tackling disconcertingly hot-button issues and gaily espousing a willfully naïve pro-peace agenda, resulting in a bipolar mood that will either inspire with its humanist bravado or irritate with its political oversimplifications. I have to admit to bouncing between both reactions, but maybe that’s a good thing; great comedy is often based on walking an uneasy line and juggling ‘untouchable’ topics. Director Nadine Labaki knows what she’s doing, and populates her film with talented, likable actors and actresses who can sustain both the film’s gentle levity and grave themes. Her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, composed the musical numbers and, far from interrupting the narrative flow, I wish there were more of them.

I’ve been unable to track down films from Lebanese cinema’s regionally fruitful golden age in the 1940s and 50s, but I can highly recommend Lebanon’s first international breakthrough, 1998’s “West Beirut.” It was my original choice for the Film Atlas, but I’m almost as sick of writing about coming-of-age dramas set during war as Labaki is of religious zealots hypocritically killing each other over doctrinal minutiae.

My Favorites:
West Beirut
The Insult
Under the Bombs
Where Do We Go Now?

Major Directors:
Philippe Aractingi, Maroun Bagdadi, Nadine Labaki

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Film Atlas (Kyrgyzstan): Beshkempir

Country: Kyrgyzstan
Title: Beshkempir (1998)
Beshkempir is an adopted child in his early teens living in rural Kyrgyzstan. He is gentle, watchful and full of curiosity. Much of the film consists of Beshkempir playing with his friends, observing the natural world and nursing a crush for a neighboring girl. The film has little or no political agenda, no particular message, no climactic showdown or chase. The primary conflict come from Beshkempir learning from a vindictive friend, jealous that Beshkempir took his girl for a bike ride, that he is adopted. While dealing with the resulting bout of confusion, shame and anger his grandmother passes away. Yearning for acceptance himself, Beshkempir struggles with accepting his family and his birth.

The coming-of-age themes in Beshkempir make it at once familiar (in the good, universally recognized sense) and overly familiar (in the bad, cliché sense), with a lot of time spent on perfunctory scenes of young boy mischief and awkward sexual budding. And yet Beshkempir has so much grace, sincerity and compassion to spare that a few hackneyed scenes are forgivable. The gorgeous telephoto lens cinematography, the film’s strongest suit, also helps. Dirt lanes, brickmaking pits and dilapidated thatch are shot with effortless magic, allowing the viewer to experience life through Beshkempir’s eyes: not as a study of poverty, underdevelopment or hardship, as might be expected for a film about a region so far from electricity and other modern conveniences, but as ordinary people and places imbued with wonder, novelty and adventure. 

The film is primarily black and white, but occasionally, almost as if the film itself can’t resist the joy of certain sights (traditional carpets, trees catching a breeze, a pretty girl on a bike), everything switches into brief displays of color.  This is a film that is uncomplicated, without being shallow; that enjoys the simple things, without trivializing them.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Film Atlas (Kenya): Nairobi Half Life

Country: Kenya
Title: Nairobi Half Life (2012)
Mwas loves, lives and dreams movies. He sells bootleg DVDs in his low-rent home town, proving popular with the local thugs due to his talent for reenacting dramatic scenes from the Hollywood blockbusters he peddles. When a travelling theater comes to town Mwas tries to get an acting gig, but is conned into paying an “agent’s fee” and told to show up at a venue in Nairobi. Determined to make a name for himself, Mwas agrees to run a dubious errand for his cousin, a gang leader, to earn the rest of the cash he needs, but he’s robbed blind almost immediately after setting foot in the rough-and-tumble capital and gets mistakenly arrested soon after. In prison, he catches the eye of Oti, who appreciates Mwas’s imperturbable cheerfulness in the face of mopping a filthy bathroom. Oti helps Mwas learn the street-smart survival skills of a low-level criminal, stealing car parts and later orchestrating hijackings. Oti benefits from Mwas’s quick adaptability, intrinsic intelligence and confident people skills, but conflict intrudes when Mwas falls for Oti’s girl, an easy-going prostitute. Meanwhile, Mwas manages to kick start his acting career by landing a small role at Nairobi’s Phoenix Theater, but the pressure of leading a double life wears him down. His befriends his costar, Cedric, a young man from a privileged background who is living a double-life of his own as a closeted homosexual. As opening night approaches, Mwas gets in over his head, accidentally murdering an arms dealer and getting locked in an off-the-grid execution chamber by corrupt cops.

Joseph Wairimu, who plays Mwas, steals the movie, among other things. It’s easy to see how the instantly likable, motor-mouthed Mwas, though inexperienced and overly trusting, can win friends, con dupes and talk his way out of almost anything. One also immediately senses that though clever and enthusiastic, he isn’t cut out for crime. Despite being refreshingly unhindered by scenery-chewing moral reservations, Mwas just isn’t mean enough to climb the crooked ladder very high. This means the tension isn’t driven by the fact that Mwas's actions are wrong, just that they're dangerous. And if Mwas and his pals occasionally seem to drift heedlessly onward in consequence-free bubbles, this strikes me as plausibly part and parcel of youth’s illusion of invincibility, making it all the more harrowing when the bubble finally bursts.

Deftly depicting the complicated network of conflicting and cooperating criminal factions that is Nairobi’s underworld, along with the seedy dens, cramped alleys and guarded territories they inhabit, is one of the film’s other major achievements. While Nairobi Half Life proudly acknowledges its Western influences, tipping its hat to the likes of Tarantino and Scorsese, it also knows how to repurpose genre clichés newly infused with its own East African flavor. It wisely cleaves closer to the desperate realities of Nairobi’s ghettos than the glamorous gangster-chic of popular American films, implicitly critiquing not just the ubiquity of juvenile crime, but overcrowded under-maintained prisons, endemic police corruption and rocketing social and financial inequality. Though the film is generally quite good at showing rather than telling, Mwas’s play-within-the-movie gives the director a chance to state his socio-political stance clearly (perhaps a little too clearly), ending on a note of quasi-quaint but charming sincerity.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Film Atlas (Kazakhstan): The Fall of Otrar

Country: Kazakhstan
Title: The Fall of Otrar / Gibel Otrara (1991)
The year is 1218. The place is Otrar, an outlying city of the Khwarezmian Empire (spanning from modern day Iran to Kazakhstan) valued for its strategic position on the lucrative Silk Road trading route. Unzhukhan, a nomad from a neutral tribe, returns to Shah Muhammed II, leader of the Khwarezmians, after having served for seven years as a spy in the Mongol horde. He bears bad news: Genghis Khan is consolidating his victorious forces in China and turning his attention to the Shah’s eastern front. However the Shah is more concerned with court intrigue and the Caliph of Baghdad's armies to the west. Suspecting Unzhukhan of being a double agent, he has him brutally tortured, but the Shah’s mother frees him for purposes of her own. Unzhukhan refuses to be a pawn in their games and goes his own way, eventually convincing Kairkhan, governor of Otrar, that the Mongol threat is real and that a recent convoy of merchants is secretly scouting their defenses in advance of an invasion. Kairkhan orders their arrest and seizes their property, later executing an ambassador sent by Genghis Kahn to demand an explanation. This backwater squabble triggers a war that will end in the Mongols becoming the largest empire the world had ever known, but in the meantime Kairkhan and Unzhukhan, uneasy partners with ideological baggage, prepare Otrar to defend itself. 

The city holds out against wave after wave of attacks that include Chinese siege engines, tunnel diggers and vastly superior numbers, but it inevitably succumbs. A rather philosophical Genghis Kahn declaims to his captured prisoners about sovereignty and posterity. Kairkhan is executed by having molten silver poured over his face. The Shah is reduced to a beggar and flees. And Unzhukhan, wandering through the smoldering ruins, questions fate and freedom and meditates that at least, to its credit, Otrar was the last of the strongholds to fall.

The Kazakh New Wave, which generally tackled trendier contemporary topics like rebellious youths, angsty gangsters and the underground music scene, also produced this criminally little-known historical epic. Drawing influences from Kurosawa-Mifune samurai collaborations, blood-soaked spaghetti westerns and Tarkovsky’s brooding art films, The Fall of Otrar is bristling with ferocity and ambition. It’s an impressive history lesson about a key turning point in the balance of world power (for some context, the Mongol Empire was, at its height, five times the size of the Roman Empire’s apex), and though I found it necessary to do some homework in order to understand the rather merciless throw-the-viewer-into-the-deep-end-of-the-pool opening acts, it manages to transport you into its medieval setting through a highly immersive attention to look, feel, language and behavior in a way only a few films (Marketa Lazarova, Andrei Rublev) can match. But while The Fall of Otrar is a rich visually-driven study of medieval Central-Asian politics, siege warfare, the limitations of power, the hubris of empire and the role of the individual in large-scale historical change, it is also an entertaining spectacle on an instinctual visceral level, full of mounting tension, gruesome violence and grand clashes.

The Fall of Otrar is shot in a mix of sepia-toned monochrome and desaturated color whose alternations, as far as I could tell, have no particular rhyme or reason, but they give the movie an aged, weather-worn feel. The film is tightly shot, with earthy interiors of dirt, sand and stone only occasionally relieved, as the stakes escalate, by wider exteriors (and even these are predominantly densely populated and graphically busy), echoing the hemmed-in futility of the besieged town as it is gradually overwhelmed. I found the character arcs of Kairkhan (who lacked backstory) and Unzhukhan (who disappears for an hour in the middle) rather uneven, but I can’t say how much of that is the film’s fault since I watched a version missing ~20 minutes, with dodgy amateur subtitles and an obnoxious Russian-release audio in which a man repeated every line of the movie in Russian after the characters speak. The good news, however, is that a restored print curated by Martin Scorsese has toured and I can only hope that one day The Fall of Otrar will get the release it deserves.

My Favorites:
The Fall of Otrar
The Recruiter / Schizo (2004)
Killer (1998)

Major Directors:
Darezhan Omirbayev

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Film Atlas (Jordan): Captain Abu Raed

Country: Jordan
Film: Captain Abu Raed (2007)
The captain of the title is actually an elderly janitor at the international airport in Amman who lives in a poor neighborhood, but occupies a flat filled with books and art that testify to his active mind. He lives alone, humble and content with memories of his life and lost family. One day he finds a pilot's hat in the trash at work and wears it home, permanently altering his life. 

Tareq, a local kid, mistakes him for a real captain and the two strike up a friendship with Abu Raed spinning fantastic tales of globetrotting adventure. Soon other children are drawn in, with the exception of Murad. Murad suffers at the hands of his alcoholic and violently abusive father and doesn't harbor any illusions about life. He exposes Abu Raed as a much less sensational man than the children thought he was, but the janitor turns out to be hero nonetheless. A parallel story introduces us to Nour, a beautiful woman from a wealthy family who is more interested in her career as a pilot than in the suitors introduced by her highly traditional parents. She, too, develops a friendship with Abu Raed and grows to respect him.

The first act of Captain Abu Raed so unabashedly announces its intention to be an inspirational film about a lovable old man with an irresistibly pure soul and kindly philosophy that my knee-jerk response was to settled in for a parade of mushy hokum. But I was being unfair. The film gradually gets rather serious and dark, dealing soberly with friendship, disillusionment, poverty, familial strife and class barriers without offering pat solutions. Despite initial appearances the characters are anything but clichés and their interplay becomes the backbone of the film.

Abu Raed is a man who has been through a lot of life and doesn't know if he has anything to offer these children more substantial than stories. You can tell that he wonders whether it would be better not to get involved and speculates whether his reaching out to them is making things worse. Murad is especially interesting because he starts out as a conventional bully, but the movie cares enough to develop him to the point where his arc becomes central to the plot. We learn that he is bruised, defensive and jaded as the result growing up too fast and too harshly, and he will need more than thrilling stories to survive the trials of youth. Lastly there's Nour, who's quite captivating and provides a very different angle to this snapshot of Jordan, but whose character could have been a huge mistake. I kept worrying the film was heading towards a May-December romance type of thing between her and Raed, but instead we get to see something much rarer in films: a sensitive and platonic friendship between adults of opposite genders. These characters all come together so that by the time Captain Abu Raed reaches its inspirational ending, however predictable the presence of such an ending may be, it has earned our emotional investment and paid it back in full.

My Favorites:
Captain Abu Raed

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Film Atlas (Japan): Akira

Country: Japan
Title: Akira (1988)
In the near future Tokyo is destroyed by a telekinetic child named Akira and rebuilt, as Neo-Tokyo, into an even more hypermodern dystopia controlled by military police and host to armed rebels and violent gangs. Kaneda is the leader of a motorcycle youth gang in the middle of a territory dispute. Tetsuo is a member of the gang that looks up to Kaneda with a mixture of hero worship and bitter envy. His fate takes a sudden turn when he runs into an escaped Esper, a telekinetic child similar to Akira, and gradually learns that his own mind may contain an even greater untapped potential. But Tetsuo, like humankind, is merely in its adolescence and lacks the maturity and morality to cope with godlike powers. He soon grows out of control, his tumor-like flesh swelling him into a monstrous giant and his migraine-inflamed mental energies threatening the entire city. Kaneda allies with Kei, a tomboyish rebel caught in the fray, and a pair of Espers reared in a secret government project to stop Tetsuo before it’s too late.

Akira is an anime adaptation of director Katsuhiro Otomo’s own 2000+ page manga epic, still unfinished at the time of the film (a fact that shows during the film’s grand, overreaching conclusion). Benefiting from unprecedented production funding, Akira looks and sounds like no film that came before, introducing anime to the mainstream and establishing the medium’s gold standard for scope and detail. Some of the effects, like the persisting blur of speeding taillights, have become iconic stylistic touches. The backgrounds are especially memorable: landscapes of metal and glass alternate between shiny synthetic skyscrapers and rusty decaying hellholes, predicting the further stratification of rich and poor. The film reflects other Japanese preoccupations as well, including rising juvenile delinquency, the fascistic tendencies of centralized military power and the dangers of a civilization’s technology outpacing its spiritual growth. The child Akira is also a clear reminder of the Atomic bomb: a cataclysmic death toll resulting from the seemingly utopian dream of unleashing new forms of energy. The film’s other themes include the love-hate pain of unequal friendships, revolutions and sacrifice, the ethics of human experimentation, posthuman evolution and the apocalypse. So even if the treatment isn’t especially deep,  one has to admire the boldness and ambition! Akira was an immediate though controversial hit and its influence can still be felt even beyond manga and anime, in science-fiction television, film, literature and videogames.

My Favorites:
Spirited Away
Woman in the Dunes
Hausu / House
Branded to Kill
Red Angel
Death by Hanging
Only Yesterday
Angel Dust (1994)
Pastoral: To Die in the Country
The Human Condition trilogy
Pale Flower
The Pornographers
A False Student
Millennium Actress
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On
Seven Samurai
Samurai Rebellion
The Castle of Sand
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Wolf Children
Fires on the Plain
The Naked Island
The Face of Another

The Sword of Doom
Cure (1997)
High and Low
Princess Mononoke
Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade
After Life (1998)
An Actor’s Revenge
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
My Neighbor Totoro
Tokyo Olympiad
The Eel
Grave of the Fireflies
The Bad Sleep Well
Sansho the Bailiff
Tokyo Twilight
Double Suicide (1969)
The Red Spectacles
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)
Doppelganger (2003)
Giants and Toys
All About Lily Chou-Chou
47 Ronin (1941)
Red Beard
Muddy River
Gozu / Cowhead
Ghost in the Shell

Major Directors:
Kinji Fukasaku, Kore-Eda Hirokazu, Ishiro Honda, Mamoru Hosoda, Kon Ichikawa, Tadashi Imai, Shohei Imamura, Juzo Itami, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Beat Takashi Kitano, Satoshi Kon, Akira Kurasawa, Kiyoshi Kurasawa, Takashi Miike, Hayao Miyazaki, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Mamoru Oshii, Nagisa Oshima, Yasujiro Ozu, Makoto Shinkai, Seijun Suzuki, Isao Takahata, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shinya Tsukomoto, Yoji Yamada