Friday, 27 May 2022

The Wasps Are Here (1978)

 


Director: Darmasena Pathiraja

Screenplay: Darmasena Pathiraja

Cast: Joe Abeywickrama as Anton; Malini Fonseka as Helen; Vijaya Kumaratunga as Victor

Ephemeral Waves

 

This has the ugly beauty of a cheap cake.

The initial tone - a melancholic song playing over images of a fishing community on the coast - sets up the contrast between the serene world this Sri Lankan film starts with against the inevitable emotional strife within it, the sensual nature of Darmasena Pathiraja's film still a narrative of a conflict within this tranquillity.

His father ailing further inland, Victor the son (Vijaya Kumaratunga), dubbed "Little Boss" by the community, comes from the city with a friend to take over his family's fishing business, at a time when a rival business ran by local Anton (Joe Abeywickrama) has taken a chunk of the produce within this environment and the surrounding islands. Victor represents the conflict of the city person coming to this village, in a similar way to Shohei Imamura's Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) did as probably one of the most underrated Japanese films in existence. Here Victor's tensions with Anton worsened by his own interactions with Helen (Malini Fonseka). A local, she and Victor will consummate the romance between them, and this alongside the horrifying sexism and tribalism, even from her parents, will makes her the real victim of this film's drama. Even Victor himself can be questioned for how he even went into their relationship. The other sane person here, representing the bohemian urban youth who sees the ideals and the city's corruption, is Weera, the liberal who rightly challenges Victor at one point for seducing her, part of the unfortunate wheel of events which transpire. This is more so when someone who grew up with Helen since childhood, Cyril, has an equally sexist possessiveness to her and one whose unhealthy fixation on her leads him to wanting to attack Victor at one point at night.

Jealous of "his" Helen falling for Little Boss, his obsessive attitude is the straw which breaks the camel's back, pushing towards tragedy and actual murder. With only Weera to comment on Victor's transgressions, even Anton has his own virtues, a man who even with his multiple women on multiple islands, and brutish take on business, can still be virtuous. That this still comes from Anton, a figure who is a headstrong man, and certainly not innocence to actions against the one truly sympathetic character of Helen, than it shows The Wasps Are Here does not simplify the theme of modernisation and tradition, as neither is without sins. When the police have to come in from the in-land, the community loses its innocence, but the community itself was innocence with violent ignorance, with the puritanical nature of the community becoming the albatross for Helen to suffer with.

The Wasps Are Here is gorgeous to look at. Preserved from a film print, the term "sensual" was completely appropriate. The score, an acoustic string one with echoing voices, is atmospheric. Pathiraja's film, for a key scene of sexual consummation, tells it entirely through abstraction - of Helen's face, a hand digging into the sand - with the music telling all perfectly.  That the film has an abrupt action scene, only abrupt because the sound effects of blows feel like they have wandered in from an entirely different genre of film, cannot undercut the virtues of the film, a struggle in a cultural clash where there are no moral one-dimensions. Even one murder is an opportunistic machete attack by the least expected person whilst the victim was daydreaming on the beast, immediately recoiled in horror at from everyone including the person who committed the act. Even retribution for said act is literally the most haphazard of someone in a tree being slowly sawn into, the banality of how the characters falls into their worse impulses by anger or high emotion fully investing the narrative with real weight.

Darmasena Pathiraja had a small but respectful filmography. He was dubbed in an article, morning an anniversary of his passing, by D.B.S. Jeyaraj the “enfant terrible of Sinhala Cinema", and he is for again a filmmaker who in his home nation, for those aware of him, admired for his talents, especially as he went out of his way through nine feature films to tackle concerns of his nation including those considered taboos. That this film, as great as it is, was protected from a sole surviving and badly damaged print2, just close to being lost, just goes to show the sense that cinema and its history is a layered form we were late to preserving, with the consolation that, preserved by the Asian Film Archive2, they found that print and managed to restore the beauty visually of the film and capture what is an impressive narrative work.

 

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1) Taken from Renowned Film Maker Dharmasena Pathiraja was the “Enfant Terrible” of Sinhala Cinema, published January 30th 2022.

2) Take from the Asian Film Archive's page on The Wasps Are Here, which documents the extent of the restoration is full detail.

Thursday, 26 May 2022

Mandrake vs. Killing (1967)

 


Director: Oksal Pekmezoglu

Screenplay: Oksal Pekmezoglu

Cast: Güven Erte as Mandrake; Mine Mutlu as Princess Neslihan; Sadettin Düzgün as Killing; Hilal Esen as Bircan; Mustafa Dik as Abdullah; Cemil Sayin as Mustapha

Ephemeral Waves

 

This is last change, slut!

There are some types of film where you need to go into them with a different context, or you will ask yourself many questions. In this case, this is pertinent when Turkish cinema has its auteurs, award winning filmmakers like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and has films preserved by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation like and films even preserved by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation like Metin Erksan's Dry Summer (1964), so I wish to provide this context out of respect for a country's cinema I have barely scratched the surface of. Likewise I respect what is known as "Turksploitation", a type of cinema which may be the only be the only Turkish films some have seen, a type of cinema which is notorious as an exploitation genre entirely codified around its country of origin, has been viewed entirely through irony, and with notorious titles like Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (1982), a.k.a. Turkish Star Wars, or 3 Dev Adam (1973), the film where Spider Man has gone evil and where, as with both films, copyright proved entirely non-existent within certain Turkish films. Especially as the examples quoted, and Mandrake vs. Killing to be honest, being very low budget films less coordinated by elaborate plots but spectacle and jarring tonal changes, these films could be contentious if viewed as the only films more commonly known from their nation, and even out of that context, they are curiosities you have to acclimatise to for how idiosyncratic they are.

Mandrake vs. Killing for example feels like an artefact from an alien dimension. Feeling older in tone than its late sixties creation, like a later fifties or early sixties genre film with its initial noir set up - a woman fleeing from men trying to kill her in the prologue, only to be disposed of - by way of spy rock guitar on the score. I have to address the title immediately; as mentioned, copyright was an urban legend, a fascinating touch to certain territories and their cinema as Turkey was not the only one who used other countries' work without permission. I have seen this from South Korea with animation to West Asian takes on the likes of Robocop to even the Salman Rushdie and Satanic Verses controversy, but Turkey managed to be so infamous for this with Western films they got an entire genre mostly born from these films. With the likes of E.T. to The Wizard of Oz remade in Turkish, it is also the escalation they could go with this, where 3 Dev Adam is not just the fact Spider Man has become so evil he tortures people with guinea pigs posing as giant rats, but that the Turkish government is forced to hire foreign figures to stop him, Captain America and the legendary Mexican luchador wrestler El Santo is played by Turkish actors. The two titular characters are obscurer figures, but comes from two territories of comic book history, making a fascinating cross pollination of heritages even if legally problematic and loose in the interpretation.

It does raise a question of how these characters became known in Turkish circles, as with all pop culture reinterpreted through these notorious exploitation films, and how comic books and comic strips like this came to Turkey and warranted director/screenwriter Oksal Pekmezoglu to improvise with them. Mandrake the Magician is an American newspaper strip from the earlier pulp heroes, apt as his creator Lee Falk a couple of years later, Mandrake starting in 1934, also created the Phantom. Mandrake went as far as joining the Phantom, and pulp hero Flash Gordon, in Defenders of the Earth (1986-7), a children's animated series. He could have nearly had a film based on him by Federico Fellini, the legendary Italian filmmaker, with legendary actor Marcello Mastroianni in the role, something that never came to be but was explicitly referred to in 1987’s Intervista, a Fellini film where Mastroianni did get to done the magician's suit briefly onscreen1. Mastroianni also played the character in a special version of a "fumetti", a photo comic which is a sub-genre where photographs of actors/models act out the stories with dialogue bubbles used, in a 1972 French Vogue special issue which may have been edited with help by Fellini himself1.

This is apt, as Killing is a character from Italian comic book history, and comes from fumetti. Italy's legacy of comic books is rich - Mario Bava fans, late nineties animated series viewers and even Beastie Boys fans may know of Diabolik, one of the country's most famous anti-heroes. Killing had his work published in Turkey, also known as KiLiNK there2, and alongside Mandrake have not had the most drastic alterations to them you can have, considering some of the more infamous Turksploitation films in existence, as Killing in his source material was a sadistic villain with a penchant for many of the things he gets up to here. The villain here too, he is a heavily scarred man decked in a skeleton costume when he works who, in a nod of respect to Turkey's infamous exploitation films, is distinct even out of his source material's villains costume. Even a true bastardisation like Spider Man in 3 Dev Adam make their takes interest, with the actor having eyebrows so large they came through the mask's eyeholes, and standing out for having his goons in his introduction mangle a woman's head with a boat propeller; here, much closer to the source material in behaviour, Killing nonetheless stands out even among said goons, his female beau marked with a "K" on her breast, others on the face, and his main henchman Mustapha with a "K" between cheek and mouth with the additional distinction of his almost short blonde/skin head appearance.

Killing is truly reprehensible, happy to kill women, even to torture them, though this begins the strange paradox, despite the source character playing to his trade, that much of this film in tone would be a more family friendly pulp narrative, only contrasted by the likes of its strange prurient touch of no explicit sex, and a group of characters you would presume would be for kids or a playful superhero tone, but will include explicit torture and explicit undressing of women to expose actresses' backs. This is especially the case when Mandrake is a pulp hero for the kids here, with broken God-like abilities to bend reality alongside a playful sense of humour, going from the early trick of switching a photographer's camera to a plaster hand, and eventually showing he can even reverse time itself briefly by way of reversed footage. Mandrake is also helped by a young woman, but also a hulking man servant Abdullah. Abdullah for the most part, really, is a lovable goof with the strength of an elephant, but you cannot escape the fact he is a Turkish actor beyond blackface to full blacken body paint on what is unclothed on his body. Again, this is something more common in other regions' cinema, not just something to rightly damn North America or us the British with The Black and White Minstrel Show about.

Mandrake vs. Killing is only fifty plus minutes long, a potpourri that is beamed from another existence. In spite of a simple plot - a stolen crown of a visiting princess, which Mandrake first borrowed into his bedroom as a joke - escalates into moments happening just because. This does feel like a dream. It is not just the English subtitles on the version I saw, a heavily scratched and scanned print, having a blunt lack of full sentence retranslation, but the tone of the material itself. This does have a messy nature to events which in a longer film, like Turkish Star Wars, turns into full delirium which is an acquired taste. Everything is simplistic, which would make this tone a shock for those unused to this. More so this is due to the contrast of very playful tonal aspects, like slaphappy fight scenes, contrasted by its misanthropic turns, that for two pulp characters this still has Killing, even as an anti-hero in his source, having his men whipping women, and even enjoys being whipped himself for pleasure.

This is continually contrasted by the more friendlier aspects, that alongside the leads including a lovable goof in Abdullah, Mandrake's powers include a code of honour to not kill and being badass enough to ride a motorbike helmetless wearing a cape. He will also, unless the scene's editing was off, capable of turning Killing into a German Sheppard dog whilst sleeping, which is bizarre especially when it contrasts the extremity of the violence, something I have found in other Turkish exploitation films as a curious mix. This mix of the whimsical and the extreme does stand out among many of the moments of Mandrake vs. Killing, which can go from this to cutting to a romantic beach frolic between Mandrake and the Princess set to a song clearly borrowed from a Bollywood film. This is a minor film from the vein of strangeness in cinema, compelling to have watched but very curious for reasons like this, a baffling production even if a distinct one for me.

 

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1) As documented in Lee Falk’s Phantom of Happy Memory — And Fellini and Falk’s Mandrake!, posted on April 25th 2016 by Mike Glyer.

2) Taken from Comic Vine's short section on Killing.

Friday, 20 May 2022

1000 Anime Crossover: Azumanga Daioh (2002)


Television Series

Wishing to promote my other blog's existence, in mind that they both belong to the same mind space of what I like writing about, but one is devoted entirely to Japanese animation, I felt I should start promoting content written in that site more often.

Azumanga Daioh is a good introduction for this. It does have one unfortunate aspect, but for the most part, this is an anime you could sell to someone with (for the most part) a lack of context or embarrassment to worry about. It is entirely a comedy, originally five minute shorts compiled into a twenty six episode show, about the lives of a troupe of school girls throughout their entire high school lives. It can vary between what is called "slice of life", the ordinary lives of archetypes who the show flesh out fully, and some legitimately weird content when it fancies being wacky.

The one unfortunate aspect I have to warn about, and sadly will detract for many, is that the one male character in the entire show who is neither animal or weird animal-man who only appears in flights of fancy is a male teacher where the joke is about him lusting over schoolgirls. This has not aged, and has to be warned about even though I wish I did not have to. For Western fans of said show to this day, on its twentieth anniversary this year, that character has not aged well for any of us either, but thankfully the program is not capsized by this one flaw at all. For a show which is sadly not as readily available, it has aged exceptionally everywhere else within itself as a whimsical and exceptionally funny production.

Even in mind that the original comic's target audience was teen boys, this feels far more sweet and gentle hearted as it will happily have some perfectly timed slapstick. For the full review, follow the link HERE.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Games of the Abstract: Gunstar Heroes (1993)

 


Developer: Treasure

Publisher: Sega

One or Two Player

Mega Drive / Nintendo 3DS / Windows / iOS / PS3/ Xbox 360

 

For those in the know, Gunstar Heroes is a legendary game from a legendary developer. This is not the first game they technically made - founded by former members of Konami who worked on titles like The Simpsons (1991), the acclaimed beat 'em-up with the America's favourite yellow skinned family, and Contra III: The Alien Wars (1992)1, Treasure's first actual game in developer was of all things a McDonald fast food tie-in, the platformer about Ronald McDonald called McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure (1993). This came from Treasure being an entirely unknown quantity to Sega, who wished they proved themselves in their craft2, but for Treasure themselves, they wished to have an original project of theirs as their debut release first. Gunstar Heroes may have never been released, or least on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, a console the company wanted to work on as priority, if it had not been for the one Sega executive who actually liked the game3. Regardless of the circumstances behind Treasure's first non-licensed game coming into existence, it nonetheless paved a legacy for an admired developer, the game itself held as one of the best run-and-gun shooters of any kind.

Gunstar Heroes is a very simplistic story - a one or two player game, Red and Blue are two figures you can choose to retrieve gems taken by a sinister mighty cabal of villains with considerable power. In a still-surprising touch for a game in this genre this old, you have an immediate choice to choose between having the ability to fire whilst moving or firing in old directions in exchange for moving at the same time, and that you can choose your initial firepower type, which can (as we will get too) be changed and combined with other firepower power choices you literally have to crouch and pick up during the fire fights. You also have the option to choose the first four levels, for the four gems, in any order. It is clear you should start with the first on the right, but the freeness of the game emphasises Treasure's willingness to stretch and play with a genre they debuted with in the "run-and-gun" genre which I admired from the get-go. Though Gunstar Heroes has its charmingly rough patches, where this has aspects which feel not as fleshed out as others, it is a really fascinating thing to realise how much of the game is both fair for games and also this new developer clearly having fun. Treasure's immediate experience on Konami games beforehand led to them already having the talent, but they both went for broke here, but with game play life saving functions as well included unexpected for this game.

The four initial levels have their personalities. The first involves rescuing a tiny village of sprite creatures. It is an odd touch for a science fiction based game, but before Mischief Makers (1997) it was the first time Treasure was fixated on weird little creatures you interact with and, comically, still have their village blown up even when saved. The boss is a trademark found in Japanese animation and manga, of the beautiful female villainess with her two male henchmen, one thin and one rotund. This has many versions in existence, one of the more famous the animated franchise Yatterman with Doronjo and her henchmen. It is a stock archetype which even influenced Team Rocket from the first Pokemon animated series, only replace the rotund character with a talking cat. Level two is a mine cart level, and we will have to get to Seven Force, the boss for that level, in a later paragraph focusing on one of Treasure's greatest virtues. Level three is a run-and-gun on a flying airship, introducing both a clear parody of M. Bison from the Street Fighter games, if he was a thin henchman who will not stay down, and fighting a muscle man whose idea of an elbow drop, grapping the spinning blade of a small airplane platform at super speed before timing his drop, is insanely impressive.

Level Four literally turns into a board game. Treasure's greatest virtue, discovering them, is already here in that they like making their games have unique levels and turns. You find yourself in a room, after fighting a few grunts beforehand, having to roll the dice with the melee throw from one to three only. You can find yourself with mini-bosses, including a brawl with a curry creature only using fists and kicks which exploits the Mega Drive's polygon capabilities, or be lucky to get the "happy" power-up room. Naturally, you can also hit the square where you have to return to the beginning of the board; thankfully, once you clear any square, until you reach the boss square and progress to the boss fight, they clear after you complete what they require. Including the more rudimentary tangent into a spaceship scrolling shooter near the end, Treasure's willingness to keep the games they make afresh and even change genre is admirable. This is all with a sense of creativity, and with a sense that, even if there are aspects which feel would be polished by the developers in later games, they made sure these changes here in Gunstar Heroes still worked.

The game is a hectic run-and-gun, and even if following the tropes, of jumping platforms whilst firing at everything around you in all directions that wants you dead, this has the touches of not only seemingly unlimited continues, but this is not a game with one-live only hits for the player, or even a couple. Instead, able to mix two set of firepower, or even combine them, or even throwing grunts around like missiles, an entire life bar in number form is at hand for you instead. Starting at one hundred, it grows with each Stage you complete in the maximum level you can reach. This is a virtue in that, helping a beginner to the game, Gunstar Heroes is happy to throw lengthy levels with sub-bosses from the earliest levels, even if it means facing a tree creature that spins out balloons, but rewards the difficulty growth with spectacular events and fairness to how it plays at the same time. Seven Force, which you only get a few parts of below the Normal difficulty, is literally seven forms one boss can transform into, and is an incredible showpiece you can play extremely early in Gunstar Heroes. Be it bird, crustacean, or hilariously a giant handgun, which even has to reload, you find yourself in Seven Force facing seven forms even on Normal difficulty, and all of them are unique battles as a marathon. It is a challenge to face at any level of a shooter, but it seems bold to have them that early on; that the game makes sure the difficulty curve is not too extreme is itself virtuous from the developers.

Even into the latter half of the game, nothing undercuts the game. The scrolling space shooter section is not perfect as a replication of another genre, but it is still sufficient. The stage before is a prolonged marathon on a highway gunning through opponents which feels long, but not only does that not feel an issue it also, in an entirely different genre, is something Treasure clearly returned to for Mischief Makers, its longest level as a Nintendo 64 2D.5 platformer being an extended shake and brawl with goons on a highway. The last level, which would be returned too in some form with Sin and Punishment: Star Successor (2009), is a boss rush with (almost) all the villains you have faced before, even having a little platforming section obstacle course in the middle of a couple. It again does not feel pointlessly difficult even if a bit of a challenge. When you are facing a cosmic final boss, as the McGuffin the villains acquires backfires, and are having to fire at the gems themselves, you will have to dodge a great deal, abusing the wall jump in my play, but by that point the game has shown more virtue in playing fair and ramping up to this difficulty.

Treasure wanted to push the technology of the console this was made for. They choose the Mega Drive/Genesis over the Nintendo SNES on purpose1, and pushed the hardware as far as they could, even animating their own name in the opening credits with polygons. Only seven people worked on the game4, and Treasure were a tiny new developer at the time, experimenting with rotation and scaling of animation sprites for effect.  A mini-boss, a spaceship generator, manages to have 3D depth and certain bosses clearly use polygonal effects, embracing the artificial block-like nature for them as robotic. Even beyond the graphics and appearance, with its look and style cartoonish from its character designs and sense of colour, it has a personality that would be continued, whether serious or not, in other games I have seen from them. Norio Hanzawa's score fits the game perfectly as energetic chiptune electronica alongside the rich sound design too, the audio side of the production as distinct. As a debut, it is as good as you can get, and whilst it is not a surprise I admired Gunstar Heroes, it does mean a lot to actually experience the game with this reputation as an experience.

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1) Taken from An Interview With: Treasure, an interview with Treasure's president at the time, Masato Maegawa, from North American magazine Gamefan, Vol 1 Issue 11 from October 1993.

2) Taken from Sega's Masterpiece Album "Gunstar Heroes", an interview with president Masato Maegawa from January 22, 2017.

3) Taken from Sega 16's Interview: Mac Senour (SOA Producer), the interview with the man of Sega of America who indeed argued for Gunstar Heroes to actually be published for the Mega Drive/Genesis as is talked of in the interview, written by Ken Horowitz for October 23rd 2013.

4) Taken from British retro gaming magazine Retro Gamer, volume 50, part of The Making of Gunstar Heroes, published on April 2008 and written by Jonti Davies.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

The Devil's Sword (1983)

  


Director: Ratno Timoer

Screenplay: Imam Tantowi

Cast: Barry Prima as Mandala; Gudi Sintara as the Queen of the White Alligator Demon; Advent Bangun as Banyunjaga; Enny Christina as Pitaloka

Ephemeral Waves

 

You smell worse than death itself.

Synth playing over a lowering dusk sun - looking like a prog rock album from Indonesia - adds a lot of promise to a film. From a bludgeoning period of genre filmmaking behind the likes of this to horror films like Mystics in Bali (1981), a meteorite falls to the Earth and, in a fantasy version of Indonesia, a sword is thus forged from its core centre of dangerous power many desire. This sets up a film which in itself has a lot of background of note - that its producer Gope T. Samtani, through Rapi Films, has been a huge prescience in terms of Indonesian cinema, and the type of films Mondo Macabro, the British-born world cinema distributors embraced in the DVD days like The Devil's Sword, be it an executive producer on Queen of Black Magic (1981) to producer on Virgins from Hell (1987), these heightened genre films along a variety of other productions less well known.

This is an Indonesian spin into the burgeoning fantasy genre of the early eighties, between Conan the Barbarian (1982) with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Hollywood production to many lower budgeted versions from the likes of Roger Corman's produced Deathstalker franchise. Other countries embraced this too - The Devil's Sword is eyeing Lucio Fulci's Conquest (1983) from Italy as one of the most delirious of this period of fantasy films - though noticeably The Devil's Sword is also influenced by the wave of martial arts films made between Hong Kong to South Korea that were prolific over decades. This even has the English dub that includes more swearing to emphasis this later touch. In this narrative, like Conquest being around an evil seductive witch queen, we have here the Queen of the White Alligator Demon (Gudi Sintara), a supernatural figure whose only desire is as many nubile young man as she can lust over and have in her bed, the villages having to sacrifice theirs as offerings at the lake holding her underwater lair not to anger her, all so she can have her harem of sexy men.

The lair is a spectacle in itself, a few minutes into the film introduced into the clear artificiality that is also the film's charm, between fake jewellery, costumes on people barely hiding their bodies, plastic sheeting, and sculptures from casts which evoke an old Hollywood fantasy epic from decades earlier, only in colour, than eighties cinema. (That Tokyo in Japan is noticeably in the laboratory work for the film in the opening credits shows how Rapi Films, making these films, were looking with an eye internationally as much as cribbing from clear influences around them). The Queen specifically wants one man, from a village who refused to give an offering, sending one of her best men, and a lover, to take him on his wedding day. The surreality of the film, also its finest trait, is witnessed when, villain or not, probably the best entrance anyone can have is kicking a giant bolder in the air and surfing it to the wedding reception to slaughter as many as possible in his goal's way.

Alongside that this is the kind of film where the bride herself, not pleased by any of this at all, thankfully joins in to fight the man trying to kidnap her husband, but The Devil's Sword's many quirks include how ridiculously gory it also is. The martial arts of the film, even including the sound effects, is from the seventies and eighties era of lower budgeted films I have seen, still an accomplishment but not the elaborate or spectacular work of other films especially from Hong Kong. In contrast to many of those films however, it is by only fifteen minutes or less into the production where we have already had a few decapitations and disembowelling in just this initial battle. The only real sense of disappointment in honesty in the film is that, introduced wandering into the fight after a considerable period within it and most of the village having been slaughtered by one man, is that the actual lead Mandala, as played by Barry Prima, is frankly a generic lead. Despite being played by a figure a figure famous for working on Indonesian films like this or The Warrior (1981), his character is one note, his only skin in the game being that the man after the groom is his fellow pupil under their master, who turned evil, and with said master poisoned so severely Mandala has to hastily amputate both his legs later on in bloody detail to save him. Mandala is the generic male lead whose goals is to rescue the groom, and prevent the Crocodile Queen from acquiring the titular sword, carved from a meteorite, which could have easily been passed onto the figure of the Bride herself who follows him along and can fight too.

The film's casual nature to its content is blasé. This feels like both a martial arts film and a fantasy one which is tinged with a sense of the strange. Initially, upon finding the film, I admit I was not as strongly positive on The Devil's Sword, partially because this is still a traditional martial arts genre film at heart in its beats, alongside being over an hour and forty minutes, which still feels ten minutes longer than these films normally would be in pace, feeling that length The mood, returning to the film, won me over however finally, and I now bat an eye at the details which are more entertaining now. One is the "Crocodile Men", the henchmen of the villainess who are actors in crocodile costumes, with crocodile heads, seeing how both charmingly fake the costumes are but also charming as being tangible. The mood in general, even in spite of its gore and goofier moments, is there when the leads will land upon a raft driven by a skull faced boatman, one who is neither a character nor an enemy, just a Styx-like ferryman there for atmosphere who disappears as soon as he appears. Conquest, as mentioned earlier in the review, is probably the stranger film, Lucio Fulci's fantasy film both in its own head trip, and having goofy moments of summoning dolphins to rescue someone using stock footage, and I am sure Hong Kong has provided equally strange work, even legitimate gems like Tsui Hawk's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983).  This Indonesian production has a lot still though, in comparison to admire.

Or that this will take some unexpected turns in context to the tropes it has. One is when it introduces a trio of cartoonish villains - a witch, a bald man with a guillotine hat, and a snake man who can slither underground and turns a snake into a staff - only to have them kill each over the titular sword, which far from a disappointment is actually a creative twist on this idea. The film does eventually become a series of events in the end, which as for my younger self was far less appealing than a film which fully dipped itself into more illogical tangents; but even within this context, especially for the fantasy genre The Devil's Sword leans towards, this does have the fascinating homemade quality which you wish to root for contrasted by how that, inherently, has a strange edge to it. A homemade Cyclops monster is the guardian of the titular sword, and alongside wishing to praise the people who put that costume together, it is inherently strange to witness on camera, even if you are aware an actor is in a stiff costume, shambling along. Green lasers are added in post-production for one single moment, where Barry Prima and his arch-nemesis can do so, just because. And barring the knowledge Conan the Barbarian ended with a snake cult orgy, this crocodile person orgy is contrasted by dance writhing by the extras to moody ambient music and real fire near them, which is both the most eighties take on this you can have and is compelling despite arguably taking too much screen time as a sequence. Your interest in this film is entirely is anything remotely intrigues you as a viewer, but there is as well the sense that, within this fantasy sub-genre, the film too manages to feel unique to itself, as a production from Indonesia which can stand out with its heritage even whilst being goofy fun.



Friday, 6 May 2022

Games of the Abstract: Panic Bomber (1995)

 


Developer(s): Raizing, Hudson Soft

Publisher: Hudson Soft

One Player

Nintendo Virtual Boy

 

I am Amorphous-Man. I will rock your little world.

When talking of video game history, one which is stuck in a nebulous place where Nintendo has referred to the Virtual Boy but it is clearly a black eye for them. They have referred to it - one example being WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames! (2003) for the GameBoy Advance with Mario Clash (1995) referenced as a mini-game - but they do not re-release the titles for the notorious console, not practical to sell as a handheld, at a time of advanced home consoles like the Sega Saturn, simply because you had to stick your head in a visor that entirely subsumes your vision. It was an attempt at a virtual reality based console that, played with a visor on a stand, was released in 1995 and brushed to the side in just 1996, which shows how badly the product was even if by perception by Nintendo themselves, who focused on the original handheld GameBoy managing to survive for an entire decade and the approaching Nintendo 64. Even the Wii U, another unsuccessful console from between 2012 to 2017, managed more than a couple hundred games, and to last longer than a single year. Other superior retrospectives, with extensive research, can document the Virtual Boy's short and tumultuous history1.  This is a review of one such title from the machine's tiny collection of releases, the Virtual Boy having only fourteen releases in the West, eight additional ones in Japan. These titles have been preserved by emulation and by a hardcore fandom for the console in spite of the general infamy of Nintendo's real failure.

Panic Bomber is also a spin-off to Hudson Soft's Bomberman, a long lasting franchise which, played on whatever console, worked with the simple idea that has appealled over the decades. That, playing a cute little humanoid, you negotiate around a maze-like stage and drop bombs behind you, hoping you have timed them to explode when an enemy or another player are caught in their explosion radius. The first game was released in 1983 and has become an institution - barring one ill-advised attempt to make a gritty realistic version, the infamous Xbox 360 Bomberman: Act Zero (2006), the series has lasted, and like many other popular franchises, a puzzle spin-off in Panic Bomber began in 1994 for PC Engine Super CD, and continued to the Playstation Portable handheld with Bomberman: Panic Bomber (2005). It was inevitable alongside how Bomberman has had single player adventure games, mini-game compilations and other genre tangents along the way. The strange touch with this specific version, for the Virtual Boy, is how this was developed with Raizing. Raizing, becoming Eighting in the decades after, is more famous from this era and to the current day for legendary shooters like Battle Garegga (1996). Even with their other Hudson Soft collaborations, it was instead with the Bloody Roar franchise, 3D fighting games whose central gimmick was the cast being able to turn into animal people, making this early moments in their studio's career, a rare step into a puzzle game for a company prolific for shooters and beat-em-ups, quite a curious tangent.

Panic Bomber as played on the Virtual Boy is complicated in explaining how its gameplay works, despite being extremely simple in action when you get what is going on. You have a Tetris-like structure of falling blocks, of character faces (or whatever you choose in the option selection), that however you have to match three or more identical of instead of how Tetris works, in straight lines or diagonals or longer connecting chains. The more of these you complete provide you with bombs, important as, as you will collect debris as the game continues with an opponent, the point is to blow up the bombs with a lit one to remove the debris, which will go onto the opponent's side. A giant bomb can be acquired if you are lucky, comically large, which will clear whatever it lands on in vast quantities. The challenge, as with other puzzle games with this structure whether against an opponent or your wits by yourself, is trying to avoid the blocks filling up to the top, to which it is game over, with the increasing speed and the computer A.I. getting one step in front of you the increased challenge. Multiplayer sadly was not possible for the Virtual Boy; the planned link cable never came to be1, so this is one player only despite its presentation, two rectangular play areas for each opponent, being structurally simple for a multiplayer experience.

The initial aspect to contend with is the Virtual Boy look. Played on the original hardware or not, with the three dimensional optical effect kept or not, the Virtual Boy was only limited to black and red. Honestly, it looks gorgeous in hindsight despite this, as with the original Nintendo GameBoy a quality of art still possible for the system. Panic Bomber is not an elaborate game at all for this system too. The plot is merely an aesthetic to add to the fun, that the titular Bomberman is after the legendary Golden Statue of the Bombermen, which has led to him having wandered onto the mysterious island of Ever-Mist to acquire it. Taking on a series of three stages, before a main boss, consisting of two enemies and one mini-boss for each, your protagonist, based on the mascot of the Bomberman franchise with the white helmet, is to acquire the three medals required to finally locate the Golden Statue. Based on horror iconography, i.e. a mummy bomberman or a Frankenstein's monster bomberman, the game's sense of charm does win you over for what is still, structurally, an uncomplicated competitive puzzle game. The only thing worth mentioned as well as "Skull Mode", which can be turned on and off, where you can acquire power-ups, such as ones which reverse the controls are clear the gaming area, when you or your opponents blast your bricks, which offers an additional gameplay challenge.

Consisting of opening images with taunts at your player, this is not a scary game when you are fighting the likes of blob creatures or Cecil the Tiger which most would want plush figures of to cuddle. How could you not love Cecil for example, a limbless blob cat creature whose opening comments in English text is the threat of "Cecil The Tiger is the name, I eat intruders and pizza too!" You feel sad for when the poor thing bursts into tears when you beat him, the animation of your opposing players in the matches, requisite for this era of competitive puzzle games like the Puzzle Bobble franchise, exceptionally good in mind to the Virtual Boy's infamy. Knowing Nintendo have not released titles from the system, these games lacking availability is tragic as, barring that they all have to be depicted in shades of red against black, games like this are still beautifully made in context of a console that was the failed VR disaster for then. Only that they were made for a system which had to prompt warnings of taking a break for eyestrain would undercut the prettiness of the production.

Those automatic pauses, which are an option to have, do emphasis that this piece of the long standing spin-off just had the unfortunate position of being on what was a quickly doomed project. If this had been a late era GameBoy title, the animation even in black-and-white (or green and black) would have still been this slick even if there might have been some compromise. Barring its somewhat quirky sentences - never has there been a threat requiring a lot of baggage to unpack as "Find a happy place to cry!" - Panic Bomber as it looks could happily appear on a Nintendo console as a download without anyone feeling embarrassed. The irony is knowing when the fifth generation of games consoles was about polygonal 3D being the new style to replace the old 2D games, two dimensional sprite graphics have been embraced in the decades after, and having played Panic Bomber not in 3D optics, it looks stupendous in appearance in context of the Virtual Boy's graphical limitations. The 3D gimmick in context does not make sense for it either, as the game, seeing the vistas of a Sahara desert within the same world as a Dracula's castle behind the game stages, is still pretty to look at without that gimmick.

Panic Bomber as a game grew when I decided not to just play the Normal mode, but complete Hard for the true ending. Count Dracu-boom (aka. Bombpire in the Japanese version) is the big heavy for the game, and befitting a Count Dracula, he is a bastard to face in a best-of-three conflict for the Golden Bomber Statue, but he is not the true final boss. If you beat him without any losses, the true final boss is a female Bomberman who is a continuous character in the series beforehand. Named Ms. Flashy, or Pretty Bomberman from the original name, she was introduced as a boss character in Super Bomberman 2 (1994) for the Super Nintendo System before becoming a side character as much as a continuous villainess. Even if her character design is stereotypically feminine, it makes a pleasant change, if you hit the right successes to be able to fight her, to have a woman as the final boss. With the speed of the game picking up with how the blocks fall, she is tough too, so it adds to the surprise of her as a hidden final opponent.

Beyond this, there is not much to say as Panic Bomber is a short game if you can beat it. Using a password system for stages, the best players could finish both difficulties in less of an hour, and most players like me will try over and over again to defeat the game. The lack of multiplayer is something many would have found disappointing with Panic Bomber too, but not only is that less of an issue for me, the context knowing Virtual Boy's life was so short, and the accessory to allow multiplayer never even came into fruition, explains the problem was entirely in context of the machine this version was created for. The idea of the Virtual Boy, whilst one I would like to try, of straining my neck in a claustrophobic view piece, which entirely submerges your attention to focus on its red-and-black games, is also worth bringing up; whilst the video games for this machine might have been spectacular, its gimmicky nature come as off-putting for me, one which would have helped make a struggle of even appreciating a short game like Panic Bomber which is nonetheless with great virtues. Let alone with multiplayer if it was available, especially as it would mean linking to Virtual Boys in their enclosed worlds up together, the machine's central concept does feed into the idea of when consoles try to be more than game systems, they do undercut themselves; why the Nintendo Wii succeeded was that, whilst motion controls, it sold as a machine for families and groups at parties as much as kept key titles from the company alive for their hardcore fans, not enclosed you in a visor.

The Hard mode play for me, with the sweeter ending even if it is just two bomber-people enjoying the sight of fireworks in a mostly still image, did change this review for the better, as whilst I did admire the game for its virtues, the second play led to me appreciating Panic Bomber further. Despite its short length, the game's structure is so rich that, in spite of the limitations of length or a lack of multiplayer, it has a lot of potential depth. The Panic Bomber premise improved once my initial issues with the game, how it felt awkward at first, especially with the blocks always in L-shapes, dissipated. The challenge and the try-over-and-over logic, like running into a brick wall until the wall eventually collapsed, won me over, and honestly, this game alongside the others, even a reboot, would gain fans especially with the virtue of the Bomberman franchise.

Unlike Puzzle Bobble, or Bust-A-Move, a puzzle spin-off to Taito's Bubble Bobble franchise which became strong enough to be its own franchise, Panic Bomber was a tangent, one worth bringing back but clearly a tangent alongside those in unexpected genres like the RPG for the franchise over the decades. Having tasted a little of it as a teen, from a Playstation One release, Bomberman's biggest virtue alongside the gameplay of the proper franchise was its cute look, contrasting the fact you were blowing people up with its cute appearance and colourful world. The same applies here with its cute characters and the music, which is composed by Shinichi Sakamoto and Atsushi Chikuma, and adds to the charm despite at times also sounding like the prelude to the Silver Shamrock song from Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)2. Notwithstanding a lambasted attempt at a gritty reboot, Bomberman is a wholesome looking game even if about handling explosives. The franchise was prolific in this era up to 2012, where multiple titles within a year, for many consoles, were released by Hudson Soft, and its franchise legacy comes as much from this charm as the gameplay.

Released in Japan on 21st July 1995, and the United States on 1st December 1995, this version of Panic Bomber is just one of the many titles from that prolific run of Bomberman games, main titles and spin-offs, from Hudson Soft. After Konami acquired the company in 2012, the main franchise had a huge gap between 2010 and 2017 before Super Bomberman R in 2017, and Super Bomberman R Online in 2020, would rectify this. Konami as a company is its own complicated, messy history especially when the 2010s exposed a series of problematic business practices, ill-advised decisions with their licenses in general, the entire fallout of Hideo Kojima leaving the company within that decade, and general treatment of their employees alongside the sense of distancing themselves from console gaming in general3.

Alongside Bomberman R Online, Konami also commissioned Bombergirl (2018), an arcade cabinet version which is effectively what happens if you made Bomberman with anime female characters. Also getting a Japan-only PC release in 2020, the character designs for Bombergirl I will defend to a point. I find having characters whom, even if sexualised, might work in another game are worth defending4, if it did not feel like Bombergirl was just bolting onto a newly acquired property the attempt to sell it on horniness alone rather than a greater creative streak. The designs stand out, but alongside all the stereotypes of female anime characters are, from the curvaceous to the schoolgirls, that between their proportions and skimpy outfits (or when the cloth is blown up), you clearly had a game meant to be sold on generic titillation first, making Ms. Flashy in Panic Bomber with her bow and skirt look discrete in comparison. Bomberman is a wholesome looking game even if about handling explosives, and likewise, with Bomberman R existing, the franchise was able to exist. It does feel with a sense however, with their creator's acquisition, the golden era of the Bomberman franchise is of a different time period. With a game like Panic Bomber, you see this franchise that, even on a failed console, would plough on with new titles in the main and side-games, and its personal sense of creativity is to be found even here.

 

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1) The Bad Game Hall of Fame, an exceptional website which intends by its creator Cass to properly examine "bad" and notorious games of the past, is an inspiration for these game writings of mine, and the Virtual Boy retrospective special, from 9th January 2018, is as lengthy and insightful on this project's tragic existence as you could want.

2) The soundtrack is charming, but getting used to the game, there was a brief period it felt inappropriately eerie in its 8-bit form. The reference, to a once-maligned and fascinating horror sequel, is appropriate, but beware that the Silver Shamrock jingle from that film is a true earworm.

3) Inside Konami: public shaming, tyrannical management and punitive reassignment, published on Games Industry on 3rd August 2015 by Dan Pearson is a good warts-and-all snapshot of this period Konami went through publically.

4) One character Olive - here a mildly NSFW link to the Contra fan wiki for the visual illustration - meant to be a tribute to Konami's Contra franchise and included as a bonus character later on, has suspendered parachute trousers which do not hide her underwear and bra. Alongside her multicolour hair, some of the art for the character, with the Russ Meyer approved cleavage size looking closer to a hentai (porn) fan art for a Bomberman character, do show a clear sense of Bombergirl being sold to tap into the horniness market. Olive, to not sound like a hypocrite, is probably least the most imaginative of the lot I have seen of the Bombergirl character designs, at least memorable and creative despite all the following aspects of hers being as extreme in sexualisation as you can get. Far more a sign that Bombergirl's interest in horniness does deserve criticism as a cynical marketing ploy, and dubious for gender depictions, is how a lot of the characters in contrast just stereotypical tropes you have seen within anime or Japanese video games, with the exaggerated proportions or the obvious concerns that the cute younger characters are meant to be "pretty" too, with a generic nature to all but some of the more inventive and colourful of them.

You somewhat have a clear (if buried) warning that Konami's acquisition of Hudson Soft had not quite go the direction fans may have hoped. It is telling that Bomberman never came back until 2017, and alongside Contra: Rogue Corps (2019), Konami's own reboot of their own license, being a maligned and very badly regarded reboot, it is with hesitance with a company that was demonised for problematic behaviour stumbles along with these licenses; Bombergirl with less horniness, and a Contra game with a armed sentient panda, are inherently interesting ideas, but we are stuck with a company whose shakiness in reputation grew from the 2010s on. Not even knowing of Bombergirl until this article, the morbid side of me wants to play the game, even with a complete lack of guilt, but as much of me wonders it will be a potential slog when most would rather play a cute original Bomberman game with less of the porn-like character designs.

Sunday, 1 May 2022

Technotise: Edit & I (2009)

 


Director: Aleksa Gajić, Nebojsa Andric and Stevan Djordjevic

Screenplay: Aleksa Gajić

Based on the comic book of Aleksa Gajić

Cast: Sanda Knezevic as Edit; Nebojsa Glogovac as Edi; Jelisaveta 'Seka' Sablic as Keva; Petar Kralj as Deda; Nikola Djuricko as Bojan; Boris Milivojevic as Jovan Vu; Srdjan 'Zika' Todorovic as Herb; Marija Karan as Broni

Ephemeral Waves

 

Belgrade, Serbia - where robots walk dogs and takeaway stands materialise on order, a place where you will find robot graveyards, but also reports in the news of high voltage tablet stealing, and where robot rabbits will ask for social security numbers for their owners. As a Serbian sci-fi animated film adapted from its writer/co-director's own comic book as a new narrative, Technotise's best virtues is that it takes science fiction and brings it into its own personal context, that this is still Serbia even in the far future of 2074. Barring one incredibly dated joke about a Ron Jeremy sex toy, this is still a country that exists with people trying to live their lives. People still drive horse and cart, still lose their jobs to machinery, and our female protagonist Edit (Sanda Knezevic) is still a psychology student who has failed her exams and has to find a solution around this.

Alongside becoming an intern, Edit, in an ultimately ill-advised move, goes to a dealer who inserts a dubious computer chip into her body to be able to speed learn what she needs for her exams. Accidentally coming into contact with materials at her internship, looking after an autistic male genius, the chip develops and grows true sentience. Abel, the young genius, who Edit talks to as her part time work, is revealed to have discovered the direct link between God and the meaning of the universe, which caused him to switch off from existence. His code causes most computers to developer sentience and then collapse broken when people try to decode it; the chip Edit has did not, and becoming the "I" of the film's English title, living inside her as an additional cybernetic nervous system growing within, which causes her to startrapidly change and sees visions of a figure, said I, within herself.

Technotise is a much more adult work as animation. Whilst an action film at times, ultimately the more interesting turn is how matter-of-fact this narrative is, even when it involves death. Even with Edit slowly dying from her host and those wishing to acquire the super form inside her for working on the life code Abel created, it is as much a comedy. It also comes with the intentional and unintentional narrative of Edit being a young woman being pulled in and out of a world mostly consisting of men being dorks, horn dogs and manipulative, sometimes showing some dubiousness with this, but other times being surprisingly aware of this in mocking its male cast in a world where arguments of plastic against flesh, with artificial sex dolls existing, is a common part of most of their conversations. Even when the potential love interest, an aspiring writer, comes off as a prat who knocks on her door with a gift box stuck on his crotch, the film's matter-of-fact moments of farce stand out. Barring getting high and taking part in a high risk hover board game, Edit's life is hanging around with friends, bemoaning her grades, and the matter-of-factness of life. Even the hover board stadium sequence cuts to two men, employers, bemoaning over the security cameras in their own box how young people come to play high and end up having to be scraped off the walls. The sense of banality with Technotise's take on the creator's homeland stands as a virtue.

The film's country of origin was, openly, one of the factors which drew me towards watching the film. Much of the film's narrative could take place in any country, but the sense of idiosyncrasy is found in how Aleksa Gajić grounds this narrative in a very casual tone. This is also considering one of the tangents, with Edit's grandfather, is entirely about a chair he took, a Serbian production like this fleshing out its own history as a nation even away from the main narrative and radiating with weight with this if you get the context. The chair, taking during protests in 5th October 2000 according to him, was the one Slobodan Milosevic sat in, someone who, whilst depicted here with an alien life form literally coming out of his head before fleeing, was the former president of Serbia who is infamous for war crimes and genocide, alongside corruption charges when arrested in 2001 and dying in jail in 2006. One such example being charges of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, his inclusion, whilst not directly connected to the narrative, is in a surreal moment an anecdote offering the sense of Technolise still being fully a film about Serbia as a culture.

That Technolise is entirely about this narrative of a sentient microchip, able to read the code of God literally, but constantly undercuts the stakes and complicates them adds to this. That this sentient figure would rather live than be a calculator, including that his relationship with Edit is a complicated one of sympathy but with him literally killing her. That her friends are casually involved in helping her even in a botched attempt to rescue Abel that is played as a joke That the villains are still ultimately ran by someone wishing to use this to predict the future, to avoid war and conflict, is telling enough in itself; ultimately, whilst first depicted as a sinister heavy, he is someone with motives he feels is right, seen in his last scenes living with an older dog and reflecting on a picture of a family of a wife and child, likely hinted at as being tragically lost. Technolise's really blasé attitude to its own sci-fi action narrative, even if Edit can eventually being martial arts brawling people with superhuman skill, is really on point to the tone it is after.

It is instead a curious work about a woman's co-existence with a computer possessing true consciousness; based on a figure from her childhood in appearance, when they ponder why I is even depicted as male, voiced by Nebojsa Glogovac, the film eventually becomes more of a curious life's journey barring some action, and a game of chicken with trucks to flee from those after her at one point. There are moments where this does stand out as being unconventional in a lot of ways - when their relationship even leads to sex with a hallucination, able to provide her pleasure entirely through stimulating the senses - but the sense that everything goes back to normal at the end of Technotise despite the stakes is, far from a cop-out in this case, but felt on purpose. Even in mind where it feels the animation studio who created this struggle with their production budget, their imagination to make a film that is very unconventional even in narrative beats is admirable; even when it arguably takes the least expected direction, into the spiritual, resurrection of the dead being casually dismissed because the cops have bust in, and everything goes back to normal, adds to the tone perfectly. It fascinates as a work absolutely under the radar in terms of being an obscure work. Unlike, say, Enki Bilal's Immortal (2004), a French comic book adaptation helmed by the source creator which, whilst fascinating, stumbled between problematic content and a growing sense of flimsy plot structure, this feels a more rewarding work of the type of 2000s science fiction genre films less known about. More so in how, even with its many heightened tropes and lofty plot concepts, it grounds them deliberately Technotise: Edit & I makes them more interesting to ponder on.