Animation. Gotta love it! But only if done in the right way. The rest may be avoided. And please, on the question if I have been disappointed, the short answer is a simple yes and no. But if you insist, let me give you the looong story, zooming in on Aramaki's Matsumoto adaptation Harlock: Space Pirate, as well as briefly exploring Venice's other animations.
This year, at a total of five works, the 70th edition of Venice International Film Festival brings its audience a modest amount of animation. There is still enough to be said, though.
In their Venice Days and Out Of Competition section we find two sadly disappointing pieces, respectively a stop motion animation called Secchi (which somehow feels more like a student work to me) and the Venice set Disney Mickey Mouse 'O Sole Minnie (which slightly breaks the mould by changing stylistic elements of "The Mouse" and its backgrounds). The latter doesn't bring much more to the table than refreshing looks and Secchi feels like it is cheating with certain parts that might have been too difficult to animate for director Natoli. They aren't immensely awful, but still works that have obviously been selected because of their Italian heritage and feel more fitting for a different (animation) festival elsewhere.
Then there are the fest's three full-length animated features. The first one, the Italian digital rotoscoped L'Arte Della Felicità by Allesandro Rak, supposedly isn't so great either. Animation expert Marco Bellano tells me -- I haven't seen it -- it surely is a bold attempt at renovating the Italian scene of animation, because of its unusual visual style and themes, but lacks the qualities to set a new standard and be remembered. (Note: Bellano just happens to have had his book called Animazione In Cento Film presented at Venice and comes quite recommended for those who are interested in animation and can read Italian.)
Luckily, where the pieces above lack in quantity and quality, Venice's two other full-length animations rightfully make up for it! Numero due, Miyazaki Hayao's biopic on Horikoshi Jiro Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises), is a highly personal one. While it isn't perfect, this in competition feature is a smiling countless steps above the previously mentioned features. The animation itself is simply stunning, even for maestro Miyazaki. The earthquake scene doesn't only move the ground, but the heart just as much.
Where it doesn't work though is that, apart from some dream sequences in the beginning, it misses some of the magical moments Miya-san normally offers, those creative elements where he is most comfortable and a genius at. In a way, he seems somewhat constricted by his decision to do a realistic work, which perhaps just is a better fit for brother in arms Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday). Also, the story runs into some occasional sleepy moments (the wedding scene wasn't one of them, that one was wonderful!). Even though all in all it isn't a masterpiece, Miya-san and his staff made a lovely work. It needs to sink in a bit to be appreciated. Give it some time, like fine wine, and the end judgement will possibly be people adore it, even more than initially.
Finally, after passing four small impressions to put things in perspective, there is the reason for this overly long introduction and third full-length animation of Venice 2013: Harlock: Space Pirate by Aramaki Shinji.
This one is on the opposite of Miyazaki's hand drawn animation, even though both directors excel at animating machines (flying ones, in the case of Miyazaki). With his 2007 full-length effort Appleseed Ex-Machina, the skilled and oh so friendly Aramaki - with all respect - had fallen out of favor a bit and brought me some annoyance. While Ex-Machina looked great, it also contained many clichés. It is still hard to forget that over the top funeral scene, which of course "had" to take place during an immensely grey, dark and rainy day (whereas during the rest of film the weather was lovely). And Ex-Machina contained more of those moments, so that I didn't buy it.
Now if it weren't for a last minute interview with Aramaki himself later on that afternoon, I would have been staring at a nude Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin instead. Needing to swiftly switch screenings turned out to be not such a bad decision, though. Harlock: Space Pirate, which screened Out of Competition, is a worthy comeback and something to forget those predictable and clichéd Ex-Machina memories with.
It is the year 2977 and 500 billion displaced humans long to return to the place they still refer to as home: Earth. And on some far away planet, led by Captain Harlock, they are recruiting to expand the crew of his phantom ship Arcadia. But Harlock is the one man standing between the corrupt Gaia Coalition and their quest for complete intergalactic rule. The mysterious space pirate seeks revenge against those who wronged both mankind and himself, roaming the universe in his battle cruiser, defiantly attacking and pillaging enemy ships. Gaia fleet leader Ezra sends his younger brother, Logan, to infiltrate the Arcadia and assassinate Harlock. Logan will soon discover that things are not always what they seem, and the legends are born for a reason. Harlock pushes his loyal crew forward in the death-defying mission to undo the "Nodes of Time" and reverse the earth to an age when still inhabited by humans. An adventure of epic scale unfolds.
Harlock: Space Pirate is, as the title suggests, a rebooting of sci-fi manga virtuoso Matsumoto Leiji's famous character Captain Harlock, which probably - and the director agrees - is the man's coolest character. It is Aramaki's continuation of directing manga adaptations. Not because the man is unchallenged in doing an original piece, but because he tells me he is just as much challenged in doing a reboot.
Filled with geeky sci-fi terms like dark-matter engine, Jovian accelerator and so on, it questions, just like its original that was written by Matsumoto shortly after WWII, how a man should live. Particularly when one encounters some form of defeat or hardship. With tragic events happening around the world, Aramaki renews Matsumoto's story of an anti hero rebel that fights back and is meant, next to having fun, to give its audience a sense of hope in times like these. This time, however, not with "old fashioned" drawings, but using CGI, 3D, the Arnold Renderer and facial capture (the latter two both first timers for Japan).
Truth be told, saying I really "know" the original, to compare it properly would be an overstatement. Even so, the impression that Aramaki has treated the space pirate with dignity is a fair one. He did add new elements, like introducing the entirely new character of Logan, the infiltrating assassin voiced by Miura Haruma (Koizora, Gokusen: The Movie, Kimi Ni Todoke), who more or less places Harlock into the shadows. However, that turned out to be a rather good decision. Harlock is Harlock and creating a new character gave Aramaki more freedom to bring new ideas to his reboot, without being just a blunt copycat (hint: Lee Sang-Il's Unforgiven starring Ken Watanabe that also screened at Venice). But otherwise, Harlock: Space Pirate is pretty faithful to the original and has done a solid job in capturing the tone and soul of it. Matsumoto - whom I also got to speak at the Excelsior hotel during the fest - seems happy with the end result as well, unlike the live action version of Space Battleship Yamato, which has major changes and is a downright disappointment to him.
Aramaki & co are placing their bets high. Whereas Appleseed struggled to find audiences abroad outside the regular anime loving community, this time the Japanese director and Toei Animation obviously made a ploy for much bigger crowd. Their aim is clear in many things, like the effort paid to the press booklet. The amount of details it contains, as well as the way it has been written, clearly reads in and between the lines that they want it to become a global hit. A lot has been invested: 250TB of data, 5 years of production time, 100,000,000 created files, 401 years of rendering time (if there was only one computer), 896 servers, a main CGI crew of only 150 persons, 259,803 rendering tasks and so on. Can you still follow?
One might question though if the movie perhaps is too nerdy too cross over to a general wide public. Yes, it easily surpasses the appeal to only anime & manga otaku, taking a sci-fi loving audience into account just as well (even those not fond of animation), but it is still to see if it will also grab the basic multiplex goers into loving it (if it's going to screen there). Which is probably the reason they already felt the need to quote James Cameron already on page 1, line 2 of the same promotional material. Their eagerness to success is understandable and the Avatar director said some good things, but you know what? Harlock: Space Pirate does not need that.
Does that mean this film is perfect? Mwah, that would be exaggerating. The film is actually pretty good, even better perhaps, but it would take much more to call it a masterpiece, even though many of the elements are there: the story (rather basic though), the action (god damn awesome in 3D, I guess Aramaki learned a lot from his collaboration with John Woo), the epic universe (upped with a huge symphonic score) and the looks. Well, the looks.... While they entirely let go of Matsumoto's manga's hand drawn look and went for a hyper-realistic approach with less resemblance (which is a shame), one cannot deny it looks ab-so-lu-te-ly stunning. In fact, most of "the stuff" (space ships, battle suits and the world it takes place is) has been done so intricately, one also cannot deny Aramaki is the man for the job for a film like this. His experience on previous CG works and his background in mechanical design are quite the match.
3.25 stars out of 5 and quite recommended (for film lovers) and a must-see (for animation and sci-fi lovers).
Source Matsumoto-Miura-Aramaki picture: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images Europe