A review of Mamoru Oshii's ASSAULT GIRLS
Babes! Guns! Monsters!
When you look at what output of Mamoru Oshii actually has reached English-speaking territories the last few years, you'd be forgiven for thinking him to be only making dark, brooding films.
Yet when you look at his eighties' work for Japanese television and the OVAs he created then, you see another Oshii entirely: one that juggles entertainment, high concepts, silly jokes and fan-service (both of the lewd and the mecha variety) with ease. And more recently his "Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters" was basically one big collection of jokes.
Enter his new film: "Assault Girls", which manages to be a combination of both the broody Oshii and the fun-lovin' fan-servicin' Oshii. On the one hand we have three damn cute women hunting huge sandworm-like monsters, with both the women and the monsters sporting some very large cannons. On the other hand this takes place in the same dreary oppressive universe of Oshii's earlier movie "Avalon"...
The end result?
Mamoru Oshii himself told the Japanese press earlier this week that "Assault Girls" contains about a twentieth of the tension that "Avalon" has, and that people who will go in with high expectations are likely to be disappointed.
True words, and your mileage may vary, but the film sure brought a big grin to MY face.
The creators of the Avalon game environments have made several new multiplayer arenas for people to play wargames in. One of these new worlds is Avalon-F, and only a few experienced players are allowed in to test the environment before it's opened up to the general public.
Avalon-F features huge monsters called sandwhales. The testplayers must hunt these to get "credits", the game's currency which can be used to buy cooler weapons, gear or even vehicles. The end-of-level boss (an even BIGGER spotted sandwhale armed with rocket turrets) is sought after by all players because killing it awards a gazillion credits.
This beast is very elusive though, and even if a player happens to encounter it the thing turns out to be excruciatingly hard to kill. Four current players in the arena have tried and failed so far: the beautiful woman called Grey, the beautiful woman called Colonel, the beautiful woman called Lucifer, and some guy named Jäger.
Even though all four are solitary hunters by nature, the omnipresent and all-powerful Game Master suggests to each of them that they should work together in order to catch their oversized prey...
Technically speaking "Assault Girls" is the third film featuring Mamoru Oshii's assault girls. The first one appeared in a segment of the anthology "The Women of Fast Food" (itself a sequel-of-sorts to "Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters"), and last year's action anthology "Kill" also had two of them duking it out. It's therefore surprising to see that the third outing takes place in the universe of a completely different film by Oshii: the cerebral "Avalon".
Recently fate is kind to Mamoru Oshii fans as the man has become quite prolific. Last year not only saw the release of the (2.0) reboot of "Ghost in the Shell", but also the excellent "The Sky Crawlers" and a section of the previously mentioned "Kill". This year "Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai" was released based on a script (more an essay) by Oshii and now we get "Assault Girls", less than a year after the premiere of his previous full feature.
But the question rises if "Assault Girls" really counts as a full feature.
For one thing it's awfully short with less than 70 minutes in it. And the pacing is odd, as eight of those minutes are spent on a spoken introduction accompanied by stills. By the time the opening credits (and the story) start 17 minutes have already passed. This leaves only three quarters of an hour for the rest of the film, but be warned: even within this short timespan Oshii manages to put in a few Tarkovskianly slow sequences of figures walking through desolated landscapes for minutes on end. People lured in by the frantic trailer will surely be scratching their heads. Coupled with the long intro it makes the film look like a stretched episode of a cheap television series.
This makes you wonder what the original intentions for "Assault Girls" were. The humongous intro serves as a companion-guide to both "Avalon" and the remainder of the film, but there is frankly not that much in "Assault Girls" that needs explaining. The sentence "This takes place in a videogame" would have sufficed! The last two-thirds of the film can be summed up as having a serious lack of any story, with everyone just trying to get into the end-fight.
It's entirely possible though that the intro is meant as a style-joke by the director because he has included several in this film. Language, for instance: "Avalon" was done in Polish on purpose because Mamoru Oshii was fascinated by subtitles and wanted them on-screen as part of the visuals. He does the same here but a bit more playfully. The language this time is English, both for the intro and for the game environment even though all of the actors are Japanese. Don't expect to have it too easy though: the English spoken amongst each other by the four hunters is of the "Sukiyaki Western Django" type, so at times I wished these were subbed.
Other jokes include the insertion of some videogaming dogmas which are indeed funny. The plot of the movie itself may be short and empty but, as they say, the devil is in the details and Oshii is obsessively nerdy enough to put in lots of tiny things to notice. Anyone who has played videogames recently, especially the MMORPGs like "World of Warcraft" can pick out several gems. The most obvious of these is a "Mortal Kombat" sub-game, oops, sub-movie, which is hilarious. Mentioning the intro again (the damn thing does draw attention to itself), that can be seen as a nod to the latest "Metal Gear Solid" or "Final Fantasy", where you indeed have to wade through hours of bloody exposition before the game even starts. And what has been achieved at the end, when you finish a videogame? Something akin to the feeling this movie gives you.
But as promised the film does provide ample footage of babes hunting worms with an assortment of cool hardware. Let's face it: Mamoru Oshii does good action sequences, so good in fact that we always want more than what what he provides us with. A self-proclaimed gun fetishist, Oshii makes sure the guns get plenty of screentime too. I love the sniper rifle which Grey has to reload with a gesture similar to a "Fuck off!" salute.
Speaking of Grey, Meisa Kuroki is absolutely stunning in this film. For the first time she made me actually regret that "Vexille" (for which the half-Japanese half-Brazilian beauty voiced the title character) was done as a cgi movie. The other two actresses are none too shabby either but on looks this is Kuroki's movie, no doubt.
Hinako Saeki (an assault girl veteran since she played one in Oshii's segment for "The Women of Fast Food") gets a few cool moments too but Rinko Kikuchi steals the show as Lucifer. While all other characters aim for personal gain by shooting big guns, Lucifer uses magic and seems just to be entertaining herself, giddily starting to dance even at the most inopportune moments. Her entrance into the world of Avalon-F is also a brilliant self-parody by Mamoru Oshii of an image he made iconic in "Ghost in the Shell": the fighting woman who crashes down from a great height in a cool pose, leaving a crater as she lands. Endlessly imitated-slash-copied in movies, anime series and videogames, Oshii seems to relish spoofing it. But with this being Lucifer, the crash and the crater are of course somewhat more spectacular than the one done by Motoko Kusanagi back in 1995....
Special mention must be made of the music by longtime Oshii-collaborator Kenji Kawai. His score for "Avalon" featured a rich, fully orchestral faux-opera which was a big surprise, as the man was known primarily for doing electronic and/or minimalistic music. For "Assault Girls" he returns to "Avalon" (with a dash of "The Sky Crawlers") for the more bombastic moments, but whenever Lucifer becomes playful and quirky so does Kawai's music. His score here certainly doesn't end his winning streak.
All in all many things seem to be missing in "Assault Girls". Things like... a plot, for instance, or any emotional development in the characters. But when you look closely at the details, the designs, little things like the numbers awarded to hunters whenever they kill something... there is much to like here, and the film is almost a collection of Easter Eggs. It makes the movie clever but lightweight.
So this time, Oshii serves some snacks instead of a meal. Maybe his aim is to show the joyful but empty shallowness of videogames, or the general behavior of on-line players, but even that may be over-analizing on my part.
Chances are the real goal was just to show off some awesome women with awesome guns.
Oshii's latest is the farthest thing I would have expected as a sequel to "Avalon". Wildly uneven as a movie, "Assault Girls" is far from a classic but that doesn't stop it from being eminently watchable. Rest assured that when the BluRay arrives there are sequences which I'll replay endlessly, with glee.
It's a quirky film and definitely "Oshii-light" but everyone looks like they were having fun with the concept and Kenji Kawai delivers yet another killer soundtrack.
So I recommended it... but with caution.