Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ, Takashi Miike, 2016)

terra-formarsTerra Formars – Terror for Mars? It’s all about terror in the quest for terra and reform in Takashi Miike’s bug hunt extravaganza adaptation of Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana’s manga. In fact, much of the plot is more or less the same as Aliens, but our motley crew is not a crack team of space marines headed by a recently awoken from stasis super survivor who proves unexpectedly dextrous in a robotic forklift exoskeleton, but a collection of human “bugs”, parasitical criminals who’ve each been made an offer they can’t refuse. High budget and boasting a starry cast, Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ) definitely falls into the throwaway Miike category and proves curiously dull despite its ridiculous set up, but then if you happen to be into bugs there’s really a lot to like here.

Running through the Tokyo of 2597 which seems to be some kind of Blade Runner theme park, Shokichi (Hideaki Ito) and Nanao (Emi Takei) are trying to escape the oddly bug-like police only to be captured and taken to the lair of mad scientist and all round fabulous guy, Honda (Shun Oguri). He has a proposal – join his mission to Mars and get a large amount of money instead of getting a death sentence for the murder they were on the run for. Reluctantly, they agree but there are several things Honda forgot to tell them – they’ve been given alien bug DNA which gives them super powers, and the “cockroaches” they’re supposed to be exterminating have mutated into giant humanoid creatures capable of planning and tool use. Oh, and everyone on the first mission died horribly.

By 2597, the world has become massively overpopulated but luckily enterprising scientists had come up with a plan for terraforming Mars through the use of various kinds of moss distributed by millions of cockroaches. The terraforming process is now complete and it’s time for colonisation to begin but no one really thought about what to do with all their insectile helpers. No longer “mere” bugs, the highly evolved Roaches are now the (not quite) indigenous peoples of Mars. Miike does not push the colonisation narrative (and nobly attempts to mitigate the elements which have seen the original source material decried as racist) but you can’t get away from the fact that the Roaches have every right to fight back and defend their homeland from an invading force wielding superior technology and hellbent on mass extermination.

Honda’s big idea (well, one of his big ideas as it turns out) was to send a bug to catch a bug. In some senses, all of the assembled bait could be regarded as human pests – petty criminals and reprobates offering nothing of value to society. Given the pace of the film and the subsequent carnage, none of them is given much time to shine so we mostly remember them by their epithets – creepy serial killer, hikkokomori hacker, teenage prostitution ringleader, illegal immigrant, former yakuza and dodgy ex-police officer – in other words, people with no options that no one will miss. They’ve each been more or less forced into this position by their peculiar circumstances as exploited by Honda and his team who have given them a “risky” operation involving alien DNA which has given them bug-like powers from super sharp pincers to venomous stings.

Bug hunt is an apt way to describe the subsequent action as the crew activate their inner insects and prepare to squash some Roaches only to die in various painful looking ways, usually by losing their heads. There’s a distinctly Aliens undertone to the entire enterprise, even borrowing a key plot revelation from the film’s ‘80s anti-corporate message but it’s all so unimportant next to the bug killing that it most likely gets missed. Repetitious in the extreme, the two hour runtime is stretched to breaking point with battle after battle of mostly losses as the Roaches effortlessly swat our puny human heroes.

Production design is the most impressive element but even this borrows heavily from such similarly themed genre landmarks as Blade Runner, Aliens, Total Recall, and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers. Ultra camp from Honda’s obsession with his fashionable outfits to the Ultraman style practical effects of the bug suits, Terra Formars later fails to capitalise on its surreal and ridiculous premise, remaining disappointingly straightforward in terms of tone for much of the running time. Keen entomologists will perhaps enjoy the animated info sequences introducing the various beetles, flies, and other assorted creatures as well as those same traits being acted out by our heroes but for everyone else Terra Formars may prove a rather dull expedition to the previously red planet, now a green and pleasant land but very definitely inhabited and defended. Plenty of bug splatting action with only minimally disquieting overtones but a sorry lack of excitement, Terra Formars is a disappointingly by the numbers sci-fi effort from the usually exuberant Miike but does at least look good.


Original trailer (No subtitles – massive spoilers)

69 (Lee Sang-il, 2004)

69Ryu Murakami is often thought of as the foremost proponent of Japanese extreme literature with his bloody psychological thriller/horrifying love story Audition adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike which itself became the cornerstone of a certain kind of cinema. However, Murakami’s output is almost as diverse as Miike’s as can be seen in his 1987 semi-autobiographical novel 69. A comic coming of age tale set in small town Japan in 1969, 69 is a forgiving, if occasionally self mocking, look back at what it was to grow up on the periphery of massive social change.

The swinging sixties may have been in full swing in other parts of the world with free love, rock and roll and revolution the buzz words of the day but if you’re 17 years old and you live in a tiny town maybe these are all just examples of exciting things that don’t have an awful lot to do with you. If there’s one thing 69 really wants you know it’s that teenage boys are always teenage boys regardless of the era and so we follow the adventures of a typical 17 year old, Ken (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whose chief interest in life is, you guessed it, girls.

Ken has amassed a little posse around himself that he likes to amuse by making up improbable fantasies about taking off to Kyoto and sleeping with super models (oddly they almost believe him). He talks a big about Godard and Rimbaud, posturing as an intellectual, but all he’s trying to do is seem “cool”. He likes rock music (but maybe only because it’s “cool” to like rock music) and becomes obsessed with the idea of starting his own Woodstock in their tiny town but mostly only because girls get wild on drugs and take their tops off at festivals! When the object of his affection states she likes rebellious guys like the student protestors in Tokyo, Ken gets the idea of barricading the school and painting incomprehensible, vaguely leftist jargon all over the walls as a way of getting her attention (and a degree of kudos for himself).

69 is a teen coming of age comedy in the classic mould but it would almost be a mistake to read it as a period piece. Neither director Lee Sang-il nor any of the creative team are children of the ‘60s so they don’t have any of the nostalgic longing for an innocent period of youth such as perhaps Murakami had when writing the novel (Murakami himself was born in 1952). The “hero”, Ken, is a posturing buffoon in the way that many teenage boys are, but the fact that he’s so openly cynical and honest about his motivations makes him a little more likeable. Ken’s “political action” is merely a means of youthful rebellion intended to boost his own profile and provide some diversion at this relatively uninteresting period of his life before the serious business of getting into university begins and then the arduous yet dell path towards a successful adulthood.

His more intellectual, bookish and handsome buddy Adama (Masanobu Ando) does undergo something of a political awakening after the boys are suspended from school and he holes up at home reading all kinds of serious literature but even this seems like it might be more a kind of stir crazy madness than a general desire to enact the revolution at a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. Ken’s artist father seems oddly proud of his son’s actions, as if they were part of a larger performance art project rather than the idiotic, lust driven antics of a teenage boy but even if the kids pay lip service to opposing the war in Vietnam which they see on the news every night, it’s clear they don’t really care as much as about opposing a war as they do about being seen to have the “cool” opinion of the day.

Lee takes the period out of the equation a little giving it much less weight than in Murakami’s source novel which is very much about growing up in the wake of a countercultural movement that is actually happening far away from you (and consequently seems much more interesting and sophisticated). Were it not for the absence of mobile phones and a slightly more innocent atmosphere these could easily have been the teenagers of 2003 when the film was made. This isn’t to criticise 69 for a lack of aesthetic but to point out that whereas Murakami’s novel was necessarily backward looking, Lee’s film has half an eye on the future.

Indeed, there’s far less music than one would expect in the soundtrack which includes a few late ‘60s rock songs but none of the folk/protest music that the characters talk about. At one point Ken talks about Simon & Garfunkel with his crush Matsui (Rina Ohta) who reveals her love for the song At the Zoo so Ken claims to have all of the folk duo’s records and agrees to lend them to her though his immediately asking to borrow money from his parents to buy a record suggests he was just pretending to be into a band his girl likes. Here the music is just something which exists to be cool or uncool rather than an active barrier between youth and age or a talisman of a school of thought.

Lee’s emphasis is firmly with the young guys and their late adolescence growth period, even if it seems as if there’s been little progress by the end of the film. There’s no real focus on their conflict with the older generation and the movie doesn’t even try to envisage the similar transformation among the girls outside of the way the boys see them which is necessarily immature. That said, the film is trying to cast a winking, wry look back at youth in all its eager to please insincerity. It’s all so knowingly silly, posturing to enact a revolution even though there’s really no need for one in this perfectly pleasant if slightly dull backwater town. They’ll look back on all this and laugh one day that they could have cared so much about about being cool because they didn’t know who they were, and we can look back with them, and laugh at ourselves too.


Ryu Murakami’s original novel is currently available in the UK from Pushkin Press translated by Ralph McCarthy and was previously published in the US in the same translation by Kodansha USA (but seems to be out of print).

Unsubtitled trailer:

and just because I love it, Simon & Garfunkel At the Zoo

Princess Jellyfish (海月姫, Taisuke Kawamura, 2014)

b7dec6a631e5ad87baf2ff601d6b4872Originating as an ongoing manga series by Akiko Higashimura which was also later adapted into a popular TV anime, Princess Jellyfish adopts a slightly unusual focus as it homes in on the sometimes underrepresented female otaku.

Tsukimi is an extremely awkward young woman who has an all encompassing obsession with jellyfish. Luckily for her, she’s managed to find a group of likeminded women of a similar age to room with. That is, they aren’t all as crazy about jellyfish as she is, but they all have their particular order of special interest, are fairly socially awkward with an extreme fear of “fashionable” women, and no formal form of employment. At the Amamizukan boarding house, the girls can all enjoy their otaku lives together (well, kind of separately) and, crucially there are no boys allowed!

However, one day Tsukimi finds herself at a crisis point when she notices one of the jellyfish she likes to visit at a nearby pet shop is in danger! The idiot shop boy has only gone and put a Moon Jelly in with a Spotted Jelly – does he just not know how dangerous that is?! Tsukimi will need to act fast to save her friend, but the guy behind the counter is a clueless pretty boy – absolutely the worst case scenario for Tsukimi. Despite her extreme anxiety she valiantly marches into the shop yet her confused mini lecture on jellyfish keeping only succeeds in convincing the shop boy that she’s some kind of nutcase. On being expelled from the shop, Tsukimi finds herself at the feet of an extremely glamorous looking woman who comes to her defence. What kind of strange parallel world is this? Tsukimi’s universe is about to undergo a sea change!

Though based on a manga and intended as a comedy, crucially, Princess Jellyfish casts its series of “different” heroines (and hero) in a favourable light – they are never the butt of the joke and sympathy is always placed with those who experience difficulty in their lives because they feel themselves to be different. Each of the girls is so deeply involved in their own particular obsession that they find it difficult to fit into the regular world and particularly to cope with conventional femininity. Tsukimi herself finds it particularly difficult to talk to men and the fact that no men are permitted at Amamizukan makes it clear that she is not alone in her fears.

This brings us to her new friend who is apparently a fashionable young woman – the sort who would never usually be seen dead talking to the likes of Tsukimi. However, this one not only acknowledges Tsukimi’s presence as another human of equal standing, but even lends her confidence and power as an attractive woman to Tsukimi’s predicament. There is, of course, more to this mysterious saviour than there might seem at first sight. In addition to being a fabulously well dressed lady, Kuronosuke is also a boy. This is something of a problem for Tsukimi as she only realises after letting him stay over at the strictly no boys allowed residence. The ruse also has to be maintained a little longer when Kuronosuke decides to stick around, eventually becoming known as “Kuroko”.

The situation intensifies as the girls’ secret haven comes under threat when a gang of ruthless developers want to buy up most of the town and redevelop the area. The group home is owned by one of the girl’s mothers who is also an otaku only her obsession is with top Korean actor Lee Byung-hun and she’s skipped off to Korea to be able to stalk him better. There’s no telling what she might do if it brings her closer to the object of her affections and things are looking a little desperate. Eventually a possible solution is found which plays to everyone’s strengths and offers the faintest glimmers of hope for the girls (and boy!) of Amamizukan.

Princess Jellyfish is the ultimate tale of acceptance, both in personal and societal terms. The residents of Amamizukan may be a little different, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer the world and there’s no need for themselves to maintain a position of self imposed exile if the only reason is a belief in their own inferiority. This is a lesson taught to them by the exuberant rich boy and politician’s son with a traumatic past of his own, Kuronosuke. Truly unafraid to be who he is, Kuronosuke teaches the girl’s that almost any obstacle can be overcome with a combination of forthrightness and sincerity.

Though it runs a little long and gives in to some very over the top performances and melodramatic plotting, Princess Jellyfish is an enjoyably offbeat manga inspired tale. Very much not interested in demonising anyone other than those who seek to suppress individuality, it’s a cheerful celebration of the value to be found in difference offering plenty of laughter and warmth along the way. Perhaps not for those who prefer their cinematic experiences on the subtle side, Princess Jellyfish is nevertheless a fun filled film which carries its message of universal acceptance right into the closing credits.


The anime adaptation of this is actually really fun too.