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Samurai 7 (2004)
Interesting Idea, but is it art?
After hearing about this series, I had my doubts. Lucas himself attempted to lend some homage to the great Kurosawa through his "Star Wars" series but still can not reach the point where his movies, while enjoyable, can not reach that point. After seeing this series itself, I still feel like this follows the same legacy.
Following the traditional anachronisms of most anime, "Samurai 7" is a similar tale of peasants looking for protection from bandits after a great war has left many of these warriors unemployed and under-appreciated. The anachronism comes in the form of the cities, and most of the samurai, as being mostly mechanical creatures. While there are those who still are no different from a man and a sword, civilization is a post-apocalyptic mishmash that will make you think "Blade Runner" (in this case "Battle Angel Alita" may be more appropriate). The idea of technology's creep into Japanese society and tradition is shown through how impressive technology is shown. Even samurai, namely those that became bandits, are giant living automatons that were once flesh and blood but gave up their values to embrace modernism. Other changes include a love interest angle that feels as unnecessary as Episode II's, but unlike the fore-mentioned title, adds an interesting dynamic to the title; a female protagonist and her comedy relief sister that adds something to Kikuchiyo (again, unnecessary since Kikuchiyo is a great character, but who can really compete against a role that praised Mifune?); and an ambitious merchant prince that helps continue the theme of the destruction of tradition for modernism.
The animation is good and bad. The early episodes involve a lot of decent work, but through rehashed cels; perhaps this was appropriate. There is a particular episode that had completely terrifying frames (for reference, it is when Kambei finds his old companion). This thankfully changes after those early episodes and stays remarkably sharp, peaking in the final episodes.
In the end, you'll end up with something that is interesting but not entirely up to Kurosawa's status. It's entertaining, the plot offers something different, and the characters are very enjoyable. If you're a fan of the original movie, then expect to feel a little disappointed. If you can get past this, though, then you'll probably appreciate this offshoot of a classic.
I know I shouldn't be, but I am. Maybe my hopes were too high. Maybe this movie wasn't for me. There was something about it, but it was something that just didn't "click" for me.
The movie has a lot of potential, don't get me wrong. The way the image was designed to make the scene have a very post-WWI look to it really gave an extra sparkle. Imagery in it gave a sort of look that reminded me of those old Superman cartoons that were made and there was the use of images that really offered a reflection of the time.
But it just didn't fit correctly. The plot carried a number of "holes," (look back into it and you'll notice points that are inconsistent with each other in particular, one involving clothes), the drama created feels subdued and lacks the melodrama that I think we expect from a movie that tries to recreate a feeling not unlike "Metropolis," sometimes there are scenes that really confused me, in particular, one where there is a fight with flying robots near the end.
What really hurt though was Gwynneth Paltrow. She played a character that not only felt subdued, but also felt like she played a role that became stereotypical and almost redundant. Her lines at times were very strong and gripping showing us a Lois Lane-ish, take no b.s. from anyone sort of attitude... and then there are times when she does nothing but walk around and state things that are deathly obvious. Sometimes she even contradicts herself by asking questions she technically found the answer to through her intelligent know-how.
I know how this is supposed to feel like those 15 minute cinematic serials that movies like "The Rocketeer" tried to recreate, and it did do it. It just did it in a way that made you feel like you were watching a bunch of chunked up serials put together into one long string. The problem with watching serials for a movie, unfortunately, is that it does not feel like a movie, and perhaps this may be another problem I have with the film.
Like I said, maybe I'm missing something here. Maybe "Skycaptain" was something I had high hopes for: something that would bring Hollywood into a new field of retro-era science fiction along the same lines as "Frankenstein." Unfortunately, if this movie is the very bastion that would bring us that hope, I think it is one that will not be met in the end.
Last Exile (2003)
An Amazing Application of Style and Plot
"Last Exile" was capable of doing things that other series just can't. Not only does it bring more emphasis towards the romanticized sci-fi genre of Victorian-era steam tech, but it does it in a way that exudes its concepts with ascetically pleasing designs. The animation itself is even given a certain color tone to add to the whole "Age of Invention" feel of it.
As I noted before, it also shows an incredibly well-conceived world. Wars are performed in a traditional fashion of steam-armed musketeers, dog fighters in lighter-than-air ships, couriers, and an aged but still-present caste system. The character's storyline equally are full-fleshed. Some of the more minor characters stray into stereotypes, but it never becomes so blatant that it sticks out and sours this combination. There is a rushed feel towards the series in the end and I feel it would have been nice if it could have been expanded into more than 26 episodes, but it still performs the ending in a way that does not sour the series.
If you like Victorian Era science fiction, and even if you don't like anime, I might recommend this to you, simply because it is a series well made enough to be enjoyable for more than just animation quality and foreign dialogue.