What attracted you to the part of Malcolm Webster?
I felt it was a huge journey to be able to go on with a person, and a real horror to be able to play the innocence of his reality as he saw it. He’s not doing it with a twirl of a moustache – the entire thing is just a means to an end. Every step of the way he’s justifying his actions.
Is this role a departure for you, particularly as it’s a factual drama and you’re more known for black comedy?
Playing the role of Malcolm Webster was a great opportunity for me to show people another side of my work. It’s a slow process though, people generally have me pegged as the man who does the grotesque characters so it’s nice to do something with a bit more subtlety.
How did you feel about playing a real person and convicted criminal?
As an actor you do feel a sense of responsibility on your shoulders when you play a real person. I recently played Patrick Troughton in Mark Gatiss’ Doctor Who. For that part I had an extra element of responsibility because people can easily say, ‘That’s not right…he wasn’t like that’.
How did you approach your portrayal of Malcolm Webster?
I talked to Paul [the director] constantly about not playing a cod Hannibal Lector-style psychopath or someone you’d find in a deliberate serial killer story. I wanted to get across the ordinariness, the blandness, and the mundanity of the evil.
I only ever drew on the perception of Malcolm Webster given by other people who encountered him. Everyone I discussed this with said there was never even a glimmer of evil and ironically, all the women felt completely safe with him. On the whole, the person they spent a lot of time with wasn’t evil to them in the slightest. They find it really hard to square that with what he did. We also show the evil side of Malcolm Webster, a side that was completely alien to the world and only about greed.
Was it ever suggested that you meet Malcolm Webster? If not, why do you think the production took the decision not to seek his involvement?
There was never any consideration that I should have met Malcolm Webster. I don’t think I would have gained anything from meeting him other than seeing his utter conviction. The depiction of him via the facets we’ve managed to gather from everyone who encountered him when he was free, is what we needed. To ask to go and see him would have been a voyeuristic exercise and that’s to be avoided.
This isn’t a drama about him as an innocent man. Our version of the person I play is, quite rightly, presented through the eyes of the women. That’s the way it should be.
What research did you do for the part?
I spoke to Charlie Henry, who’d had a lot to do with Malcolm Webster as the net closed in on him. I researched a lot about the sociopathic mind-set of someone who is not really engaging with the world but appears to be. There’s a lot of source material on that.
I also met Simone and Peter Morris. Peter came on the day we filmed Claire and Malcolm Webster’s wedding. He watched me do Webster’s speech. He came up to me and said, “You’ve got his arrogance”, which I thought was good! I felt awful meeting him because I was playing the man who murdered his sister, but he was lovely.
In one scene you shave off your hair. Can you tell us about that?
You wouldn’t normally shave hair from that length but they wanted the proper tramline through the hair. I asked, ‘What if the razor jams’ and they said, ‘Just keep going – we’ve got one take for this’. My legs were shaking when I did it and I didn’t sleep that night. My head was on the pillow with a new feeling of no hair. But that’s the commitment to the truth of the story. It felt right and I was very pleased we’d done it.
What is it about The Widower that will appeal to and fascinate an audience?
I think it’s endlessly jaw-dropping. I was really pleased with the level of tension within the scenes. Firstly you’re with Webster, seeing his lies and how they ripple out into the world, but then as the drama unfolds you’re with Charlie Henry as he’s slowly working towards capturing Webster. The element of cat and mouse is gripping.
Do you think it’s important to dramatise real life cases and stories?
I think stories like this should be told as you can’t pretend that terrible things don’t happen. If you do, you’re letting that person get away with it. I remember talking to Andy Serkis about playing Ian Brady. He was frightened of doing it but said, ‘of course I have to do it, as you’ve got to confront things by showing these evil people’.
Recce Shearsmith’s TV and film credits include: Inside No.9; The World’s End; A Field in England; Psychoville; Eric & Ernie; New Tricks; Shaun of the Dead; The League of Gentlemen
The Widower starts on ITV on Mon 17 March at 9pm
There are plenty of really popular anime series around, or at series that are popular with anime fans but are not known to the general public. Sometimes it’s good to see a series which is more cult-like. One that’s short and not mainstream, but may be of interest to some people.
A typical series is Iria, a six-part sci-fi Original Video Anime (OVA) that was released in 1994. The series is actually known by the full title of Iria: Zeiram the Animation, with this Zeiram being a 1991 live-action film that the anime is based on. This film is not released in Region 2, so this at first might put you off watching Iria, but the anime is actually a prequel to the film, so it is not a spoiler, and you can then watch Zeiram with a better understanding of it.
Iria is the name of the anime’s title character. She is a bounty hunter of somewhat masculine appearance, most noted by the beads she wears in her hair. She works on a distant planet, acting as an apprentice to her older brother Glen, alongside jaded hunter Fujikuro and under the orders of Bob, an agent for their organisation called Ghomvak Security & Investigations.
Iria, Glen and Bob are given a job that involves rescuing the high-jacked crew of a spaceship called the Karma. When they arrive they eventually discover that the high-jacker is something called Zeiram. Zeiram is a seemingly immortal, indestructible alien. Iria tries to help the victims, but in the mist of it all Zeiram attacks and starts to eat Bob. Iria escapes the scene, but as she flees she witnesses the Karma being destroyed, taking everyone, presumably including Glen and Bob with her. The rest of the series follows Iria’s attempts to discover if Glen really did die, as well as trying to figure out a way of stopping Zeiram from causing more destruction.
This sextet of episodes does have some things to commend it. One is the soundtrack. Both the opening theme; “Tokete Iku Yume no Hate ni” (“At the End of the Melting Dream”) sung by Yayoi Goto, and “Yume wa Toi Keredo” (“Although the Dream is Far”) sung by SAEKO are performed wonderfully.
The animation could be said be criticised by some anime fans for being “typical of its time” in terms of slightly poor appearance in this day and age. However, surprisingly, the art style was actually inspired by the films of Terry Gilliam, like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, according to The Anime Encyclopedia by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy (a book I strongly recommend, listing just about every anime ever made. The latest edition of which is currently being written and expected to be released later in 2014).
The same encyclopedia I should point also criticises the English dub. The subtitles in the latest UK release of Iria at times also have their own issues. At points the subtitles are slow and appear somewhat later when the characters are speaking. At other times the subtitles appear on screen too quickly because more than one character is talking. For some reason they do not show two separate discussions simultaneously.
Iria makes for a short and yet fun series. While there might be better known and better made anime, it has its plus points.
Iria is released on DVD by MVM Films.
It’s difficult to discover much about “Pramface” creator Chris Reddy. He doesn’t have a Twitter account, a personal site or give too many interviews. And somewhat selfishly, his American oceanographer namesake hogs the first twenty pages of Google results.
Is he simply a reluctant self-promoter? Or is he taking a more principled stand against the ubiquity of modern celebrity? “Twitter’s great but I think I’m more suited to long form. I’d only end up redrafting every tweet eight times, then junking it and starting over. It’d be a weird feed to follow.” Besides, he deadpans, “Chris Reddy the oceanographer is doing really important work, so I don’t want to hinder him in any way.”
A 2014 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the USA claimed that the MTV TV show “16 and Pregnant” reduced teenage conceptions by 5.7% in the 18 months following its first broadcast in 2009. And according to the Office for National Statistics, teenage pregnancies in England and Wales are at an all-time low. Theoretically this should be a concern for a series like “Pramface.”
Comedy in its most basic form is a recognition of shared cultural references. It’s not uncommon for a prospective audience to be wary of performers and performances which do not resemble their own experience.
Nonetheless, “Pramface” has prospered. Even with the sort of name that Owen Jones could be reliably expected to write a thinkpiece about. Read more
It feels only yesterday that we were in the year 2004; a time that saw television in a separate landscape than it’s in today. BBC iPlayer was something of a fantasy, digital television was still a work in progress and broadcast networks in America ruled television with an iron fist.
This time ten years ago, American network ABC took the first steps in reversing their fledging fortunes with new ground-breaking shows, a cult British actor made the jump to a television superstar, and an emerging media mogul launched a television phenomenon that revolutionized British television for the rest of the decade.
These are just some of the shows launched ten years ago which went on to make an immediate impact in British & American television. I’ll be taking a look at five unique shows that are still having an influence on television minds today.
(1) The X Factor – ITV – 2004-Present
Simon Cowell took a personal risk in late 2003 to bring in a new music show, in his bid to wipe the smile off Simon Fuller’s face, following their unhappy time working together on Pop Idol. The result made Simon Cowell one of the biggest and most famous media moguls of the 21st century. The X Factor has been at the centre of Cowell’s personal music revolution across the world, creating new stars such as Leona Lewis & One Direction.
(2) Strictly Come Dancing – BBC One – 2004-Present
ITV weren’t the only channel taking risks in 2004. BBC One took on one too, reviving the age old ballroom dancing format with a selection of changes to guarantee a new audience for the show. Bruce Forsyth signified his career re-emergence by hosting the show, as well as providing a fresh challenge for a variety of celebrities in Britain and abroad.
(3) The Apprentice – NBC/BBC One – 2004-Present
Billed in the U.S as “The Ultimate Job Interview”, Donald Trump’s business reality show launched a new sub-genre in reality television, making the format a fortune around the world, and making Sir Alan Sugar a household name in the process. It also spun a spin off entitled Junior Apprentice, but sadly did not match The Apprentice’s huge following.
(4) Lost/Desperate Housewives – ABC – 2004-2010/2012
Prior to 2004, American network ABC was trailing behind in 4th place behind competing networks FOX, CBS & NBC in both ratings and popular programming. Through clever scheduling and commissioning of major new pilots, fall 2004 saw ABC bounce back with major new offerings such as Ugly Betty & Grey’s Anatomy. But it was JJ Abrams’s Lost & Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives that helped ABC bounce back in ratings and made worldwide stars out of Matthew Fox & Evangeline Lily, as well as reigniting Teri Hatcher’s career.
(5) House – FOX – 2004-2012
Before this show, Hugh Laurie was only known for his comedy and family roles, with a small niche audience mainly in Britain. But his role as Dr.Gregory House gained him a new legion of fans, and started the idea that anyone from the acting world in Britain could gain success in the States, whether it was only small TV roles, or the lead in a Shakespearian play. Following its debut, House became an international success for FOX and took Hugh Laurie’s career into an entirely new direction.
Some anime series are interesting because of the art, the characters, the direction, or the setting. In the case of the series examined this week it is the storytelling.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the series Baccano! (Italian for “ruckus”) has an interesting story because it began as a series of light novels and they are still being made today. Having begun in 2003 by Ryohgo Narita, over 20 volumes have been written, but sadly none are in English yet. The anime version is available though and the story is mixture of a wide range of genres: crime, action, period drama and fantasy amongst them.
Most of the story takes place in 1930s Prohibition America. The primary focus begins New York City in 1930 where a young thug called Dallas Genoard steals something from a man called Szilard Quates. He at first does not know what it is, but soon Dallas finds himself being chased by all kinds of groups: the Mafiosi in form of the three Gandor brothers, the Camorristi represented by Firo Prochainezo, and two eccentric thieves called Isaac Dian and Miria Harvent are just some of them. It turns out however that Szilard is an alchemist and what he was stolen is an elixir for eternal life, something he first created back in 1711.
Later between late 1931-early 1932, the Gandor family are in the middle of a battle with a rival family over territory, so one of the brothers, Luck Gondor, gets another adoptive brother, assassin Claire Stanfield, to travel to New York on a cross-continental train called the Flying Pussyfoot, only for the train to be hijacked between two rival gangs.
The series follows these and other storylines, as told to by various characters and from different viewpoints. You might think that Baccano! is all rather confusing, and to be honest it is. You have all these characters and all these different plot points to remember. Luckily the title sequence of the series names all the characters which do act as a useful reminder.
However, the plot is made even more complicated by one other unusual method the series plays out. The anime tells the story in a non-linear narrative. During an episode a scene will start with a black screen with the location and year on it, the scene plays out, then you will cut the next black screen with similar information. An episode may start in New York in 1931, but then you will cut to a different set of characters in California 1930, and some of the episodes go back to 1711 and the original creation of the elixir.
Perhaps not surprisingly this method of storytelling has attracted the praise of many reviewers and critics. Not only that, you have a wide mixture of writing styles to draw on that all take place in the same episode. One moment who will be with Isaac and Miria the thieves, whose scene is often comedic and very funny. But then you will switch to the Flying Pussyfoot where all-out gang war is ranging, thus you have a much more action-packed scene.
If there is a problem, other than the fact the plot is at times very complex, is the shortness of the series. There are over 20 volumes of the original novel, but the anime series is only 16 episodes long. What we need is either a new series adapting more recent editions, or at least an English translation of the books, but this is very rare.
But the episodes that do exist are still fun. Baccano! is intriguing, amusing, exciting, and overall fun series.
Baccano! is available on DVD from Manga Entertainment. The entire series is also released online via the Funimation YouTube channel in both subtitled and dubbed forms for free.
On the surface, life is pretty good for James ‘Arg’ Argent and Jessica Wright of TOWIE.
Arg reveals, “I’m finally moving out, I’ve made it to Chigwell” whilst optimistically listing his plans of “losing a bit more weight…training…hopefully meeting a nice girl, that sort of thing really.”
Similarly, Jess will tell anyone who asks her about her relationship with Ricky Rayment that it’s “all good thank you, nothing to report. We’re absolutely fine.”
But peel this polite façade away and there you will find the melodrama TOWIE is renowned for, sizzling like a firework waiting to go off on the Bonfire Night that is this Sunday, when the new series will begin.
Jess herself reminds us, “every series we say, oh, we’re not going to have any drama this series and we always end up having a drama,” and the eleventh one is unlikely to disappoint.
Already cast members Elliott Wright and Chloe Sims have been caught kissing in a nightclub, although Jess insists, “I just think that Chloe was a bit drunk and was being a bit flirtatious with Elliot and he was probably a bit flirtatious back but I don’t think there’s any more to it.” We’ll just have to watch this space.
Arg also proves that a leopard really doesn’t change its spots, for whilst he denies any further possible relations between himself and Gemma Collins, claiming that she is “just my friend, we’re not much more than that,” he then reveals they do however still enjoy “a little bit of fun here and there.”
Jess meanwhile teases, “It might have already happened” at the mention of Gemma’s name, which is perhaps yet another hint of what is to come.
A lot has happened since viewers last encountered TOWIE, the most recent of those being the potential love affair between Sam Faiers and Ollie Locke (from rival reality TV show Made In Chelsea) on Channel Five’s Big Brother, which has attracted lots of public speculation.
Arg however is adamant that “they’re just friends, Ollie’s not really her type. I like Ollie, he might have feelings towards her but Sam definitely doesn’t towards him.” Prior to this of course was Joey Essex’s success on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! Much to Arg’s dismay, Joey will not be returning to the show. He describes him as “one of my best friends and I am going to miss him.”
Jess reassures that her and Arg do not plan to follow suit however, explaining, “There’s no reason to leave TOWIE. We’re having fun on it, it’s part of our daily lives. We’re going to be sticking around I think.”
Catch the new series of The Only Way Is Essex on ITV2 this Sunday, at 10pm.
One of the most frustrating things about being an anime fan in Britain, apart from the lack of anime on TV and having to wait for a long time for DVDs of certain series to be released, is not having access to brand new series when they’re first aired.
This normally takes the form of anime series that are currently being streamed in the USA, but not in UK. For some reason American streaming services only seem to show some series they have rather than all of them. This seems totally daft because they’re losing customers. Not only that, but because you cannot it see it by the proper streaming method, the only way that people in Britain can watch it at the same time as the Americans is by do things which have questionable legality. For example, having to wait until someone Stateside puts the episode on YouTube and watch it before it gets taken down due to copyright infringement.
One of the worst companies concerning this is Funimation, who stream some anime that this column has covered before (e.g. No. 26, Hetalia: Axis Powers). On the plus side they often put the episodes on YouTube eventually, but not for a while. One series they streamed last year was Danganronpa, which proved to be very popular and the fact that you couldn’t see it over here was even more frustrating.
This 13-part series was broadcast between July and September 2013 and is mostly seen as a murder mystery series, although you could argue it is a “death game” too (like No. 34, Sword Art Online). However, this series is now available in Britain in one way. This series is an adaptation of a 2010 video game, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, which was released in Britain earlier this month. So now you can experience this series in some format.
The series is set in elite high school called Hope’s Peak Academy, where every student is the “Ultimate” in their field. For example students include the ultimate swimmer, the ultimate gambler, the ultimate computer programmer and so on. The central character in the anime, and the one you play in the game, is Makoto Naegi. He is actually pretty average, but because he won his place at the school as part of a random lottery, he is designated as the ultimate lucky student.
When Makoto enters the school though he finds himself being made unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself inside the school where certain odd things are abound: all the windows are covered by big metal sheets, the main entrance is a vault door that no-one can break down, and seemingly every room has video cameras monitoring them. But perhaps oddest of all is that the headmaster of the school is a remote-controlled black-and-white bear (and not a teddy bear) called Monokuma.
Monokuma tells Makoto and the other 14 students that they are staying at Hope’s Peak forever. But then Monokuma tells them that there is one way to graduate: a student must kill one of the other students and get away without being caught. Once this occurs, a brief investigation takes place and then students are made to undergo a trail. Makoto has to figure out who the killer is, because if the wrong person is found guilty then everyone else gets punished. The punishment is execution.
The most fun element of this series is the characters. While Makoto is average, everyone else seems to display some sort of exaggeration due to their ultimate nature. For example one of the characters, the ultimate clairvoyant Yasuhiro Hagakure is only about 30% accurate and a total idiot. Another, the ultimate affluent progeny Byakuya Togami, is the snobbish heir to massive fortunes and power who looks down upon everyone.
The game is fun to play. It would be described as a visual novel and several anime are based on these sorts of video games (e.g. No. 29, Clannad). This is one of best available. Certain sections might seem a bit long, but on the whole it is fun to play. The mystery surrounding how the characters find themselves in the situation they are in is good, and there are plenty of twists and turns to surprise you.
Given that there are other games in this series, the possibility of this series running longer and being streamed is a good one. So in the event more anime adaptations are made I would like to do however is to address to Funimation: please stop blocking us Brits from your streaming. If you are not going to stream them for us, at least offer some British streaming services to pick up the shows so was can enjoy them.
The original video game, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, is available on the PS Vita. In the long term, Funimation series tend to normally be released by Manga Entertainment on Region 2 DVD, so it may become available eventually.
So far throughout this column I have covered anime series that I believe should be watched because they are good, but it seems only right that I should also highlight the odd series that beginners should avoid. Thus, this week I am covering the worst anime I have ever reviewed.
Exaella is a sci-fi cyberpunk series released as a four-part Original Video Animation (OVA) in 2011. Part of the reason why this series is so flawed is that it is not an anime in the strictest sense of the word. In fact, it’s only part-Japanese. The other part is Russian. It was created by a man called Andrew Oudot, who owned the eponymous company the made it. He also directed, co-produced, wrote and composed the score the entire series. The only Japanese person of any significance involved was the actor and co-producer, Isakawa Denisu.
Now personally I support the idea of Japanese anime working alongside people from outside the country. There have been cases in which multinational works have paid off (see No. 20 IGPX, a Japanese-American collaboration). However, this one just did not work.
It’s set in an unspecified time in the future, when all of the planet’s resources have been used up. Due to there being no alternative, people have been into an artificial sleep in giant complexes. At one of these, the Xonasu Area Sonniupolis, one of the operators is woken up, a woman named Exaella. She goes around the complex, trying to awaken the other people in it. Soon however, she finds herself being attacked by the various security systems in the area including vicious robot guard dogs. Meanwhile a soldier called Ken infiltrates the facility facing even greater danger.
The problems with this series are many and they start immediately. When you get the DVD (a hard thing to do seeing as how there are only three websites which sell it; and only one of which is in English) it’s in black-and-white. When you see it the first thought might well be: “Oh, a black-and-white series? Looks cool, atmospheric, suitably metallic and grim for a cyberpunk setting.” But it isn’t. It is mostly grey with the odd bit of pointless colour thrown in, like very faint skin colours and the blue glowing eyes of the robot guard dogs. Not only that, but the special effects are seriously underwhelming as well. For example, when some machine guns fire they just seem to stick some orange flames on top of the film. It would be better if it was just totally monochrome, as it might have heightened the gloomy mood, which was one of the few plus points to this series.
Another issue of it is the pace. Exaella is way too slow. Now sometimes an anime can work if it is slow. Indeed there are other cyberpunk anime which are slow and they do indeed work. The difference however is the length of the series. If a series is slow, it’s best if it’s long because then you have enough time to tell an engrossing story. A 26-part series works well for a slow story. A 13-part series can work but the writing needs to be right. But Exaella is only four episodes long, which is way too short. If you have a limited amount of time you need to tell the story quicker in order to keep the viewer interested and Exaella doesn’t do it.
The dubbing into other languages is also a big issue. While the original Japanese has four different actors voicing all the parts, when it has been dubbed into English and Russian they only get one actor to voice all the characters, both male and female. Not only that, but they do not even remove the original Japanese voice acting while the dub is being played, so you are hearing to performances one on top of the other.
Even small things like the DVD menus are bad, because they are hard to read. The extras on the DVD have issues too. Extras listed include things like “Events”, “Characters” and “Credits”. However, all of these things are a copy of what you get in the booklet that accompanies the DVD, so what is the point of putting them on the DVD in the first place?
When I reviewed Exaella, it was the first anime I ever reviewed, working for the website Anime UK News. The series currently has the lowest rating of any anime reviewed on the site with 2 out of 10 (I had originally gave it 1, but I was persuaded to mark it up on the grounds that the atmospheric tone was not too bad). Because it was such a low rating I was asked the give the Exaella DVD to someone else just to be sure my review was right. I am glad to say my views were vindicated.
If you wish to give this series a go, that is your choice, but I would personally not recommend it.
Exaella is available from the website Cyberpunk Anime Shop as either a Region 0 DVD or as a download. It is available in the original 4-episode or as a re-edited movie edition.
FILM OF THE WEEK: Before Sunrise
BBC Two, Friday February 14, 11.05pm
So Valentine’s Day is here once again, when every adult finds themself in one of four scenarios: happily enjoying the throes of a relationship very much in its infancy; settled and cynical enough to see through the commercial exercise the day really is; sat at home alone trying not to be reminded of just how single you are; or sat at home alone trying not to care how single you are (yet self-recrimination still seeps through your synapses).
Whatever your situation, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise is a film for everyone. Well, everyone with a decent attention span and at least moderate powers of abstract thought. Its set-up could come straight out of any two-bit romcom: man (Ethan Hawke) meets woman (Julie Delpy) on train, man chats to woman on train, man convinces woman to get off at his stop by telling her if not she may forever wonder how her life would have turned out. However, neither represents any of the played-out archetypes the genre continually regurgitates; he’s an American just about to conclude an inter-rail trip around Europe, she’s a French student returning to university in Paris, while the city they disembark at is Vienna.
From that point forward it’s an absolute delight to watch as they meander their way around the Austrian capital through the day and into the night. Unencumbered by any agenda the young couple simply roam their temporary surroundings, talking life, love and everything in between so endearingly it’s impossible not to take them to your heart. Of course, there’s still the big ‘will they/won’t they’…and yes, even the most hardened cynics will be gagging to know the answer come sunrise.
SET THE RECORDER FOR:
BBC Two, Saturday February 15, 9pm
Although the Coen brothers said they were adapting the original novel rather than remaking the 1969 John Wayne film, it was still something of surprise when they revealed True Grit as their next project. It helped immensely that the superlative Jeff Bridges was cast in the role (previously inhabited by Wayne) of Rooster Cogburn, a gnarled, one-eyed gunslinger hired by a 14-year-old orphan to hunt down her father’s killer. Although not the Coen’s most creative film, it was by far and away their biggest box office success, scoring ten Oscar nominations to boot.
State Of Play
ITV2, Sunday February 16, 12:15am
The big screen version of the critically acclaimed BBC TV series, any doubters were quickly silenced by the presence of The Last King Of Scotland Director Kevin Macdonald behind the camera, ably supported by screenwriters Tony Gilroy (the Bourne quadrilogy) and Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen). With a stellar cast led by Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren, State Of Play harks back to the more substantial thrillers of the 1970s whilst addressing contemporary issues, such as the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press. Simultaneously intelligent and exciting, several genuinely shocking twists and turns never threaten to dent its credibility.
Film4, Tuesday February 18, 11:15pm
Watch the trailer below and you might think Brazil a chaotic-looking rip-off of Orwell’s 1984. Apparently many did on the film’s initial release in 1985, when it flopped at the box office. Since then, however, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian science fiction fable has rightly acquired cult status and recognition of the masterpiece it is. With Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem out in cinemas next month, there’s never been a better time to revisit his potent satirical vision.
While they are many other Studio Ghibli films which deserve covering, and indeed will hopefully be covered in future columns, for now we shall end this little tour of Japan’s most famous anime producers by looking at their most notable creation. The one that most people will know about. The one that won THAT award.
Released in 2001 Spirited Away was both written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder of the company. It contains many of the elements that are recognisable in Miyazaki’s work such as the central heroine as well as the ambiguity of the central villain and those around her. It also features appearances from characters that appear in earlier Ghibli movies, such as the susuwatari / dust-bunnies from My Neighbour Totoro.
The film follows 10-year-old girl Chihiro Ogino and her parents as they move house. Her father takes a wrong turn however and then end up in an abandoned amusement park. While the parents stop at a restaurant stall which has no staff but plenty of fresh food, Chihiro leaves them and finds a vast bathhouse. However, a boy called Haku who works there tells Chihiro to leave before sunset. However, she is too late. She is trapped in the park which turns out to be magical and her gluttonous parents have been turned into pigs.
Chihiro nearly vanishes in magical word, but Haku gives her some food that prevents her from being “spirited away”. Haku then tells her to go into the bathhouse and ask Kamaki, a spider-like spirit who runs the boiler room for a job. He, in turn with fellow worker Lin, send her to the boss, the sorceress Yubaba. She eventually gives Chihiro a job, but like all of her workers steals Chihiro’s name, calling her Sen. Chihiro/Sen thus begins working, hoping that she will be able to return her parents to normal and return home, whilst trying not to forget her original name.
Spirited Away is primarily famous for one reason. In 2002 it won Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”, the first, and at the time of writing the only film in a foreign language to win the award. The Oscar alone is reason enough to watch it.
However, Spirited Away was not just a success critically. It was also a huge success commercially. The original budget of the film was ¥1.9 billion ($19 million). The total box office takings were just under ¥22.4 billion ($275 million). As it a result it broke several records. It was the most commercially successful film in Japanese history; the highest-grossing film at the Japanese box office, overtaking Titanic; and the first film to take over $200 million in the worldwide box office before it opened in the USA.
There are others reasons to see Spirited Away aside from the success. One of these is the fact that you come across many aspects of Japanese folklore. For example, Haku is a “mizuchi”, a kind of river spirit who takes the form of a dragon. In the story we learn that both Haku and Chihiro/Sen have a closer relationship than first thought.
It also produces some other famous characters that are very much associated with Japan and its culture. Perhaps the most famous is the “No-Face”, a silent figure in black and a mask who has no face. Chihiro/Sen befriends him, believing he is a customer. The No-Face begins tipping staff with gold, but soon he starts to swallow people up.
Spirited Away is clearly a great film. Personally speaking it is not my favourite of the Ghibli catalogue (that is My Neighbour Totoro), but is a film that people should clearly watch for one last reason. Many people in Britain still see anime as something unseemly and are of the belief that most of it is unsuitable for children. This, as well as the other Studio Ghibli films, proves those people wrong.
Spirited Away is available on DVD from Studio Canal.