Thursday, October 8, 2015

Farscape S1 Ep14: Jeremiah Crichton

"Since I left home, I’ve been hunted, beaten, locked up, shanghaied, shot at. I’ve had alien creatures in my face, up my nose, inside my brain, down my pants.
This is the first time, the first place, where I’ve felt peace."
-John Crichton-

That statement accurately reflects why Farscape (1999-2003) is so refreshing as a genre-bursting science fiction series. Farscape, in effect, is the antithesis of Star Trek's orderly, sterile world, of which so many series attempt to emulate and mirror. Not Farscape. It's the anti-Trek. This is a series entirely its own. This is world-building often fueled by discord, disorder and downright chaos. Rather than the hierarchical, military-style command structure of humans and aliens found in everything from Star Trek to Stargate to Babylon 5, we generally glimpse a window into familial anarchy of alien and human co-habitation. There is indeed love there amid the functional dysfunctional of our space-faring castaways.

In fact and in truth, Farscape, for me, is at times so radical, so genre-defying, so flip, it flies in the face of my usual tastes for science fiction. In other words, as brilliant as the series is, I can really only tolerate Farscape in small bursts, or small starbursts if you will.

As much as I truly enjoyed each riveting installment of Season One, I found myself unable to sustain that same enthusiasm for the series beginning with Season Two despite some stand out entries (The Way We Weren't). Farscape is so brave and transformative with science fiction conventions it's almost a bit too much for my tiny little brain. Okay, that's not really true.

As the series progressed it became even more risky and adventurous in its sci-fi approach heading into uncharted waters as much as it did the Uncharted Territories at every pass. It's one series you both applaud for its creative magnificence and/or potentially grow weary of as an entertainment if consumed like an unrestrained glutton.

I can binge watch a good amount of television including Game Of Thrones (2011-present), Stargate Universe (2009-2011), Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), Breaking Bad (2008-2013), Fargo (2014-present) and Homeland (2011-present), but Farscape, as I've come to discover, is not one of them. It's a playfully challenging series and one for which I genuinely need to be prepared or in the right mood.

Jeremiah Crichton is Farscape's variation on a theme, its own version of Robinson Crusoe, the novel by Daniel Defoe first published in 1719. It's a story that has inspired popular culture, TV and film since what seems like the beginning of time itself.

Lost In Space (1965-1968), Gilligan's Island (1964-1967), Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), Castaway (2000) and much more have all extracted inspiration from the Defoe classic.

Farscape, Season One, Episode 14, Jeremiah Crichton, also takes its cues from the classic book and weaves its own survivalist spin. Ironically, Jeremiah Crichton may be one of the least convention-defying entries of Season One.

Tired of the onboard shenanigans by his newly forged family, John Crichton takes an escapist ride in his ship.

Meanwhile, Moya, the living female leviathan/vessel that is home for these space misfits and castaways is once again suffering from a health-related issue forcing Pilot to starburst essentially deserting Crichton.

As a result, Crichton takes residence or stows away on a nearby planet, grows a beard and befriends the residents of its seemingly peaceful world.

Elsewhere, Moya's health problems are an ongoing source of anxiety for the crew throughout the Farscape series. The U.S.S. Enterprise and other man-made vessels have had their fair share of technical problems forcing repairs from time to time, but here, Moya, the leviathan, a female, experiences troubles that are generally biological in nature, not least of which is her pregnancy. This, of course, is a constant source of concern for Pilot, essentially Moya's voice throughout the series, and the others. Problems here for the ship are directly attributed to her pregnancy and a risk to her fetus. This is all perfectly logical and normal in Farscape's world

The writers of Farscape, by not only including a good number of strong female characters aboard Moya, have made Moya a female herself and thus infused the series with a good many issues that directly speak to and with the female voice.

Another significant theme that is underscored in Jeremiah Crichton is loyalty and the family-like bond that continues to form for all aboard Moya. Now missing for three months, KaDargo, Aeryn, Zhaan, Rygel and Pilot finally find John. He believes he was marooned and left a castaway by a makeshift family that turned their backs on him, but is quickly proven wrong. His grudge quickly dissolves when he discovers that Moya and company have searched for him since the day Moya starburst away for her and her child's own safety. Once again, Jeremiah Crichton, serves up another character-driven and emotion-driven tale that explores the complex dynamic of all aboard the living ship. All of these lives matter. No one is expendable and this is out of love.

Jeremiah Crichton is no means a bad episode. In fact, Jeremiah Crichton is a visually great-looking episode given its location shooting. Everything in Australia either looks beautiful or strange and that difference gives every episode a kind of otherworldy feel because we rarely see science fiction television framed in such a setting. It makes refreshing use of its landscape and offers a nice take on the science fiction world as much as England did for Star Wars (1977). It's certainly a nice alternative to Vancouver, British Columbia (The X-Files, Stargate SG-1).

Despite the visuals, Jeremiah Crichton is also one of the weaker turns in Farscape Season One. But this is Farscape and even a weak entry has plenty to offer on one level of production, performance or another.

One of my biggest issues with Jeremiah Crichton is its use of the primitive peoples storyline. It could have leaned more heavily on Crichton surviving alone on the planet, which would have been even more compelling, but devolves into a story with primitive peoples. This is like the Farscape version of Stargate SG-1Stargate SG-1 was a great adventure series but one not averse to the use of primitive peoples. Those SG-1 stories are some of my least favorite and this particular episode reminds me of the less challenging episodes of Stargate SG-1. An episode like Stargate SG-1, Season One, Episode 3, Emancipation comes to mind. These are sometimes the least engaging and interesting to me in general. No matter how you slice it, it becomes difficult looking passed all of the bad, primitive clothing. It's just not science fiction enough for my tastes. There's just not enough outer space accoutrements or trappings. But this is a minor quibble and fortunately Farscape spends very little time on stories like this one. In some ways a story like this one is almost a welcomed relief.

My look at Jeremiah Crichton also marks the first Farscape entry to be analyze using the much maligned and critically beleaguered Blu-Ray release. The images are all taken from the Blu-Ray release. While it is not a remarkable improvement over the DVD release, some improvements are notable (and the images included here offer evidence of that). But this, as critics have suggested, is not a substantial upgrade from any of the previous DVD issues. Nevertheless, again, it's Farscape, you buy it! Onward and upward with all sci-fi upgrades when the wallet or purse permits!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Hiroyuki Yamaga: On Comparisons

"I personally sense a camaraderie with Miyazaki's films;
I understand what he's doing.
But when it comes to Takahata or Oshii, I just don't understand what they're trying to do.
I have nothing against what they do, it's just that I don't understand."
-Hiroyuki Yamaga, Animerica Vol. 6 No. 5 (1998), p.12-

In an interview with Carl Gustav Horn, Horn makes a striking comparison of Yamaga to the auteur greats including Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and Isao Takahata.

Whilst Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise is indeed a minor classic in the legacy of anime, it seemed a bit premature to crown Yamaga with such esteemed company at the time. I certainly do not want to take anything away from Yamaga's talents or his achievements because he is indeed someone that deserves recognition for taking the reins and leading the charge on what amounts to the very first major film by Studio Gainax. It's no small feat and the film stands on its own as an artistic giant among films even pre-dating Katsuhiro Otomo's recognizably larger classic Akira (1988).

Certainly the maturity and breadth and scope of Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise and the notice it achieved cannot be discounted. Heck, I recall seeing it on racks at the now defunct Circuit City upon its release here in America to DVD and that was a pretty mainstream outlet for its time. Customer service was so abysmal there no wonder it was doomed. Best Buy seems destined to follow for the same reasons.

Yamaga would also later direct an episode of the phenomenal Gurren Lagann and continue to work in anime, but never again attaining the heights of The Wings Of Honneamise or the heights of those with whom Horn made his comparisons.

Keep in mind the interview took place in 1998 and the scope of work and the paths and trajectories carved for each of the four men has certainly altered their legacies accordingly. But Yamaga does not fall within the same arena with the achievements of those aforementioned directors. Still, one can certainly appreciate Yamaga's thoughts here. His work is most recognizably aligned with the spirit and inspiration of the kind of film directed by Miyazaki. 

Yamaga's victory with The Wings Of Honneamise is indeed giant and noteworthy. Many would relish such an artistic success. And historically Yamaga's film will always have a place among anime's very best next to the very best directors.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise

"I will not give up.
I will realize my dream... even if it means death!"

It's taken me considerable time to sit down and write about anything to come out of the irreverent and infinitely creative Studio Gainax. I have long had such reverence for the studio I wanted to make sure each production was given the proper analysis. I wanted to ensure fans of these amazing productions were given a respectable treatment here by Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic. For me, Studio Gainax, above and beyond any other, Ghibli and Gonzo included, is the one studio I hope to one day visit in Japan most.

As many know there are of course the directorial masters in Mamoru Oshii (Ghost In The Shell), Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro) and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), and then there is the creative think tank collective that is Gainax.

Gainax for a good period functioned in a group fashion, traditional to the Japanese, rather than the creative mind of a single director. Where a newcomer like Matoko Shinkai (Voices Of A Distant Star) was once heralded as the next big thing, Gainax has always produced award-worthy product without often having the benefit of a single name to attach it. The media loves a focal point and a seemingly amorphous studio entity is bit harder to nail down. Perhaps the big exception in the case of Gainax is director Hideaki Anno who has become the most pronounced creative entity within that Gainax collective, but Gainax has always produced with a kind of Headgear-like mentality. Headgear being the Mamoru Oshii-assisted force behind Patlabor.

Studio Gainax was a mere fledgling studio when the then young creators behind Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise (1987) were attempting to get their animation to fly.

Prior to this, Gainax had produced animation shorts as a group of young men for science fiction conventions like Daicon 3 (1981) in Japan.

Being the sci-fi geeks they were a garage kit-making entity called General Products (1982) also emerged (see here).

The Wings Of Honneamise in effect was a mirror to the upstart company. It was a metaphorical picture about themselves soaring into anime's space as much as it was man venturing into space.

To produce anything it requires money and Gainax was a company out of the gate. To get their anime concepts to soar money was essential. Director Hiroyuki Yamaga, then just twenty-two years old, and Toshio Okada were hard at work attempting a plan while Yasuhiro Takeda was busy copyrighting and officially founding Studio Gainax for the release of its first feature film. Okada was the man behind the sci-fi and collectible products business General Products, the company for which Takeda worked for from the ground up as documented in his own book, the marvelous The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax And The Men Who Created Evangelion (and much more). See here.

Yamaga and Okada's startup capital for the project was roughly two million yen thanks to the success of General Products. Two million yen translated roughly into 8,500 dollars in 1984. The beauty of getting The Wings Of Honneamise off the ground was that Yamaga and Okada and company were all naïve and new to this. They literally lacked experience in animation production on the scale they desired. As The Notenki Memoirs noted, "If they were going to do this anime, they were going to have to do everything themselves, from start to finish. And Okada was still a rank amateur."

Okada and Yamaga turned to a producer who had worked for legendary Director Osamu Tezuka at Tezuka Productions by the name of Hiroaki Inoue. Inoue aided the upstart Gainax animators by connecting them with Bandai. Bandai assisted them in the funding of The Wings Of Honneamise. The then president of Bandai had grand ambitions beyond toys into the field of animation and altered Okada and Yamaga's plans by changing their planned OVA, initially funding their production with 40 million yen (roughyl 167,000 dollars in 1984) into a remarkable film budget of 800 million yen (3.3 million dollars in 1984). GULP! Stunning! This effectiveness by a band of fan boys to gain the support of Bandai Company Ltd. is still considered today to be "one of the greatest achievements of ballsy fandom in possibly the entire universe," according to one Gainax associate as reported by Andrew Leonard in an article called Head's Up, Mickey. Sometimes ignorance and naiveté have their advantages.

Studio Gainax founder Yasuhiro Takeda discussed the legacy of The Wings Of Honneamise in his The Notenki Memoirs. "It's commonly believed that while Oritsu Uchugun was a well made film, it was a failure at the box office. That's completely untrue. It may not have been a huge hit, but it certainly wasn't a flop. Not a single theatre cancelled its run, and at some locations, it actually had a longer run than initially planned. I think a false apprehension probably emerged because a few people voiced their own unfounded assumptions---that a story as complex and subtle as this couldn't possibly draw crowds, and from there the rumors just took on a life of their own."

He added, "This was a big-budget production. For an animation budget in Japan at the time, 800 million yen was a huge chunk of change. It would have been large even for a live-action Japanese film. The budget scale meant that reclaiming all the production costs at the box office simply wasn't feasible."

According to character designer Yoshikuyi Sadamoto in Animerica Vol. 6 #8 his characters were based on everyone from friends to Robin Williams (The World According To Garp) and Lee Van Cleef.

Director Hiroyuki Yamaga saw the final product that was The Wings Of Honneamise quite differently in retrospect according to an interview with Newtype USA in July 2003. While he thought the end result was solid, even calling it "very Ghiblish" (Blu-Ray liner notes), he doesn't believe it was as good as it could have been. "I certainly don't think we made it under the best possible conditions, not by a long shot. The budget was insufficient...." He adds, "It was something we made using the bare minimum required. I wanted to make it so much better than we did, to tell you the truth."

"You should understand that, in Gainax, no one ever refers to this film as The Wings Of Honneamise. To them, its one and only title is its original one, Oritsu Uchugun-The Royal Space Force," declared founder Toshio Okada, formerly of Gainax (Animerica, Vol. 4 No. 5, p.9). The reason the title was altered was due to the fact Bandai threatened to end their involvement if it wasn't changed.

Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise truly opened doors for anime and for mature audiences to enter through those doors. Akira, Ghost In The Shell and many others have benefitted from the progress and leaps of faith made by films like this one and studios like Gainax. An endless run of quality anime (and equally dreadful anime) has since followed suit thankfully. Yamaga notes, "Up until ten years ago, anime films were made strictly for kids. No one of high school age or above would go and see one. I think in that sense, Wings left a lot of impressions in the industry and started a new trend" (Animerica, Vol. 6, No. 5, p.26, 1998).

As Ryusuke Hikawa noted in the Blu-Ray liner notes, these novices were "opening up the potential of anime expression." As Hikawa pointed out, Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984), directed by then 24 year old Shoji Kawamore, while beautifully executed, was something of "an extension of the already recognized anime framework." The Wings Of Honneamise presented a "denial of established ideas." It was taking the "world construction" of something like the successful Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975) to completely new and unexplored heights.

In general, the story of The Wings Of Honneamise offers viewers a fully fleshed out alternate universe and an old school-inspired story as the indomitable spirit of man attempts to reach into space. The story centers on a sympathetic everyman-like, unassuming hero in sympathetic Shiro.

The world-building here by Gainax is immense creating an Earth-like reality whereby a young man's dreams to fly are played out on a grand, dramatic and generally epic scale and canvas.

Those seeking intense aerial excitement should look to the likes of Macross (1982) or Yukikaze (2002-2005) because it is generally not an option here. This is primarily a character drama. It's indeed a stunning feature film in anime for its time and still looks profoundly beautiful today. Gainax really pushed the envelope on realizing its own dreams as much as the lead protagonist of their film.

Complimentary to the stunning hand drawn animation is the decision to use a score that steers clear of electronica or J-pop giving Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise a kind of timeless, ageless quality and sophistication. Too many films (Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind) date themselves through the overreliance on audio technologies and synthesizers.

Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise is an incredibly sincere tale populated by seemingly real, often charming characters.

The film's major weakness is that despite orbiting a man's dream to fly into space the picture simply lacks a dramatically compelling flavor at two plus hours. There is significant conflict, dramatic power or beats missing from the story. It lacks the immediacy capable of propelling us into the moment. It floats along but never quite lures us in emotionally. Even the attempted, perceived, controversial rape scene lacks any real impact.

On that point, categorically it is a violation and indeed an awkward moment in the film. Though Yamaga had this to add in an interview with Carl Gustav Horn regarding the scene which does offer some context. "There's no simple explanation for that scene, I was depicting a human situation where two people are moving closer and closer, yet their relationship isn't progressing it all. As a last resort, you resort to violence in an attempt to close the gap, only to find that attempt was also useless. The two of them never came to terms, never understood each other, even to the end of the movie. However, even though they never understand each other, they are in some way linked together---that's something I also wanted to depict" (Animerica, Vol. 6 No. 5, p.13, 1998). Given Yamaga's comments and having seen the sequence within the framework of the two lead characters it does make sense despite Shiro's poor decision.

In our lives there are moments where we push or force a connection, physical or otherwise, that is in effect unwanted and unsolicited which puts the other on offense. But the rejection of this unwelcomed attempt at a connection though uncomfortable can still often result in a relationship's survival. Sometimes advances are not invited, but as human beings we sometimes make mistakes, cross a line and ultimately learn from those errors in judgment. We realize our mistakes and sometimes mend a relationship despite such missteps. Unfortunately, in today's world, there is very little room for error and when mistakes are made, the repercussions are magnified and that much greater. Unlike our yesterdays, these days are far less forgiving.

While certainly not intentionally provocative or shocking it would also be the first in a long run of shocking moments from a studio that would become famous or rather infamous for the often stunning Gainax ending and a studio's fearlessness to take risks.

But the film is far more than a single sequence as much as we are more than a single ill-timed action or mistake.

I don't mean to undercut the achievements that lay within Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise, or the epic sweep of this tale about exploration and reaching our potential, because it has all of the grade A production qualities that are found in a film by Studio Ghibli. But this initial go of it for Studio Gainax lacks some of the emotional core or impact that Miyazaki seems to create so effortlessly on a Spielbergian-like canvas. In truth, this is the only Gainax film that would come close to such a comparison with Miyazaki too, because the output of both studios is so markedly different in tone and style.

Nevertheless, for a Gainax starter, the studio makes a solid go of it and it is lovingly captured animation with its heart in the right place.

Ultimately, Gainax would make a name for itself and establish its own eccentric touch thanks to the almost alien-like oddities of its later works steered by the genius of Hideaki Anno, but director Hiroyuki Yamaga had a significant impact in establishing a reputation and he properly kicked things off with this near Disney-esque-like feature film.

Anno would take things from there. It would be Anno who would be to Gainax what Miyazaki would mean to Ghibli. These are the compelling voices who pushed the bounds of animation in Japan.

While definitely a slow burn of a film Yamaga's Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise is still nonetheless a vibrant and beautiful picture to experience in high definition. This is a visually meticulous work and one that I offer a mild recommendation on for the sheer artistry and effort on display even if it never really soars on an emotional level. Regardless, like the fairly green studio making it there is an innocence to the story and there is great respect for the material and what was being attempted. Unlike a lot of anime films, this was the antidote to the dystopian visions of films like Akira (1988) and Harmagedon (1983). This story is upward, outward and optimistic like the studio making it. Looking back there really was nothing like this film at that time and a studio created its wings and would fly from here.