by (2000, Japan)

When I was a kid, I could literally spend hours walking up and down the toy aisles of K-Mart, Target, etc., to the point that my parents almost had to drag me away.  I loved going through all of the action figures from various toy lines—G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, etc.—looking at each of them, reading the assorted info on the package (my favorite being the filecards that came with G.I. Joe characters), imagining them on various adventures and whatnot.  And to be perfectly honest, I haven’t quite grown out of that phase.

Why, just this past Christmas, I practically geeked out at a recent family gathering when I saw one of my relatives carrying the new Snake Eyes action figure.  Not surprisingly, I found myself really digging Blister in a big way, though the movie did hit a little too close to home at times.

Yuji (Hideaki Ito, Princess Blade, Onmyoji) is obsessed with action figures, specifically those of American comic book heroes.  He spends hours scouring comic book shops, convenience stores, and vending machines, looking for that next valuable treasure in a blister pack (the packaging from which the movie derives its name).  Yuji’s Holy Grail is the rarest action figure of all: Hellbanker.  Based on a character from an obscure comic book about the financier of hell (just watch the movie), only a handful are said to exist, though noone knows anything about them.

Along with his boss, Terada, who is obsessed with classic sci-fi like Star Wars, Back To The Future, and all of the various Star Trek incarnations, and Hashimoto, who has an unhealthy love for giant robots, Yuji diligently looks for Hellbanker—much to the chagrin of Mami, his long-suffering girlfriend.  Throw in a couple subplots about a nail-painting artiste who develops a crush on Hashimoto, a Korean sculptor who is seeking an heir for his amazing talents, a bizarre apocalyptic sci-fi showdown several hundred years in the future, and a bizarre government project involving the Earth’s rotation, and you’ve got the makings of an incredibly quirky, adrenalized comic romp through several unique subcultures.

At least, that what it looks like on paper.  Blister, while certainly quirky and not without its share of adrenaline-pumping moments, is quite something else entirely.  The concept of otaku—those being super-obsessive fans—is nothing new in anime and manga circles, and has received a fairly bad rap in recent years, for good reason.  Blister, looks at it from the inside, getting into the mind of these obsessed individuals, at what drives them, while at the same time, pointing out that the cost of their collecting can’t be merely measured by the amount of money they spend.

I don’t think it’s too farfetched to call Blister a movie that’s less about action figures, and more about addiction, pure and simple.  Much like drug addicts, Yuji and his friends run themselves ragged for their obsession, sacrificing wealth and relationships in pursuit of their goal.  For Yuji, it’s his relationship with Mami, which is constantly falling on the rocks whenever Yuji brings home another sack full of blisters.

However, writer Shinichi Inozume does a fine job of making these addicts (for lack of a better term) characters that are actually likable and sympathetic.  Sure, the typical stereotypes are there—sci-fi geek, anime nut, etc.—but the movie doesn’t make them into stereotypes.  Yuji isn’t a bad guy.  Slightly careless and selfish, yes, but not beyond redemption, and certainly not beyond the audience’s sympathies.

The movie makes it clear that what these people are pursuing isn’t the action figures themselves, but rather, some sense of purpose, something that gives their lives meaning.  As one character points out, figures are idealized visions of humanity, with all of the traits, features, and characteristics that we wish we had for ourselves.  However, it isn’t until the movie’s end that Yuji realizes that his pursuit for something meaningful, something that gives his life purpose has been skewed and misdirected.  Unfortunately, it takes something tragic to make him see that.

I can see how some people might find Blister rather disappointing.  It constantly toes the line between being a dark, serious melodrama (for example, when Yuji has to go “cold turkey” from his collecting habit), and something more outrageous and off-the-wall (such as the whole “Earth rotation” subplot).  And there are certainly times where, by trying to be both things, it ends up being neither.

But to the credit of director Taikan Suga, the movie does a fairly decent job of maintaining its balance, and even wrapping things up on a fairly satisfying note.  And while the look and feel of the film seems fairly MTV-derived, with saturated colors galore and plenty of whizbang editing, much of the camerawork is handheld, stripping the film of any gloss and sheen it could’ve had otherwise while also making it a more intimate film.  I kept expecting the film to break out any minute into something McG-ish, but thankfully, those moments are few and far between, drawing us much more firmly into the characters’ lives.

I would love to do a double-header with this and Spaced.  Surface-wise, both titles have obvious similarities, as both revolve around characters from similar sci-fi and comic-related subcultures.  Also, both titles revel in their pop culture savviness (Blister contains countless references to comic books, anime, and movies), but not with the express purpose of merely being hip or clever.  Like Spaced, Blister treats pop culture as something more than just merely entertainment.  Rather, they raise the (obvious) point that pop culture is just that, a “culture” that defines how we interact with the world, eachother, and ourselves.

Like Spaced, Blister reveals the good and bad sides of this, though it is certainly the darker and more serious of the two.  There is the possibility of community with other like-minded individuals, but also the equally likely possibility of isolation and loneliness, as obsessions take over and grow to unreal heights.  Watching Blister, I see similarities to the lives of many friends I’ve had whose lives have revolved around movies, anime, etc.  And for that matter, I see in it reflections of my own media obsessions.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many non-otaku will get into this movie.  I wonder how many of them will simply dismiss it as a movie about a bunch of weirdos who simply need to grow up and get a life.  However, for those of us on the inside, Blister might be a hidden gem, one that both affirms the value of our hobbies while also reminding us that there is a real world out there.

The Circle

by Jafar Panahi (2000, Iran)

The Circle begins with what should be a blessed event: the birth of a child.  And it would be, except for one tiny problem.  It’s a girl, and the mother’s in-laws were expecting a boy.  And in Iran, that’s reason enough for divorce, thrusting new mother Solmaz (whom we never see) and the newborn into an uncertain future.  And so begins The Circle, acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s incisive and troubling look into the perils facing Iranian women.

The film introduces us to a number of women whose stories are loosely intertwined (one of the only joys of watching this sad film is the graceful way in which Panahi moves between their stories, regardless of how tangential they might be).  When Solmaz’ mother leaves the hospital, we meet Arezou and Nargess, two women who have just been released from prison and are trying to make their way to Nargess’ home village, where they hope to start anew.  When their companion is arrested (for what, we don’t know—the women’s crimes are left vague, almost implying that their real crime is simply being female), the two are left the fend for themselves with little money and even fewer friends.

We then meet Pari, whom Arezou and Nargess are attempting to contact.  Pari was also an inmate, but has escaped to get an abortion.  Unable to get one because her husband is dead, and having been abandoned by her family, she turns to Elham, a former inmate who has since married a doctor.  However, Elham refuses to help, fearful that her husband’s family might learn of her shameful past.  Abandoned once again, Pari returns to the streets and runs into Nayereh, a poor woman who has abandoned her daughter in the hopes that some wealthy family might take her in.  And so it goes.

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Tears Of The Black Tiger

by Wisit Sasanatieng (2000, Thailand)

Attention cult film fans: you have a new Holy Grail.  The film is called Tears Of The Black Tiger and you must seek it out wherever it may be. Director/writer Wisit Sasanatieng’s first and thus far only film, Tears Of The Black Tiger, is a dizzying, delirious experience in pure camp cinema, one that would undoubtedly be a major international smash had it come from just about any film-producing country other than Thailand.  Thailand has been the overlooked distant relative in the Asian film world for years, and though the rise of the incredibly talented Pang brothers has brought the country some much deserved attention, it may have come too late for films like Tears Of The Black Tiger.

So what is this thing and why get so excited?  Part parody and part serious homage, Tears Of The Black Tiger is a film completely out of time and place, something completely and totally unexpected from Asian cinema: a 40’s era cowboy melodrama shot in glorious Technicolor, or, in this case, a no-name Technicolor substitute.  Tears Of The Black Tiger tells the story of Dum, a young peasant boy who falls in love with Rumpoey, the daughter of the local governor.

The two want to be married but can’t due to social circumstances. Dum vows to make himself worthy of Rumpoey and make her his own and heads off to find his fortune.  He falls in with a group of gangsters and eventually becomes the right-hand man in the gang, known to all as the Black Tiger, feared fastest gun in the land.  Back in Bangkok, Rumpoey eventually abandons hope of ever hearing from Dum again and allows herself to be pressured into an engagement with a local police captain determined to bring down Dum’s gang.  Will the lovers ever be reunited?

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by (2000, South Korea)

If you told me a year ago that I’d become a fan of Korean romantic melodramas, I probably would’ve laughed right in your face. A year ago, my knowledge of Asian cinema practically began with Jackie Chan and ended with John Woo. But since then, my experience has slowly but surely expanded to include the wonderful, subtle world of Korean drama. And “subtle”, I think, is the keyword here.

Unlike American melodramas, which pile on the weepy eyes and tissues, and throw in a Sarah MacLachlan song or two for good measure, Korean films keep their touch deft and light. To be sure, there are plenty of weepy, trite, and predictable moments that take place, but the heartfelt way in which they’re handled lend them a certain grace and believability that I find refreshing and completely captivating.

Take, for instance, 2000’s Ditto. When I finished the movie, I was surprised that I hadn’t rolled my eyes once or elicited a single groan. The whole premise of the movie seems custom-made for such responses. While there are a few moments when the movie loses its focus and unnecessarily ramps up the emotional content, its subtlety and grace ultimately won out.

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Voices Of A Distant Star

by Makoto Shinkai (2000, Japan)

Set in the year 2046, Voices Of A Distant Star follows a young mecha pilot named Mikako as she travels throughout the solar system battling a mysterious alien race.  When she can, she sends e-mail to her high school boyfriend Noboru, who is still on Earth.  However, as she travels farther out into space, it takes longer and longer for Noboru to receive her messages. They both begin questioning how their relationship is going to survive the time and distance between them, and if they’ll ever see eachother again.  Even if they do, Mikako will still be a teenager while Noboru will have grown old (due to Mikako’s faster than light travels).

Now, you might have noticed something in the previous paragraph.  I mention mecha, aliens, and space battles, but only barely.  That’s because those things are not the focus of Voices….  They’re in there, but they serve as a backdrop for the anime’s true focus.  The core of Voices… is the relationship between Mikako and Noboru and how they try to keep it alive despite the barriers between them.  This is what makes Voices… truly resonate with the viewer.

With Voices…, Makoto Shinkai, who wrote, directed, edited, and animated the film on his Power Mac (go Apple!), has crafted a tender story of romance and hope.  Even with a running time of less than 25 minutes, Shinkai invests considerable depth into the two characters and their relationship.  Rather then dive right into the action, he takes his time building things up.  Small details and interactions are what Shinkai focuses on—a rainy afternoon spent in a shelter, a bike ride together, going to the convenience store—and it’s these little details that make the couple’s romance so involving.

As Mikako heads deeper into space, she often thinks back to her time with Noboru, as well as what he will be doing when he receives her message years after she sends it.  Thanks to Shinkai’s patient development, these scenes are poignant and heartbreaking, but never melodramatic or saccharine.  When the anime ends, it does so on a bittersweet note that feels both satisfying and saddening.  Admittedly, some might find the open ending a bit of a cop out, but I found it quite beautiful and true to the work.

I got the same feeling watching this that I did when I saw Donnie Darko.  Not because the two films are similar (far from it) or because both feel fresh and original (which they do), but because the same sense of passion and creativity flow through both.  It’s apparent that Voices… is a labor of love.  It shows in the production and animation, as Shinkai obviously has the technical skills.  But more importantly, it shows in the characters and their plight.

I also found myself thinking of Hayao Miyazaki’s work at times.  I know it’s pretty presumptuous to compare a relative unknown to animation’s master, but Shinkai shows the same ability to create a rich emotional experience through his animation.  While I was watching an interview with Shinkai, it became obvious that this is a talented young man who takes anime seriously as an artform, who wants to create art that is both inspired and inspiring.  With Voices…, he’s off to an excellent start.