June 22, 2008 4:00 PM | Matthew Hawkins
['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s entry takes a special look at the just started New York Asian Film Festival]
The New York Asian Film Festival, 2008 edition, kicked off this past Friday, and not surprisingly it's already running on all cylinders. Why the first weekend alone has seen a sci-fi tinged, Howard Hawks-esque noir mystery involving dismembered girls and religious nuts, an old fashioned buddy flick featuring a college kid with no luck or money and a hard boiled gangster who owns the kid's ass, and that's not all.
Also on show - a trio at a all girl Catholic school with super powers, and a look at the life of some schlep whose personal life is in utter shambles, nor is he exactly beloved by his country men, due to the fact that he's so lackluster at his job, which happens to be fighting off whatever big bad monsters threaten Japan.
Another thing the fest is chock full of this year is video game-related goodness. In fact, it was their screening of the Resurrection Of The Little Match Girl some years ago that inspired me to start this column in the first place.
Well this year there are two game-related movies to check out: one based upon D3's budget sensation The Onechanbara, and other, the Takashi Miike helmed adaptation of Sega's Ryū ga Gotoku, aka Yakuza. Plus, the NYAFF plays host to the US debut of Retro Game Master, aka Game Center CX! Let's take a look at the first flick, as well as one of the two debut episodes of RCM...
Based on The Onechanbara, one of D3 Publisher's surprise break away hits from the Simple 2000 line of budget games (the other being Earth Defense Force, which itself is heavily influences by Starship Troopers, so I'm not holding my breathe for a big screen adaptation of that one, especially since its star is not as "marketable" as the one on-hand).
The movie tells a tale eternally told: some big company, for whatever reason (in this case, the D3 Corporation, which is cute to say the least) has begun raising the dead, and next thing you know, the whole word is upside down. Emerging from the darkness (and I do mean darkness) comes a mysterious woman to the rescue, with the skills to slice and dice the undead! Even if her attire is somewhat questionable... decked out in nothing more than a cowboy hat, a bikini, and a feather boa, though unfortunately she's wearing a poncho largely throughout, which covers the goods for the most part. Why mention the T&A so early on in this review? It's not as if it's one of the few things that the movie has going for it... well it is... but that's also the point of the whole thing, I guess.
When I mentioned to various colleagues that I was seeing the Onechanbara flick, those who had seen it was kind enough to inform me "you know, it's not very good." Like A) that comes as any sort of shock, and B) like that's supposed to deter me. Is the movie good? Even by video game movie standards? Well, define "good."
If you think a movie where you have hot chicks with shapely bodies and swords and guns decimating zombies left and right is good, never-mind the small stuff like the plot, good acting, or even being able to see anything (more on this in a bit), then there you go! As a buddy of mine noted right as the credits rolled: "I give that movie four boners!"
Back to story: the countryside is overrun by zombies, with only a few pockets of survivors just scraping by here and there. One such person is Aya, the next to the last member of a clan gifted in the ways of the sword (of course), who thusly handles the undead with relative ease, though she has her sights on her younger sister, Saki, for the murder of their father.
By Aya's side is some fat dude (didn't get his name, sorry... tried to take notes, but it was too dark, even for a movie... again, more on this in just a sec) who has had similar hardships; his kid sister has been kidnapped by the evil D3 corporation and the zombie it's created, and he too is out for revenge.
In the middle of the movie's almost impossible to make out at times first fight scene, against a bunch of zombie punks (no undead dudes in suits here!), another ass-kicking lady shows up, Reiko, who wages war with a sawed off shot-gun, one that never needs reloading (naturally). After the zombies are done away with, they immediately set their sights on each other. But Aya's cowardly and bumbling, yet lovable assistant manages to convince each other that they're all fighting for the same thing, and a truce is formed.
It is discovered that Reiko's daughter was killed by the once again evil D3 corp, so... cut to, the offices of a one mad Dr. Sugita, the brains behind the evil. We of course we never find out what his deal is, other than he's crazy and wants to become God, with the power to create life from death and all.
Plus he aims to mold the perfect solider by splicing genes, and his next test subject is, naturally, fat guy's kid sister! What a coincidence! Though he ultimately wants to get his hands on the lovely and dangerous Aya, due to her linage (despite the fact that he also has Saki in his employment, who shares the same blood, but let's not worry about the plot-holes).
Back to the gang: after setting up camp for the night, they run into a young couple that warns them to watch their backs. And of course, they fail to heed their own advice as they take a break to have sex, which brings forth some exposed breasts, another nice throwback to the zombie movies of old.
Soon, the heroic trio, after dealing with another undead crisis in the middle of the night.... It really needs to be mentioned how, up till this point, most of the action takes place in the dead of night, and while one does understand that in this future, society has ground to a halt, meaning no electricity, also meaning no streets lights or the such to help illuminate the action, it's still rather ridiculous, watching vague shapes swish around the absolute black, a lot.
One also understands that the dark not only adds to the creepy atmosphere (well, I'm guessing there's supposed to be one), as well as hides the less than big budget special effects, but still, there was several points where one doesn't know what the heck is happening on the big screen, leading to a headache of sorts. Anyway, daylight comes thankfully, and Reiko encounters a young orphan girl, her parents no doubt dead from you know what. She immediately bonds with her who seems oblivious to her surroundings (either the girl's been traumatized or is just, you know, "slow").
Meanwhile, fat dude is confronted with a zombie schoolgirl using the metal ball on a chain gimmick, very similar to Go Go Yubari from Kill Bill (this would not be the only one from the entire fest, even thus far, btw). Horrified, fat dude has to do what he has to do. Meanwhile, Saki shows up and holds Reiko's surrogate daughter hostage, them immediately stabs her in the back, which got easily one of the best laughs of the entire screening.
Along the way, we see plenty of flashbacks of when Aya and her sis were kids, with their father training them how to fight, with Aya being the clearly favored daughter, leading to an encounter with Sugita, who offers to take care of things, and then calls the shots for her, like taking down papa. The funny thing here is, one totally begins to sympathize with Saki for her actions, since daddy clearly didn't like her!
The three take the hurt child to a hospital, where the inevitable scene in which Aya suggests killing the girl before she turns, infuriating Reiko, takes place. And with zombies beating down the doors, Aya and her partner run off, leaving Reiko to be by the dying girl's side and become the masses' latest late night snack. With blood lust on their pallets, the remaining two decide to finally do the deed and storm Sugita's castle, where Aya mows down row after row after row of zombie storm troopers...
But there's too many of them! And it seems like Aya's number is up when, surprise! Guess who shows up because she's not dead? Sorry for the spoilers, but really, anyone who was five blocks away from the movie theater, enjoying dinner at that new Italian place down 6th Ave that I've heard rave reviews about, saw it coming a mile away. Anyhow, fast forwarding towards the end, the sister have their long-awaited showdown. It's all, not shockingly, all very video game-y...
Even for a video game flick, none of it is hardly groundbreaking or incredible, but the Beauty Chanbara does have its merit, and a certain degree of charm. The players do their jobs well enough; not to be sexist, but the female leads are designed to appeal to a mostly male audience, which is more than accomplished (even if Aya doesn't show as much as skin as one would hope, there is Reiko, whose outfits presents her breasts, front and center).
The zombie make up is more than serviceable, and the CGI effects aren't offensive, on a low-budget scale that is. The most annoying had to be Aya's tattoo on her arm, which is clearly a piece of plastic, just looking to get peeled off. Otherwise, once again: zombies, swordplay, cute Japanese girls. The choice is yours.
Retro Game Master Episode 1: The Mystery of Atlantis
As some might already know, Retro Game Master is the translated Game Center CX, a super popular show in Japan in which viewers simply watch an ordinary fellow try and beat old video games in one sitting, no matter how long it takes.
The opening video explains how this person, referred to as "the Kacho" (real name Shinya Arino, a Japanese comic), has managed to thrill viewing audiences and become somewhat of an icon, leading to tons of DVDs, toys, even a dedicated video game being sold, as well as public appearances in which the Kacho tried to best classic games in front of a packed live audience.
Stylejam, the series' representatives abroad hopes to bring the show to America, and since they also distribute films, many of which are playing at the festival, I'm guessing it simply made sense to present two test episodes to gauge audience reactions.
Again, on a purely personal note, when I went to Japan last year, I saw one of the DVD box sets for sale at Super Potato, perhaps the most well known classic gaming store in the heart of electric town, Akihabara, accompanied by a TV set with the show running. I watched a bit as some man who clearly looked fatigued did his best to get through the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros (and despite constantly falling in the same tricky pit, he was quite good.... better than myself at least). I had no idea what I was watching, and lo and behold, here we are!
Anyway, the first of the two episodes presented was the first episode from the second season, or so I was told, centering on an old Sunsoft game for the Famicom called the Mystery of Atlantis, which is apparently legendary for its insane degree of difficulty.
And right off the back, it's less than steady treading for the Kacho, has he immediately has to come to grips with the tricky jumping physics, punishing enemies, and the bizarro warp system. The game has 100 levels in all, and the Kacho bites it pretty early on. But, he immediately gets back on that horse, hits the start button, and tries yet again!
The reason why the show is so beloved becomes almost immediately apparent; the Kacho is just a loveable, everyday kind of guy, who is just as good, and most importantly bad at video games like you. It's not just his choice of games, that being classics from yesterday, but his attitude towards them that makes it all so enjoyable; its not some young kind dealing with the more than peculiar logic of old games without question as we all did, the Kacho is an older dude who wonders why the hell things are the way they are, like we all do when we play something as an adult, with now all this confusion and reasoning.
I know that many have tried to put the act of video gaming on TV here in the states, such as the channel G4, but they've always gotten it wrong, since they assume that people want to witness diehard, expert gamers at play. Sorry, but I'd rather take the humble and goofy, as well as completely relatable Kacho over some snot-nosed cocky teenager calling himself Hadoken316, the same kid I want to slap every time I go inside a game store, or why I don't bother with the arcades anymore.
Back to the Kacho: the aforementioned wonky warp system comes into play early on as he stumbles across stage 9 by accident (and his reaction of total confusion and laughter is quite priceless), which then leads him to stage 8, and then onto stage 10!
Which is where he finds himself stuck for quite some time due to the how the entire stage requires the player to jump from treetop to treetop, with very little footing available, and once again, the less than stellar controls. The Kacho dies and goes back to stage 1, and manages to make it back to stage 10, and again, game over. Over and over.
As the clock ticks, the Kacho gives it another shot, but along the way falls down a hole in one the level, which reveals yet another warp! Eventually he's back at stage 10, but along the way he managed to acquire special boots that allows him to hop on the clouds dotted along the level, making progression much easier!
Yet he still manages to slip and fall, and that's when the assistant is brought in. Known as "Assistant T", he's apparently the dude that the Kacho refers to when he's simply stuck somewhere, and T does a decent enough job of getting Kacho's character back to where he left off... but also dying at the same spot. So after a bit of rest, the controls go back.
But this next time around, the Kacho does much better, and makes a curious discovery; a star item, acquired on stage 10, and a tricky one to get, thus all the dying, grants invisibility! So then it's smooth sailing... till the Kacho stumbles across the stage that is completely black. His character keeps falling down pits that cannot be seen, and yet again, the game is over.
With 100 stages to conquer, and a handful of hours already passed, it would seem completion is all but impossible. At various points between games, the Kacho refers to the instruction manual for some help, and comes across the notes section in the back, in which the previous owner of the game noted that he or she was not able to make it past the 16th stage. Not a good omen indeed.
Yet hope is introduced back into the picture when the assistant comes back from an excursion with a guidebook. And true to fashion for many games of that era, after a quick cursory glance and one immediately begins to wonder, along with the Kacho, how a person is supposed to beat the game without such a thing?
Now is it smooth sailing, at last? Of course not. The guide points towards the shortest route possible utilizing warps, most of which are "suicide warps" in which the player kills himself at a specific spot in a level to jump forward. Again, how one is supposed to know all this is beyond anyone's comprehension.
But at the moment of glory, the Kacho finds himself stuck due to the fact that no invisibility star has been acquired, and the last stage's firepower is just too much to handle. One more time: back to level one! And we sit and watch as the Kacho tried to come up with a different strategy and attempt to further deal with both the wacky ways things are and the innocent mistakes made all along the trip.
Watching the Kacho struggle is like watching a friend of yours right next to you trying to play some game; you can't help but anticipate what moves should be done next, and when things go awry, your frustration is mixture "oh man, that sucks!" and "come on, how could you do that?"
One also shares in the joy of discovery or when a practiced technique finally comes together (such as when the Kacho has to master the art of falling down and also dropping a bomb right before hand to reveal a door, but not blow himself up). Not to reveal yet another spoiler, but after many hours later... around eight I believe... Kacho manages to defeat the game and discover the mystery of Atlantis! And also true to form of so many games of that era, the ending is a total "gee, that was it?" moment!
The show was quite simply a joy to watch. And thankfully, even though I am not exactly familiar with the source material, it seems to have completely retained its voice even after translation. When comparing it to screenshots of the original (like those used in the original... I obviously do not have access to the translated version), it all feels the same, the same use of type all over the place, like they tend to do in Japan.
Everything is subtitled, with zero dubbing; only the host's voice is American, and there's none of that Most Extreme Elimination Challenge needlessly over the top, made up nonsense here. Though there is apparently quite a bit missing; from what I understand, the original episode has the Kacho also going to an arcade and conducting an interview.
It's hard to tell what the future has in store for Retro Game Master, at least here in the US. Style Jam is currently in talks with various domestic distributors about possibly releasing the DVDs, or putting them on our airwaves. And as charming as heck as the show is, and its host, I have to admit that it's going to be a tough sell for mainstream American audiences.
Again, selection is key, that being games we all know and love and remember not so clearly, all of which harkens back to a simpler time... a stark contrast to the overcomplicated fare that's offered on today's systems. Though as we all know, nostalgia is not for everyone... which is why everyone, if they can, should make it out to the Retro Game Master screening, which are free after-all! And then stick around for anything else the NYAFF has to offer, video game-wise or not.
For more information, such as showtimes, as well as to purchase tickets, please check out the NYAFF website. And next week I'll have a recap of the second Retro Game Master episode, as well as my overview of Like A Dragon!
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso