They say that variety is the spice of life. In a continuing attempt to embrace that variety here with One Movie Each Day, I’ve decided to dedicate each Wednesday review to the stranger side of cinema, the type of movies that I’d never normally watch, but that I’m kind of secretly glad exist. In celebration or in condemnation of the eccentric, the odd, the freaky, the kinky, the ghastly, the freaky, the fearful, and the flaky, I present this the sixth and lengthiest installment of Wednesday Weirdness.
I’ve seen some weird movies in my time, but today’s entry is really up there on the weirdness scale, it’s the 2008 film Assault Girls and it’s really strange. Like most things that are truly bizarre, Assault Girls comes to us from Japan. It’s not weird in some sort of experimental film way, it’s just a truly bizarre construction for what is marketed as a hot-girls-and-explosions sci-fi adventure.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the plot:
In the aftermath of global thermonuclear war, three battle tested women wage war in a virtual reality videogame against giant mutant sandwhales. All of them seek to kill “Madara Sunakujira” the game’s end boss but find that despite their high levels, are unable to engage it alone as they wish, forcing them to form a party to defeat it together. “Gray,” a sniper who travels flying in her own plane, “Lucifer,” a black dress wearing girl who can turn into a giant crow and uses magic spells, “Colonel,” a woman in burgundy armor who uses an FN FAL with M203, and “Jäger,” a drifter who uses a powerful sniper rifle and relies on his luck (despite the Game Master telling him his luck stat is very low).
I’d just finished listening to the excellent audiobook version of Ready Player One for the second time, so I suppose I was more than a little intrigued to see this version of players in a lifelike-simulation future MMORPG, but, aside from the last ten minutes, this movie wasn’t really what I was expecting at all. It begins with a ninteen and a half minute narration describing the back-story and history of the society in which a the game world in the film has come to exist. This long and at times rambling introduction doesn’t seem to have been particularly well translated into English from, (I presumed,) the original Japanese. The fact that this narration lasts for twenty minutes, all before the title card, is all the more impressive when you consider that the entire film is only about an hour and ten minutes long.
What follows isn’t the type of explosions, bad dialogue, and cheap special-effects, extravaganza I was expected, instead we get a lot of slow sequences, of stark but beautiful landscapes, virtually no dialogue, virtually no plot, and just slowly absorbing this world, (everything we see is within the film’s fictional virtual-reality world.) There is probably ten minutes of close-ups of a snail. Through this period the film introduces the four characters mentioned above. Then it’s more stark landscapes, and characters interacting with a snail, and chraracters walking through landscapes and five minutes of Jäger cooking bacon and eggs. This goes on for at least forty minutes. Then there’s one fun scene with dialogue and a slapstick fight between two of the characters, then the climactic and effects-laden end battle.
It’s just truly an odd and unique way for a movie to be constructed an presented. I spent most of the film thinking I’d rate it as “avoid seeing” and that this would be a two paragraph review dismissing the whole concept, but by the time tie credits rolled, I was starting to think that maybe… maybe, I’d go ahead and bump this up to “not worth seeing.” I’ve been kicking this around for a while… and I think that this movie is actually even better than that. It may not actually be a “good movie,” but, i its own way, it’s actually kind of brilliant.
One thing to this film’s credit, is that director Mamoru Oshii clearly knew what kind of movie he wanted to make, and did just that. The movie consisted of a lot of long sequences where nothing was obviously happening, and in fact, most of what you’d conventionally call the story’s second act must have happened off screen, while Oshii was showing us lava flows and a snail. For some reason, in hindsight, I think this is an incredibly bold creative decision… and oddly enough, it kind of works. Also, in this same category is the way language was handled in the film. After the opening narration, I initially thought the film had been badly dubbed into English. (So badly, in fact, that Sub-titles were still required when the player-characters were speaking.) However, as the film plays out it’s revealed that this is actually the way it was originally presented. The virtual-reality world, it seems, is an English-speaking platform. In fact, at one point the game’s AI reprimands the characters when they start speaking to each other in Japanese. So the characters speaking in broken English for half of the, (admittedly limited,) dialogue in the film was actually a plot point. I think this is actually pretty clever.
This movie does have quite a bit going for it. The filming location is really the biggest star, and it has a strange combination of being both dismal and beautiful. I was going to criticize the pervasive CGI visual effects for being more video-game quality than photo-realistic, but then it occurred to me that given the context that is really entirely appropriate. As for the cast, Meisa Kuroki, who plays Gray, is incredibly beautiful, which may explain, in part, why I didn’t mind that the movie contained a lot of her just sort of standing around and looking at things. Then there is Rinko Kikuchi as the nutty, magical bird-girl Lucifer; she doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, but any time the camera is on her she totally steals the scene. When I sat down to do some background research for this review I was surprised to learn that Kikuchi is a real actress, and an Oscar-nominated actress at that. (I guess Babelis going on The List.) What she’s doing in this movie, I have no idea, but she’s awesome. Then there is the costume design. Each of the four major characters, (not counting the snail,) has a unique and distinctive costume that is not only really believable as a videogame avatar skin, but also perfectly in line with the character who’s wearing it. If this were a better movie, I’m sure that various conventions would be awash in people dressing up like these characters. If there’s one thing that the film got unequivocally right, it’s the costuming.
Movies like this are the reason I started doing Wednesday Weirdness in the first place. This is an utterly unique movie, I never, ever would have watched it if it weren’t for this blog, but I’m actually glad that I watched it. To really get the film you’d probably have to have at least a passing familiarity with online gaming and RPGs, otherwise most of the few morsels of awesomeness that make the extended sequences of nothing worthwhile would probably be pretty inaccessible. Even with that knowledge, some of those scenes in the middle are pretty tedious, but they’re kind of pretty. If this film were much longer, it probably wouldn’t work, but as it is, it’s pretty damn short, and as such, it does actually work. This short running time prevents it from over-indulging in the extended sequences of scenery, and characters not interacting. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that Assault Girls is a good movie… but it is worth seeing.