Saturday, April 16, 2005

post-apocalyptic architecture

When was it that previews got better than movies? If good art keeps the audience gasping for more, previews are the hit they give you for free, knowing full well nothing matches that first high.

Maybe it’s just me, but Japanese movies, although uniformly terrible, have amazing previews. Flat bursts of high impact art; shorts that spray bullets and emotions that pierce the heart with equal force. I recently rented Appleseed, a fully CG animated shoot-em-up sci-fi anime, solely on the basis of the preview. It was a standard eye staining montage of elaborately rendered battle scenes: robot SWAT teams with automatic weapons, shattering glass skyscrapers, thumping techno beat, female action hero dancing through bullets, yawn. But, after demolishing a robot tank, the female lead’s hard boiled face fills the screen, suddenly turning black for her steely voiceover: “When the fighting is over, I want to be a mother.” Whoa.

That line was not in the movie.

In fact, the character never even expresses that sentiment in the movie.

Instead, the whole thing was a giant ho-hum of an action thriller, a giant mess that had something to do with humans and technology, the meaning of love, the future of mankind. Sigh. The fighting scenes were amazing, these impossible ballets of bullets and bodies, the visceral thrill of watching Newtonian physics and Euclidian geometries collide. I’m guessing they probably took a lot of time and money to make them though, because the bulk of the running time were these endless expository passages, where the CG bodies that had flown so gracefully around hails of bullets just a few seconds before were suddenly being “mournful” or “confused” with all the emotional subtlety of a porn movie extra.

Putting aside all the issues of gender and race raised in the movie (why does everyone in the future look like the product of Japanese-Caucasian couplings?), I swear to god I had seen this same damn plot at least a dozen times before. It’s after the nuclear holocaust, earth (more specifically Tokyo) has been razed to the ground, leaving a world of burned out ruins. But wait! Mankind has built a new utopia above the clouds called... wait for it...


Olympus bears more than a passing resemblance to many of the massive new development projects that pop up here; the last bit of foam from Japan’s burst bubble economy. These hyper-modernist enclaves are stunning in their hubris, sweeping and heart stopping urban centers, looking almost as clean and boring as the CG models they were rendered with. Instead of being integrated into the surrounding environment, they brazenly seek to reinvent the urban landscape, placing a na├»ve trust in original design over practical use. Japan’s massive convention centers all follow this “ideal city” model, as do scores of city-buildings, from Ikebukuro’s Sunshine City, and the central Kyoto train station to the epic Roppongi Hills complex. They are stupid and sterile places, and usually encounter some major unforeseen flaw: Saitama city’s Shintoshin (“New City-Center”) district creates a massive wind tunnel that bowls over everyone who walks out of the train station at its heart. The automatic rotating doors at Roppongi Hills have caused innumerable injuries and have made national headlines. Tokyo Big Site is ferociously ugly.

On a more modest scale, rural city governments build symphony halls and community centers where there is no real demand for them. TV is rife with ads for building companies that promise to build you the perfect home: a gleaming corner of perfection, from the smooth heated floors to the computer controlled ventilation. A stroll around any neighborhood will turn up a few of these gleaming little palaces, with their stink of fresh concrete and stale modernist fantasies. You can then turn the corner to find a twenty year old version of the same house, looking horribly dingy in comparison. Walk a little further down the street and you’ll find a hollowed out wooden shell from sometime in the first part of the century, abandoned for years. In the States, these would be “fixer-uppers”, dilapidated homes from a previous era, that wear a feeble dignity in their worn wooden walls, sloping tile roofs and wide tatami rooms. They were the height of fashion when they were built, the wide glass panes on the front porch’s sliding doors must have gleamed among the flat paper screens of their neighbors.

A burned out landscape of Tokyo apartment blocks or a blinding utopian metropolis that bleaches the soul: this is the dichotomy laid out in Appleseed, and for all of its artlessness, it is stunningly clear distillation of all the professionals who crafted it, the Tokyo yuppies who hacked out every bit of originality to arrive at this whitewashed compromise of a story. They are enamored, blinded and drunk on a future that erases history and looks epic as a CG graphic, but taken out of the movies and dropped into the real world these places look about as pretty as a muddy Rubics Cube.


Jack Naka said...
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