The Assassin (Billy Chung, 1993)

Hong Kong made 1993 a banner year for wuxia pictures. In fact, the genre became so saturated that audiences grew bored with it; with the impending sovereignty of the Mainland looming in the near future, protracted and stylized fantasy began to take a back seat to often nihilistic films that earned the “CAT III” rating for graphic depictions of criminal activity and violence, particularly sexual violence at that. Examining the lowest depths of human depravity garnered quite the reputation for film makers and actors willing to participate in such films.
The Assassin, one of the many wuxia pictures of 1993, actually features all of the above including the restrictive rating; it stands as the roughest, rawest film of its type besides Tsui Hark’s The Blade. Apparently based on a story (novel?) by Wen Rui An, it tells the story of Tong Po Ka (Zhang Feng-Yi), the eponymous assassin. Arrested for dubious reasons while running away with his beloved, Yao (radiantly beautiful Rosamund Kwan), Po Ka endures an abusive prison sentence. In the film’s most shocking scene, his jailors sew his eyelids shut and proceed to beat him into unconsciousness. When his captors grant his sight back, Po Ka finds himself in an arena with other prisoners, and receives a chance at life, so long as he survives a fight to the death with his cellmates and agrees to work as an assassin for the government that wrongfully imprisoned him.

Po Ka patiently waits for the other prisoners to start fighting before involving himself in the brawl, and when his last opponent nearly kills him, a previous winner of the same contest saves him, deciding that Po Ka’s outlook makes him most suitable for the job of assassin. Brought before the Eunuch of the Western Palace, Po Ka receives a new name, Tong Jang, and begins his career as a professional murderer.
At this point, the film shifts to the perspective of Wang Kou (Max Mok in an ill-fitting fright wig), a would-be master swordsman hired for an assassination lead by Tong Jang. An earnest and genuinely nice young man – the film shows this in the convenient shorthand, with Wang sharing his food with a stray puppy – Wang finds himself fascinated with Tong Jang’s methods. Tong shows him the open grave where he inundates himself with the sight and smell of rotten death, and shares the philosophy of the assassin, that one kills in order to continue living. It’s practically Randian in its selfish amorality.

But while Wang sets himself on the road of Tong Jang, Tong finds himself slowly moving back towards becoming Po Ka. On a mission to kill dissenting Buddhist monks as they pass through a city, Tong sees his lost love, Yau, with her young son. Recognizing Po Ka as he murders the nonresistant, defenseless monks, she pleads with him to stop, and he finally hesitates when he finds out that the reincarnated abbot they call their leader is only a young boy. Wang Kou does not, and recognizing Tong Jang’s hesitation as an irrevocable change in his life’s direction, dedicates himself to walking the road that Tong abandons.
The film shifts focus back to Tong Jang, now living in the village of flower growers and farmers where Yao lives with her new husband and child. The villagers treat him with nothing less than neighborly love, and Yao’s child addresses him as uncle, offering to share his favorite toy in an attempt to raise the emotionally broken Tong’s spirits. Tong believes that he has shed too much blood to ever return to peaceful life, but Yao and her neighbors treat him as their own, and as he accepts the role, he begins to see himself fitting it, although unworthily. When the Eunuch dispatches the same assassin that saved his life years before to burn down the village and kill him, he realizes that he must return to his life of violence, though not in service to a corrupt and cruel government.

As mentioned, The Assassin is the first in a short wave of wuxia movies which presents a scarier, grimmer sort of violence than some of the more fantastical genre films from the 90’s. The scene where Po Ka’s eyelids are sewn shut is genuinely unnerving, and when the nearly godlike Eunuch fights, director Billy Chung shoots it as a scene from a slasher movie; spatial relationships between characters and setting blur in a furious montage of chiaroscuro lighting, point-of-view shooting, and editing that refuses to acknowledge continuity of any sort. Much of the action, choreographed by veterans Stephen Tung and Benz Kong, is generic, if competent. The wire work is sometimes at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie. But it is bloody to the point grotesquery.
It’s not only the action scenes; The Assassin always keeps one foot in the visual conventions of its genre to its own peril. Exterior scenes shot by Zhao Fei, a frequent collaborator of Tian Zhuang Zhuang and Jiang Wen, look not unlike the work He Ping from around this period. The arid landscapes and intensely blue skies fit the grimy story and its accompanying violence, but scenes shot on soundstages that retain the typical Hong Kong style of flood lighting under heavy blue filters look too staged, too contrived, and too generic for their own good. The result is a visually schizophrenic movie, especially when combined with action set-pieces that might go from frenzied and brutal to fantastical within the same scene.

It doesn’t help that the film focuses its plot entirely on its characters. While I appreciate the attempt at a character-driven wuxia movie, the characters reference the machinations of the corrupt government and the Eunuch in particular with the evidence always in the periphery. There’s a super-plot involving the Eunuch of the Western Palace attempting to create a cult of personality around himself, starving peasants to feed his own carnal desires, and doing so with the help of government officials to whom he supposedly owes his fealty, but it is only spoken of by the characters, and only in passing at that; the film barely shows us any of what is really happening. It feels like half the script is missing.
That said, The Assassin is still an evocative and interesting movie. The production design is generally pretty good, and every scene with the Eunuch is absolute gold. Although I cannot identify the actor who plays him, the man deserves the highest of praise for acting underneath a wig so surreal that it puts even Max Mok’s hilariously ugly curly mop to shame. The scenes in which he cavorts with women, helped by an improbably large metal dildo, is equally bizarre and disgusting as the previously mentioned scene in which he rips apart would be assassins in horror movie villain fashion.

The Assassin has a nervous quality to it, again, much like other 90’s movies that earned CAT III ratings for reasons other than soft porn, and at times it borders on the same sense of nihilism, although it actually ends on an upbeat note. The nervous quality is an inevitability when looking at the grotesque and acknowledging it as such. The acting is also uniformly good, a tremendous boon to such an underwritten movie. Director Billy Chung has spent the 2000’s making disposable filler like Kung Fu Mahjong and The Lady Iron Chef. I would not in the least mind him attempting another bleak, character driven wuxia movie in a similar vein as this one.


The JRPG Conundrum (part 1?)

It’s about that time of year again. Last May, Bioware’s Daniel Erickson claimed that Final Fantasy 13 was not an RPG, explaining that it had no character creation or goofily obvious dialog trees. The reaction was about as expected from the itinerant gaming pundits on the internet: a huge debate over semantics. Of course, most of these guys either have short memories or have not studied their hobby particularly well or, for that matter, have not actually swam past the familiar genre points of Final Fantasy 7, Baldur’s Gate, and Diablo. If they had, they would realize that CRPGs are nothing like the tabletop games that spawned them because no computer program can replicate the human involvement of an actual dungeon master, much less players. Erickson’s definition actually eliminates not only Japanese developed RPGs, but a large portion of the genre’s progenitors.

Semantic arguments serve an important purpose, of course; if one cannot argue about the definition of words, what else can one have to argue about? (What is an RPG if words have no meaning? … sorry, I couldn’t resist) The problem with the argument is that if either side took its position to the most logical end, they would render the term “CRPG” a complete misnomer. That would be logical, disregarding the context in which we use the term “RPG,” but not sensible, and it solves approximately nothing. And besides, it’s old news.

The decline or death of the Japanese RPG is a favorite meme of gamers and game journalists in this current console generation, and there are at least a couple of narratives repeated by those who believe their understanding of the genre, and video games in general, and the people who make and play them sufficient to explain this phenomenon. The first explanation, and in my experience the most prevalent, is that the Japanese developers, conservative and risk-averse, wallow in dated conventions of game-design and that Western developers, more willing to change with their audience and to meet their audience’s demands, have usurped the Japanese position within the industry as the purveyors of what we call RPGs. This set off the argument last year.

The other narrative posits that Japanese developers, unlike their counterparts in the west, failed to grow up with their audience; this is the argument made by people who hate or are at least antipathetic towards anime illustrations and teenaged heroes of ambiguous gender, who balk at the narrative conventions so closely associated with the genre. Both sides miss the point. One focuses on the games as games and the other on the games as media, but both miss the mark in complementary ways.

It’s the latter I focus on because this year’s annual celebration of “What’s wrong with the JRPG” comes as a reaction to a peculiar little game published by NIS America and developed by their equally, eternally peculiar partners, Idea Factory, Compile Heart, and Gust. Hyperdimension Neptunia blipped on my radar thanks to a few mentions on the WAHP podcast and the few sites actually willing to cover odd Japanese games. A niche title in an increasingly niche genre, Hyperdimension Neptunia seems like an odd choice for localization when looking at the overtly moe illustrations and its developer’s track record. The ambivalence towards the Japanese aesthetic here in the west has, as mentioned, never been so pronounced, and even Japanese otaku refer to developer Idea Factory (アイディアファクトリー) as “Idea Fucktory” (アイディアファック), though not without some affection, if I understand correctly.

The game’s plot, as much as any game can be said to have one, is what made it a candidate for an American and European release. Hyperdimension Neptunia envisions the “console war” as a battle between goddesses in a vaguely defined space-opera milieu filled with anime and game references that exist solely as references to anime and video games. The main characters personify game platforms and developers; Neptunia is based on Sega’s ill-fated, never released console that became the Sega-32X add-on for the Genesis, and Compa stands in for developer/Idea Factory subsidiary Compile Heart, and etc. They battle against Airfore, a play on R4 piracy.

The tone of the professional reviews, however, suggests that NISA should not have bothered, no matter how cute their project’s story. The largest professional review sites (IGN and Gamespot) took aim mostly at the “hypersexualized” characters, most of whom resemble very young women. Taking note of this, Eurogamer’s Simon Parkin ranted about sexism, ending his review calling the game a “sexist, senseless and ultimately stupid cultural curio.” He scored the game a two out of ten, which according to Eurogamer’s scoring guide, denominates Hyperdimension Neptunia as “atrocious.”

Not having played the game, I cannot speak to its mechanics, though they look very similar to those in NISA’s previous PS3 release, Trinity Universe. I can laugh at the charges leveled against it and shake my head. Never mind that by any normal standards, highly praised American games feature sexism every bit as noticeable (and often more graphic) as that seen in the relatively harmless sexual fantasies of Hyperdimension Neptunia. A closer look at this game shows just how wrong the accepted narrative of the JRPG decline is; this game, as bad as it seems to be, was developed specifically for the Japanese gamers who grew up playing video games.

In Japan, games are for kids. In America, games are for kids and grown-ups who want to pretend that theirs is not a childish hobby. The Japanese developers who make games for otaku realize that their audience has no vested interest in proving the social legitimacy of their hobby, and the otaku seeks to fulfill his needs through media, as explained by Hiroki Azuma in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Idea Factory, Nippon Ichi Software, Key, Image Epoch and others realize this and provide what their customers want. The games have grown up with their audience, in that these are games that are made for adult consumers. They have grown inert with their audience as well, but that’s another, much more involved matter.

Neither does the claim that Japanese RPG mechanics have not evolved hold up. They have merely not evolved in a way that pleases western gamers who have only recently discovered the sort of games that used to appear only for the PC. In fact, compared to games like Baldur’s Gate, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex, the current RPG offerings on the consoles are significantly dumbed down. Bioware, Bethesda and their peers have found what works, and are now crafting variations on the same concepts that fulfill their customer’s wants, which are sometimes creepy, sometimes sexist, and very often the product of their consumer’s internalized nerdiness. If the JRPG is said to be stagnant for not dramatically changing in the past twenty years (although in subtle, sometimes unfortunate ways, it has), so must western RPGs, and all other games that fit under a generic label.

Make no mistake: the average Japanese developer makes the average JRPG for teenaged boys (Namco’s Tales series is the most obvious example) because that is their primary audience. But rather than acknowledging this fact and readjusting their expectations, professional reviewers persist in treating games developed for a very particular audience on the other side of the planet as though they were made for them by their neighbors. It’s an attitude born of a false sense of superiority and never offers anything that even approaches constructive, insightful criticism. And it is lazy. Damnably lazy.

The truth: Japanese RPGs are not in decline; they are merely declining in the west. Both Euro-American and Japanese audiences have grown apart in interests. That those of us who still enjoy many of the mechanics in Japanese games, particularly the experimental efforts of teams like Gust, have fewer and fewer games localized for our amusement – and that non-critical video game critics who have bought wholesale into so stale a meme as the one about which I just wrote over a thousand words help to drive mainstream disinterest – is frustrating and sad.


Cyber Ninja (Keita Amemiya, 1988)

Keita Amemiya caught my attention with his character designs for Capcom’s Onimusha games, but I failed to realize that I’d been something of a follower of his for years. An old issue of Dave Halverson’s “Gamer’s Republic” featured a gushing review of his odd monster/alien/chanbara mash-up, Moon over Tao, which easily beats out any of the recent wave of digital-video B-movies coming from Japan for sheer entertainment. It doesn’t leave me feeling dirty, either; I cannot say so for flicks like The Machine Girl (Noburo Iguchi, 2008).

I wanted to see that movie for years, and by the time I finally procured it I knew Amemiya’s reputation as an artist for video games and manga and even other fantasy and science fiction flicks. I also found myself in possession of his first live-action film, Cyber Ninja (Mirai Ninja/未来忍者). What I didn’t know about Cyber Ninja was that it is probably the first example of a feature length video game commercial, a much too-long advertisement for a Namco arcade game that never made its way into American pizza parlors and miniature golf course arcades.

Cyber Ninja did receive a (bad) localization and release on American VHS in the late eighties or early nineties, on the tail end of the “ninja craze” that made Sho Kosugi a comfortable, if undignified living for several years. The bad dubbing and ludicrous visuals make it suitable for homebrewed MST3K sessions, but, in its defense, it deserves some credit for its low-budget insanity.

The opening title card reads “Once upon a time… In the Distant Future…” The screen fades into a shot of the sky, with old fashioned Japanese war banners bearing a red, ersatz crest. A young lady, Princess Saki, we learn later, sits in her camp wearing a white kimono and warrior’s headband, surrounded by her generals, all decked out in hakama and chonmage haircuts. The next title card says something about the Suwabeh clan trying to save Princess Saki from the Dark Warlord and his mechanical ninjas. Another cut to the aforementioned mechanical ninjas standing in a row on a hill, a shot of the Suwabeh samurai, now wearing plasticky head-gear, and a matte-shot of what can only be described as a Japanese castle wall on treads with some Star Wars guns poking out of the front.

This is when we know that we’ve got a winner of a movie.

All hell breaks loose at this point, and hell looks a lot like Japanese Sentai and Tokusatsu television shows. The Suwabeh clansmen have swords into which they load ammunition, which makes the swords light up when stuck into a cyber ninja in a way that must make George Lucas feel just a wee bit litigious. Ugly optical printer effects fly across the screen. Stagey choreography fills each badly composed shot. And then a major character dies. Oh, and Princess Saki gets captured. But the fallen hero’s younger brother, Jiromaru, is on the case, willing to do anything to save Princess Saki and avenge his brother. And a mysterious cyber ninja with no allegiance to the Dark Warlord has offered his help, while the Suwabeh clan plans to shoot a huge gun at the Dark Warlord’s castle.

If Cyber Ninja sounds entirely rote, you must have watched at least one movie from the past century of film making. But a plot description does little justice to some of the funnier low budget effects, particularly the sci-fi toy models with embellishments of feudal era Japanese architecture. The clash between the austere wood and plaster of Edo-era design clashes with the plastic and rubber of the films typical sci-fi setting in a way that the actual cyber ninjas, even with the silly way they run (they hold their arms up and wide apart, Crane stance style), can not hope to match.

Cyber Ninja also boasts a few moments of nice fight choreography and some funny, weird monster costumes, but rarely rises above the level of what one might expect from (as mentioned) afternoon programming on NHK. The few moments it does show promise, but it’s ultimately boring and unfortunately bloodless. You know how video games are a lot less fun when you’re not actually playing them? This movie is a lot like watching somebody else playing a video game. You might look up once or twice to say, “Oh, that was neat.” In the case of Cyber Ninja, you’ll probably laugh while you say it. But, really, you will say it.

Keita Amemiya, for what it’s worth, did make good on the promise of cheap and cheerful exploitation, just not with this movie. Yet I can’t help harboring some affection for something so harmlessly banal, especially now, when there are games that have cut-scenes that run longer than the whole of Cyber Ninja.