Talking Head

In America, Japanese filmmaker and manga writer Mamoru Oshii is best known for directing Ghost In The Shell, the animated adaptation of Masamune Shirow's complicated comics series about a female cyborg who questions her humanity. Anime buffs may also know him from his theatrical spin-offs of the long-running Patlabor and Urusei Yatsura TV series. In each case, Oshii injected other writers' work with an abstract, meditative, emotionally hushed air; his anime adaptations hew close to other works by their original creators, but add slow pacing around long, lingering shots and melancholy airs. Which is why it seems odd that three of Oshii's early live-action films, newly released on DVD both separately and in a box set, feature so much spastic activity. Oshii's 1987 feature The Red Spectacles is the most manic of the lot. Ostensibly the story of a rogue cop evading an oppressive state, Spectacles presents a disturbing dystopic dream that plays out like Brazil as directed by Eraserhead-era David Lynch. Shigeru Chiba stars as a fugitive who eluded authorities when his corrupt elite police force, variously known as the "Watchdogs Of Hell" or the "Kerberos Panzer Cops," was ordered to disband. (Oshii goes into more detail about the Kerberos in the manga and screenplay that became the film Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.) Returning to Japan to look up old allies, Chiba is hounded by government assassins and torturers, as well as symbolic cat images that play hell with his self-identification as a dog. His former Kerberos co-conspirators appear to be working with his enemies, but they change sides almost as often as Spectacles changes direction and tone. The film draws on kung-fu action movies, vaudeville, stage plays, and detective movies for chunks of familiar imagery and style, but puts it all to service in a surrealistic mishmash in which Chiba can spontaneously scream things like "My dead grandpa told me to throw up here!" and no one bats an eye. Oshii assembles striking sepia-toned black-and-white images that recall Fritz Lang in their attention to stark, expressive lighting, but Spectacles' story is alternately hilarious, bizarre, and incoherent, right up to the disappointingly conventional ending. The sequel, 1991's Stray Dog, returns to more familiar Oshii style with the poignant story of former Kerberos cop Yoshikatsu Fujiki, who feels that Chiba's escape amounted to desertion. Though determined to track his old mentor down, Fujiki is uncertain whether he wants to murder Chiba or renew their friendship. Rather than tipping his hand, Oshii simply follows the character on his voyage of self-discovery, which includes much silent exploration of local scenery, including one languid 10-minute wordless sequence backed by swelling piano. The film marks Oshii's meditative impulses at their most extreme: It draws its central metaphor clearly enough in a monologue that likens Fujiki to a feral dog, but apart from some tone-breaking slapstick between Fujiki and Chiba, Stray Dog seems more like an extended Yanni music video than a narrative film. Oshii returned to surrealism for 1992's Talking Head, a dizzying meta-movie starring Chiba yet again, this time as a director hired to salvage a highly anticipated anime film due for première in two months, but still lacking a script or storyboards. Chiba–who alternates detached, grim imperturbability with frenzied comic flailing in all three of these films–interviews the movie's motley staffers, who treat him to a series of slippery, abstract lectures about the function and history of various cinematic elements. Shortly thereafter, they're each grotesquely murdered. Talking Head shares The Red Spectacles' disjointed, absurdist style and Stray Dog's long exploratory silences and evocative music, but it has less plot and less point than either of them, which makes it a hard slog at times. But what it lacks in story, it compensates for with striking, extreme cinematography and outlandish visual gags. Like The Red Spectacles and Stray Dog, Talking Head contains images so starkly and dramatically lit that they're indistinguishable from anime drawings, but all three films are experimental and eccentric enough to make anime look conventional by comparison. It's said that animation is only limited by imagination, but Oshii's off-kilter live-action work takes imagination a step further than most animation studios would likely allow.

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