Elysium (2013)

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Beware – mild spoiler alert.

It’s a truism that, on the whole, film and TV sf lags behind the written genre by twenty to thirty years. With Elysium we’re firmly back in mid-90s Cyberpunk territory. Elite super-rich live in their Tory/Republican paradise on the orbital structure Elysium, while the proles endure short miserable lives in the squalor of earth-bound shanty towns, forbidden from going anywhere near the space habitat. Throw in rebel hackers, enhanced cyborg mercenaries and an array of weaponry designed to blow people to bits in imaginatively gory ways and the end result is a tightly-paced, gritty political thriller that seems centred around the thorny issue of public health care. While the elite cure their cancers by lying on a super medical sun bed for thirty seconds (and getting a couple of cool tats thrown in for good measure), for the poor down here on Earth it’s a race between waiting lists in squalid under-resourced public hospitals and inevitable death or disablement. Having given apartheid the once over in District 9, Neill Blomkamp turns his attention to Obamacare.

Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, an ex car-thief on parole in a factory making the police robots who are programmed to cheerfully duff up any proles who step out of line (one of them breaks his arm at the start of the film for being a bit lippy). A major health and safety incident on the assembly line leaves him with five days to live and so he decides to try and get to Elysium to be cured. He falls in with a bunch of hackers who fly dangerous refugee runs to the space station and they agree to help him if he steals the data carried in one of the elite’s heads (William Fichtner’s wonderfully sneery John Carlyle), which will give them flight access codes for the space structure. Damon ends up with more than just a set of passwords and the rest of the film is a race between him getting himself (along with ex-girlfriend and her daughter suffering from leukaemia) to Elysium and a squad of shadow assassins who want to pull his head off and hand it over to the villain so she can use the information inside to pursue her nefarious schemes.

Space Habitat Elysium, home of the .01%

Space Habitat Elysium, home of the .01%

Jodie Foster does an interesting turn as Elysium’s uber-Fascist Secretary of Defence, cheerfully destroying shuttles full of crippled children making a desperate bid for the space station’s medical facilities. Her performance is convincing, if curiously mannered, and I haven’t a clue what accent she thinks she’s doing. At some points of the film it almost seems that her lips are out of sync with the noises coming out of her mouth. She sounds more like her old self when speaking in French (Jodie Foster is fluent). They speak a lot of French on Elysium,  clearly a sign of utter evil. Her exit from the film is anti-climactic, as though having built up such a magnificent villain Blomkamp didn’t really know what to do with her, other than have her order nutters about and stare at computer screens chewing her lip as her plans for world domination unravel.

Jodie Foster as the cool, French speaking, uber-babe villain

Jodie Foster as the cool, French speaking, uber-babe villain

Elysium owes a lot to the 1995 Cyberpunk film Johnny Mnemonic, scripted by William Gibson from his short story of the same name, and staring Keanu Reeves as a data courier who stores information in his head. In both cases cyber-enhanced heroes have data to change the world embedded in their minds (though poor Keanu had to use a memory doubler to increase his brain capacity to a whopping 160 GB, losing most of his childhood memories as a result and suffering a nose bleed in the process). They are then pursued by a demented corporate mercenary disguised as a monk. That turned into one of the film’s OMG moments as mild-mannered clerk Wikus (Sharlto Copley) from District 9 turns up with bits of an Airfix kit glued to his face and a Rasputin beard as deranged cyber warrior Kruger. He’s completely bonkers and magnificent to watch, uttering a stream of surreal matey banter in a sarcastic South African accent. Johnny Mnemonic just went daft at the end, Elysium finishes with a climactic chase and battle through the corridors of the habitat. There is a slight sense of ‘ho hum here we go’ as super-enhanced warriors lay into each other in a riot of that sepia-tinted blurry camera-work everyone uses these days, but the fights are livened up by Sharlto Copley’s irreverent Jo’burg bar quips.

And a bit of a Mad Max tribute for good measure

And a bit of a Mad Max tribute for good measure

The visual imagery is fantastic, a lot of it reprising the cool newsreel style of District 9 as battered shuttles coast over mile after mile of dusty shanty town. Elysium itself is designed by the famous futurist artist Syd Mead (who worked on, among other things, Blade Runner), very much in the style of 1970s and 80s architectural illustrations – cold and ascetic with a retro yuppie feel.

Back from chasing 'Feckin Prons', Sharlto Copley does Rasputin in Technical Lego

Back from chasing ‘Feckin Prons’, Sharlto Copley does Rasputin in Technical Lego

All in all it’s an entertaining movie. Inevitably comparisons are being made between it and District 9. As is often the case when a quirky new director is given loads of money to go mainstream the results can be disappointing as the barmy tongue-in-cheek anarchy of District 9 makes way for a more po-faced and conventional Matt Damon action thriller. Even so the grungy feel of poverty-ridden and overcrowded Earth is fantastically atmospheric, and most of the actors rise above their typecast roles.

There are some wonderful little touches scattered through the movie – Matt Damon’s robot parole officer with its face covered in graffiti by disgruntled clients, William Fichtner’s factory boss telling his foreman to cover his mouth when he speaks so he doesn’t have to smell his breath, and mad Sharlto Copley singing a nursery rhyme in Afrikaans. Republicans have denounced the film as socialist (like they did with Wall-E). What better recommendation do you need?

Flatland 2: Sphereland

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FlatlandSpherelandFlatland 2: Sphereland is the sequel to the movie Flatland which I mentioned in a blog post last year. It’s a charming 36 minute animated short based on the original novel by Edwin Abbott, and one of the book’s own sequels Sphereland: A Fantasy About Curved Spaces and an Expanding Universe, written in 1965 by the Dutch mathematician Dionys Burger.

The story takes place twenty years after the original, in which the Flatlander Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his daughter Hex (Kristen Bell) discovered the third dimension with the help of Spherius, a denizen of that realm voiced by Michael York. Her grandfather is now dead and Hex is ridiculed by the inhabitants of Flatland who still refuse to believe in the existence of dimensions beyond their own. Outcast from society, she waits for the return of the portal that will lead to the higher realms, and Spherius who has disappeared. At the same time the Flatlanders are preparing to launch a spaceship to take advantage of a rare alignment of planets in their flat universe.The ship will fly in a parallel line to the worlds so the crew can make observations.

The Flatlander's rocket ship

The Flatlander’s rocket ship

However one of the navigators, Puncto, has found an anomaly. Whenever he triangulates the position of distant planets his triangle’s angles add up to more than 180 degrees, and the discrepancy gets bigger the further the planet, the implication being that the parallel course plotted for the ship may end up being anything but. Anyone with a familiarity with maths and geometry can probably figure out the reason why. If not, it’s another reason to watch the movie. The discovery about the true nature of the Flatland’s universe coincides with the return of Spherius and the revelation that there are even more dimensions beyond the third.

Hex and Puncto discuss the triangulation anomaly

Hex and Puncto discuss the triangulation anomaly

Flatland 2: Sphereland is aimed at the educational market, and so it’s very much a kid’s film punctuated by brief, but clear, explanations of fundamental principles of geometry. The felt need to make it appealing to contemporary students occasionally grates, although there’s less of the more irritating modern elements that crept into the first film (Flatland skateboards, the King of Lineland shouting ‘Dude you’re freaking me out’ when Arthur Square enters his world). The simple story has enough pace and tension in it to keep the audience engaged and the visual feel of the film is fantastic. Flatland is especially stunning and I loved the retro diesel punk rocket its inhabitants are sending into space. Indeed Flatland is more impressive than the third dimension, which serves up a fairly standard pageantry of abstract and semi-organic 3D landscapes.

Spherius visits the fourth dimension

Spherius visits the fourth dimension

Part of the story revolves around the discovery of even higher dimensions than the third. Spherius is visited by a denizen of the fourth dimension, an Oversphere (voiced by Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew). At this point the film becomes a little unstrung and confusing. Obviously the biggest problem is representing the Fourth Dimension, which Spherius visits. Apart from telling us that he can see the inside and outside of everything simultaneously, and showing us a lot of fluorescent floaty seaweed, the film avoids tackling any of the mathematics head on. Instead it gives us tantalising views of a Tesseract and a Clifford Torus before taking a left turn into the more science fictional world of the Multiverse, with multiple copies of the spaceship appearing each from an alternate time line. It may be that the filmmakers decided that multidimensional geometry was one step too far for its young audience and decided to go for the Sense of Wonder angle instead. It’s not a bad call, but it would have been nice to have had at least one mathematical principle of four dimensional space explained with the same clarity as the trigonometry lesson earlier in the movie.

All in all Flatland 2: Sphereland is a great little film, beautifully designed, very clever and adept at explaining most of the maths behind its straightforward but entertaining story. Unless you are a teacher looking to buy a school-wide license for $149.95 you’ll probably be content with the personal edition. This can be purchased as a DVD ($24.95) or digital download for instant viewing ($19.95) from the website here.

Weird Tales

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Weird Tales Issue 361. Fairy Tales Issue.

Weird Tales Issue 361. Fairy Tales Issue.

I’ve had a treat this last couple of weeks, working my way through the latest issues of the resurrected magazine Weird Tales. The first issue of the original predated the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, by three years, launching in 1923. It then went on to become the mainstay of that singularly American genre, Weird Fiction, publishing stories by such grand masters as Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft himself. The magazine’s heyday was in the 1930s under the editorship of Farnsworth Wright, responsible for discovering both Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, as well as the artists Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok and Margaret Brundage, whose wonderfully kinky semi S&M vamp covers became a controversial hallmark of the magazine.

Its latest incarnation dates from 2011, and after a slightly shaky rebirth it’s now firmly on track in familiar Weird Fiction territory. The editors have hit on the idea of running themed issues. I have numbers 360 (Lovecraft) and 361 (Fairy Tales). It’s a nice idea because it allows readers to explore different takes on specific subjects by different authors, and it avoids same-issue blandness that can set in when the contents of a magazine are unvaried. The only problem I can see is whether the magazine can think of enough themes to keep the conceit going. Fortunately Weird Fiction now encompasses such a massive range of writing and sub-genres (from Magical Realism through Horror and SF to New Weird) that there is plenty of potential for future publications.

Weird Tales 360. Cthulhu issue.

Weird Tales 360. Cthulhu issue.

Issue 360 (Fall 2012) is a Lovecraft tribute, with a short section in honour of Ray Bradbury who died while the magazine was being prepared. I must confess to feeling a bit Cthulhu’d out at the moment, despite being a huge fan of Lovecraft. There are only so many ways you can re-craft the  narrative of the unwitting stumbling across the final Awful Revelation and few people have matched the power of the original mythos stories. In this issue, however, the magazine offers both a solid, entertaining yarn by one of the few successful Lovecraftian writers Brian Lumley, and a couple of inventive takes on the standard tropes of an M.R. James style first person dead narrator (‘The Runners Beyond the Wall’ by Darrell Schweitzer) and cultish sacrifices to subterranean horrors, (‘Momma Durtt’, by Michael Shea). It’s an entertaining, if comfortably familiar, read. My only real beef is the illustrations – on Facebook Weird Tales has been posting some fantastic pictures. I miss the same range of weird imagery in the magazine itself. The cover shows a man’s face covered in mini-octopii. To someone who lived in Japan for ten years it looks more like a great night out at Sukiyabashi Jiro than a true reflection of the gibbering horrors within. What is really interesting about Weird Tales 360, though, is the inclusion of an early version of Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Exiles’, in the tribute section added to the end of the magazine. In this H. P. Lovecraft is one of the exiled writers destroyed by the book-burning earth men who turn up on Mars.

The theme of Issue 361 is Fairy Tales and it sports a faintly Hannes-Bokish cover showing an ogre attacked by fairies. With a greater range of material and some strong stories by writers like Peter S. Beagle, Tanith Lee and Jane Yolen, it’s an interesting collection deftly navigating its way through post Angela Carter territory without falling into the trap of either being too twee, or serving up more ‘it’s all about teenage sex really’ cliches. There are some great retellings or re-imaginings of faerie folklore, including a quasi-Dunsany story, ‘The Flowers of Tír na nóg’ by J. R. Restrick, as well as tales from further afield. It would have been nice to have had more non-European tales to accompany the Thai-based story ‘Suri and Sirin’ by Court Merrigan, for example. From my own personal experience I know there’s enough material in Asia to fill several more folk-tale themed issues. I wasn’t so sure about the article about the artist Tessa Farmer who specialises in macabre sculpted tableaux of fairies fighting bugs, stuffed animals or each other, or picking apart rotting corpses of woodland creatures. While I appreciate the idea, the results often look more mangy than epic, especially the elf version of Saving Private Ryan that seems to be being re-enacted around a stuffed fox that’s seen better days. The close up photo of ‘Fairy Forcing Ruby Tailed Wasp to Oviposit on Fox’s Nose, 2007′ I could do without. Nevertheless this issue contained a very enjoyable collection of varied tales.

Classic Margaret Brundage cover from 1936, for Robert E. Howard's famous Conan tale - Red Nails.

Classic Margaret Brundage cover from 1936, for Robert E. Howard’s famous Conan tale – Red Nails.

So all in all the new Weird Tales is a great magazine with some solidly entertaining writing and I can highly recommend it to anyone into the weird. I really hope it continues to range across the whole field of Weird Fiction, in all its myriad forms, and avoids the trap of focussing on a specific type of post-Lovecraftian horror. The indications are that this will be the case, which is great news. The layout nicely recreates the two column look of the original pulps, though this makes it a bit of a bugger to read on an iPad. My only real beef is the lack of some really cool imagery to complement the contents and sometimes the artwork lets down the stories, but these are minor quibbles.

Details on how to subscribe or order single issues can be found on the website weirdtalesmagazine.com

Dead Can Dance

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Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard from the early days of Dead Can Dance

Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard from the early days of Dead Can Dance

I was introduced to Dead Can Dance by some very cool French friends in Tokyo, and was immediately sold. Their combination of what can only be described as Medieval wailing, Renaissance dance music and Frank Sinatra does Kurt Weill sent shivers down my spine and I immediately bought all their albums, and the DVD of their concert Toward the Within. At that time they were with the label 4AD, who specialised in Dark Wave, a genre that combines poetic lyrics with floaty ethereal music. Essentially New Age music for absinthe drinkers and despairing poets.

Dead Can Dance is an Australian band consisting of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, along with a number of backing musicians who have changed over the years. Lisa Gerrard is known to most for her film soundtrack work. Her big break came with the movie Gladiator (2000) in which she sang over the closing credits. Since then her phenomenal contralto voice has appeared on the soundtrack to many films and she released a series of successful solo albums. Brendan Perry is less famous. His musical style centres around guitar-backed folk ballads. When Dead Can Dance split up in 1998 (before reforming in 2005) he released an album called Eye of the Hunter, and then faded into the background before getting back together with Lisa Gerrard. His second album, Ark, finally came out in 2010.

Their latest album, Anastasis (2012)

Their latest album, Anastasis (2012)

The two singers have wildly different styles, and approaches to music, and nowhere does this come across more starkly than in the interviews on the live DVD. Lisa Gerrard is clearly as mad as a sack of badgers, has an incredible classical contralto voice, and sings most of her music in a made-up language with her eyes rolled up in her head and her bottom lip aquiver. Apparently the language is known as idioglossia – the invented talk kids use to communicate with their invisible friends and to annoy their parents and everyone else. So don’t bother trying to figure out the words to ‘Now We Are Free’ or the majority of her other songs, it’ll send you mad. Her analysis of her own art also places her firmly on the other side of the barrier that separates Elfland from the Fields We Know, – “People are desperately trying to find a way of releasing themselves from this fleshy prison, you know, and they turn to you and see you escaping momentarily and ask ‘How did you get out?’ and, you know, it’s very easy.” A Yorkshireman’s immediate response to this is ‘Speak for yourself, love,’ but my God her songs are among the most beautiful I have ever heard. If you want to know what the angels in Dante’s Paradiso sound like, listen to ‘Sanvean’, which she sang on the Toward the Within tour and later released on her first solo album, The Mirror Pool.

Here’s another example of the power of Dead Can Dance‘s music and Gerrard’s voice in particular. This is the opening sequence of the 1992 film Baraka set to their song ‘Yulunga’.

Brendan Perry is definitely the more nuts and bolts of the duo – his interviews tend to be along the lines of ‘this drum makes this sound if you hit it here, and different one if you hit it here.” The most bizarre aspect of his music is that he sounds like Frank Sinatra, not surprising considering he counts him as one of his greatest influences. Having said that, he then matches that voice to songs that are distinctly different from, say, ‘Send in the Clowns’ or ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. A lot of them have strong Brechtian undertones, or conjure up elegiac images of forlorn love set among the tattered playbills of departing circuses, or odd Catalan style folk songs. One of my favourites is ‘Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book’ from the album Aion. To hear what sounds like Sinatra sing

What various paths are followed
In distributing honours and possessions
She gives awards to some
And penitent’s cloaks to others

When you expect whistles it’s flutes
When you expect flutes it’s whistles

is disorienting to say the least.

When you put Brendan Perry’s surreal take on post-Swing crooning next to Lisa Gerrard’s spaced-out wailing the effect can only be described as stunning. My favourite song of theirs is ‘Rakim’, an astonishing piece that opens the live part of the Toward the Within DVD. It moves from Lisa Gerrard in full Pre-Raphaelite garb playing a Chinese zither to Brendan Perry giving us his Sinatra in what sounds like faux-Persian, then back to Gerrard for a bit of contralto idioglossia at full belt, ending with Perry singing a poem in English.

Dead Can Dance reformed in 2005 and recently toured again. Sadly I couldn’t make it, but I snapped up their new album Anastasis. While not as stunning as their earlier work, the opening song ‘Children of the Sun’ is as good as much that has come before. For people unfamiliar with their music (except perhaps Lisa Gerrard’s film work) then I’d definitely recommend Aion or The Serpent’s Egg. The live album of Toward the Within is also wonderful.

Here’s the official video of ‘Children of the Sun’, which pretty much sums up the whole Dead Can Dance aesthetic.

Celts and Puritans

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village

I’ve been time travelling recently. It’s an interesting fact that there is a huge exodus from history classrooms in the UK, with fewer kids taking the subject, yet at the same time Living History events have never been more popular. Every weekend somewhere people dress up in costumes and re-enact famous events or ordinary lives from days gone by.  I can see the appeal. I lived in abject fear of my history teacher, an angry bully with no self-control, and it put me off the subject for years. I found my way back via board games from the US and now I can’t get enough of the past. My wife is a teacher and so we recently scouted two Living History museums she’s thinking of taking her kids to.

Butser Ancient Farm: 43AD

celticshield

This is near the Roman town of Chichester and consists of about half a dozen replica Iron Age round houses and a small Roman Villa, all set in a steep wooded valley. It is wonderfully atmospheric and at certain times of the year the clouds roll down among the trees on the slopes and add to the overall sense of ancient mystery. It’s also a working archaeological laboratory and when we arrived a couple of researchers were making a dugout canoe with tools forged on site using Celtic metalworking techniques. Everyone was friendly and had a fascinating tale to tell. I even got to handle a Roman Legionnaire’s Pilum, though I wasn’t allowed to chuck it at anything. They’d lit fires in all of the round houses so you could sit in among the furs and armour and get a real sense of what it must have been like just before the Romans turned up.

celticinterior

We even got to chat to a lady who spent her days weaving Celtic style cloth, and a metalworker who spent his nights sneaking over to nearby Stonehenge to finger the menhirs and increasing his healing powers (this, by the way, was his 20th century self speaking, not Fáelán the Ancient Shaman), though Stonehenge is so overwhelmingly powerful he always comes away a bit singed. It was striking to see how the Roman Villa was so ill-suited to the British climate, being essentially a Mediterranean dwelling plonked in an English field. Apparently in winter it’s like a fridge, unlike the toasty interiors of the wattle and daub round houses.

Little Woodham: 1642

So that was Celtic times. Next it was on to the English Civil War, a staple of the Living History scene, and Little Woodham, a 17th Century Village experience just outside Portsmouth.

Some of the 'villagers' outside the blacksmiths forge at  Little

The day started off well. We watched someone give a demonstration of how to mint a coin, and then we chatted to a carpenter who popped out of character to explain what he was doing and how it differed from modern day woodworking. All fascinating stuff. Then we went into the village itself where I was immediately accosted by someone who looked like the demonic one out of A Field in England. I realised he was the equivalent of the local 17th Century policeman so I thought I’d find out a bit more.

Me: So are you the Shire Reeve?

Man: Your women be unseemly with their uncovered heads and they do not stay silent before their men.

Me: Right, so you’re like the constable of the parish?

Man: And it be most lamentable when women do act thus and cause disrespect to their betters.

Me: Yeah, I’ll have a word with them. OK, so you’re in charge of taxes and tithes and public order?

Man: You must correct them sir, in manner befitting a modest gentlemen.

This went on for about ten minutes and was a bit disorienting to say the least. He was damned if he was going to break character and actually tell me stuff, so faced with this stubborn refusal to answer my questions I had two choices. I could either up the ante by out-role playing him (‘I am a Ranter and will tear my clothes off and go Naked for a Sign if you don’t answer my sodding questions’) or play the Time Traveller (‘I come from a wondrous age when men do walk in the air and living paintings tell of the parlous state of the realm every night round about 6pm in our homes.’).

A cottage garden in Little Woodham Living History VillageIn the end I gave up and visited the Inn. It was like walking into the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London. Half a dozen sullen stares at the furriner and his outlandish garb. Undaunted I tried again:

Me: Oh boy they look like really nice mid-17th century pies. Can I try a bit?

Wench: If you’ve got the King’s coin about you, otherwise bugger off.

The only other inhabitant who was prepared to engage me in lengthy conversation was Mad Meg out the back by the village dung heap who chatted quite amicably about whether the King had fled to France or been captured at Bristol, before she went off on one and started prophesying the End of Days.

The whole experience was a bit odd. In all the places I’ve been to in the world the locals are generally smiley and open to anyone who shows an interest in them and their lives. I’ve even got a laugh or two out of a Chinese border guard, but not here. In their enthusiasm for playing the part many of the inhabitants seemed to have also picked up the suspicious hostility that kicked off the whole Civil War in the first place. Any second I was expecting to take a wrong-turning and find myself in front of a stake while the villagers gathered behind me holding brands and muttering. Even so, it was fascinating, in a creepy get me out of here kind of way.

Afterwards I had a look at one of the society’s newsletters. In a note to members it said that while it was important to give an authentic impression some of them were taking things to far and could they please refrain from chasing visitors with sticks and shouting abuse.

I don’t know if it was me, but all things considered, Celtic times seemed a bit more inviting. They might have stuck their enemy’s heads on poles, sacrificed virgins to Epona and spent their short lives caked in shit and being skewered by a Roman pilum, but they were decidedly chirpier than the inhabitants of Little Woodham, who needed a couple of Laughing Cavaliers to make the place a bit more welcoming.

Phoenix (Hi no Tori) – Osamu Tezuka

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The phoenix

The phoenix

Following on from Jim Barker’s post about the need to take comics seriously I thought I’d write about an artist who is recognised as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time, Osamu Tezuka and his finest creation, the twelve volume Phoenix series (Hi no Tori), first published in Japan between 1967 and 1988.

In the West Japanese cartoons are tainted by association with violent porn aimed at adolescents, or Pokemon. Think anime and images of big robots slugging it away, irritating creatures incessantly droning ‘Jiggly Puff’ or monsters doing unpleasant things to schoolgirls pop into the mind. Once a year a Miyazaki Hayao Studio Ghibli film is released, a door opens and we get a brief glimpse of intelligence, beauty and a stunning grasp of narrative, then it slams shut and Transformers and green fifteen-foot willies take over once again.

Problems of perception from Volume 5 of Phoenix

Problems of perception from Volume 5 of Phoenix

The second problem, which has prevented Osamu Tezuka getting the international audience he deserves, is the one that Jim Barker so eloquently described in his post. In the UK especially,  comics are for kids. Even if the artwork is stunning, the story lines adult and you call it a Graphic Novel, it’s still a comic for kids. If your drawings look like they were aimed at seven year olds (which is the case with a lot of Tezuka’s artwork) then you are completely buggered, even if you write a twelve-volume masterpiece on redemption and forgiveness that spans humanity from the dawn of time to the distant future.

Which brings me on to Phoenix. This is perhaps Osamu Tezuka’s finest work, a long sprawling saga covering millions of years of history, all revolving around the mythical firebird. The blood of this legendary creature bestows eternal youth on whoever drinks it and so some of the many tales in the epic concern those deluded enough to try and kill the bird and guarantee their own immortality. Other stories focus on doomed love, the search for glory and power, and the bigotry and cruelty this engenders. In these stories, some of which are traditional tales set in medieval Japan, others science fiction stories set in far-flung corners of galactic empires, the phoenix appears as moral commentator and guide. Throughout the cycle the same characters pop up again and again, the searcher for forbidden knowledge, the warrior thug obsessed with wealth and power (his inner turmoil signified by an enormous noise covered in boils), the tragic lovers etc. All of them end up suffering heartache and tragedy, partly through circumstance and partly as a result of their own ungoverned desires. It’s an incredibly complex and imaginative saga that needs to be read many times before all the parts of the puzzle click into place.

Another tormented soul trapped on the endless wheel of Karma

Another tormented soul trapped on the endless wheel of Karma

To understand Phoenix you need to know a little bit about the principles of Mahayana Buddhism which inform Tezuka’s work. In a nutshell, life is characterised by suffering caused by excessive personal attachment to things that are transient. We constantly torment ourselves by striving for illusory goals, either chasing the rainbow or clinging desperately on to stuff that eventually slips from our grasp, because of the mutable nature of the universe. Greed, jealousy, hatred and cruelty are the products of this attachment and the aim of Buddhism is to free every living thing from this cycle of illusion and disappointment. One interesting consequence of this moral framework is that there is no absolute evil, merely bad deeds done by ignorant and tormented souls. Everyone has a chance of redemption given enough time and guidance, even Hitler. Reincarnation is a fundamental component of this process, if you do bad things you tend to be reincarnated further down the scale (with hungry ghosts and the denizens of hell at the bottom – though even hell is still only a way-station and not a permanent abode). Humans are unique in that they have the conscious mind capable of grasping the system, but they are at greatest risk from their own inevitable greed and stupidity. In this context the phoenix itself is essentially a Bodhisattva, a being that has attained enlightenment but who chooses to remain in this universe to help others do the same.

The bandit Gao and the mysterious woman Hayame from the anime version of Volume 4

The bandit Gao and the mysterious woman Hayame from the anime version of Volume 4

The story of Gao in volume four is a perfect example of Tezuka’s belief in Buddhist redemption. Set in the eighth century during the construction of the Todai-ji temple and its massive statue of Buddha, it tells of two characters, the vagabond thief Gao and the sculptor Akanemaru. Gao starts the tale as a complete villain – a murderer and rapist who thinks nothing of killing a child in front of its mother. One day, hunted through the fields, he impulsively allows a ladybird that has crawled on to his arm to live. Later he meets a beautiful white-haired woman in the forest who treats him with kindness no matter how cruel he is to her and others. He begins to fall in love with this enigmatic creature but is betrayed into murdering her. Overcome with remorse he wanders the world as a beggar before he discovers he has a penchant for carving exquisitely hideous faces channeled from his own inner torment. He ends up being commissioned to carve the demons that are put on roofs of Buddhist temples to frighten away evil spirits. At this point he bumps into Akanemaru who is obsessed with his own quest for perfection, a self-destructive pursuit of the impossible that causes him to visit cruelty on others, including the reformed Gao. It’s a stunning, complex tale that contains within it most of the themes of the entire series. Tezuka has an uncanny knack of interweaving a tale of intense drama and tragedy with moral lessons that are never preachy, and some genuine instances of laugh-out loud humour. It’s also fascinating for anyone interested in early Japanese history (the era is that of Charlemagne and the first Viking invasions of Britain). For people interested in the series it’s a good place to start.

Osamu Tezuka, 1928 - 1989

Osamu Tezuka, 1928 – 1989

The other books in the series move from the stone age through to the distant future. Tezuka loved science fiction, and was a fan of, among others, Isaac Asimov. Several tales pose the question what it is to be human, and whether our moral duty to fellow creatures extends to artificial intelligence. One particular story in volume five is a direct tribute to the first short story in Asimov’s collection I, Robot (1950), ‘Robbie‘ in which a little girl has a robot teacher/playmate.  Be warned, though, Tezuka’s version comes to a far grimmer conclusion. Indeed, throughout the series there is a constant tragic thread that, at times, is quite hard on the reader and his or her favourite characters (think George R. R. Martin). This fits in with the peculiarly Japanese concept of the tragic, hopeless hero who no matter what they say or do, end up perishing in some god-forsaken wasteland having achieved very little. To be fair though, the overall message is one of eventual redemption as all the tormented souls weaved into Tezuka’s massive tapestry end up being led by the phoenix to enlightenment.

Viz Media (not related to the UK comic Viz, thank god) have released English translations of all twelve books and they are available from Amazon.

A Field in England (2013)

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A Field in England, (2013), directed by Ben Wheatley

A Field in England, (2013), directed by Ben Wheatley

The English Civil War period has always been a rich source for horror. James I whipped everyone up with his book Daemonologie in 1597 and his subsequent promotion of, and attendance at, witch trials. Keith Thomas’s classic study Religion and the Decline of Magic argued that in the 16th and 17th centuries the shift to Protestantism left ordinary people bereft of the panoply of saints and rituals who protected them on a daily basis, and so magic, astrology and the craft of cunning men and women arose to fill the gap. By the time English Civil War came along the break down in society, the established church and the sudden explosion of religious and mystic sects made for rich pickings among those who, both at the time and later, wanted to portray the era as one riddled with devilry and chaos.

A006_C021_09240R

In the cinema, Michael Reeves’s 1968 movie Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price, kicked the genre off, leading to such understated classics as Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) where 17th century peasants dig up a satanic monster in a field. The great Puritan horror fantasy character was, of course, Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane (though for some bizarre reason he seemed to spend most of his time in Africa being a bit racist). He finally rolled up in Michael Bassett’s 2009 film of the same name. Despite the inevitable CGI monster battle at the end, James Purefoy did a great job as the tormented Kane trying to escape from his evil past as a pirate, supported by Peter Postlethwaite as a slightly anachronistic Quaker, and Max von Sydow doing his stone-faced dad impersonation.

O'Neill. Possibly the devil, possibly a sorcerer, possibly someone's hallucination.

O’Neill. Possibly the devil, possibly a sorcerer, possibly someone’s hallucination.

Which leads us on to Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, simultaneously released on TV, in the Cinema and on iTunes this week. On the surface it has all the trappings of a low-budget period horror film. Three men escape from a battle – a fussy clerk (played by Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen fame), a deserter (Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh) and a dimwit (Richard Glover). They fall in with another soldier who leads them to a field, fills them up with magic mushrooms and gets them to pull on a big rope until a mysterious figure called O’Neill appears at the other end, presumably yanked out of some eldritch dimension. Like the sinister Gil-Martin in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner you never know whether he’s a mighty sorcerer, the devil, or the figment of someone’s imagination. He forces the other men to dig for some unspecified treasure, which he locates by subjecting Reece Shearsmith to ritual abuse in his tent. The film gets increasingly bizarre, culminating in what can only be described as a 17th century acid trip. People die and pop back to life, some kind of magic battle occurs involving mighty winds conjured out of nowhere and a giant black ‘malignant planet’ appears in the sky.

A Field in England trailer - video

The film has great potential, and the beautiful black and white photography transforms an ordinary sunny field in a sinister world of impending terror. Close-ups abound, both of lined, anguished faces coated in filth, and chaotic blades of grass threaded with bugs. It’s quite a remarkable feat to make a dandelion clock look totally evil yet A Field in England manages to do just that. The way the camera transforms the mundane into the deeply disturbing – via tracking shots through long grass, out of focus figures against over-exposed landscapes and disorienting lapses into slow motion and split screen – is very reminiscent of David Lynch’s odder moments. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially from the two comedians who act out their role as trapped souls with great conviction. Michael Smiley as O’Neill (possibly the devil) is completely sinister. The entire movie is set up to be a wonderfully scary low-budget horror movie with M. R. James overtones in which an evil from beyond time and space erupts into a summer pasture in old England.

Looking for treasure, Seventh Seal style.

Looking for treasure, Seventh Seal style.

But it never happens, and sadly, that’s where the film falls down under the weight of its own avant-garde cleverness. Having lined up a great cast, setting and imagery, Ben Wheatley wastes it on a deliberately enigmatic and confusing series of episodes, whereby mystery and illusion are piled on each other without any real sense of purpose. Ok everyone’s been eating magic mushrooms, which either allow them to tap into eldritch powers or simply cause them (and the audience) to have a series of hallucinations, but in the end that’s all there seems to be – a bunch of generally incoherent weird stuff mixed in with some olde-worlde brutality. As the end credits roll you don’t really have much idea of what it is you’ve actually sat through – is it some kind of take on The Pardoner’s Tale – greedy and stupid men finding Death in a field? Is it a tale about arcane magic, or an acid trip, or a hallucinatory essay on friendship based around five ‘everymen’? There’s a nagging sense that there’s another, far more interesting film, just hovering around the corner, which we never see, but which could be a really intelligent and ground breaking horror movie.

Having said that it’s a fascinating watch, with some great imagery and wonderful performances. Unlike a lot of people who’ve come to the end with a slightly bored feeling of WTF? I do plan on sitting through it again, though I think it will merely serve to fuel my frustration at the lost opportunity to do a really powerful M. R. James-style English historical horror movie.

Here’s a link to the trailer to wet your appetite:

The Art of Ian Miller

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Lovecraft's Great Old Ones can often look a bit silly. Not this one - this would give any Shoggoth a run for its money.

Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones can often look a bit silly. Not this one – this would give any Shoggoth a run for its money.

The early 1970s saw a renaissance in Science Fiction and Fantasy cover art in the UK, led by New English Library and Panther. If you compare the drab covers of the 60s with what came after the difference is striking. Gone are the clumsy Pop Art/Op Art photo collages and instead the shelves of W. H. Smiths were filled with the gorgeous colours of Bruce Pennington, the meticulous figure work of Jim Burns, Foss’s vast spaceships and the insane acid dreams of Bob Haberfield‘s covers to Mayflower’s Moorcock books. As the decade progressed, and each artist spawned their own imitators (particularly Foss) then a certain feeling of sameness started to creep in, which only made the illustrator with a unique style stand out even more.

One such artist was Ian Miller, whose incredibly detailed and frenetic drawings started to appear on the covers of fantasy and science fiction novels from 1973 onwards. By the time Science Fiction Monthly interviewed him in 1975 he’d produced a small but startling selection of illustrations for Panther (Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and The Haunter of the Dark) and Pan (including Ray Bradbury’s S is for Space). His art was about as far away from the brightly coloured planets and spaceships of his contemporaries as you could get. Instead he produced incredibly detailed almost monochrome images that were reminiscent of the work of renaissance artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) and Hieronymous Bosch (1450 – 1516).

Winter

Winter

The first impression on looking at Ian Miller’s work is that these are the nightmares of someone who has gone completely mad. In his pictures disturbing machine/insect/plant hybrids loom over human figures, set against monochrome or flat colour landscapes devoid of any real perspective. The humans often wear landsknecht armour, and have the same childishly vacant expressions you see on early Renaissance saints or Russian icons. The demons and monsters are truly hideous creatures straight out of Bosch. Often Miller drops in a musical box or a rocking horse or two into his apocalyptic scenes, where they take on a sinister, grotesque power. As is often the case with Grotesque and Symbolist art, you get the impression they are supposed to represent something else, but god knows what, and that makes them all the more frightening. Interestingly in his interview in SFM Miller suggested an interest in Jungian theories of archetypal symbols popping up throughout human consciousness over the ages, but where a rocking horse fits into that I’ve no idea. You get the sense that he and the interviewer are over-egging the pudding a bit, and that Miller just puts stuff like this into his pictures because it looks very scary and weird.

Miller's wonderfully dark take on Lord of the Rings for the Tolkein Bestiary

Miller’s wonderfully dark take on The Lord of the Rings for the Tolkein Bestiary

Despite trying to move into SF covers, Miller’s work was clearly a far better fit for Science Fantasy and Horror. He really came into his own working on Games Workshop’s Warhammer series, and did some truly wonderful illustrations for the Warhammer role-playing game book and supplements published in the 1980s. In many ways his art outshone the game itself, capturing the atmosphere of a darkly insane parallel Renaissance world to a far greater extent than the often childish content.

From the graphic novel The City. King's Cross underground marginally different from what it is today.

From the graphic novel The City. King’s Cross underground marginally different from what it is today.

He also produced a graphic novel with James Herbert, The City, (1993), which portrayed a journey into a post-apocalyptic London dominated by mutant rats. The story is a bit predictable, but the artwork is both utterly absorbing and creepy – not the kind of comic you want to read late at night on your own.

The Hall of Bright Carvings from Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan

The Hall of Bright Carvings from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan

Ian Miller is still going strong as an artist, and he’s now producing some wonderfully minimalist, and just as disturbing, images for his blog. You can also browse his portfolio of earlier works, and buy prints, including some of his fantastic illustrations to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.

In the Night. From Ian Miller's blog.

In the Night. From Ian Miller’s blog.

King Arthur Pendragon RPG

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Original rules.

Original rules.

Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974 and a couple of years later I gave in and bought a set for the then extortionate sum of £6.99. It came in a little white box with illustrations done in biro. I hadn’t bothered to check whether it could be played solitaire (which it clearly couldn’t) but I eventually tracked down another interested gamer and we spent a good few Sundays sending each other through rudimentary dungeon crawls. Even though we had nothing but pen and paper and our imaginations (there were certainly no polyhedral dice in North Yorkshire) it was huge fun.

Later I graduated to Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. It was a lot more sophisticated and interesting, especially for a H. P. Lovecraft fan. Instead of dungeons improbably filled with generic fantasy monsters, your characters investigated mysteries in the 1920s, inevitably stumbling across some awful sanity-wrecking horror at the end of the game that either ate them or sent them mad – usually both. I even managed to persuade a couple of friends at Scotland Yard to give it a go in the evenings after work, sitting in a darkened room near the police crime-solving computer HOLMES – (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System – I kid you not).

The late 1970s and 80s were boom years for board and paper-based role playing games, so much so that Virgin, the major music retailer in the UK at the time, opened its own chain of game shops, including a two-story outlet on Oxford Street in London. Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, authors of the massively popular Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, ran the company Games Workshop which, at that time, imported or reprinted major game titles from the US, including Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and Traveller.

Pendragon interior artwork

Pendragon interior artwork

The decline in paper-based RPGs in the 1990s was perhaps inevitable as computer games became more sophisticated, and more able to recreate the richness of the live experience. Nowadays it’s hard to argue against the immersive power of titles like Skyrim or L.A. Noire. Yet I think that the picture is more complex than that. There were another couple of factors that contributed to the decline in the industry, certainly in the UK. To begin with Games Workshop switched to being an exclusive outlet for its own games and miniatures, targeting a younger audience rather than older gamers coming from an SF or fantasy fan background. Their magazine, White Dwarf, had existed as a portal to the US gaming world, running reviews and articles on all the titles available. Now it was nothing more than an expensive monthly catalogue for Spiky Chaos Toys, and the trickle of information and imports from across the sea dried up. Virgin Games shut up shop (it’s now the gambling arm of the Virgin Group) and only a handful of indie retailers remained, little run-down stores at the end of dingy streets slowly going out of business.

The other problem was one that I think has bedevilled the role playing games industry. The companies all got too big, swamping the market with supplements, expansion packs, card games to cash in on the popularity of Magic: The Gathering etc. etc. In producing thousands of pre-written adventures in rigidly defined worlds they took away the essential component that made the early versions of their games so attractive – the player’s imagination. Eventually their own markets became saturated and they collapsed in upon themselves. Many companies, like Chaosium, are a shadow of what they once were.

The last paper-based RPG I ever played was King Arthur Pendragon, a game that’s generally held to be one of (if not the) best role playing games ever. In its original version it had a level of sophistication and literariness that others rarely matched. The game had the players assume the characters of knights in the world of King Arthur, and set out on quests and adventures in the mythical realms described by Thomas Malory, the Mabinogion and Chrétien de Troyes. The beauty of the game lay in its attempt to recreate the whole literary ethos of the Arthurian Romance.

Sir Mordred having a bit of a seethe

Sir Mordred having a bit of a seethe

There had been previous attempts at medieval RPGS, most notably Chivalry and Sorcery. This mammoth tome consisted of little more than thousands of random tables. Creating a character could take days and the luck of the dice might end up with you running a pig farmer with a touch of leprosy as your game persona – reducing your chance of adventure somewhat.  In D&D you could create knights, but they were just fighters in plate armour going off to belt the same monsters underground or in the wilderness. King Arthur Pendragon had you create characters with the motivations, feelings and attitudes of the heroes and damsels in the original tales. One way it did this was through personality traits, which were made up of medieval vices and virtues (Chaste vs. Lustful, Just vs Arbitrary, Merciful vs Cruel etc.). These were opposed so that if one went up, its opposite went down.

To give a very simple example; your knight, riding through the an ensorcelled forest, meets a beautiful enchantress who tries to seduce him. He checks against his Chaste vs Lustful scores, and if Lust wins off he goes to her bower for a perilous dalliance. Too much of this and his Lustful score will go up, and his Chaste go down. Similarly characters developed Passions, usually those of unrequited love for someone else’s wife. The adventures in the game were built around the interplay of these traits and passions, making them strongly character-driven and recreating the atmosphere of the original romances with great effect. A knight’s passion may tip him over the edge, and your character might end up doing a Lancelot, tearing all his clothes off and running into the forest to live as a wild man, ‘that ever ran wild wood from place to place, and lived by fruit and such as he might get’ etc.

The Beguiling of Merlin - Edward Burne-Jones (1877)

The Beguiling of Merlin – Edward Burne-Jones (1877)

It was a beautiful system, and great fun to play. The overall atmosphere the game’s designer (Greg Stafford) was clearly aiming for was that of John Boorman’s Excalibur. You did need to have a reasonable knowledge of the literature behind it, as well as medieval history, to get the most out of the game. Medieval romance, as in real life, was largely obsessed with land and inheritance, and unless you knew what was happening the game’s emphasis on fiefs, family and the feudal system could feel constrained (and confusing – Open Agnatic, Gavelkind or Semi-Salic inheritance anyone?). On the other hand it was a very atmospheric RPG. In the original, Enchantment, rather than Magic, was the order of the day, the result of subtle interplays between the Realm of Faerie and the World of Man. The down-side of the game was that it was inevitably sexist, unless you played against the genre. Women in the original tales flopped about in bowers and enchanted towers doing not a lot, so female players had to play men if they actually wanted to do anything – there were no Brienne of Tarth amazons in medieval tales, though many in real life. Players used to the freedom enjoyed by characters in other games sometimes baulked at the fact that a roll of the dice could determine who jumped in bed with who, or took umbrage at another’s comment about the beauty of his destrier.

Inevitably King Arthur Pendragon went the way of the other games. To keep making money you have to keep providing content – so supplements and additions followed, and major rule changes that pushed the system closer to a generic D&D style framework. The most controversial was the temporary introduction of magic characters in the 4th edition – which undermined the idea that subtle Enchantment and Glamour formed the background to the supernatural, rather than players racking up arsenals of powerful spells.

John Boorman's Excalibur (1981). Arthur and Guinevere looking all innocent, the harlot.

John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). Arthur and Guinevere looking all innocent, the harlot.

For me and many others the game represented the pinnacle of RPG systems. It was hugely influential – Paradox’s award-winning medieval strategy game Crusader Kings II uses a similar traits and passions system for its characters to great effect. Unfortunately it was never as popular as Call of Cthulhu or D&D. Chaosium dropped it when they almost went bust in 1998 and it was briefly picked up by Green Knight Publishing and then White Wolf. The current status is unclear, but Greg Stafford’s own tribute site states that many of the books can be bought from DrivethruRPG. I no longer have the time or inclination to bury myself in RPGs, but if you play them then King Arthur Pendragon was the best.

The Japanese Wuthering Heights – Arashi ga Oka (1988)

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Catherine Earnshaw, aka Kinu

Catherine Earnshaw, aka Kinu

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a really odd book. On the surface it’s the first bodice-ripper – a passionate tale of doomed love set among the Yorkshire Moors. Yet our ideas about the story, and the tragic duo of Cathy and Heathcliff, often come from the myths that that have built up around the novel, rather than the tale itself. Scenes of Cathy and Heathcliff running towards each other across the heather calling each other’s names never appear in the original. Kate Bush’s song was based on a scene from an old BBC version, not the book itself, and so Wuthering Heights has become this immense mountain of romantic images and ideas, only some of which relate to the original buried somewhere down at the bottom of the heap. People coming to the book for the first time are often surprised by how much is left out of the adaptations (and the song). Most of the book isn’t about Cathy and Heathcliff at all, but about their children and contemporary obsessions about inheritance and class. You can also read it as a tale of everyday Yorkshire folk and, believe me, not a lot has changed:

‘I don’t want your help,’ she snapped; ‘I can get them for myself.’
‘I beg your pardon!’ I hastened to reply.
‘Were you asked to tea?’ she demanded, tying an apron over her neat black frock, and standing with a spoonful of the leaf poised over the pot.
‘I shall be glad to have a cup,’ I answered.
‘Were you asked?’ she repeated.

It’s my Great Aunt Jessie to a T.

So you have a peculiar mix of blunt northerners bollocking each other, a tangled skein of property rights – and thrown into the mix a Gothic collection of ghosts, brutal violence and unrequited passion. It’s no wonder that directors struggle to get anything worthwhile out of the book and why most film or TV adaptations fail.

Arashi ga Oka film poster

Arashi ga Oka film poster

The biggest challenge is Heathcliff. Casting Cathy is not too hard, although it’s difficult to make a heroine out of someone so self-centred and wilfully malicious. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is part uncouth lout – “‘You’d better let the dog alone,’ growled Mr. Heathcliff in unison, checking fiercer demonstrations with a punch of his foot”, part Gothic demon with undertones of Frankenstein’s monster, part shadow-half of the heroine. It’s a bugger of a role, and neither Lawrence Olivier, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Feinnes, nor any one of the hundred actors who’ve played him over the years, have succeeded. We either get hefty brutish Hell’s Angel Heathcliffe, or posh sensitive RADA man being a bit petulant and sweary. Either way it’s a colossal disappointment. Given that Heathcliff is described as a Lascar child from foreign parts, Andrea Arnold finally bit the bullet in 2011 and had him portrayed by the black actor James Howson. Even so, he still looks like a sulky teenager who’s just wandered off the set of Grange Hill.

Which brings me to the 1988 Japanese film of Wuthering Heights (Arashi ga Oka – lit. ‘Stormy Hills’, so a pretty good translation). The idea of Japanese actors portraying early nineteenth century Yorkshire farmers may seem surreal to say the least (although the anime Steamboy has characters from Victorian Manchester speaking in Japanese). In fact Yoshishige Yoshida, the director, did the sensible thing and transposed the entire story to medieval Japan. Most of the story takes place on the lava slopes of a volcano. As well as providing ample opportunities for sweeping shots of bleak, mist-swept landscapes it also has cultural associations with Buddhist hell, where souls tormented by their attachment to earthly desires mope around picking on each other.

Wuthering Heights, rechristened 'East Mansion'

Wuthering Heights, rechristened ‘East Mansion’

Free from any need to faithfully recreate Romantic Yorkshire, and tapping into the stylistic and cultural heritage of Japanese cinema, Yoshida turns Wuthering Heights into a stunning myth. The plot actually follows the book quite closely, spanning the two generations of Emily Bronte’s original story. Wuthering Heights itself becomes East Mansion, and Thrushcross Grange is West Mansion. Cathy and Heathcliff are unpronounceable in Japanese, so she is Kinu (‘silk’) and he is Onimaru (‘demon’). The ghosts have gone, but instead Mr Earnshaw, Cathy’s father, is guardian of the mountain spirits. Once in a while he dresses up like a ghost warrior, kicks a few doors off their hinges in a religious fit, and runs across the cinder plains in a mysterious Shinto ceremony (Shintoism is the old animistic religion of Japan). Interestingly Cathy is being trained to be a temple maiden, a process that involves her being shut up in a hut at the bottom of the garden at certain times during the month.

Old Mr Earnshaw comes to grief

Old Mr Earnshaw comes to grief

I had a long chat with the director when I was writing a chapter for a book on film adaptations of novels. He explained to me that he wanted to get away from the soppy romanticism of the 1939 MGM version and recast the story as a symbolic battle between a small hide-bound and fossilised community, and an implacable and chaotic universe (i.e. between Japan and the rest of the world). Heathcliff becomes the disruptive outsider who overturns the social order, only meeting his match in the icily cold temple-maiden Cathy who spends much of the first half of the film sitting as still as a board and muttering ‘I am Onimaru, Onimaru is me’ into a mirror.

Freed from the shackles of normality, Onimaru is a wonderful Kabuki-style Heathcliff. He is played by the actor Yusaku Matsuda, who western audiences will know as the villain Sato in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (he tragically died from cancer at the age of 40, the year Scott’s film came out). Japanese cinema acting styles work really well here, Heathcliff oscillates between taciturn monosyllabic Japanese man and wild, gurning Kabuki emoting, so he manages to capture the range of emotions and images that surround Heathcliff in the book, even down to the Gothic demon elements that Emily Bronte poached from Frankenstein.

Heathcliff and Isabella

Heathcliff and Isabella

Stylistically the film is beautiful, if austere. Tiny figures in kimonos struggle across huge vistas of black sand, characters sit as still as origami sculptures, their seething passions only evident in the tones of their voices. The script is pared down to a minimum and there are long periods of thoughtful silence. When the violence bursts out it is startling. Yoshida pulled no punches, and the rape and subsequent suicide of Isabella is hard to watch. (Isabella is the sister of Edgar Linton, who marries Cathy in the novel).

Free from any association with the bodice-ripping Mills & Boon associations we’ve built up around Wuthering Heights, Arashi ga Oka does a wonderful job of creating a stripped down collation of all the themes of the original – Gothic horror, society turned upside down by a demonic outsider, unrequited passion and brutal violence. Getting hold of a copy outside Japan is a challenge, but some kind soul has put it up in two parts on YouTube, so I urge you to watch it before someone else takes it down.

Arashi ga Oka Part One

Arashi ga Oka Part Two

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