Monday, July 13, 2009


Tonight, I got a late night call from a friend who wanted to go see MW. MW, for those who don't know, is a film based on the manga series of the same name (published in 1976-1978) by the famed creator Tezuka Osamu. The film tells the story of two characters: Garai Yutaro, a priest who is played by Yamada Takayuki (Densha Otoko (Train Man, 2005), the Crows ZERO series), and Yuki Michio, a terrorist played by Tamaki Hiroshi, (Nodame Cantabile (2006 TV Drama)). The film traces the relationship between Garai and Yuki, survivors of a military massacre which acted as an attempted cover-up of an incident involving the release of a nerve gas called MW on their home island, Okinomabunejima. The two escape to the main island of Japan, where Garai becomes a priest and Yuki a banker. Yuki uses his status and connections to seek out the instigators of the MW incident and kill them, forcing and eventually blackmailing Garai to help as an unwilling accomplice. The film is directed by Iwamoto Hitoshi, marking his second major film since Ashita ga aru sa THE MOVIE (There's Always Tomorrow The Movie, 2002) and first foray into dramatic film.

Note the subtitle: Tezuka Osamu's Forbidden Problematic Work
I have not read the original work by Tezuka Osamu, but I can at least attempt to generally discuss a few points where the film appears to deviate from the manga. For example, MW dispenses with the homosexual relationship that is shared between Yuki and Garai, instead reducing it to suggestive scenes in which innuendo does not exist in the narrative, but is rather suggested by camera work. Apparently, in the manga, this homosexual relationship forms the backbone of the Garai's guilt which Yuki exploits to gain his assitance. Thus, it would appear that the elimination of this element destabilizes the foundation of the film. Speculatively, it is perhaps for this element that MW is so well-known, as such unabashed display of homosexual relationships in manga at this time was unheard of. Furthermore, it is ironic that despite denying such elements in the script of the film, MW still exploits them for marketing purposes. In particular, the promotional campaign for the films utilizes large posters which display Yamada and Tamaki lying close to one another and looking suggestively at the camera.

MW is also well known because it marks a major shift in Tezuka Osamu's oeuvre. Up until MW, Tezuka's work is characterized by its cartoon-like drawing style; during the 70s, the gekiga movement, which emphasized a drawing style that exalted in gritty, dramatic realism, began to displace this cartoonish style as the dominant manga form. In the manga version of MW, Tezuka can be seen as adapting elements of the gekiga style, while at the same time attempting to create his own unique style through the synthesis of elements from both styles of manga. Since Tezuka is perhaps more well-remembered for his earlier works such as Tetsuwan Atomu (Atom Boy, 1952-1981) and Metoroporisu (Metropolis, 1949), with even contemporaneous works like Black Jack (1973-1983) manifesting this earlier style, MW can be perhaps considered a transitional work for Tezuka. Between this status and the aforementioned heavily-censored homosexual relationship, it's rather surprising that it was this work that was chosen, not only to be made into a film, but also, as the opening credits note, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Tezuka's birth (although to be fair, every year is an anniversary of something when you're marketing your product nowadays).

Putting the short excursion into Tezuka Osamu aside, although the film has probably been moving money well enough due to the popularity of the stars behind it and the Tezuka link, it is honestly a mess on many levels. To begin with, the script of the film, co-written by Oishi Tetsuya and Kimura Haruo, is pretty unbalanced. This is actually quite a surprise coming from particularly Oishi, who was also a writer on the two Death Note films (2006), which I felt were both well adapted from the manga and also well balanced. In the case of MW, for obvious reasons the adaptation is not faithful to the original, but beyond that, the film just rushes by in a blur, preventing the audience from getting into the world of the film and the premises that motivate it. The film neglects character development and glosses over answers to simple questions such as why Garai and Yuki feel the way they do about both each other and the incident that brought them together, as well as why the secondary characters that enter the film are drawn to take the actions that they do. Instead, MW instead attempts to fly by with intense action sequences, which are played up to keep the audience's focus in a film driven by a shallow and overall weak script. Approximately the first quarter of the film is spent on a terrorist incident carried out by Yuki in Bangkok, one that intends to establish the character, his relation to Garai and his relation to a cop who is chasing him. This event serves a purpose, but could have been cut into half and still conveyed the relevant information needed to understand what is going on. Because of the weight of this initial event, the rest of the film has to rush to recover its sense of direction. Ultimately, however, rather than serve to feed the rest of the film with its momentum, this first sequence of the film acts instead to deflate the remainder of the film.

Furthermore, the film feels too artificial in its construction. While certainly the sets built were elaborate enough and the special effects were sufficient, a lot of the camera work was poorly done. MW employs a permutation of the shaky camera technique that detracted from films such as the Bourne series and the most recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), but beyond that, it augments the camera by using computer graphics to filter and manipulate many shots. This is often used for dramatic effect or to emphasize relevant plot devices for the audience. While this is understandable, at the same time it's not, and actually in fact is precisely the problem with this film. MW takes what is already a poorly defined premise (due to the poor script work) and slams the audience over the head with that premise through overdone film work that obfuscates the story to the point that the entire film reeks of overcompensation. Much like the cover-up of the MW incident on Okinomabunejima, MW's film work attempts to cover up the problems of the film, but ultimately those survivors that make it to the end are forced to consider ways of warning off other potential viewers.

That being said, the film was able to deploy some situations quite well, and removed from the context of the larger narrative of the film, the action moments are very well done in terms of interior pacing and set-up.

On another note, the story that MW tells is also interesting to think about because of the way it deals with modern-day Tokyo. Contextualized in relation to Tezuka's original manga, which tells a distinctly postwar story, MW the film attempts to construct a narrative focused on, as the script states, a post-Aum world. However, on a larger scale, it is a film that attempts to deal with a post-postwar moment and a sort of narrative euphoria in disaster, one that might be compared to a pre-9/11 American film moment and one that is purposefully bound in the forgetting of the postwar and atomic disaster, the setting for Tezuka's original MW. That is to say, there is a certain joy in telling the story of Yuki and his misguided self-righteous campaign to expose MW, both literally and figuratively, to the world. This jouissance appears to be bound in the oft-utilized notion of morality as a justification for ironically morally-questionable actions. At the same time, unlike the manga version of MW, as well as other disaster films going back as far as Gojira (Godzilla), this certainty of moral fortitude is not bound in the specter of the postwar and Japan's victimized consciousness. As Garai says in the film, Yuki has just "become a monster," but the monster that he has become is not the result of the atomic consciousness that hit Japan at the end of World War II (although the film blames the American military for the original incident), but rather because of the lack of such a historical context: it is the result of MW itself. As the basis for MW becomes disembodied from the postwar context, it removes a layer of morality that might further justify Yuki's actions. This lack of historical context influences the ethics of the other characters of the film: the cop who chases Yuki is bound by his determination and personal vendetta. Even Garai, the character who in the film (unlike in the manga) is supposed to serve as a type of reluctant moral center, is not empowered enough to handle that position. On the one hand, this is because the character is extremely scaled down in the film; on the other, it is because the context of Christianity and religion in general is completely displaced from its context here (although thankfully, the film does not play it up for campy value, even though it might come close every now and then). Yuki becomes morally right not because of a larger cultural context, but because of images of shock and disaster based on an isolated incident that is not situated within any history and purposefully propagated to the audience by the filmmakers. Yuki becomes "right" through sensational imagery and shock value, and the audience, swayed by that sensationalism, is able to follow Yuki's actions and understand them (even though the film ultimately does not side with him) without questioning their larger ramifications (a similar internal logic works through another summer release in Japan, Juryoku Piero (Gravity's Clown, 2009)). Thus, it can be argued that while Yuki might be driven by trauma, the trauma is personal and not bound up in a national consciousness, as is clear when, in his endgame, he is ready to deploy MW and disperse it throughout Tokyo to harm innocent people, rather than to directly use MW to strike back at his oppressors.

What can also be seen in MW is a new sense of cosmopolitanism in a transnational context. The film, which contains a "subplot" (using the term extremely loosely) involving a dedicated cop chasing after Yuki, can perhaps help contextualize the film within the context of Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong urban cinema. At the same time, this cosmopolitanism is deployed through the film's use of various settings in decidedly "non-Japanese" locales. In the beginning sequence of the film in Bangkok, the film shows a fully articulated city, which does not only contain the back alleys and dingy areas which characterize previous depictions of Bangkok as other, but also Bangkok as its own urban metropolis. Even the American base in this film is surprisingly high-tech, no longer simply shots of soldiers standing around on fields and airplane hangars that might characterize older films (although they do a bit of that here, too), but instead a military that is well put-together and coordinated in times of crisis through the use of computer technology. It is these images of an all-around cosmopolitanism and technological modernism that makes way for images of what can be termed a new Tokyo. In depicting this new Tokyo, it's interesting to note that MW specifically chooses "new" sites within the metropolis. Rather than focus on urban centers which have been a firmament in the imagining of Tokyo both in Japanese and "Western" films, such as Shibuya and Shinjuku, MW fixates on a newly-gentrified Akihabara. Furthermore, while evoking the financial Marunouchi district at several points in the film, MW chooses to look less at the older sites of the area and instead focuses on the much newer Marunouchi OAZO building, which opened in 2004. In this way, by showing the new sites of Tokyo situated within the context of the equally modernizing presences of both Asia and the West, MW can be thought of as illustrating the new role that Japan plays as a mediator between both parties.

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