Fernando Ramos is Editor-in-Chief of Anime3000.com. Hailing from beautiful San Diego, California, his incurable addiction to cartoons has led him to his current residence of Saitama, Japan, where staying up late winter nights editing articles only reminds him that SD would never get this cold. An avid photography and video fan, he also produces occasional videos and he also writes the photography/rant column Japan Jumble for the site. Find him as Saitamarama on Flickr and HelloNavi on Twitter.
Anticipation for Assault Girls has been mixed, to say the least. While it has Mamoru Oshii on the marquee line and implications of being a follow-up to 2001’s brain-teaser Avalon, most fans (like myself) were skeptical about just how utterly mainstream everything looked. Dune “inspired” sandworms and gals with fetish-tastic outfits packing heavy firepower to blow them up are fun and all, but it just lacks the depth and psychology by way of sociopolitics that drenches Oshii’s work and makes it stand out from the glut of countless Japanese-girls-with-guns pieces. It didn’t help matters that the previous two shorts that form the basis of Assault Girls were little more than flashy (and hilarious) action set-pieces with, you guessed it, hot girls.
However, the aforementioned shorts were virtually devoid of any context. We barely knew who our characters were or what they were after besides one last bite of KFC. It was boom-boom-bang-bang night after day and roll credits. This left Oshii open to take the characters in virtually any direction he so wished; and boy did he ever.
Simply put, he shoehorns all the chaos of the shorts into the timeline of his previous live-action film, Avalon. A lengthy voice-over prologue explains (in many big words) to us in no uncertain terms what that goulash was all about: capitalism had reached it’s brink due to our technological advances and society has been pushed to its logical limit. Now we are in the age of Pax Technologica: in short, a world-wide Neo-Communism. Having settled fanboy arguments over just what parts of Avalon actually did happen, we find that the Avalon game has also gotten itself some upgrades since the days of Polish MMORPGers, now seeming to run on Windows Vista instead of Commie-DOS.
Also of note is that, where Avalon was constantly jumping between and blurring the line between the real world and the online one, here we are firmly in the virtual. Outside of a few select throwaway lines and a single scene lasting less than a minute, there is little suggestion of there being a world outside the game. When Avalon was first released in 2001, World of Warcraft was in its infancy, Google was just a search engine and Wikipedia had just begun to be noticed. Humanity was still able to exist disconnected. Things have changed. “We are wired and there’s no getting out now,” is what Oshii seems to be saying. Furthermore, instead of the overexposed yellow slosh over everything in the previous film, Assault Girls opts to merely mute all but the loudest colors if to acknowledge that that the binary may well be just as just tangible as the physical.
Similarly, the tone of the film is much more colorful than the somber Avalon, at times having more in common with Takashi Miike or Quentin Tarantino than with the man who brought us Ghost in the Shell. Characters are introduced with campy still-frame title cards and the furious fun of the action screams for a wild saxophone score instead of the Kenji Kawai mood-synth that does. As icing on the cake, the film is separated into pretentiously titled chapters, Kill Bill-style.
In fact, despite writing the script himself in lieu of his frequent collaborator Kazunori Ito, this is probably Oshii’s least “Oshii” work since Beautiful Dreamer. Basset hounds are nowhere in sight (we do get dogs, but more on that later), the fisheye lenses are put in storage and, prologue notwithstanding, the movie is, much like the trailer promised, mostly concerned with hot chicks blowing shit up real good, visually if not thematically. The three leads jump, run and gun with beauty and grace. While Meisa Kuroki makes for a foxy heroine in her skin-tight rear-accentuating battle gear, it is Babel beauty Rinko Kikuchi as the cute mute mage Lucifer who steals the show for this reviewer. She gets no dialogue beyond a few dubbed-over crow calls (don’t ask), her Harajuku-influenced attire and playful ethereal dancing had my and my equally silent fellow theatre-goers’ full attention.
Yet beyond the absurdity lies a subversive shadow. Oshii has never been beyond playing with the audience. This is the man who threw Hitler and Christ into Urusei Yatsura for crying out loud. The most noticeable of these subversions lies with the fact that we have an all-Japanese cast speaking English. It is well-written modern English peppered with slang, but the performances are stilted and frequently garbled by a Sky Crawlers-esque static filter. However, unlike that film, it is not a mere atmospheric flourish. Here, it is made apparent that this is a rule imposed by the game: only English is permitted with “local languages” being verboten.
It doesn’t take a political science major to see the subtext of political subjugation via linguistics. Sealing the deal is the abundance of Japanese symbology in the landscape of Avalon(f): a statue of Ninomiya Sontoku (a fixture at Japanese schools but historically noteworthy for his economic and humanistic philosophies) and, instead of the infamous basset hound, a shiba inu, one of the domestic breeds of Japan, sniffing around at it. Also, randomly, a character takes out an antagonist in a direct visual quote of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon. It’s not subtle symbolism or commentary, but it stands out in the parade of explosions and live-action fanservice. It’s Oshii throwing yet another middle finger to the Establishment, much like the undertones of cultural warfare in the Patlabor movies.
This is all well and good, but the film does have infuriating aspects that keep it from being an instant classic. Like Oshii’s earlier live-action work in the Keroberos Panzer Corps universe, it feels more like a salad bowl of ideas than an actual good movie in its own right. The lack of actors and no major sets adds to the feeling that this was just a side project Oshii wanted to bang out in a few months than his next opus. Perhaps the most infuriating thing is the absence of an ending. This is not an exaggeration. We tune into this world for 80-some minutes and then, just when things are looking to really get heated up, we’re thrown into the credits. As the ending theme by otaku favorite KOTOKO starts cranking up and the audience around me starts getting cranky, we are reminded of a possible rationale:
“GENEON UNIVERSAL PRESENTS: A FILM BY MAMORU OSHII”