Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Haseo, also known as “The Terror of Death,” is a player in The World, an expansive online role-playing game. Having suffered the loss of his close friend Shino at the hands of a mysterious player known as Tri-Edge, Haseo has become a feared force in the world, a player-killer who will do anything for information on Tri-Edge. Tri-Edge's atack on Shino mysteriously left her in a real-life coma and Haseo is determined to draw her out of it, and miracle that apparently can be achieved by beating the tar of Tri-Edge. He is unnerved to encounter Atoli, the spitting image of his lost friend, but cleverly disguises his true feelings by treating her like dog crap stuck to the heel of his boot. Atoli tries to reign in Haseo's destructive impulses, with inevitably romantic results. When Atoli is struck down by the same virus that was apparently responsible for Shino's condition, Haseo must muster all of his abilities to save her from the infection, from her own demons, and ultimately from an enemy who has his own equally compelling reasons for destroying her.
In the anime side of the sprawling beast known as the .hack franchise, .hack//G.U. Trilogy fits neatly at the end of .hack//Roots. Roots was perhaps the single most boring anime ever inflicted on the viewing public, a distillation of director Koichi Mashimo's glacial style that had no sympathetic characters, no emotional involvement, and an hours' worth of plot stretched over ten hours of animation—if the endless panned stills that Mashimo used could so be called. It was the television-watching equivalent of Chinese water torture.
G.U. goes to the opposite extreme, packing so much plot and action into its slim 90-minute running time that it is basically incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the franchise in general and Roots in particular. Haseo, Ovan, Shino and a whole slew of supporting faces in essential but lethally truncated roles are thrown at the viewer with a casual disregard for introductions that practically screams “fans only”. Terms like AIDA, The World, and Epitaph mine the dialogue like anti-newbie booby-traps. To the uninitiated, this will be a ninety-minute light show, a blur of shiny but unfamiliar 3D characters fighting, crying, and morphing into giant neon robot-things. The emotion and satisfaction it provides are entirely dependent on one being at the very least intimately familiar with the characters. If you aren't, you'll get nothing but eye candy.
If you are, however, this movie will give you everything that Roots did not: action, excitement, and romance. Though not particularly well-written action, excitement or romance. Even taking into account that the film was based on a video game and presumes prior knowledge of the characters and world, it feels choppy and patched together. Action scenes pop out of nowhere and soft-focus sap is dropped in big saccharine dollops at random intervals. It's all strung together by a plot involving Haseo's quest for vengeance and a virus/entity that is causing players to go into real-world comas, but frankly it's treated less as story and more as a frame on which to hang action set-pieces and bad romantic clichés.
Nevertheless, enough of the action set-pieces and bad romantic clichés work to keep the whole mess reasonably diverting, which is far more than can be said for its prequel. The action scenes function on a purely visual level, serving up such flash and dazzle that their inability to viscerally engage matters little. Characters streak and collide in earth-shattering displays of power, are trapped like Promethean sacrifices in baroque prisons of flame and stone, and sheathed in parasitic darkness that lashes out with the ferocity of their inner demons. Beautiful stuff that can easily make one forget that it's all delivered with the panache (and artificial 3D CG) of a video game; which isn't surprising given that it's directed by .hack game maestro Hiroshi Matsuyama.
The romantic subplot packs more punch than one would expect given that Haseo and Atoli's relationship is predicated on a brief meeting and an even briefer romantic montage (it's like a training montage, just with two people bonding and no “Eye of the Tiger” or Sylvester Stallone). That it punches at all is thanks entirely to the prodigiously talented Ayako Kawasumi, who brings real range and intensity to the thankless role of Atoli. The scene in which she, corrupted by AIDA, directs a rage of insecurity at Haseo is a triumph of acting over scripting, and she even somehow manages to make the tiresome “projected spirit saves hero” scene work. Not even Atoli's (and frankly, everyone else's) embarrassingly unconvincing expressions can ruin her performance. Good feral work by Takahiro Sakurai as Haseo also helps, but there isn't as much he can do with his unsympathetic bastard of a lead.
The film's score is a very pretty but ultimately less than arresting work—very much of one piece with the very pretty but ultimately less than arresting backgrounds. Like most of the artistry, it—and the backgrounds—are much better suited to the interactive world of the games than to the carefully controlled world of cinema. There's one gorgeous and painfully sappy insert song that accompanies a gorgeous but painfully (oh so painfully) sappy reunion. It is probably the movie's single worst scene.
Contrary to their usual custom of stripping their DVDs to the shivering bone, Bandai provides a cornucopia of extras goodness for the .hack faithful. These include various promos and galleries, as well as a solid—but highly promotional—making-of documentary and a series of short scenes from the movie with selectively altered visuals and humorously re-written dialogue. Worth seeing if only for the outrageous corruption of Atoli's big tirade. There is no English track.
.hack//G.U. Trilogy isn't called a “trilogy” because it's an actual trilogy. It's a film; the games it was based on were the trilogy. Which is probably why the film starts and ends three times before it actually ends. And why it sardines so many characters into its plot and so much plot into its timeframe. Ultimately it's a big sloppy mess with some snazzy imagery, a few cutting shards of romance, and some excellent acting by a top-flight cast. Which is much better than being a torturous bore.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Action-packed, visually accomplished, and well-acted.
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