Reviewby Tim Henderson, Jun 27th 2012
Mardock Scramble: The First Compression - Complete Edition
Rune Balot has had it tough – a childhood filled with sexual abuse, a later life of prostutution and, eventually, murder as the result of her profession. That she wakes up again after death, neither in heaven or hell but in the cyperpunk future she departed one, would be a significant act of kindness were it not for agenda. Nobody wants to bring anyone back unless they can employ them for an act of mutual revenge. Right?
Insofar as it can be controlled, I'm not one to judge a work by the promises or expectations that precede it; not by overenthusiastic interview remarks, what is written on the back of a DVD case, or whatever gets blurted out in voice-over during a trailer (and boy, does English-translated anime have history here). But then – hell, I'm not normally one to use first person when punching out reviews either. So there you go: by the end of the second paragraph, I will likely have broken as many of my own rules. Perhaps by the end of the third I might try to push it up again by trivialising rape.
The back of Mardock Scramble: The First Compression - Complete Edition's case isn't wholly malicious in how it's misleading, and the as-yet-unmentioned thing I've taken issue with certainly isn't an outright lie, although it does tiptoe towards that (mis)direction. Even if it were upfront falsity, I would merely give the case its own score as a matter of comedy – “D+, would have been lower but I liked the pretty pictures” – and gotten on with it. The problem here – that the case states a runtime of over two hours – is that the opposite of this being true (actual runtime: closer to one hour) may be the film's most crippling weakness, expectation or no. And slipping the theatrical and director's cut editions together into the one runtime isn't something that could hope to fix this.
In the interest of at least trying to build an illusion of being fair, Mardock Scamble doesn't exactly trivialise rape, at least not in a direct manner. What it does do however, is build up an incredibly damaged lead character and then – outside of some dry, over-long explanatory dialogue that often does little to properly reflect a character's mental state when there's info dumping to be done – wholly fail to find the time to linger and deal with the incredibly weighty issues that it has raised. An awful lot has been laid out to happen in the first instalment of Mardock Scramble, and with little more than an hour run-time to work with, pathos is cast out the window like so much unwanted Mormon promotional literature in favour of allowing the plot to hop, skip, dance and spring through all of the beats and tear open that enticing ribbon at the finish line. Or, it would were it not for an aspiration to set new a standard for cliff-hangers.
Set in a futuristic city that appears an architectural pastiche appealingly in line with the out-of-control explosion of cyberpunk-ish technology that litters it – one where colours appear to have been painted thinly over sheets of platinum metal and where a glowing free-way, presumable constructed from a melted down surplus supply of those fluorescent green bits from M:Tron Lego kits, floats in the sky like wires feeding to a centre that just screams of corporate superpower – Mardock Scramble's first 'compression' hits the right nail for an initial shot of aesthetic pleasure, and the cocaine-like witchcraft lingers just long enough to promise that this world may be one with depth to match, maybe even surpass, all of its pretty green lights.
What kicks the film into its earnest, forward gear is a scene that juxtaposes the film's two primary concerns, and does more still to suggest that there is weight here worth paying attention to; that R18+ sticker may point to truly mature content, rather than just content for viewer's mature enough to see if for what it is. On one hand, we're presented with a creepy blond man named Shell who is becoming a little overworked with a prostitute – 'I mustn't forget to start the parking metre', as the subtitle translation so cleanly puts it – by name of Rune Balot; on the other, there is a slightly less creepy man sitting in what initially appears to be a car with a super-nose – a component that is soon revealed to be a magical, transforming mouse – trying to analyse what's happening, and presumably waiting for Shell to murder Balot in an explosion for the express purpose of piecing her back together again as a cyborg.
Things quickly grow more complicated from here, and the notion that Shell works for a corrupt corporation becomes the driving narrative focus, coyly stepping around a chance to deal with the issues that it nonetheless makes abundantly clear (in a direct, textbook-spoken kind of a way) that Balot is carrying with her. The effect is an odd one: Scramble wants to confront its audience, but seems hesitant to face up to and properly follow through with its own shock value. Or perhaps it's a more simple case of too much being piled on the plate to eat, or at least properly digest, in too little time, resulting in character developments that should be shown instead being spoken, and camera cuts that always seem to happen a few seconds too early. Mardock Scramble's a film that early on, promises intelligent, if quirky, handling of some real issues. It's also a film that transforms that content into a parody of itself. Not that the production staff can be held entirely at fault – a runtime in line with that printed on the case would likely be required to reach this potential; the four or so minutes added in the director's cut certainly aren't enough to make a difference.
It could be said that much of the core complaint here still boils down to what Mardock Scramble isn't, rather than what it is. The key distinction here hopefully, is that the issue has nothing to do with what was promised and everything to do with what has ended up being produced could have been, and very possibly wanted to be. For a while there, it appeared that the pieces were in play for a worthy carrier to take Ghost in the Shell's crown of thought, but the by the end credits the whole mess felt far more disposable. This is an issue that certainly casts an over-long shadow, one that can distract from the simple fact that all those bits of Scramble that seem distracted are, when viewed in a vacuum, quite well executed. Once the content has been trivialised sufficiently for Balot to become some kind of super-soldier doing tonk with supervillians gross enough to make James Bond blush, interrupted only by the odd moment of melodrama, a deft hand for action is able to shine through.
In fact, some of the action scenes are superb, fully-animated and detailed enough to make a bullet shot from the air look as amazing as it should, rather than just appearing as a cheap trick. Had this been the focus all along – were the heavier themes and confused plot stitching stripped away in the name of a tightly-focused, balls-to-the-wall action film, then Mardock may have stood a shot at being best in class. As it stands, it's not, but there yet remain two more parts to this trilogy, and while it's difficult to imagine that they will add sufficient nuance or backbone, it's more possible that they may find a cleaner trajectory and turn into something genuinely excellent, even if its excellent in a way that was never originally intended. Or perhaps just hoped for, if I'm still clouded by a bias that feels the moments where Balot destroys a pervert camera in a public restroom and is unpleasantly grilled about all the sexual abuse from her childhood in court simply doesn't do justice to the initial subject-matter, but rather serve as a lukewarm lead-in. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it after writing out this scramble of my own, maybe Mardock does trivialise issues that it shouldn't (although, to be clear, I wouldn't accuse it of glorification), not through intent but rather by building the issues up enough that it leaves a sour after-taste to see it lump them together with – and roll them directly into – pulp entertainment.
For this release, at least, Madman doesn't appear to be banking on greatness. This is a single disc deal, containing both the theatrical and director cuts of the film in English and Japanese, and a grand total of zero bonus material for anyone who expects more than a trailer or two.
© TOW UBUKATA/MS COMMITTEE
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Animation : A
+ Highly impressive production value, CG cars aside
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