The Mike Toole Show
The Resident Evil That Men Do
by Mike Toole,
The year has turned over, the ‘best of 2017 anime’ lists are out, and a humble little series from Orange called Land of the Lustrous is on a great many of them. A lot of the commentary I've been reading about this genuinely excellent show is how finally, we have a high-quality anime that demonstrates that a 3DCG show can be just as good as hand-drawn 2D animation! Of course, if you're like me, you know that we've had excellent all-3DCG anime since at least 2011, when gdgd Fairies came out.
I made a broad survey of 3DCG anime back in 2012, and the field has exploded since then. 3DCG family films like Oblivion Island and Gamba's Adventure (known in English as Airbound) are now routine, and more and more TV and OVA fare make extensive use of CG. Land of the Lustrous may be Orange's first big solo hit, but they've long been the CG-driven secret weapon of productions like Tiger and Bunny and Ghost in the Shell: Arise. What continues to intrigue me is the fact that there's a whole segment of these films that are just as anime as they come, but are largely ignored by anime fandom. For instance, Shinji Aramaki is in the news for helming a forthcoming new Ultraman 3DCG film, but how many fans actually know he just did another one of those Starship Troopers movies?!
Don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this, and that somewhere is a place called Raccoon City. Back in November, I was called in by my friends at Viz to head down to Anime NYC, where I moderated a discussion about Tatsunoko's series Infini-T Force with its producer, Kaz Haruna. Haruna had an unenviable task: he had to help translate the bright, action-packed pop appeal of the company's classic 70s heroes into high-quality CG. That's a pretty drastic visual shift, and while Tatsunoko had their own in-house CG resources, they weren't up to the task of making something, well, lustrous enough to suit heroes like Hurricane Polymar and Gatchaman. So Tatsunoko teamed up with a studio called Digital Frontier. “You guys might remember them,” Haruna remarked to the audience, “as the people who made those CG Resident Evil movies.”
I remember those movies, because I like Resident Evil movies, man. January is actually Resident Evil Month every couple of years, because it's when we get a new installment of the film series. That happened last year, though, so for 2018, we're just gonna have to settle for the latest Insidious film. To tide us over, though, there's Resident Evil: Vendetta, a 3DCG film that got released earlier this year. It's actually the third film in a franchise that differs significantly from the big, loud, enjoyably dumb Milla Jovovich vehicles, by dint of the fact that it's actually produced in close collaboration with game producer CAPCOM. It's also a franchise that has some surprising star power—Vendetta was scored by celebrated composer Kenji Kawai and written by Makoto Fukami, who did the screenplays for the recent Berserk TV series and co-wrote Psycho-Pass with Gen Urobuchi. Earlier films include the likes of Ergo Proxy character designer Naoyuki Onda, SFX director Makoto Kamiya, and of course, Giant Robo director Yasuhiro Imagawa.
Learning that Imagawa was involved with the Resident Evil franchise kinda stopped me in my tracks. As it happens, there's been Resident Evil anime since the year 2000, when Imagawa went to CAPCOM with a novel idea: he'd create a short, exclusive animated film to be screened at places like amusement parks and malls. Like so many projects, Imagawa departed at some point before production commenced, but the whole deal was kicked to Koichi Ohata, who obligingly gave us Biohazard 4-D Executer, an 18-minute romp in which a platoon of Umbrella Corp. mercenaries head into the zombie-ravaged Raccoon City to look for some lost research.
The film is a fun watch, mainly due to Ohata's monster design (it looks like the Shrike from the Hyperion books—a being made entirely of knives and spikes—which is totally Ohata's kind of monster) and the intense violence, which was so graphic that a few different cuts of the movie were made for different venues. The “4-D” in the title was because the movie screened in some places with the little seats that tilt and rock in time with the camera movement. There are some other fun visual flourishes—a bit where the camera zooms in on a monster so close that you can see it at the cellular level and observe the pure evil contained within the T-Virus cells feels like an Imagawa trick, and a creepily funny part where a virus-possessed dog stares into a mirror with menacing self-awareness. Beyond that, the most intriguing part of Biohazard 4-D Executer remains how it eventually got sneaked out of storage and ripped, because there's still pre-roll and timestamp data present. The movie isn't technically accomplished by today's standards, but I kinda hope CAPCOM have the digital source files somewhere so it can be properly rescued and restored. It's too interesting to be forgotten!
The first proper Resident Evil CG film came at an opportune time—in 2008, Blu-Ray was just starting to gather momentum, and publisher Sony was happy to use it as a marquee title for their new HD format. There was also a lot of somewhat successful home-video-only fare at the time, silly but surprisingly watchable sequels to fare like Starship Troopers and Donnie Darko and The Lost Boys. The movie could also be slotted in neatly next to Resident Evil: Extinction on video store shelves, and hey, remember, it's a video game tie-in! For this confluence of commercial reasons, what we got was a half-decent action movie that expanded on the story of game protagonists Claire Redfield and Leon Kennedy (who still look weirdly like Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, if you ask me). Crucially, unlike the live-action films, Resident Evil: Degeneration is meant to take place in the same storytelling world as the game series.
It would take four years to get the next Resident Evil anime film, but it delivered a pleasing jump in technology—much smoother, more natural motion-capture, for one—and the gamble of a theatrical release in Japan, where 3D screenings hauled in several million dollars. What I dig about Resident Evil: Damnation is the way it was a driving force in technological change at its studio, Digital Frontier. Director Makoto Kamiya and his team had been busily creating assets for the movie in the 3D software Maya, but most of the companies they'd be working with were using 3dsmax. There was a workaround—they could convert their models to the open-source model format Alembic, but getting the Alembic models imported into 3dsmax would involve purchasing dozens of costly software licenses. So the Resident Evil: Damnation team made their own plugin, one that's still used today. There are also a lot of other fun details behind the production, like the fact that director Kamiya, an SFX director with a long history of collaborating with Gainax alumni, wanted particularly cool-looking military costumes and props, so he took some from his own workshop and had them recreated digitally for Leon and his allies in the Free Slavic Republic to use. And while other anime directors fret and sweat over schedules and number of keyframes and corrections. Kamiya spent Resident Evil: Damnation's production cycle worried that the film's raw art and render data would top 100 terabytes, which would've made it difficult to store and transport.
The second film is also notable because it leads directly into Resident Evil 6—it's more concretely tied to the game narrative than its predecessor. Instead of just facing off against zombies, Leon and his wacky pals, who all have halting, silly, Boris Badenov-sounding accents, have to fight more formidable BOWs—Bio-Organic Weapons! Man, this game series loves its weird jargon almost as much as the Metal Gear games. There are a number of cool fight scenes, there's a part where a guy almost gets everyone killed because he's too fat to squeeze through a door… the stories of these films is never all that strong, but there's a detailed, finished quality to them that still makes them fun to watch.
Then, there was Resident Evil: Vendetta, a supremely silly movie that goes back to the motif of an angry action due shouting “Noooo!” over his wounded or dead girlfriend at least three or four times. It's still dialed in to the Resident Evil continuity, featuring the beefier, more rugged Chris Redfield that we got to know in Resident Evil 6—man, it looks like they ran him through the Sam Worthington filter! Seriously, how did they get from this:
Anyway, Leon Kennedy still gets to have his floppy 90s Leonardo DiCaprio hair, though. I kept kinda hoping that one of the other characters would turn to Leon and go, “So hey, remember how in the last game, the president of the United States turned into a monster and you had to kill him? That was pretty weird, huh? What was that like?!” What makes this installment fun is the goofy action movie stuff-- cars explode like they're packed with C4, Leon does some ridiculous things with his cool Ducati bike (note: Ducati pumped a ton of money into this film) and there's an amazing battle at the end between Chris and the final boss Arias where you can just tell that the director was like, “Man, what if these two dudes were so good at close combat that even though they tried to shoot each other from 10 feet away, they just couldn't do it?!”
The result is pretty damn entertaining, but it's also proof that the guy never saw the Naked Gun movies. Resident Evil: Vendetta also moved to a new animation studio, Marza Animation Planet, and a new production team, featuring Patlabor Next Generation director Takanori Tsujimoto. Interestingly, the film's producer Takashi Shimizu really wanted to break from continuity and give the Resident Evil CG movie series its own identity—he reportedly sparred with CAPCOM over his desire to kill off Chris Redfield. Would a move like that really have made sense?
At any rate, I have no reason not to expect another Resident Evil anime film in a few years' time. These movies earn a couple of million from the Japanese box office alone, and millions more on home video around the world. Digital Frontier are about to unleash an Infini-T Force film on the world, Marza are hard at work on a Sonic the Hedgehog movie that will almost certainly play in movie theatres if it ever gets done (it's kinda been in development since 2014…), and over on Netflix, we're on the cusp of a new Godzilla film hitting… a film which already made $3 million in Japanese movie theatres. It was good to see Orange putting in such inspired work on Land of the Lustrous and fans heralding a long-awaited breakthrough for 3DCG anime, but the CG revolution's been shuffling along quietly for some time… kinda like a zombie.
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