Monday, June 20, 2005

Can't Be Happy All The Time

Why is Ninja Scroll such an agressively dreary film? Why can't I stay awake long enough to actually watch the bloody thing?

I mean, it's got cartoon action, cartoon gore, cartoon sex -- I oughta be all over this sucker. But instead it plods along, plot point following plot point, without any sense of heart or joy or thrill to it. Dull dull dull.

This is the first film in this little odyssey that I just can't come up with positive things to talk about. Does it have anything interesting to say? Anything at all to say?

I think the most interesting point in the entire film is when Kagero reports to the Chamberlain about the disastrous mission to the plague village. The Chamberlain is shown having, let us say, workmanlike sex with some unnamed woman. While the woman squeals and groans, the (extremely large) Chamberlain looks thoughtful and bored, speaking with Kagero (who's just been raped) in an official-sounding voice that carries no hint that he's drilling this girl with sufficient force to knock the wind the out of her.

Why is this done this way? Why have this character be portrayed in this fashion? Is it pure titilliation?

Well, probably yes, but I'm going to bravely soldier on and see what I can glean from this, the only thing about this film that attracts my interest just at the moment.

We've just come from the sequence in which Kagero is raped, a sequence considerably more explicit than this one. This sequence is notable more for the sound -- the girl shrieking in pleasure as the Chamberlain plugs her -- that for any visual explicitness (we mostly just see the participant's faces, and the Chamberlain looks like he's reviewing legal documents rather than looking down at his lover). Coming as it does on the heels of an explicit rape sequence, the noise of the frantic woman, combined with the quiet sterness of the Chamberlain and Kagero's angry-looking (it's hard to tell what any of the characters are feeling from one moment to the next because the animation's so bad, but she LOOKS kind of grumpy (but then I'm known for my fondness for grumpy women, so perhaps I'm reading more into it than there really is)), the whole combines to be sort of a "Aren't things tough for Kagero" kind of scene.

If she played by the rules, she might be that nameless squealing woman, enjoying herself in sensory pleasure. But instead she wants to play with the boys, and she pays a price. Of course we find out later just how steep a price she's paid, but at this moment, all we see is one woman, a woman who suffers, watching another woman get her freak on, and there's something vaguely troubling about it. Maybe because the second woman's cries of pleasure come close to sounding like cries of pain, and now we're wondering if we're watching yet another rape.

Ninja Scroll maybe does have something interesting to say, after all, on the subject of pleasure. Pleasure is something that must be put aside by those who wish to make a difference. Even among the bad guys, there is bickering and feuding over the subject of sex. There aren't any happy characters in Ninja Scroll, nor is there any sign of happiness, and maybe that's what makes it dull for me. What do these characters have to lose? What are they fighting for? Personal vendettas, apparently, and the advancement of the whatever-it-is clan that Kagero and the Chamberlain belong to.

Without some kind of happiness, or at least the promise or memory of it, a story doesn't have much oomph to it. All the sacrifice and struggle and tension ought to drive things either towards or away from some sense of goodness, stability, strength or joy. Without that, it's just fireworks going off overhead: pretty enough, but hardly profound. And showing that source or destination of the journey is in many ways the HARD part of storytelling -- how do you show what the characters have to lose (or gain) without falling into cliche? Tolstoy said something (maybe it wasn't Tolstoy, doesn't matter) that all happy families are alike, but all miserable families are unique in their misery. If that were true, it would be impossible to avoid cliche when showing happiness; but I don't think it is. I just think it's hard to do well.

Ninja Scroll doesn't even try; and I think that's why I find it so dull.