Thursday, September 14, 2006


(Japan/USA, 2006, 131 minutes)
Written by: Katsuhiro Otomo and Sadayuki Murai, based on the manga by Yuki Urushibara.
Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo
Cast: Joe Odagiri, Nao Omori, Yu Aoi, Reisen Lee, Makiko Esumi, Lily, Makiko Kuno

Katsuhiro Otomo, best-known as the visionary behind the manga masterwork "Akira" (the film wasn’t bad either), isn't the most prolific artist in the world, but at least he didn't wait nearly 15 years to follow-up his last effort, the underrated retro-pulp epic "Steamboy". This time out, he's helmed a rare live-action work (his second, in fact) and those expecting his meticulously-drafted constructs and dizzying orchestrated mayhem made-flesh will be surprised by "Bugmaster"s quiet musings on man vs. nature, subdued visuals, and loose, Myazakiian structure. Me—I left wondering what the Japanese word was for "huh"?

As with Myazaki’s works, this tale proposes a world in which the line between the human and spiritual realms are blurred, although most of the action (such as it is) takes place in a very tangible alternate 19th century rural Japan. It‘s there that a landslide separates young Yoki from his mother. Years pass and we are introduced to him again, now living with an adoptive mother, Nui (Esumi). The old woman is a “mushishi” (or bugmaster), an expert in controlling weird glowing insects called “mushi”, which are, as she explains it, “the phantom soul of nature that breathes inside every thing living, and dead” (one up on “The Force”, it would seem).

Now known as Ginko (Odagiri, from Kyoshi Kurosawa’s “Bright Future”), the mysterious young man sports white hair and is missing his left eye—the costs of his foster mother’s tutelage. He roams from village to village, curing various “mushi” ailments, the results of which can range from whimsical to fatal. Immediately upon arrival an inn, he is asked by its owner (Lily) to use his gifts to diagnose the ailing staff. He detects an infection by the “Wn of the Ah-Wn bug” (!), and another manifestation that causes the innkeeper’s grandaughter to spout horns and hear strange voices. He manipulates the bugs into exiting the people’s bodies, then sets off. Along the way, he also picks up a companion—“Koro” (Omori), a man trying to catch a “rainbow” serpent for his father.

Next up, Ginko makes it to the secluded house Of Tanyu (Aoi), a former bugmaster now crippled from the infection of the deadly “Tokoyami” mushi. She spends her days recording the history of these ethereal beings, but when her blood becomes contaminated by the ink , her scrolls begin to fade. She needs Ginko’s powers not only to save her life, but to preserve her chronicle of the mushi now that magic has begun to lose its place in the world, which is soon to enter a new century. Ginko discovers that it is his blind stepmother Nui who is responsible for Tanyu’s illness.

As with the “Star Wars” prequels, this one lumbers between meandering marble-mouthed exposition and meticulously-conceived CGI setpieces, but compared to Otomo’s animated works, there’s little eye-candy offered beyond the multitude of filigree’d sprites, which are obviously enough to enchant the director for 131 straight minutes and presumably, devotees of Yuki Urushibara’s popular manga (which has spanned something like 35 installments to date). Tanyu’s frenzied attempt to capture her written characters as they scatter is admittedly dazzling and illustrative of the film’s unique invention. Beyond that, it’s a lot of slow walking along picturesque forests, streams, and mountains---which could have benefitted greatly from some of that Terrence Malick-pantented narration.

Regardless of its beauty, Otomo’s adaptation--which combines three separate episodes of the series--is one tough slog, sure to tax even the most forgiving kaiju enthusiast’s tolerance for what is often diplomatically labeled “deliberate” pacing. TIFF 2006 audiences were treated to a rare “in progress” version that will hopefully undergo some changes before its official release in Japan next year.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006