September 12, 2006
To stay current in the entertainment world, people often switch roles. Actors become directors, directors become producers, and producers start their own cable networks. In animation, this means that directors sometimes delve into the world of live-action cinema. Katsuhiro Otomo's (Akira, Steamboy) Bugmaster, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, is not his first. Otomo's previous foray into flesh-and-blood film-making was World Aparment Horror, based on a story by anime auteur Satoshi Kon. In Bugmaster, Otomo once again adapts manga for film, bringing Yuki Urushibara's tale of turn-of-the-century Japan to the screen.
Joe Odagiri plays Ginko, a white-haired, one-eyed traveling "bugmaster" whose life was changed years ago by the "bugs," which the film defines as the spirits that inhabit both the dead and the living. These "bugs" (mushi) have a complex spiritual ecology. Each mushi has a function in the world. Some produce sound; others eat it. Some create darkness; others are in place to eradicate that darkness. Each belongs to a certain species of mushi and they often swarm, like insects. When mushi invade the bodies and souls of human beings, only a bugmaster like Ginko can heal the victim. Carrying only an unassuming manner and a pack of herbal remedies, Ginko is an apothecary, exorcist, and counselor to his clients.
The film deals with Ginko's confrontation with his past, and how he became a bugmaster. It vacillates ambitiously between period drama, buddy travel movie, light romance, and horror. Throughout, Otomo's aesthetic sensibilities as an animator show themselves in small ways. Most of the interior scenes are well-framed, and the slow pans pay close attention to detail. Kuniaki Haishima's unobtrusive, creepy score leaves room for the sound of wind through trees. Wisely, Otomo chooses to use special effects sparingly, but the blend is near-seamless. (One scene in which kanji crawl up walls like ants will resonate with fans of Kon's Paranoia Agent.) And Otomo's use of Makiko Esumi—and her distinctive, powerful voice—is flawless.
However, Bugmaster is 131 minutes long, and viewers will feel every second of it. Like Ginko, it moves slowly but steadily. The film also skips backward and forward in time, with many flashbacks. And Otomo gives Bugmaster so many good places for an ending that the film's final moments come as a complete surprise—it could just as easily go for another two hours, but would the audience feel any deeper resolution?
For strict anime fans, Urushibara's story has already been serialized in animated format. Called Mushishi and directed by Hiroshi Nagahama, it spans 26 episodes. Whether or not the series is released in North America may depend on Otomo's success with Bugmaster. As a live-action film-maker, Otomo is more of a Kurosawa than a Miike. Bugmaster is an interesting story populated by a plethora of sympathetic characters, especially the thoughtful Ginko and Lear-like Nui. And the environments are beautiful, with forests as green, dense, and primeval as any Miyazaki wonderland. It is poetic, ambiguous, and possesses a certain aura of magic realism. However, viewers who grow impatient with slow action, ambiguity, or convoluted flashbacks may want to wait for the DVD—provided Otomo's latest finds distribution.