Bandai // 1987 // 116 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 16th, 2003
A future only director Mamoru Oshii could create!
Try to imagine this: instead of David Lynch making the esoteric Eraserhead, he decided to make an adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 instead.
Except that he made it entirely in Japanese, while drinking lots of booze and watching Alphaville on constant repeat. But also, he made the film as a comedy. But at the same time, not really.
Then, perhaps, you would have something that was totally identical to, but not actually anything like, Mamoru Oshii's The Red Spectacles, a strange and wonderful movie almost exactly like, but not really like, anything you've ever seen.
They were known as the "Watchdogs of Hell."
It is the end of the 20th century. The Metropolitan Police have begun to lose control of the city; crime runs rampant and people are no longer safe. The solution: the establishment of the Anti Vicious Crime Heavily Armored Mobile Special Investigations Unit. Created by men and women of high intellect and physical strength who had a particularly strong, even fanatical sense of justice, they were nicknamed "Kerberos" (loose Japanese translation of "Cerberus"), and armed with special "reinforcement gear" body armor and heavy weaponry.
But what started as a noble and courageous effort to stop the onslaught of crime soon spiraled out of control. Their overzealous actions and fanatical hatred of evil soon led to less-than policeman-like behavior. Public criticism grew as their investigational tactics grew more aggressive, crueler, and more corrupt. The turning point occurred when a Kerberos member, during a routine investigation, beat a misdemeanor offender to death.
This was the catalyst, the justification to shut the group down forever and dissolve it completely. However, there were those in the Kerberos group that refused to disarm. Three of the elite rebelled against the system, and fought their way through the city. The other two become wounded, and were unable to escape capture. Only one -- senior detective Koichi Todome -- managed to escape, and he promises the others that he will return for them.
Several years later, Koichi, a fugitive from the government, returns home for reasons that seem unclear. The city has decayed at an exponential rate and is completely unlike the place he left behind. Everything is surreal and strange, blurred and nondescript. He wanders, trying to find some semblance of his past, trying to find his comrades left behind. But the city itself seems to resist him, and there are those who realize the threat Koichi imposes, that his return is more dangerous than anyone could realize.
This film, along with Stray Dog and Talking Head comprise the abstruse Mamoru Oshii Cinema Trilogy, based loosely around a manga that would eventually go on to inspire the Oshii-penned moody anime Jin-Roh. In a sense, these films are live-action prequels to Jin-Roh, as they exist in the same universe (Talking Head stretches this rationale, but you could still argue it).
Having only previously seen the Kerberos in animated form (Jin-Roh), I was surprised how cool and sleek the outfits looked on real-life actors. If the Germans wore full suits of black body armor during WWII, it would like the "reinforcement gear" of the Kerberos. They are gunmetal-black panzer attack suits, complete with gigantic machine guns and freaky-glowing red eyes. As far as intimidation goes, these suits are second to none.
When compared to Oshii's other work, The Red Spectacles contains the same philosophical ruminations and questions found in his cinematic canon (Ghost In The Shell, Patlabor, and such), executed in a deconstructive and surrealist fashion, but with strange twists. Despite the dark and sinister overtones of the subject matter, The Red Spectacles, is downright hilarious in a bizarre, French New Wave slapstick sort of way -- the quick edits, the nonsensical sequences, the ridiculous music, the complete disregard for the cinematic illusion all help to skew a dark and twisted psychological thriller into...something else, something very difficult to quantify.
The best way to describe it, I think, is that this film was approached like an anime film -- it just happens to be in live-action. The comedic sequences are so over-the-top and befuddling, full of bizarre character positioning and pantomime, but completely on par with the framing, the pacing, and the expressions of animated characters in a Japanese anime. You would think nothing of it if the film were a cartoon -- but seeing the same sequences performed by live actors? Well; a unique experience, to say the least. If you have been fortunate enough to see the kick-'em-up hilarious South Korean film Volcano High, then you will have a sense of what I describe.
The majority of the film is shot in grim black-and-white that has a peculiar green undertone, almost like viewing the world through night-vision goggles. It makes for a very creepy visual image. Indeed, the visuals are downright perplexing, and rival even the most Lynchian cinematic nightmarish displays of decay and dystopia. The Red Spectacles manages to be confusing and quite somber despite its ingrained tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. I know, it sounds like I contradict myself, but I assure you, this is the case.
"Psychotropic" would be a good descriptive. What is happening to Koichi? What has happened to the city? It feels more like Orwell's 1984 than anything else. Why does he come back to the city? Why does time seem to flow so strangely there? Who is driving the taxi? What is really in Koichi's suitcase? Who is the woman whose face is plastered throughout the city? What is the movie being shown in the movie theatre? And what has happened to his friends? And why, oh why, does Koichi get explosive diarrhea so often?
Don't ask. Some of these questions are answered in the film, and some are absolutely not. If we are to examine The Red Spectacles as an experimental, symbolic film, one that speaks with its visuals, I have yet to decipher the meaning of explosive diarrhea.
This is an odd, perplexing film, and yet, an amazingly enjoyable one -- if you don't mind that sort of thing. Me, I love it. Any fans of David Lynch, or of avant-garde cinema that purposefully mocks any effort to grasp its motivations, will be right at hone with The Red Spectacles, and for any fans of the anime Jin-Roh, this film would be a wise investment, as it exists in the same universe and fills in some blanks.
The transfer, for the most part, is clean and well done, though the source material could use some restoration, given its ultra-low budget roots. Smatterings of white dot the black canvas, and given the high level of black, is quite noticeable. For some reason, there is a long-running perforation of white dots and dust particles down the right side of the frame, which run through a large majority of the movie. It is slightly distracting, but overall, the picture is quite pleasing to look at. Black levels are saturated, but nice looking, with a dark, green murky palate -- very surreal. The color photography is muted throughout, with the exception of the color red, which is astonishingly vibrant to the point of overload.
The music is a bizarre score of upbeat string numbers, samba tunes, jazz numbers, rock ballads, and every other style thrown together in a peculiar 1980s-esque synthesized sort of way. It's quite a score, crafted by longtime Oshii-collaborator Kenji Kawai, but at times, it seems very overdrawn and manipulative, in a synthetic sort of way. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track, mixed up from an original mono source, is pleasant enough, though a bit flat and weak on the bass end.
The subtitles are passable, but at times, they scroll too fast for the casual reader, and at other times, make little grammatical sense. Of course, nothing about this film makes grammatical sense, or any variation of the word "sense," for that matter -- so really, it all works out in the end. The only extra included on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, which, thoughtfully, has been subtitled in English. More often than you would think on discs like these, trailers receive no subtitling treatment, so this is a pleasant surprise.
Maybe you are one of those people who like their movies to, you know -- actually make sense. I respect that.
If so, then the Oshii Trilogy is not for you. The Red Spectacles is not for you. None of these films is for you. You can put the kettle on, drink some Earl Grey tea, feel comfortable and safe, and not have to worry about messed up Japanese movies that make you scratch your head and whimper in confusion.
I may come join you later, once my head starts to hurts from all the scratching.
I've seen a lot of movies; a lot of strange, strange movies. The Red Spectacles doesn't exactly take the cake, but it definitely gets displayed in the window to tantalize passersby. Plus, it has the best pool break (the game with the balls and sticks) that I have ever seen recorded on film.
Fans of Jin-Roh will definitely want to scoop this film up as quickly as possible. For everyone else -- any purveyors of the surreal, the bizarre, or the avant-garde, should definitely put the red spectacles on and give Oshii's Trilogy a try for a uniquely entertaining cinematic experience.
Court is temporarily suspended due to explosive diarrhea.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer