Bandai // 1992 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 16th, 2003
How anime movies are really made. No, really. Okay, not really.
Mamoru Oshii's Talking Head is almost a "who's who" of the Japanese anime world, with cameos and inside jokes and a behind-the-scenes look at the state of Japanese animation development.
But also, it's a murder mystery, and there may be a ghost, and also a zombie in it. There is only one set for the entire movie, and the characters constantly break into pantomime and start talking to the camera. (And you Oshii fans thought you thought you were going to get off easy this time.)
Even more challenging and confusing than his previous offerings, Mamoru Oshii's Talking Head is as strange as they come -- a calculated Lynchian blurring between the line of action film, confessional, documentary, and dramatic stage play, deconstructed to such a degree that the entire experience almost becomes unrecognizable as a film.
Sound like fun, eh? It is, but it is not for the easily annoyed. You will need ironclad patience to digest and enjoy it.
The most anticipated anime movie of the year, "Talking Head," is set to debut in two months. One small problem: the director has long since vanished, taking the entire project along with him into obscurity -- there is no storyboard, no finished drafts, nothing! The movie has not even begun.
In desperation, the production company hires a maverick anime director, a man known to get things done under pressure, a man who has saved flailing projects from damnation. He is a "migrant technical director," and his job is to imitate the work of the erstwhile director, finishing the film, getting it in by the deadline, thereby completing the illusion of studio prosperity.
When he arrives at the "movie set" to begin work, he realizes there are bigger problems than a tight deadline. For one thing, there is a ghost. Another thing is, one by one, the entire staff is being murdered. Thirdly, it seems that the line separating reality and the movie being made has blended together, creating a metafictional nightmare of staggering proportions.
Who knew all this work went into the creation of an anime?
The final film in the Mamoru Oshii Cinema Trilogy, Talking Head is only sequel to the two previous films in the loosest of senses. It has precious little in common with the first two films -- precious little in common with anything at all, actually.
The majority of the principal cast from the last two films returns, but all play different characters with no connections to their previous identities. Secondly, the film seems to exist outside any rational notion of reality; it can safely be said that Talking Head does not exist inside the reality of The Red Spectacles and Stray Dog, because the film exists inside no reality but its own. If you are quick, you can catch a single fleeting reference to the Kerberos, delivered through the guise of a coffee commercial. Finally, the entire film takes place within a movie theatre (AKA the animation studio) that appears to be identical to the movie theatre in The Red Spectacles, with the same washroom, and identical movie playing on constant loop (a young woman's face, on a tight close up, focusing on the eyes).
Sets are sparse, often missing walls, as if to de-emphasize the importance of backdrops and distractions, choosing only to focus upon things of importance (a trick taken to the umpteenth level by Lars von Trier in Dogville). Lighting cues are implemented as if the film were actually a stage play, and characters often break into pantomime, and do stage-like things, such as having conversations to the camera/audience.
Talking Head completely smashing any notion of a "fourth wall," not in a gimmicky, Ferris Bueller's Day Off sort of way, but in a very unnerving, meaningful, and aggressive way. Characters will be talking, then stop talking, gaze directly at the camera, as their monologues continue from some unnamed, outside source.
In a way, this film is more dense and thematically complicated than The Red Spectacles (it has far less in common with Stray Dog, the aptly-named odd film out in the trilogy). While the basic gist of the movie is simple enough -- trying to make an animated movie while the cast members get killed off -- the film requires of the viewer a rather verbose understand of film theory, criticism, and history to avoid extended sessions of head-scratching that could over time lead to hair loss.
Rather than, say, just be a movie, Talking Head is a movie about making movies. It is a movie inside a movie, possibly inside one more movie. It is a reflection upon the cinematic art itself, an experimental examination into the very structure and rhetoric of filmmaking...or something like that. Really, it's hard to say. Watching it, one gets the sneaking suspicion that the film could actually be about annexing ownership of land, cultivating eggplant on an industrial scale, and government cheese, and the viewer would be completely in the dark.
This is no clever tongue-in-cheek riff on the tenets of editing and stage theory -- this is an all-out deconstructive and metafictional assault. It is an exercise in self-reference in a capacity so far and beyond any traditional semblance of a motion picture. And it sure is a lot of fun to try and figure out. But you need patience, my friend -- serious patience. (Only on the third viewing did I dare consider myself ready to even begin writing this review.)
The score takes a backseat to the dialogue in Talking Head, with more dialogue than both previous films combined. Kenji Kawai's score is an atmospheric, esoteric, and downright spacey experimental jazz piece, mixed far more quietly than in previous films (all that talking gets in the way). But do not feel bad for Kawai -- after all, he appears in the film as himself, the music composer for "Talking Head."
Most of the actors in Talking Head are real players in the anime world, performing numerous voice-acting roles. Die-hard anime fans will recognize no faces, but many voices. Of course the cast of Talking Head would be people who either work on anime movies, or who have worked on Oshii's movies -- the joke would be incomplete without this particular intertextuality.
It's all part of the gag, my friend. All part of the gag.
Bandai took the time to make these DVDs look particularly smarmy in the visual department. The DVD looks fantastic. The film is awash in reds, oranges, and yellows, and there is nary an edge artifact or dust speck to be seen. Even the black levels are quite solid, considering the dull and murky visual palette. Talking Head is such an interesting-looking movie, with a fantastic utilization of colors and lighting, and it is a pleasure to see such a great DVD transfer.
As with its two predecessors, the only extra feature to be found on the DVD is the original Japanese theatrical trailer (dubbed into English).
Subtitles occasionally become bogged down in nightmarish sentence structure, like, "It's possible that this only heralds of more serious matters," and so on.
This film is difficult to enjoy in a way the previous two films were not -- not merely content just to be esoteric and downright weird, Talking Head seems to challenge the very notion of cinema, asking questions of what constitutes a film in the first place. While intellectually interesting, the film sacrifices much to get its theoretical points across -- say, things like any recognizable shred of movie normality.
This movie plays tricks on you -- mean tricks. Mean, evil, confusing tricks; tricks that make your brain fall down and sue the management for criminal neglect.
To offer the comparison: The Red Spectacles may have been bizarre and challenging and nonsensical and completely impenetrable -- but at least it was still technically a movie, and not an exploration of the art of the art of filmmaking. Sure, Talking Head is still technically a movie -- it has a beginning, a rough semblance of a plot, an ending; there is pathos and development and all that, but more times than not, these elements hang on barely by a thread.
Here is my point: Talking Head is metafictionally verbose and deconstructively dense to the point of needing a battle-axe to carve your way through it. One viewing will not suffice. Seventeen viewings will get you on the trolley, but nowhere near your destination.
Me, I like this sort of thing -- in fact, I enjoyed Talking Head tremendously. But many people have weird hang-ups, and start to get squirmy and bored after the fourteenth or fifteenth viewing of a movie.
Why, I can't imagine. So now, you have been warned.
Far more intriguing than entertaining, but still entertaining in an intriguing sort of way, Mamoru Oshii's Talking Head is laden with bizarre inside jokes, long-winded lectures on the historical impact and theoretical development of filmmaking.
Oh yeah; the whole "murder mystery" thing. Yeah, that gets solved...sort of.
Film theory buffs and nerds alike certainly will go rabid with delight at the mere notion that such a film exists for consumption. Hardcore Oshii fans are in for yet another surprise as the stray dog of Japanese cinema throws yet another curveball their way.
Odds are, this film will not fall into the hands of anyone else, so I needn't worry about warning people away from such a bizarre and esoteric film -- chances are, if you are in a store that sells it, and you pick it up to look it over, you were meant to take it home.
The court throws the gavel out the window, takes off the judicial robes, and goes streaking through the courtroom.
Why? Why not? It seems a fitting summation to a review for Mamoru Oshii's Talking Head. It makes more sense than the movie, that's for sure.
But chances are, you will enjoy the movie better than the free courtroom show.
Court adjourned -- it's naked time!
Review content copyright © 2003 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer