Thursday, January 27, 2011

Strait Jacket

Shinji Ushiro’s hectic anime ‘Strait Jacket’ takes a premise that requires a suspension of disbelief plus VAT, welds it to a hefty chunk of mythology and tries to make the whole thing fly with a script that’s this close to having its certificate of airworthiness rescinded.

First things first: the set-up. In an alternative history, an experiment harnesses the power of “mythical magic” (as opposed to what other type?) and brings it into the real world. As a consequence, controlled usage of magic in military, industrial and scientific areas renders the world of 1899 technologically and socially advanced. Cars are commonplace; weaponry is as high-tech as one would expect in the kind of anime where lots of things get blown up; and the standard of living is generally high. Except, of course, for the poor bastards who are in the wrong place at the wrong time when the shit-blowing-up shit goes down. (I’ve got to stop using phrases like that; it’s no wonder I’m not getting that ‘Culture Show’ gig.)

There’s a flipside to magic, though. Uncontrolled applications of it result in the creation of demons. To combat them, the government deploys a counter-terrorismdemonism unit called Black Dog. (Whether or not it’s been a long time since they rock and rolled is something the script leaves unexplored.) Black Dog consists of “tactical sorcerists” (yup, that’s what the film calls them and I can assure you that I was totally unable to type “tactical sorcerists” without sniggering) who use strong magic against the demons. To protect themselves from the negative aspects of the magic, they wear protective suits – the strait jackets of the title – which make them look a bit like Iron Man but without the glossy red paint job.

The exposition of all this rigmarole accounts for more of scant 76-minute running time than is entirely necessary. And that’s before you even take into account the red-herring subplot about a group of insurgents.

Idealistic young operative Nerin Simmonds reluctantly enlists the help of unlicensed tactical sorcerist (nope, still unable to type it with a straight face) Rayotte Steinberg when a particularly nasty demon starts laying waste to a hospital and Black Dog are otherwise engaged. Steinberg’s methods are notoriously destructive to the point of suicidal. He travels with a young witch, Kapel Theta (the script doesn’t make it clear if this is her actual name or just the sorority she belongs to) who holds a grudge against him for the death of her parents.

Isaac Hammond, the clean-cut square-jawed poster boy for Black Dog, also has reason to hate Steinberg. And Steinberg himself, all moody angst and brooding silences, is seeking redemption through death for a guilty act he has been carrying around for over a decade.

Phew! All dramatic stuff, right?

The essential problem with ‘Strait Jacket’ is that it plays like an origin story (how Kapel Theta meets Steinberg; how Nerin meets Steinberg; and why Steinberg’s a miserable bastard) and all but avoids the main narrative thrust of Hammond’s discovery of corruption in high places and Hammond and Steinberg’s inevitable stand-off in its haste to throw Steinberg, Kapel Theta and Nerin together, presumably with the intent of sending them off on myriad thrilling and exotic adventures.

I say presumably, because the end credits roll at this point.

There are other, minor, niggles – such as the lack of specificity vis-à-vis the film’s setting (the backgrounds suggest Victorian London, names like Schumann and Ottoman hint at Germany or Austria, and the cars and the banter between Black Dog squad members come across as distinctly American) – but in the main ‘Strait Jacket’ frustrates purely because it seems like an extended overture, only for the orchestra to pack up their instruments and go home, leaving the audience sitting there perplexed, wondering what happened to the actual opera. Moreover, the point of view flips around without ever fully deciding on who the main character is. It seems like Nerin to begin with; however, she’s sidelined whenever Steinberg does his thing. Then the focus shifts pretty heavily to Hammond in the last third.

‘Strait Jacket’ also frustrates because there’s a sense of squandered potential. Steinberg and Phi Beta Kappa Kapel Theta’s relationship crackles with tension; Nerin has the makings of a headstrong heroine yet the script never gives her her moment of glory; the conspiracy element is abandoned almost arbitrarily without Hammond resolving whether he’s uncovered the full extent (is there an even more sinister eminence grice lurking in the background?); and potentially interesting supporting characters such as seemingly retired tactical sorcerist (damn it; sniggered again!) Filisis Moog are never developed. (And when you’ve got a character called Filisis freakin’ Moog, it ought to be a legal requirement that you give them something interesting to do.)

If anyone knows whether ‘Strait Jacket’ has any sequel, or was developed as a multi-episode manga, please do the comments box thing and let me know. As mildly disappointed as it left me, ‘Strait Jacket’ painted a world I’d like to revisit.

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