Dir: Katsuhiro Otomo. Jap-US. 2006. 130mins.
Japanese anime director Katsuhiro Otomomakes a curiously subdued, poetic foray into live-action cinema with his latestfeature, Bugmaster.Though the story's setting in the late Meiji era and its "invisible bug"infestation theme initially suggest a period horror along the lines of ShinyaTsukamoto's Gemini, the meditativepace, lonely but gifted hero and obsession with nature skew the genre towards asort of arthouse oriental Western.
Manga fans expecting a live-action version of thedirector's classic features Akira(1988) and the lesser Steam Boy(2004) will be disappointed; Bugmaster will need careful marketing in those internationalterritories where it lands distribution deals. It's best targeted at the arthouse, without playing too much on the director's trackrecord - but even here, the slow and rambling pace, which triggered a steadystream of walk-outs at the Venice press screening, will be a problem.
At home in Japan, theaudience's familiarity with the film's folk-tale substratum, and the popular manga by Yuki Urashibara on whichit is based, will give this quirky, unclassifiable title greater outreach.
Bugmaster opens on a view of a misty valley shot so impressionistically that we'renot at first sure whether this is live- action or animation. It's a neat entryto the suspended dream-world of the piece, whose period setting is sketched inso lightly that it seems no so much a century or soago as a few degrees removed from the real world.
Told in a fragmented stylewith plenty of unflagged flashbacks and leapsforward, the story centres on Ginko (Joe Odagiri), a"mushishi" or bugmaster,who studies the invisible creatures that ordinary mortals cannot see andprotects people from the illnesses they cause.
Ginko remembers next to nothing about his past. But whenhe is called to heal a girl called Tanyu (Yu Aoi), whose bugs take the form of written characters thatspill out from her fingertips onto scrolls, he realises that Tanyu's illness is connected to a female mushishi called Nui (Makiko Esumi). Nui, who is now totallyblind, took Ginko (then called Yoki)in as a young boy when his mother died in accident, and passed on the mushi lore to him.
The bugs themselves clusterin writhing nests in lofts and hollow trees, or drift through the air like paleamoebae trailing translucent filaments. There's a good scene in the librarybeneath Tanyu's house when the words leave all thescrolls and she has to spear them, line by line, and force them back into theright order: imagine a more artsy, period-Japanese version of a Harry Potter scenario, or even theboiler room scene in Spirited Away.
These and other visualeffects are used sparingly, and mesh convincingly with the quiet, magicalatmosphere of this lost arcadia, in which the barriers between the human andthe spirit worlds are permeable.
As with the work of Terence Malick, nature is a constant presence, determining the slowand partly cyclical rhythm of the film as well as its frequent scenes of Ginko wandering through forests, along streams and overmountains, sometimes in the company of Koro (Nao Omori), an extravagant comical sidekick. Takahide Shibanushi's meditativephotography of these scenes is underscored by a sparse and melancholy stringsoundtrack reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto or Tuxedomoon.
Joe Odagiri (Bright Future, Princess Raccoon) plays Ginko with areserve that suits the character's apprentice status, his lack of confidenceregarding his own powers - and also his detachment from human society. His Ginko is about as far from the standard mangahero as one can get, just as Otomo's film itselfslows down the frenetic pace of an anime action romp like Steam Boy to a slow crawl. Bugmaster is an oddly addictive trip, if you can stay thecourse - but few will.
Ogura Jimusyo Inc
based on the comic Mushishi by Yuki Urashibara