"East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" - so sayeth our great imperial sage, Rudyard Kipling. Even today, when not only anime and manga are on our store shelves but we drive to work in Honda Civics and play videogames on Sony PlayStations, there is still the powerfully persistent preconception that the Japanese are a weird, alien, incomprehensible species. Just recently the Vocaloid mascot Hatsune Miku made a holographic appearance on David Letterman's major US chat show to the... bafflement of host and audience alike, and the sentiment must be familiar to any anime fan who only half-jokingly talks about hiding his power level from the normals.
What everyone forgets though is that Kipling goes on to finish the poem with "there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed nor birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!" - there are ties of commonality between us, and oddly enough the brash boisterous confidence of Hollywood is the best place to recognise it. Director Darren Aronofsky ripped o-- er, homaged Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue in his Oscar-winning Black Swan, and this year Tom Cruise took top billing in the major summer blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow, loosely adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's All You Need is Kill. Even James Cameron, director of the highest-grossing films in all movie history Titanic and Avatar and so someone who can be said to be something of a tastemaker, understands the appeal of manga and has promised us an adaptation of Yukito Kushiro's Battle Angel Alita once he's finished up with Avatar's sequels.
It's clear from these examples that anime and manga alike do have a lot to offer wider audiences - the popping of the anime bubble back in the Noughties was more to do with bad marketing and poor business deals than it was the subject matter's incompatibility in Western tastes, and we have already seen that the latter can be overcome. Studios seeking new material are finding previously-overlooked promise in the huge library of Japanese media, and South African company Videovision Entertainment in partnership with Anchor Bay Films (sister company to Manga Entertainment, both part of the Starz Media group) are settling on Yasuomi Umetsu's distinct cut. Although Umetsu has a wide number of credits for a considerable diversity of shows right up to the present day (directing this year's Wizard Barristers), he is best known for his two erotic thrillers in 1998's Kite and 2001's Mezzo Forte - and they can truly be said to be his as well, with him being not only their director but writer and designer and chief animator too, they really are impressed with the auteur's watermark. Even though the original Kite anime is only a two-episode OVA - with the sex scenes cut out, it barely scrapes a 40-minute TV hour - Kite has a presence all out of proportion to its short length for its entwining of sex and violence as twisting caducean snakes snapping at each other around an iron core of corruption and revenge. It's brash and ballsy, in more ways than one, and that can have the energy to cross continents. Will the new live-action version of Kite become the breakout hit that soars high above the walls of the anime ghetto, or is there still not enough of a wind of interest in manga and anime adaptations to stop it from scraping the ground?
In the world of Kite, the recent banking crisis wasn't so much a crash as it was a six-lane pileup. In the aftermath of financial collapse, society has completely fallen apart with it - the government is powerless, the police are toothless, and the tattered remains of communities huddle in the dark shadows of rusted cars and crumbling brick, wallowing in a hole of their own rotting rubbish and hoping that being submerged in these cesspits will keep them below the notice of the "numbers gangs" which prowl the streets like packs of feral dogs, snatching girls to sell to the flesh-cartels. Master of this modern-day slave trade is an enigmatic figure known only as The Emir, and his control of the only asset the country has left - human misery - makes him the kingpin who rules the ruins.
The teenage girl Sawa (India Eisley) may seem to be just another orphan, an inconsequential maggot worming her way through the festering corpse of civilisation - but Sawa is burning for vengeance after her mother and policeman father were murdered by the Emir... and maggots eat dead flesh. She has launched a bloody campaign against the Emir, acting like the usual vulnerable merchandise to charm her way into the hiding-holes of the Emir's pimps and procurers - and then unsheathing her claws as she bloodily cuts them down.
Supporting Sawa in her mission of vigilante justice is detective Karl (Samuel L. Jackson). Frustrated by the threadbare law and the police's incompetence against the flesh-cartels, and borne by a sense of obligation to the honour of his old partner, Sawa's father, Karl has become both guardian and handler to Sawa. Karl provides Sawa with shelter, supplies her with weapons, cleans up the remains of her assassinations and deletes evidence from the police archives... and shoots her up with Amp, the memory-blurring drug which grants Sawa relief from the traumatic memories and still-raw emotional damage of her tragic childhood to leave her clean, cool, cold, and capable of killing.
Even if Sawa wants to forget her past though, the past does not want to forget her. Sawa is finding herself being dogged by a boy called Oburi (Callan McAuliffe), who might seem to be yet another homeless street urchin but has the skills to evade even her attacks, is surprisingly intelligent and literate and insists that he wants to show her important information that she's forgotten under the influence of Karl's doses of Amp. Sawa isn't willing to listen, not wanting anything to cloud the clarity of her focus on destroying the Emir, but is she truly cutting herself free of the past or has she only blinded herself to its threat as it charges up behind her?
The direction and cinematography of Kite is alarmingly reminiscent of 2012's Dredd - even right down to the introductory text crawl and the title card, which shatters across the screen in a familiar way. In some exterior shots I had to blink for a bit and check that I hadn't put in the wrong disc... I'm pretty sure that I recognise the exact same Jo-berg underpass that Karl Urban roared down chasing perps on his Lawmaster bike! The resemblances in both setting and style can really become quite distracting, but as Dredd was one of the best action movies of its year as "inspiration" goes it's certainly not a bad thing to imitate. I also have to praise the mise-en-scene of Kite, which really has a powerful sense of despoiled desolate decay in the best tradition of Se7en, enhanced by moody lighting that really comes out at its best in the throbbing, searing, drunkenly saturated strobes of the nightclub scene.
This setting is a departure from the OVA, which had a modern-day, real-world appearance, and much like Edge of Tomorrow the live-action Kite is a loose adaptation of the original source material. The whole revenge quest against the Emir's sex-trafficking gang is a complete invention for the movie - in the OVA Sawa and her handler Akai were hitmen-for-hire and Sawa stayed with Akai in the hope that he could use his police contacts to eventually identify her parent's killers. While it does change the emphasis of the film substantially, turning the anime Sawa's struggle to pull herself from out under the thumb of the controlling Akai into a much more paint-by-numbers action plot, I actually do prefer the live-action version as an improvement. Even if the movie robs Sawa of some agency, the scenario in the OVA was too flimsy to stand up to scrutiny, namely the thought the Akai could string Sawa along with "yeah, I'll find out who killed your parents, can you just do another little job for me in the meantime?" for over a decade was absurd. Oburi's origins have also changed substantially - in the OVA he was another child-assassin like Sawa, controlled by one of Akai's partners - and again even if the movie is more basic it's still better, as the orders to kill the anime Oburi had no reason behind it at all... and at least the movie spares us those ridiculous bike shorts too. In terms of what is preserved from the original, live-action Kite does have approximate recreations of the OVA's opening elevator execution and the midway restroom fight, albeit not nearly so outrageous as it was in the anime - where that ended up with trucks crashing through a subway tunnel the film settles for dropping a goon through a skylight. Sawa's explosive handgun and blood-crystal earrings also make it westwards, but otherwise the content is entirely different, the only other manga touches being the neon-coloured wigs of Sawa's disguises.
With the loss of manga influences comes the loss of body-confidence too - the live-action Kite has been moderated, retaining plenty of bloody action but cutting out the sex entirely. While the uncut OVA quite unabashedly featured fully-frontal nudity, hardcore sex and outright rape, even despite the human-trafficking storyline of this film version there is no nudity - Sawa is very briefly in her underwear but the bra won't come off, and even after she takes a shower she's fully towelled-up - and little actual sexual content, and what moderate stuff there is dries up after the first twenty minutes. The sexually abusive and exploitative relationship Sawa has with Akai in the OVA is also cleaned up for the film - there is no suggestion at all that Karl knows Sawa in the Biblical sense, and even in a scene where she's stretched out helpless and vulnerable on a bed, head thrown back and chest swelling as she's tripping on drugs, Karl makes a point of covering her up under a blanket.
I'm not sure if this really was the best decision. I can certainly understand why the content was toned down and I really can't hold it against the film-makers for taking this approach to make their pitch an easier sell - especially because given the greasy, grimy and sleazy atmosphere of the film any sex would not be particularly stimulating or edifying lovemaking - but even if their nipples are not visible Umetsu does have a fine line in lascivious ladies and as uncomfortable and transgressive as some of the OVA's scenes were Sawa could still be genuinely sexy in how pertly she carried herself. Really it removes half the point of adapting Kite in the first place, and the experience feels defanged even with the blood-splatter.
It also robs us of an extra layer to Sawa's relationship with Karl. Samuel L. Jackson is not just a tacked-on name to this movie - he's not confined to a couple of scenes the director could have dashed-off cheaply, he does appear throughout the movie and has an integral role across the entire plot. He also does show a range of emotions from care and exasperation during his scenes with Sawa and does convey well his paternal relationship, but Jackson is a premiere actor and that is second-nature. It would have been fascinating to watch him grapple with the bigger subject of a closer link to his ward, which could even have been done with the change in background. I'm not asking for India Eisley, at 20 years old a relatively young actress, to potentially compromise her career with nude scenes, nor am I asking for Samuel L. Jackson porn - this film already has multiple fade-to-blacks for scene transitions, a couple more wouldn't have been out of place. Enabling Jackson to deal with a complex and difficult subject of a stirring pot of care and concern with guilt and reluctance tugging at revoltingly compulsive attraction would have really engaged his talents and made Kite a film worth talking about. As it stands though it just bleeds the film of another half-pint of personality and leaves audiences thinking that Leon had a much better spark between its own duo.
Although the sex is thus greatly curtailed, Kite rebalances it with a stronger emphasis on violence. While a bit more grounded than the entertainingly over-the-top OVA - there are no subways being blown up or fuel trucks plummeting multiple stories here - the action is nonetheless more frequent, more varied, more aggressive and more formidable and so on balance makes a better impression - as much as the style of the movie is derivative of Dredd it does still nonetheless lead to a raw sense of impact. Even though it's been a few years since the peak of the parkour craze, I still admire the free-running gangsters for their entrancing athleticism, and also for how it is suggestive of the regressed subhuman animalistic nature of these degenerates. There are a couple of small niggles but by and large the action works well. India Eisley as the heroine Sawa does have enough aggression and physicality to be credible in her action scenes even with her scrawny appearance, and while she's made the too-common mistake of "tough and hard-boiled" with "flat and toneless" in many of her scenes, she does have a couple of real wailing breakdowns to demonstrate that there is a worthwhile actress there. McAuliffe as Oburi does have suitable cool commanding confidence, even if he scampers everywhere at a half-crouch like he's playing a game of Splinter Cell!
That said, a lot of the action is keeping to the beat. A mid-scene action sequence where Sawa and Oburi rescue some girls from the flesh-cartels has an unfortunate upshot - if anyone can just walk through the door of a police station and get to enjoy smiling games of pat-a-cake in the refuge with your pure slow-motion-childlike friends, why are these flesh-cartels even a threat in the first place? Even if you haven't watched the OVA the film holds no surprises - the twist reveal becomes obvious within the first fifteen minutes at the very instant Oburi starts talking cryptically about Sawa's past (and the only reason he's being so oblique is because the plot requires him to be). I also think that the director Ziman has really quite badly missed the point of the title. In the OVA Sawa, for as much as she seemed subjugated by Akai, nonetheless had the strength, confidence and independence to lift herself out of that pit and seek her own path - a kite flies away when you cut its strings. In this live-action version though the "Kite" is dumbed down into an actual, literal, visible kite as a maundering mopey motif of Sawa hankering for some laboriously-conveyed childhood innocence, which isn't so impressive when she chose herself in this version to go on her roaring rampage of revenge - I could only shake my head at how blunt and clumsy it was. After remaining reasonably tight in its progression throughout most of the film, the final confrontation when Sawa comes face to face with her past is also a mess, riddled with plot holes while the fighting and killing that's done is really completely unnecessary, leading to a sadly dissatisfying conclusion that reminded me of the cop-out happy ending sprung on us at the end of 28 Days Later.
In final summation, Kite is something of a mixed bag. In many respects - with its more evocative darker background setting, a surprisingly quite melodic dubstep ending theme tune, a climactic sense of gravitas from Samuel L. Jackson and more diverse if less explosive action scenes - it's a significant improvement on the original anime. However, much in the same way that this film really could have pushed harder not necessarily in explicitness, but in tone, it really does not take full advantage of the license and the considerable talents that have been gathered for the movie who, while entirely competent, do not quite realise the full potential that the property could have given them. Kite remains an effectively hard and bloody actioner which is good for few watches on nights in but I am dismayed at how a bit more ambition could have made it great, wondering about the emotional experience that might have been.