By Andrew Osmond.
In her book Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, the author Susan Napier recounts a strange story. In 1993, a Japanese critic called Toshiya Ueno visited the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia, during its ghastly four-year siege by the Serbians. Wandering through the bomb-blasted buildings, Ueno came across a wall on which three images were painted. One showed China’s former Chairman Mao, with Mickey ears. Another showed the slogan of a liberation group. The third showed an image from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. In Ueno’s words, “Against the crumbling walls of the collapsing group of buildings, that mighty juvenile delinquent Kaneda was saying, ‘So it’s begun!’”
It’s a grim story, but demonstrates how manga and anime culture had touched Eastern Europe more than twenty years ago. Another demonstration lands in Britain this month in the shape of Technotise: Edit & I, a Serbian animated film which cheerfully riffs on the likes of Akira and Ghost in the Shell. It’s released on DVD by the label Simple Media; this article is based on an online copy which was made available to press. The review copy had English subtitles which were frankly amateur, with grammar mistakes and clumsy timing. It’s not known whether these faults are rectified in the retail copy. Yet even so, Technotise is an enjoyable watch.
The film isn’t actually new. Technotise was originally released in 2009, based on a Serbian comic by artist Aleksa Gajic and writer Darko Grkinic; Gajic directed the film. A year later, it was optioned for a Hollywood live-action remake. Bizarrely, Legendary Pictures bought Technotise’s rights partly on the basis of a “fake” trailer which mashed up images from Avatar, The Island and Resident Evil to show what Technotise could be.
From that, you might think Techonotise has a generic SF plot, and it does. But what the slick “fake” trailer misses, and what makes the original Technotise more than a derivative potboiler, is that it’s also a comedy and a witty one. That it’s funny in Britain is doubly impressive, given how poorly comedy travels, and Technotise feels very grounded in Serbian humour. But it may have been inspired by Japan’s humour, too. We mentioned Akira and Ghost in the Shell, but Technotise’s tone is closer to Roujin Z, a rare anime that’s equal parts SF and comedy. Given that Technotise starts with a girl burying her cute robot “Otomo” – and that Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo also scripted Roujin Z – that may not be coincidence.
The story takes place in 2074 Belgrade, where old stone edifices still predominate over the holograms, hover-cars and android workers. The mise-en-scene, with jokes like a bulky metal droid dragging a reluctant dog on its walk, feels closer to 2000AD or Heavy Metal than to anime. Edit Stefanovic is an attractive but believable female college student; we meet her when she’s failed her psychology exam (again), to her mother’s foul-mouthed disgust. Passing up her male friends’ suggestion that she fellate her sleazy professor – there’s a lot of salty banter in the film – she has a microchip illicitly plugged into her body to give her instant Eidetic memory.
Edit also has a side job, caring for a teenage autistic boy in a high-security institution (shades of Akira). The boy’s a maths prodigy who discovered the film’s equivalent of Forty-Two in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; his formula gives computers A.I. and predicts the future. Unfortunately, Edit sees a graph based on the formula while she’s still fitted with the genius microchip… which develops its own identity in her body. The chip prompts Edit to pop bottles of iron pills, growing a parallel nervous system made of metal and effectively turning Edit into a cyborg. Then it manifests as a male ‘ghost’ whom only Edit can see. In effect, Edit grows her own Puppet Master from the chip and her own subconscious.
However, this avatar is more carnal. After saving Edit from an army of men who show up with guns, the ghost in the flesh gives her the (virtual) night of her life. From then on, the film becomes a tongue-in-cheek chase, though the action is one of the least interesting things about it. The animation is the kind which works best in freeze-frame – it’s well-designed and wittily edited, and the CG treatment of grass and water works surprisingly well, adding pleasure to quieter scenes. But the character movement is terribly synthetic, as if everyone’s been cyber-infected like Edit; you can sense the mechanical animation programs under their skins.
One set-piece seems to try for an Akira rush; Edit and her motley teen friends race round arenas on hoverboards. But it’s almost entirely carried by the music, revved up to eleven to distract us from dull race visuals with barely a smidgen of Akira’s energy. Later action-girl scenes are only slightly better, with lots of brief kick-em-ups and a passable freeway chase.
The film is far better when it’s being funny, whether depicting Edit with her junkie friends, her despairing adult guardians, or the solemn ghost who delivers lines like “There is no my or your ass; It is our ass.” There are bit-part characters, such as a poetry-spouting doorman, who don’t pretend to have anything to do with the ‘main’ story. Another digression – and the one overt reference to Serbia’s calamitous recent history – is a half-joke monologue by Edit’s grandfather about the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, its punchline possibly inspired by Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte. Unlike the rest of the film, this sequence is drawn in sombre pencil animation, suggesting real bitterness behind the joke.
Anime is referenced beside Hollywood sci-fi. For example, there’s a wince-inducing moment when Edit slices her arm to show the wire web infesting her, riffing on a cyborg moment in the second Terminator film. When Edit goes on the run, she’s seen wearing a “Capsules” T-shirt (the logo sported by Kaneda’s tribe in Akira) but the end plays like a twist on Ghost in the Shell with sentiment but also bathos – the adventure isn’t going to change the world. Lightweight and playful, this interesting tribute to anime of the 1980s and 1990s is most likable for having what Akira and Ghost in the Shell lacked – a good sense of humour.