By Jeremy Clarke.
Teenage romance, parallel worlds and dysfunctional families are the main ingredients of The Relative Worlds, Yuhei Sakuragi’s uneasy cross between a mawkish teenage romance boy and a sci-fi action picture in the James Cameron mould. The romantic, emotional parts are gentle and almost hesitant. The science fiction, fantasy and action parts are fast, full on and frantic – and indeed in places quite hard to keep up with. The dysfunctional families are more a background plot device than anything else. That said, if you’re prepared to get on its wavelength (or wavelengths, plural) it’s an enjoyable enough romp, with action that looks great on a big screen.
Its opening imagery, a point-of-view sequence of a boy walking with his mother, is one of the most innovative moments in the film. Shin Hazama misses his Dad, who is never at home because of “important research” at his workplace. But then his mother unexpectedly collapses, and soon after, she dies. Cut to the teenage Shin (Yuki Kaji) waking up in his room and reading the news on his mobile – specifically a story with the headline, Why Are People Dropping Down Dead? Writer-director Sakuragi may well have borrowed this central plot device from live action director Gakuryu Ishii’s less-than-satisfactory 2012 screen adaptation of Shiro Maeda’s stage play Isn’t Anyone Alive? Ishii had previously used the same device far more effectively in his underrated 1995 new age-y, sci-fi thriller August in The Water.
Sakuragi first uses the element of the unexplained deaths as a major topic of conversation at Shin’s high school, a location which also serves to introduce shy girl Kotori Izumi (Maaya Uchida) who either has a crush on him or perhaps just likes him as a friend, it’s not always easy to tell. “Call me if you need anything,” Kotori tells him. She is motivated at least in part by the fact that her dad is the head of Izumi Heavy Industries, the company where Shin’s father has been putting in all those extensive hours of research, and the reason his son still hardly ever sees him.
The similarly confused Shin is concerned enough for Kotori that when an overly forward, fellow pupil attempts to pressure her into dating him, Shin sees the guy off so that he won’t bother her in future. Shin at least manages to walk her home during which she blurts out: “I can’t wait forever.” However when he eventually plucks up the courage to ask her for a date, her reply is tentative to say the least. The subtitles translate her response as a non-committal: “Sure. I mean, yes.”
Jostling for attention in the script alongside these teenage goings-on is the idea hinted at by the title. It seems that there are two relative worlds: contemporary Japan as we know it and another Japan where the feudal social order was never dismantled. People in our Japan have doppelgängers on the other side: Shin is mirrored by a rebellious boy named Jin (Yoshiki Nakajima) while Kotori’s double is the kingdom’s puppet ruler, Princess Kotoko, who has a nasty habit of executing people. The two worlds are so inextricably linked that when someone dies in one of the worlds, their doppelgänger also perishes. This turns out to be the explanation for the mysterious spate of recent deaths in our Japan as well as the sudden death of Shin’s mother many years ago. Jin wants to kill Katori in our Japan because that would mean the death of Kotoko in the other.
Whereas the romance seems to be quite well scripted, the the two-worlds idea seems rather more perfunctory. Action is orchestrated on the basis of suddenly, unexpectedly throwing a lot of fast-paced images at the audience and hoping they can keep up. AI robots called Armatics turn up to slaughter whoever gets in their path and, for good measure, killer-robot girls Miko and later Riko are sent Terminator-fashion from the other Japan to thwart Jin. Sadly, none of these quite possess the transcendent style or grace of the balletic killer robot woman in Masamune Shirow’s legendary 1987 work Black Magic M-66. Indeed, in some of the non-action sequences Miko and Riko seem like ordinary teenagers.
Cameron’s influence can also be seen in Sakuragi’s use of derelict urban spaces such as empty buildings and underpasses as locations for staging mayhem, although this feels quite different in animation where the intention is less to find somewhere that can be cordoned off for location filming and more to construct a world by visually designing it from the ground up. To this end, the Shinjuku in the other Japan hosts impressive ceremonial state rallies in a massive stadium.
As for the dysfunctional families, it hardly seems a radical departure to suggest that in corporate culture some parents work so many hours that their family and ultimately their health will suffer. Besides, Sakuragi’s interest in the effect of work on fathers never goes beyond background plot filler. His focus rather is on the boy meets girl and beat-em-up angles. At one point various humans and androids take time off to go shopping and generally hang out in Shinjuku which has the momentary effect of making you wonder if you’ve just switched into a completely different film. Like the scene’s earlier counterpart when Shin finally takes Katori on a date to visit the movies and an ice cream parlour (and a similar moment in last year’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas), the sequence is a montage rendered in static artwork shots rather than full animation suggesting either that the budget was running out at this point or that Sakuragi didn’t think these sequences merited that much attention.
The Relative Worlds is screening at Scotland Loves Anime.