There is no one person in anime who both awes and frustrates me more than Yasuomi Umetsu. Although he shuffles between directing anime and providing character designs, his style is unmistakable. His most famous work is the "Presence" segment in Robot Carnival. That twenty minute short film combines his incredible look with a thought-provoking story about a man who can't deal with the repercussions of his creation: a beautiful yet naive female robot who seems just a little too human. Unfortunately, most of the rest of his works look just as wonderful, but the stories behind that ultra-realistic design work just don't gel. His creations are on display elsewhere in the gorgeous but woefully underwhelming Megazone 23 Part 2, as well as the "Yellow Star" segment of the extremely controversial hentai series Cool Devices. Umetsu returned to directing with Kite, which has become just as controversial due to the cuts made in the film so it could be distributed to "general audiences" in the States. It's unfortunate that such attention has come about from Kite, since it is ultimately inconsequential, an ultraviolent tale of sound and fury.
Kite begins with a girl accompanying a young, cocky television star into an elevator for what he expects will be a romantic liaison. He's mistaken, however, as the young heroine Sawa makes her profession known in dramatic fashion. She is actually an assassin for hire, led into the profession years before when her parents were victims of a hit themselves. She receives her instructions from Akai, the man who took her in when she became an orphan. He's no gentleman, however, and it's clear that the scars he has imposed on Sawa over the years run immeasurably deep. There's another teenage assassin, Oburi, on Akai's payroll, though, and he and Sawa start a friendship that they hope will last past their days as hired guns. The story takes us through several jobs as Sawa decides if she can bring herself to claim vengeance on the man who ripped apart her family so many years ago.
Kite is a disturbing vision. There will be those who will hate it for its mind-numbing graphic violence: the assassins use bullets which explode inside their victims, which makes for some of the most sanguine sequences in an anime in recent memory. The whole film is filled with utter brutality, which is certainly realistic for the trade portrayed, but depending on your view could be merely gruesome or extremely appalling. There are also those who will dislike how the story turns out...not to spoil anything, but this is not a nice world where these characters live. There are certainly lots of exciting sequences in the film that are enjoyable to watch, but as a whole the film is depressing, despite the fact that it is in constant motion. It is also short: at 45 minutes, the story is so time-compressed that there is no time to process anything, and thus the characters-a truly tragic lot-don't have enough time to truly develop the dramatic weight they deserve. Ultimately, the story owes plenty to The Professional (aka Leon) and La Femme Nikita, but it has no time to reach the emotional levels those films did. One other problem is that revenge is an overused theme in anime (as I discussed in last week's review of Genesis Survivor Gaiarth), so it has little resonance.
Straying from discussing the nature of the film's core, the animation itself is great. Umetsu's trademark characters look far more realistic than other characters in anime, and they attract my attention extremely well. Although the show has certain limitations from originally being an OVA and having those cost restrictions, it looks top-notch. The soundtrack is mostly offbeat jazz, which is also refreshing considering the abundance of J-pop soundtracks in anime.
Part of the controversy over Kite is that several sexual sequences were edited from the film for the US release. The original argument was that characters shown in some of edited scenes were underage by US standards, but some people have analyzed both versions and have found that most of the sequences could have stayed in the film. There has been plenty of discussion in the anime community about these cuts, but after reading about all of it both before and after watching Kite, it's a bunch of smoke and mirrors in my opinion. The cuts made to the film do not alter the concept significantly, and they actually add some subtlety to the film. I could certainly reason from what was shown what had happened off-screen, and I have absolutely no desire to see it in more graphic fashion. Considering the lack of subtlety in the violence, it was nice that something was not so graphic. This may not have been the way it was originally shown in Japan, but it did not bother me in the least. The only question in my mind is how MediaBlasters, the company who released Kite in the States, could find this title palatable for general audiences in any respect. I have no doubt that this film as shown in the US now would be too violent to receive an R rating from the MPAA, and that's with only implied sexual content.
So my final opinion? I honestly wish I liked Kite better. The action is fine and the artwork is incredible, but the story cannot hold the weight its creators have placed upon it. It is so graphic and so violent that it loses part of the thrills you expect in an action picture. It is not original and it is not pleasant. I am sure that it will be a favorite in college dorms for a few years as a "look at this!" kind of title, but I doubt it will bring many fans into the genre, and it will likely scare many people away from anime. I only wish that Umetsu would tone down the content in his films and bring his stylistic genius to a show that general audiences could enjoy, because that could truly bring anime into the mainstream for American audiences.
Kite -- extremely graphic violence, brief nudity, adult situations, profanity -- C