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Andrew Osmond reviews Mamoru Oshii’s latest film

In his live introduction to the premiere of Garm Wars The Last Druid at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Mamoru Oshii called his film a “a precise recreation of the delusions in my mind.” While the truth of that statement is only known to Oshii, Garm Wars is certainly embedded in Oshii-land, ticking off the staple themes and existential worries in his work, while finding a new kind of gorgeousness. The flesh-and-blood ‘live’ actors inhabit a painterly fantasy full of giant shapes in sombre skies. Garm Wars is comparable to a dozen other dream creations (the opening suggests a Moebius comic, the last act recalls Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth), but its individuality and detail would be worthy of Terry Gilliam. The only element which is hard not to take for granted is the beautiful but very familiar-feeling score by Kenji Kawai, Oshii’s regular composer.

The film, which often feels more fantasy than SF, was co-produced with Canada, and has an English-speaking cast, hence the weird spectacle of a Japanese film premiere which had to be subbed in Japanese. It’s set on a world of warring tribes, stuck in a limbo where the past is shadowed and warriors fight because… well, just because. The heroine is Kara23, one of a hive of clone warriors who fly mechanical birds (shades of Moebius’s Arzach), and who regularly die and resurrect through the download of collective memories.

Kara’s immediate predecessor saved a trio of refugees, who prove pivotal to the story. One is the gnarled and white-locked heretic Wydd, who’s played by the most recognisable of the cast, Lance Henriksen (Bishop in Aliens). The second is a silver-masked figure whom Wydd claims is a Druid, a supposedly extinct people with access to wisdom from the world’s gods, who left their creation long ago. The third is a Gulas, a fabled four-legged creature who can supposedly bless chosen mortals. The Gulas happens to resemble an animal from our own Earth – a basset hound.

The digital visuals are of the kind which can seem beautiful and boring at once, both because of our modern jadedness with CG and because of Oshii’s characteristic aesthetic distancing. There’s a lot of dust and dimness, especially in the exterior air battles, making the literalist in the viewer long for some sharp photo-realism to compensate. The images in Garm Wars also raise memories of dozens of past ‘virtual’ film fantasies, which were often undistinguished (remember Sky Captain? Or Mirrormask?). Yet if you can give yourself over to Garm, it becomes a far more immersive, satisfying visual experience than its shonky predecessors, thanks to some very skilful blendings of real and computer elements. You can often tell them apart at a glance, but they’re combined very pleasingly, feeling more like matters of degree than different things.

Any Oshii fan will already see from the summary above that the plot is a practically parodic mishmash of the director’s past films. Kara 23 recalls the Kusanagi of the first Ghost in the Shell film, right down to the wires plugging into her back. A cyberwoman title sequence is a respray (albeit a lovely one) of those in GITS and GITS Innocence. The plot shares a great deal with Oshii’s Sky Crawlers (a conflict waged in a limbo ‘present,’ without a real past or future), though the story progresses more like Avalon, becoming a surreal quest. As for the basset hound, bless it, it’s been in Oshii’s movies for the last twenty years; for example, it popped up in Ghost in the Shell’s canal scene. In Garm, it has apparently magical powers, which adds weight to the suspicion that all basset hounds in Oshii’s filmography are literally the same canine, wandering space, time and uncertain reality.

As a quest-adventure, Garm Wars is more accessible than Oshii’s more abstract works. The film’s opening scenes may alienate the viewer, with the sense of an incomprehensible world where people intone incomprehensible dialogue. But the emerging story runs on familiar lines. Kara is forced out of her hive-like society, joining with the Druid, Wydd, the doglike Gulas and a male soldier from a rival tribe. The pacing has the usual Oshii leisureliness, but the story is kicked along by fights – from sky-ship heists to a one-on-one knock-out on a beach – rather than by philosophy speeches. Yet Garm Wars also has the sincere strangeness of an otherworldly SF novel, of the kind that could have been published anytime in the last seventy years, but which mainstream Hollywood would never dare emulate.

The story involves an underplayed relationship between Kara and one of the male characters. This subplot has a subdued but real charm as the humanoids become visibly more ‘human’ in their interactions. Perhaps not coincidentally, there’s more reality in the backdrops to the later scenes, even if they’re cut and pasted. By the last act, Kara’s journey has become truly exciting – only to be derailed by an ending that’s very Oshii-esque, but seems to say nothing that Oshii has not said already, decades before. Still, the familiar conclusion is given some fresh meaning by the vivid journey to get there. It’s also given a different perspective by a brief, poignant moment that comes after the end credits.

Garm: The Last Druid had its Tokyo premiere this evening.

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