Of those reading, the less hardcore fans of anime may find it hard to believe that this is Mamoru Oshii's first directorial effort since his 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell. Oshii has become a name that many Western distributors attach to a project so as to gain attention (much like John Woo and Tsui Hark in the Hong Kong movie world), take Jin-Roh (Oshii takes the writing credit) for example, and the more recent Blood: The Last Vampire (Oshii is Planner/Producer) - due to the advertising of these titles you could be forgiven for thinking that Oshii directed them himself. But no, after a 6 year hiatus as director Oshii finally released his next project, the live action film, Avalon, to Japanese Audiences early this year and thanks to the excellent coverage at AICN and a pair of intriguing trailers my appetite was significantly wetted that I opted to purchase the Japanese DVD release.
Set in the near future, based in Poland (this film is shot entirely in Polish), Avalon is an illegal virtual reality war-gaming experience that has become an obsession for the disillusioned youth of society. Our heroine Ash is a 'Class A' solo warrior who yearns to conquer the game so as to reach the fabled 'Special Class A' level. A chance encounter with an old team-mate reveals that another team-mate from the past is now an 'unreturned' (the game can send players into a permanently vegetated state, these players are then referred to as the 'unreturned'), the reasons for this appear to be related to a secret character in the game, a 'ghost' who will lead those worthy enough into the realm of 'Special Class A', but for many contact with the 'ghost' will result in them becoming one of the 'unreturned'. After discovering this information Ash decides to form a team so she can locate this 'ghost' with the aim of entering the world of 'Special Class A'.
After my first viewing of Avalon I was left with a feeling of awe, a myriad of thoughts and questions, as well as a sense of confusion! From the pen of Kazunori Ito (co-writer of Ghost in the Shell), Avalon leaves you with more questions than answers in much the same way Oshii's Ghost in the Shell did. But for the same reasons that Ghost in the Shell worked (an intriguing story with a high level of intelligence) Avalon does too, and rather than leave you disheartened and irritated (like many poorly written science fiction films) Avalon makes for a more thoughtful experience that leaves you wanting for more (like Ghost in the Shell, and even Akira), making it thoroughly re-watchable as you try to flesh out exactly what happens in the final reel. The acting is generally solid all round with the main star in particular, our heroine Ash, being superbly portrayed by Malgorzata Foremniak who exhibits a great sense of vulnerability in the real world and much like today's games players, she becomes a confident protagonist when she enters into the virtual world of Avalon. It is within this world (of Avalon) that the only slight disappointment comes about, the trailers suggested a non-stop ride of action based thrills, instead there are just three main sequences set inside the world of Avalon and although they are all superbly realised I was left wanting just that little bit more.
Anyone who has seen an Oshii film (whatever part he had in it) will know that he likes to create a visually stunning experience for the viewer. Avalon is no different. The opening 8 minutes consist of Ash playing through a level in the virtual reality world and these opening minutes are utterly astounding! The world of Avalon is exactly the same as our own, however within this world the players have enhanced abilities as well as various weapons at their disposal, it is also in these opening minutes that we are treated to our first glimpse of the stunning use of computer graphics. Rather than creating a tacky looking computer generated world Oshii has digitally enhanced the Avalon sequences to give the real life locations a unique appearance, as well as add some outstanding death animations (that look great) and the occasional enemy vehicle. The world of Avalon has an almost sepia tone to it, but when we see Ash in the real world the visual style does not change all that much, moving more into the realms of black and white filmmaking while certain objects (like computer screens or food) are visualised in full colour, allowing them to stand out all the more than they usually would. Oshii sites his choice to film in Poland as one of going against the mould (the same reason he chose to use Polish actors), others would suggest it reduced the budget on a film that required heavy use of special effects (that were polished by Industrial Light and Magic), whatever the reason the European locations make for a perfect setting, both in the virtual reality world of Avalon and the dreary real world where Ash resides. The mixture of locations, cinematography and computer graphics creates what is at first an amazing visual experience, but there is a sound reasoning behind what many will say is Oshii attempting (and succeeding) to be artistic. What this combination allows for is the creation of a simply stunning appearance for the unveiling of the 'Special Class A' world, and it is a look so devastatingly simple that it will blow your mind!
The score, from Kenji Kawai (who worked with Oshii on Ghost in the Shell, but more recently created the haunting music featured in Ring and Ring 2) is worthy of note due to the fact that it is one of the most memorable I have heard in a long time. Throughout he will captivate you with his superb creations, mixed in with some interesting Opera (it works, trust me!) and finished off with the single most invigorating track I have heard in a long time, Kawai really rounds off Avalon by making it into a true audio-visual feast.
I think it is quite obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed Avalon. For all of the reasons already cited this is a superb follow up project from Oshii, but for many more it becomes a film myself and others will instantly love, but for the same reasons many will take an instant disliking to it. If you have seen Ghost in the Shell then you will know what to expect, there are several scenes in Avalon where Oshii likes to sit back and watch the world in motion, what I see as thought provoking opportunities to enjoy the audio-visual showcase on offer many others will see as pointless and sleep inducing. These segments, combined with a generally slow pace (until the final 30 minutes) mean that many just will not have the patience to enjoy what is still very much a Japanese movie. These same issues have created a wide gap of appreciation for Oshii's other work (Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor in particular) and for that reason alone newcomers would be well advised to locate an easier to obtain (and cheaper) title like Ghost in the Shell.
This Japanese R2 release can be found from numerous sources including site sponsor YesAsia. For the adventurous types there is also a limited 1-year production run of the Avalon - Memorial Box. This 2 disc box-set adds a Polish 6.1 DTS track to the main feature, a second disc containing a 110-minute making of documentary and a 57-minute feature on the visual effects (Japanese only, NO English subtitles) as well as a 290 page booklet on the creation of Avalon (again, in Japanese only).
Presented at its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement Avalon looks, as one would expect for a film released just this year, quite magnificent. With barely a hint of grain and only a few white specs visible the print is otherwise in perfect condition while the transfer handles the various colours schemes and computer effects with ease. Rather than bore you with technical talk I will just state that this is a top quality transfer that is a pleasure to watch.
Out of the two audio tracks provided the obvious choice (even for our Japanese readers) would be the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Polish track which is of course the films original language track. For the most part this track spreads Kenji Kawai's excellent score around the room while dialogue is crisply presented via the centre speaker, and of course any background noise is adequately presented. Where the soundstage really comes to life though is when Ash enters into the world of Avalon, here the Dolby Digital track really kicks in as it is fills the room with the various vehicle sounds, gunfire and again more of that great music - all of which is separated via the surround speakers (and of course your sub will get a decent workout, especially with the various explosions) with great accuracy providing what is in my opinion a superb demo track. Both Japanese and English subtitles are provided using an easy to read white font while the translation on the English track would appear to be of a high calibre with no spelling or grammatical errors.
The only extras available on this standard edition are a selection of trailers. Provided in Anamorphic widescreen with a choice of Japanese 2.0 or 5.1 channel soundtracks are the Original Theatrical Teaser and two Original Theatrical Trailers, totalling around 5 minutes. Also present are two TV-Spots presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, Japanese 2.0 Surround only. Although they are extremely well presented (with high quality transfers to compliment the audio options) they hardly break the mould as far as DVD Extra Features go!
Without a doubt Avalon is one of the most unique films I have seen in a long time. Although it can be a little slow the combination of a fine central performance, incredible visuals, some knockout action sequences, an exciting score and an intriguing story means there is very little to not like about this film and for these reasons it comes highly recommended - with reservations (re-read the final paragraph in the Film section for more).
As far as the DVD presentation is concerned this Japanese release is of course nigh on perfect in both the sound and vision departments although it is somewhat lacking when it comes to the extra features.
Update: Since this review alternative Region 1 and Region 2 UK editions have been released.