Kite (2014) Live-Action Film: What to Expect Given The Original 1998 Version
The trailer for the upcoming live-action adaption for the 1998 anime short film Kite has received a lot of negativity from the internet at large. There are so many unenthusiastic groans from news sites, YouTube comments and message boards, one could almost hear them off screen. If the trailer did not make this obvious enough, Kite tells the story of a high school girl, Sawa, who works as a crime fighter, and the people she meets along the way. In order to make any judgments about the quality of the live action film, it is worth investigating what made the original Kite popular (often called a ‘cult classic’), and contrast the footage presented so far to the anime.
Kite by Yasuomi Umetsu is what would happen if Stephen King and Quenten Tarantino got together and made an animated feature. It was originally a set of short films (OVAs), but was combined together to create the 50-60 minute feature. What makes up the extra 10 minutes of the longer version? Explicit pornography. And since it was between a teenager and a grown man, Kite was banned in several countries. It is highly distracting to say the least. Unless you are in the mood for that style of hentai (anime porn), I would highly recommend to stay away from the uncut version as it disrupts the seriousness of the narrative and brings the level of content to overkill. David R Ellis was originally chosen to direct the live-action adaption but sadly passed away, so Ralph Ziman took up the role. He has directed some highly acclaimed, although unheard of, films like Jerusalema, The Zookeeper and Hearts and Minds. At least on paper the production appears to be in good hands.
Kite is a difficult yet equally important film to watch as it displays the gory, highly sexual aspects of anime that gave it a bad reputation back in the 90’s. The shock value of the elements of sex and nudity in the 1998 anime could have been what created its “cult classic” status. The same could be said for the violence and gratuitous swearing. It is hardly surprising. The entertainment industry loves action and sex, so why not put the two together? Within the first few lines the f-bomb, c and b-word are dropped, which gives an immediate idea of what to expect. Kite brings everything uncomfortable to the extreme and is an enjoyable film if the viewer can ignore all these things. To some, its graphic nature is what brings forth enjoyment. What Kite improves upon compared to others of its time, like Wicked City, is by having an interesting story and sympathetic characters.
From the trailer, and the few sneak preview scenes on Youtube, a number of conclusions can be drawn from what is presented about the film so far. Two scenes are exposed which are almost shot-per-shot replications of the original: the elevator and bathroom scenes. In the elevator scene the anime had exploding heads, and unrealistic proportions of ketchup colored blood flying everywhere. The live action interpretation has a lot less blood, although the basic acts of violence appear to be left intact for the movie. This is an understandable choice as it makes the material more believable, although perhaps less fun. It is easier to show violence than sex in the film, so one can imagine, and hope, that with the over the top violence watered down, the action scenes will provide the same, perhaps greater, measure of entertainment when compared to the original. The animation of Kite exceeded in these action scenes, especially with hand to hand combat. It was also the highlight of the animated piece. Everything you may want to see in an action movie was there: hand to hand combat, guns, explosives, and more. Another given positive of live action film is that one doesn’t have to worry about distributing a budget to accommodate how much characters move.
The swearing is cut down significantly, although not eliminated, which makes it less off-putting to casual action movie goers. In the bathroom scene, the level of detail shown when a character is stabbed is replicated exactly. One of the more disgusting shots, where one man loses his lunch, is also left in. The choreography for the fighting appears to be the same. Funnily enough, it looks less gory than in the animated version. So far the most fun aspects of the anime are replicated to an admirable degree. What about the rape scenes? From a very short scene with Samuel L Jackson’s character and the youthful Sawa, it appears to be replaced with drug abuse, although this is not necessarily bad. Perhaps sexual abuse could still be part of the story, we just may not see it. If it is solely about drug abuse, then there absolutely needs to be changes to allow the story to have the same devastating, shocking, emotional impact. Perhaps more graphic, although non-sexual acts of violence could portray this.
According to an introduction to the trailer by Samuel L Jackson, Kite was filmed in Germany. This is different compared to the original, which one can assume is in Tokyo. It is difficult to tell as it is never explicitly stated. It appears that the crew, like set director Melinda Launspach, did a good job copying the grim feel of locations while retaining an aesthetic, pretty quality from European architecture and interior design. This is a giant step up over the original animated version. Apart from the level of swearing, the most distracting aspect of the film was the awful color composition by Haremi Miyakawa (Bleach). Much like the robot action anime series Gundam Seed, Kite used murky hues with high saturation which should never be seen in the same frame -- there are almost fluorescent greens mixed with orange, gray and red, for example. It looks terrible. The character designs by Madoka Magica animator Yasuomi Umetsu are very typical for the 90’s era. They are not generic by today’s standards but they include lanky features, overly detailed, small eyes and pointed noses- think Sailor Moon. Again, an advantage of live-action film is that any of these outdated stylistic choices are removed -- at least, until another few decades. It gives Kite a new, polished look, which it needed desperately.
A high point that separated Kite from other soulless action stories were the main two protagonists: Sawa and Oburi. They are endearing. The two come across as very kind hearted and innocent when together, but are no doubt holding trauma in their psyches as they are ruthless in combat. There are a few scenes as these characters get to know one another which make you care about them. If these scenes were not here the film would have been nothing but a useless excuse for gore, like Dredd. Do the actors portray this same sense of innocence? It is incredibly hard to tell with the information the viewers are given.
The most promising performance so far is Samuel L. Jackson as Karl Aker, Sawa’s guardian and boss. As the majority of the world knows, Jackson features in many action films. No doubt, he will be playing to his strengths here. Not only that, he played bad guys and drug addicts before he broke into the star he is now, which is very suitable for Karl. Jackson has the same look that Karl does with the finely trimmed beard and outfit. He also has the same nuance to his voice. He seems to be perfect in the role. India Eisley plays Sawa, and she shows promise so far. She has the innocent look, for sure, and strangely enough has red anime hair. Thankfully, it is the original brown in other scenes. Costumes and make up otherwise look nice, thanks to veteran stylist Askia Won-Ling Jacob (The Avengers, Django Unchained). If we ignore Eisley’s role in the cheesy, overdone The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she has had some experience in action films by playing Eve in Underworld: Awakening. The delivery of some of her lines in the trailer are awkward, although it could be the way the film is cut. Callan AcAuliffe plays Oburi. He has a larger resume than Miss Eisley, a more recent role being the young Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and playing Sam in I Am Number Four. His performance is limited and shaky so far. It will be hard to judge how the two protagonists go until the film is released. The only major out of place aspect about the casting is that, while Sawa could easily be Americanized for live action given the way she was drawn, Oburi looked and seemed very Japanese to me. It seems bizarre they didn’t get a Japanese actor to play him. It wouldn’t have been difficult to do. Perhaps his acting will make us forget it when the movie comes out.
The story mostly surrounds Sawa solving mysteries and murdering a few wrongdoers, and her journey for self discovery. I don’t want to spoil it too much. I may have hyped up how gory it is, but just know all the grimness is brought to a satisfying conclusion. It is nice to see bad guys brought to justice in an unjust world. Since the original was only 50 minutes, which does not classify it as a feature film, the story is very simple. This is very likely the reason why the trailer comes across as having a plain, stupid and straight forward story -- because it was not written for feature length running time -- they had the extra sex scenes for that. It is worrisome what the screenwriter(s) may have done to fill the gaps. With any luck it will be some character development or cool action scenes. The make or break of the live-action film will be whether it can deliver on the climax, the ending. It tied all the threads together in a nice little bow and left an impression. To be vague, the live action film will really need to amp up the intensity of the drug abuse if it wants to bring across the same heightening of emotions. In those final scenes, the viewers feel a real sense of danger and hopelessness. If that is not executed correctly a lot of the impact of the story will be lost.
The soundtrack for the animated version by An Fu did not contain any songs although the background music alternates between jazz (during some of the most uncomfortable scenes), piano and traditional oriental music. It is not the sort of thing one would track down to find but it did its job to set mood and add suspense. This will not be hard to top, although the weird dub step music in the trailer seems to be going for a different style. It is hard to say at this point what the music will be like. So far it is not looking great. It would be nice if some spirit of the original was there, even if it is the jazz. Let’s hope documentary music supervisor, Linda Osher will give the original a glimpse and have the same desire to retain some aspects of the original.
The original Kite looked ugly. It had some horrifically graphic scenes, only one of which was actually important, but was overall an entertaining, although overdone action flick. It redeemed itself with the characters even if the story is very straight forward. With the simple story, viewers have their fingers crossed for a film which does not stretch itself out too long, does the characters justice and manages to replicate the intensity of the climax and chilling ending. So far the visual aspects are improved upon, but it will come down to the screenwriter (who is currently unlisted), and the chemistry between Sawa and Oburi’s characters to make or break it. The franchise is meant to be somewhat mindless, B rated fun, so a masterpiece was never part of the picture. The look and the fun is there, but will the substance be? The criticism for the trailer is partially justified, but Kite has potential to redeem itself if the other aspects of the film are done right.
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