Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) starts, as must all retro films, with a black-and-white sequence in limited aspect as if it was somehow comparable to the original Yellow Brick road thing that everyone still talks about. This is not unsuccessful but, for once, the music by Danny Elfman is all wrong. It’s far too knowing and fails to grace the visual intention with period charm. So proving we really are in Kansas, we’re off with barkers calling credulous townsfolk on to the the midway which offers the talents of the small-time magician, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), playing to a half-empty tent. Inconveniently overcome by a sense of realism, he admits he can’t help a crippled girl walk. He’s a conman, not a miracle worker, rising up from a hick farm with dreams of being a great magician like Houdini. After a moment when he almost does the right thing with a girl who loves him, he runs away from the jealous strongman and into the hot-air balloon. Faced with death, he promises to do great things if only he can be saved from the twister that inevitably appears. Except the point of the original conceit was to show us that Dorothy was having a dream. That’s why the characters from the black-and-white preface show up again in technicolor. Yet in this prequel, our hero must move permanently into Oz so he can be there to meet with Dorothy later on. It’s therefore pointless to have the same people in both the human and the magical worlds.
Anyway, no natter what the justification, we’re into full colour as we enter the world of magic. Given the quick changes of scenery and the transformation of petals into butterflies, he quickly works out he’s somewhere different. The river fairies are pleasingly malicious in a slightly fleeting, non-threatening way. Theodore the Good Witch (with a bad temper) (Mila Kunis) then tells him of the prophecy that a wizard will come to free the people and become their King (with all the gold that goes with the role). He’s naturally attracted. Having saved Finlay, the flying monkey, from the lion, Theodora leads him to the Emerald City where he must convince everyone of his wizardly credentials. Waiting for him is Evanora (Rachel Weisz). He sees the treasure which is a good motivator, but the price of the throne (and the treasure) is that he kills the wicked witch. And we’re off into the quest bit of the film, but because this is a Disney film, the flying monkey is like Jiminy Cricket, a walking conscience (forget the flying bit while he’s carrying the human’s heavy bag). In short order we come to the China (Tea Set) City which is an interesting visual idea. The broken china figurine (Joey King) is a fragile and tragic figure with a broken leg and, unlike her human counterpart back in Kansas, is instantly repairable with glue conveniently imported from the human world. It seems the Wicked Witch sent her minions to destroy the city because the people were celebrating the arrival of the wizard. Our hero specifies no dolls on the witch hunt except she cries herself a river and gets taken along for the ride. And this is really the problem. Every film which sets off down this road has to strike a balance between cute and frightening. This is definitely unbalanced in the wrong direction.
The studio’s intention is a kind of conscious parallelism with the original 1939 classic musical which was cute (all that singing with Munchkins dancing militates against the fear factor rising). Ignoring the intellectual property problems in replicating the bits of cinema owned by the “other studio”, this modern band of copyright thieves with their own team of attorneys in action at every point, sets off down the appropriately coloured road to prequelise the original, i.e. borrowing just enough of the iconography to be a “Wizard of Oz” film. But the parallelists have a dilemma. They are not proposing to make a musical and they are including three witches, at least one of whom is wicked, so this could be scary. But if it’s really really scary, it might frighten the kids, so parents won’t bring them through the doors and make back the cost of production (which at $215 million is substantial with all that CGI). Actually it’s earned about $480 million worldwide, i.e. it’s not doing too badly. So what they’ve actually put on the screen is a cardboard version of a fantasy film. Even the least sophisticated of child viewers will yawn as they go through the Dark Forest. Worse, despite the occasional knowing comment, e.g. about stereotyping flying monkeys and their like of bananas, the script is leaden and the acting wooden (or bone china as the case may be). Eventually, our hero meets Glinda (the Good or the Bad or the not yet Ugly) (Michelle Williams) who suggests Evanora is the real wicked witch. Now there’s one of the twists!
Of course, when you get three sisters and a handsome if cardboard man, they can quickly grow jealous. But, predictably, the passage through the magic testing wall shows our hero to be hiding a kindly soul. So now comes the moment of truth when he ought to tell his audience that he ain’t no wizard, no siree! He’s weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and not at all what the Ozians were expecting to come and save them. Except Glinda, who’s seen through his transparent disguise as a real human being, urges him to continue the myth to maintain civilian morale. So the famers farm, the Tinkers featuring Bill Cobbs make stuff, and the Munchkins sing for ten seconds. But none of this motley crew can actually kill anyone or thing. That makes them the perfect army with which to fight the Wicked Witch (whoever she is). We then descend into mawkish sentimentality as our newly fearless leader decides anything is possible when you believe in at least one impossible thing before breakfast (that’s not counting the crispiness of cornflakes, of course).
So what is this hero actually made of? He’s a womanising bastard who loves them and leaves them. Indeed that’s one of the reasons why he almost immediately gets into trouble in the new world. Quite why the film-makers thought such a man would be a good influence on this new world is baffling as his bedroom eyes transfix each of the sisters in turn. Hey but this is a Disney film for children, right? That means no sex scenes just seduction with implied consequences. Oh yes, and because this is a Disney film, we have to include an apple scene (to avoid repeating the cliché, the victim does not immediately fall asleep — unlike the audience). In the end, this is a classic Disney family-values film in which even the China Girl gets her wish granted. All of which makes Oz the Great and Powerful one of the worst blockbuster films with which to start off the 2013 campaign for box office glory.
Let’s imagine a world in which supernatural powers are real. Up to this point in time, only a few people have developed these powers so it’s been possible for a small number of elite teams within an organisation calling itself Solomon, to keep them under control. The most effective approach was always elimination — simply trying to lock up someone who might have the power to knock down walls is less than practical. But, with a better understanding of genetics comes the ability to identify those who might “awaken”. If you can take them in hand before they become a danger to others, you might actually train and recruit them into your “police” force.
We are therefore into an interesting area of morality. A number of those with these powers are genuinely dangerous so their arrest or elimination is necessary for the protection of the mass of society. Yet the authorities do not wish unnecessary alarm. Governments therefore deny the existence of supernatural abilities, even concealing the “truth” from the conventional police forces. This secrecy has been agreed between world government leaders and the Roman Catholic Church since it has had the most experience in dealing with phenomena classified as possessions over the centuries. Such agreements are wonderful when negotiated by governments. Representatives are one step removed from the reality. Their motivations are also complex. Underlying it all is fear. Traditional methods of manipulation and domination only work if the mass of people can be controlled by conventional policing. If sufficient numbers of people recognise they have some degree of immunity from authority by virtue of their powers, they become a real threat. Governments could fall, to be replaced by those with the strength to insist on their right to lead.
People in power always feel they have the right to defend themselves and, of course, thereby the people they govern. So having those with the gene act as your policing agency is dangerous. What keeps them loyal? Even if you spy on them, how can you know whether they are conspiring with the “wild” talents to bring you down. How much better it would be if you could replace all these “natural” talents with super-soldiers. With the power to turn their powers on and off, you control whether they can threaten you. So there must be research into precisely how this gene works. Can its effect on the human body be replicated? This is a delicate time for all.
Witch Hunter Robin focuses on the Japanese unit of Solomon whose active members comprise Michael Lee, a hacker serving out a period of detention, but now using his skills for “good”, Haruto Sakaki who is young, inexperienced and likely to get into trouble, Miho Karasuma who is a kind of walking CSI, using her powers to interrogate objects and places to “see” who was present and what they were doing, and Yurika Dojima who is the most interesting as the true nature of her role emerges.
It all begins as Robin Sena arrives as a replacement for a lost member of the team. This is her first posting to Japan even though she was born there. Her early years were spent in a convent in Italy. As a result she’s somewhat shy. Her powers, though, are potentially strong. Except something seems to be holding them back. Her “secret mission” is to investigate whether there’s any truth to the stories of a talisman that enables those with her “craft” to reach higher levels of performance. After some confusion, she’s teamed with Amon. This is a slightly Gothic romance in the making. She’s sexually repressed but potentially powerful. He’s older and obviously has an aura of danger and mystery about him. One of the first things she discovers is the Japanese use of a strange green liquid called Orbo. It appears to act as a kind of shield for those who carry it. It also absorbs the powers of witches and is used in darts to subdue “wild” witches. After a slightly slow opening in which we observe the team at work, we home in on the three key issues. What is this talisman that Robin has been tasked to find? What exactly is Orbo and where does it come from? What happens to the “wild” witches when they are taken off to the Factory?
Inside the Walled City, Robin tracks the talisman, eventually coming into possession of her full powers as a witch. In this she’s assisted and protected by Amon and a part of the fascination of the serial is watching how they move past mutual suspicion and eventually join forces. All this takes place against the background of competing research projects by both the Japanese unit and Solomon which, working with the assistance of Father Juliano Colegui — Robin’s mentor and legal guardian in Italy — has been advancing its own understanding of genetic manipulation.
So, if what you want is supernatural mayhem, this serial provides an escalating series of fights as different levels of skill are pitted against each other. In the early episodes, we see the inexperienced threats taken down quite easily. Towards the end, the professionals emerge from the shadows and we begin to see how far the craft may be able to develop. The reality of the talisman or relic is also a pleasing idea. It’s an application of the old adage that knowledge is power. In this case, it’s also empathy and understanding. Perhaps all you need, sometimes, is to be able to see the world through a new pair of spectacles. This might give you a different perspective.
But the serial is significantly more than fighting. The complexity of the relationship between Robin and Amon holds everything together as she grows into her powers. There’s uncertainty and not a little fear but, in the end, she emerges from the shell that was built around her in the convent and enters the real world of adult emotions. With that comes the confidence of someone who finally understands herself and how she relates to the world, past and present. For once, this is anime treating a female lead with respect. Indeed, none of the female characters are drawn as a sex objects. For most of the serial, all the women are demurely dressed with Robin herself almost completely covered, wearing clothes not unlike the habit you might expect a nun to wear. Except when she goes on the run, of course. Then she must grow into the role of a bicycle courier with a nifty helmet and cool shades. It makes a welcome change to see women allowed to be competent without the artists wanting to look up their skirts.
In all the good senses of the word, this is an adult serial. Today, many use “adult” to refer to the market for pornography and, in the case of much manga and anime, there’s a considerable amount of soft porn to be found (see Sex, Manga and Anime). Witch Hunter Robin does not fit into this model. It’s a story raising intelligent issues about how society relates to an individual or a subculture that is “different”. Should a people challenge their own prejudices and try to assimilate or accommodate difference in some way or, as in the Japanese reaction to outsiders, maintain a policy of excluding the different from society, if necessary, permanently. In Japanese culture, the precondition to being an ‘insider’ is to be born Japanese. A non-Japanese is Gaijin, an ‘outsider’. Robin herself is anomalous in these terms. She was born in Japan but too clearly shows European sensibilities. Even without her talents, she would be considered a foreigner to be driven away. To this extent, this serial is written for adults who like to think about social issues while watching some good fighting.
The serial was created by Hajime Yatate (the house name collectively for the creative staff at Sunrise) and Shukou Murase, and produced by Sunrise. Throughout all, the music of Taku Iwasaki is literally spellbinding. It’s one of the best scores produced for an anime and I recommend you acquire a copy. Put all this together and you have one of the better anime serials of the last decade. It’s not outstanding because it’s poorly paced. The first set of episodes are interesting, but do not advance the plot. Once the script allows us to work out who’s doing what to whom and why, it’s almost going too fast as one revelation follows quickly upon another. So redistributing the elements and restructuring them into a more coherent narrative would have produced the ideal result. Nevertheless, Witch Hunter Robin remains highly watchable and one of the better serials for those who like intelligent supernatural mayhem. As always, I’m indebted to Autumn Rain for the screen shots.