Friday, February 08, 2008

[DVD] Princess Raccoon (Operetta Tanuki Goten) (2005)

I Sing and Dance in Japanese

I guess playing a Japanese character or acting in a Japanese movie doesn't warrant as much an uproar as having to play a Japanese geisha. And of course no prizes to be given out if you can guess why I would want to watch Princess Raccoon in the first place - that Zhang Ziyi is one of the leads in a Japanese movie, has piqued enough interest to pop the DVD into the player.

The story is a simple one, which somewhat resembles that of Snow White. King Azuchi (Mikijiro Hira) is a terribly vain man, and like Snow White's evil stepmother, cannot stand for his offspring to be more beautiful (yes) than himself. So he hatches a plan to get rid of him, first by getting him murdered, failing which exile doesn't seem that bad of an alternative as well. So Prince Amechiyo (Jo Odagiri) accidentally journeys to the forbidden grounds at the foot of Mt Kairasu, where he meets with the Raccoon Princess Tanukihime (Zhang Ziyi), and thus it becomes a tale of forbidden love, as he's human, and she's obviously not, and goes through its Romeo and Juliet routines.

But as it is, the plot is somewhat meandering and plodding. While its central structure is clear, it tangents off with a number of subplots, and unless you're in a mood for fantastical elements with magic, deities and all in various surreal scenes, you'll find the story going terribly all over the place. There are too many characters here, and most of them the minor ones that just chalk up the number of casts without adding much to the story, and there perhaps to boast the beautiful costumes.

What takes the cake here is the gorgeous sets and special effects. For the most parts, watching the movie is like watching a stage play, in that the camera pretty much doesn't try anything fancy, nor break the invisible 180 degree rule. It's as if you're sitting in a theatre, and watching events unfold in pretty much the style of a stage musical built on intricately designed sets, with the multitude of songs and dances. What makes this movie unique is the visual presentation, fusing effortlessly the elements of computer generated graphics with live action (though some were deliberately cheesy), and that forms the primary appeal when watching the movie, which is part musical, part kabuki, part opera, nothing less than a visual spectacle.

Zhang Ziyi obviously had her handicap in the movie worked to her advantage. Being a magical raccoon, she speaks in an incomprehensible language (which is Mandarin) to the rest of the Japanese folks, while being able to rote learn and spew by heart her lines in songs, given that they're repetitive in nature. Her acting's her a little over the top and exaggerated, perhaps to complement the operatic elements in the movie.

Pick this up only if you are a completist in wanting to watch the movies in the filmography of Zhang Ziyi, or love graphics, sets and beautiful visuals. Otherwise the story is likely to bore you to death.

The Region 1 DVD by Geneon Animation presents the stunning visuals in a gorgeous anamorphic widescreen presentation, and audio is in Japanese DTS 5.1 or Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 with English subtitles. Scene selection is available in 20 chapters.

The only extras included in the DVD is a Behind the Scenes, which is subtitled in English and presented in full screen. It begins with the first meeting of Zhang Ziyi and director Seijun Suzuki back in 2004, speaking through translators, and the fitting of costumes, to the first day of shooting where she had to learn the dances, and later on, her lines in Japanese. Co-star Jo Odagiri also had substantial time dedicated to his role, before we get introduced to the rest of the supporting cast. Despite his age, Seijun Suzuki is still quite sprightly and still very much a hands on director. Given the running length of 47 minutes, it is also split up into 12 chapters which you can scene select.

A text based DVD Credits round up the extras.

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