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Assault Girls

December 29, 2009

Assault Girls (Japan, 2009)

Mamoru Oshii is a director whose output is partly unknown even among many of his own fans. The director is well known around the world for anime films such as Ghost in the Shell (1995), but his extensive live action output has often been ignored outside the director’s native country. Assault Girls is an example of a film that will probably take many international viewers by surprise, despite having its roots deep in the Oshii jungle.

The history of Assault Girls can be traced back to 2006, when Oshii directed a film called The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters. This animation feature was considered too obscure for wider international distribution. In Japan, however, it spun a 25 minute live action spin off The Women of Fast Food (2006), which was followed by feature length sequel Shin onna tachiguishi retsuden (2007). It was in this episode film that Assault Girl made her debut. The sci-fi story followed a female warrior, Colonel (Hinako Saeki), fighting gigantic snake creatures on a deserted planet. Assault Girl 2 was released next year as a part of the episode film Kill. Unrelated to the original and leaning more towards art house than action, Assault Girl 2 depicted the symbolic fight between the archangels Michael (Yoko Fujita) Lucifer (Rinko Kikuchi).

A feature length extension of the concept, Assault Girls is a combination of its predecessors, as well as Oshii’s 2001 movie Avalon. The characters are players of a revolutionary game, Avalon, in which players dive into a virtual world in artificial bodies modeled after their own. The goal is to advance to higher levels by destroying gigantic snake monsters. Players of this game include Colonel and Lucifer, as well as new acquaintances Gray (Meisa Kuroki) and Jäger (Yoshikatsu Fujiki).

Despite being already the second movie dealing with the Avalon concept, it’s this virtual world that is Oshii’s film’s biggest potential pitfall. Death in the game has no consequences other than negative score. As a result, audiences are unlikely to feel much thrill over characters surviving battles. Oshii’s solution has been to largely ignore the issue. Apart from Jäger, whose poor success provides the director with an opportunity for some video game humor, the characters are rarely in danger of losing their life, and none of them ever “logs off” from the game. Beginning excluded, the entire film takes place in the fantasy world. Viewers are kindly requested ignore some logical issues and to lower their brain activity level.

The latter is also true to the philosophical dimension, which, apart from the terrific opening scene explaining future world history and human agony, hardly exists. The film consist of two types of scenes; huge battles, which are in fact rather few, and long sequences in which characters travel on the mountainous wasteland looking for new battles. It’s these slowly paced but rather beautifully shot sequences where Oshii’s more poetic side shows every now and then. There’s even a small dog the characters encounter, although it’s not the director’s dear dachshund that has been seen in many of his other movies.

It is not, however, peace and poetry that is in the heart of Assault Girls. Rather, it’s weapons pornography. Each of the film’s characters is armed to the teeth. Explosive fight scenes are preceded by endless close ups of large caliber rifles and grenade launchers. In battlefield the rapid fire only pauses to make room for rocket showers. Heavy firepower is provided by battle planes that take the characters up in the sky. An exception to the rule would be the fallen angel Lucifer, who, carrying beautiful black wings on her back, has little need for technology miracles or traditional artillery.

Due to the nature if the film, Assault Girls is indeed a CGI fest. The computer generated opponents may not please everyone, but it would make little sense to criticize them as unreal looking when even the film itself explains them as virtual creations. Nevertheless, Oshii has stated he could have achieved better results if there had been more money available. The director’s demand for artistic freedom, and the over-supply of American fantasy spectacles in Japanese movie theatres, does however keep Oshii’s budgets relatively small. Assault Girls was not a huge release in Japan. In the opening week it played in Tokyo in two relatively small theaters. The lack of wide distribution is compensated to some extent by cast and crew visits, and extensive supplementary product selection in those few theaters the film has landed.

At 70 minutes and with minimal storyline Assault Girls still feels something of an intermediate form between a short film and feature length movie. Within its own limits it does, however, provide highly satisfying video game style girls with guns service. It may not find a very large audience, although Oshii’s decision to shoot the film almost entirely in English does increase the export potential. Subtitles may still be in place, though, as the Japanese cast does suffer from the Sukiyaki Western Django –syndrome of challenging pronunciation. Thankfully, dialogue is hardly a top priority in the film, and the narrator / game master is actually voiced by a native speaker, Ian Moore.

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