Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Puppet Princess

Hollywood is determined to make us think that puppets are scary, when they really aren't.  Whether it's the ridiculous idea that anybody would find Chucky and/ or his "Bride" scary (disturbing, maybe), the Puppet Master  films, Dead Silence,  Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker, Ooga Booga, Black Devil Doll From Hell, and the naturally classic Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong, dolls, toys, and puppets just aren't scary.  At all.

Anything you can slap a frilly pink dress on, a hat with ribbons, and have a tiny tea party with isn't scary.  Anything that can be casually kicked across a room regardless of whether it's holding a knife is not scary.  Are those porcelain eyes creeping you out because they follow you around a room?  A ball-peen hammer can solve that.

Nothing that can be defeated by a ball peen hammer can ever be scary.  Or anything that can be taken out using the phrase "shaken repeatedly by a dachshund."

Also, go ahead and Google all those movie titles to make sure I didn't make any up.  I'll wait.

So, let's look at one of the only things featuring puppets I've ever actually liked: a bizarre little anime called Puppet Princess.

Just a heads up:  there are some screenshots with blood, but I made sure to censor the screenshot showing a bare butt.  Read at your own risk (and you probably shouldn't do it at work).  This film is rated R.


Honestly, I'm surprised I can't think of more anime movies or series that feature puppets other than this and Best Student Council, but that isn't really a "horror" series.

Unless you count "lesbian subtext as subtle as a Roland Emmerich movie" as "horror."

The story opens in feudal Japan, in the darkened hallways of a castle.  As the camera dollys down the hall, we hear distant cries and screams of children, and get flashes of blood splattering against walls and floors.  Four people (ninjas, presumably, based on their clothing) watch through a hole in a board in horror.

The four rush away from the castle, but dark figures are on their tail.  Figures who aren't...quite...right.  That is, they swing their bodies around like rag dolls, and seem impervious to things that would stop most normal people, like having knives thrown into their faces.

Two of the ninjas fall almost immediately because, well, they're pretty generic-looking.  Nobody is going to care.  However, the leader doesn't take it very well.

He orders the last remaining ninja to stay behind and stop their attackers, but winds up getting his face sliced into thirds by one of the "deathless ninjas," as he calls them.  The camera fades to black on the last remaining ninja as the attackers jump towards him.

From there, we go to a history lesson about how warlords were all a bunch of royal jerks way back in the day and would frequently go to war with each other to become more powerful.  The narrator then informs us that this isn't about ANY of those people, but instead focuses on a "ruler of much less significance."

This is Rangiku.  Yes, that is a ridiculously huge box she's carrying.  She's the, and I quote, "the youngest daughter of Hisashige Fumiwatari who was defeated last year by Sadayoshi Karimata."  No, seriously, that's how she introduces herself to people.

She's seeking the master ninja ("and master of magic") Katoh, to help her in her quest.  However, the only person home is the last of the four ninjas from before, nursing his wounds.  He advises her to go on her way, since the ninja she's looking for was apparently so good that the leader he tried to get a job with felt so threatened he had the man killed.  That, people, is why you never try to sound more competent than the person holding the interview at any job you apply for.  They will murder you right there in the conference room.

The two are suddenly attacked by a squad of the "deathless ninja" and a commander who, well, is human, which is when the secret of the box is revealed: it contains several massive puppets that Rangiku controls in combat.

Is that how puppets work?  I've owned a few in my time, and while I've used them to entertain children and freak out house pets, I've never thought of using them to beat the tar out of small armies.
Apparently Hisashige Fumiwatari was the biggest puppet fan who ever lived, since the leader feels the need to point out that "some were missing" after his master took over the castle and killed everyone inside.

The squad leader bolts, but not before giving even more exposition and vowing to kill the "drifter" ninja.  The ninja identifies himself as Yasaburo Manajiri, because he couldn't possibly be this "Mr. Katoh" the princess was looking for.  Rangiku tries to hire Manajiri to help her on her trip, since working the puppets leaves her completely vulnerable to anybody who manages to get past the large wooden cog-filled nightmares.

The two camp out in a cave for the night, and while Manajiri ponders whether or not to accept the princess' offer, she heads to a waterfall to bathe, because that's what everybody does in Japan, right?  You can't find a waterfall anywhere without random women standing around bathing in them.  I heard it from Rick Steves.

Manajiri spies on Rangiku in the pool of water at the base of the waterfall, and decides that the best way to cement the "employer/employee" relationship is to have his way with her body.  Because Japan keeps it classy.

However, when Rangiku doesn't put up the smallest amount of struggle, Manajiri hesitates.  Rangiku resigns herself that if the money she offered Manajiri wasn't enough, she has nothing else to pay him with but her body, although she has no idea what he wants to do with her.  Apparently the birds and bees conversation was left out of Rangiku's education growing up, which is rather surprising since I'm pretty sure they would've explained it quite well using puppets.

However, Rangiku isn't sure Manajiri would really want her body, because, well...

Introducing Mr. "Oh No!" Pumpkin, here to keep innocent eyes from seeing too much.
How did she get that horrific scar, you ask?  Well, it turns out that "enthusiast" doesn't give her father enough credit as to how much he loved puppets.  Apparently he also studied clocks from Spain and Portugal (really?).  He loved to build puppets, but needed "special materials" to make his ultimate puppets.  Such as the flesh from his five year old daughter's back.

....okay, last chance to turn back here, folks.  Don't be reading this at work or where anybody can glance over your shoulder and wonder what the hell you're doing.


....okay?  We all good?

Like I was saying, apparently Rangiku's father thought that the best way to get his materials was to peel it directly from the backs of his children.

Oh, and when that guy came and took over her father's kingdom?  He figured out how to make more "living" puppets, and has been taking children from outlying villages for "parts."

Remember that scene at the beginning of the anime?  Yeah, that was the harvesting phase of the construction process that the ninjas witnessed.

See, this is how you make puppets scary.  The ones in here are huge and impossibly intimidating.  You can't kick them, you can't just climb up something out of their tiny puppet reach.  Add in the whole "harvested from the skins of children" and "alive" thing, and you've got something that a demon-possessed ventriloquist doll or whatever the heck Annabelle is supposed to be.

Manajiri agrees to help her once Rangiku reveals that her quest isn't to avenge her father so much as destroy the doll that "wears her skin."

Later, at a small village, the two come upon a group of children being gathered to be taken in for parts.  Rangiku busts out the second of her puppets and promptly destroys the bad guys who aren't just one step down from slavers, but actually seem to take joy in beating women and children.  I wonder if the job market in places like this just makes sure to put "are you a people person" on the applications, and anybody who puts "yes" gets executed.

The two then storm the nearby castle, going through two of the large puppets just to get through the front gate.   Once inside, they face the squad leader from before and a larger group of the unkillable puppet soldiers.  They manage to restrain the last of Rangiku's giant puppets, but the girl has a plan.

You see, her last puppet isn't just a giant red samurai capable of plowing through troops with just a tug of a string.

It's also apparently packed with pounds of C4 based on the shock wave that the animators lovingly detailed coming out of the fortress once she makes it explode.

However, it appears the leader isn't quite dead, and he's able to impale least, until Manajiri vanishes in a puff of smoke.  It turns out that "legendary ninja" that Rangiku was searching for didn't actually die years ago, and instead simply couldn't get any work because of how he scared all the local lords, so he gave up and became a drifter instead.  A drifter with extremely hairy eyebrows.

He swears allegiance to Rangiku, becoming the princess' first "official" ninja.

So, that just leaves killing Karamata and destroying the puppet.  If only they could resolve the whole thing in one fight instead of two fig-

Okay, I need some outside input here.  On the one hand, a guy being so insane that he has himself be built into an already creepily "alive" puppet built from children's flesh while commanding a living puppet army is pretty darn creepy.

But on the other hand, that thing is completely off-center, weight-wise, and looks pretty darn stupid.  Does he sit around all day like that?  Does he go anywhere like that?  How does he use the bathroom?  Where does he go to eat?  Does the puppet part kill anybody who serves him food?

Unfortunately, a guy with a puppet built around him is apparently faster and stronger than your typical ninja, and Manajiri/Katoh spends a couple of minutes getting smacked around and coughing up blood.   However, he is able to lure the fight up to the roof of the building, where a surprise is waiting for the bad guy.

"But wait," you're asking your computer monitor in the futile hopes it can answer you, "how is she controlling three puppets at once?"

Well, that's the trick.  It turns out Rangiku can't control more than one at a time, and as Karamata slices through the dolls, they vanish into smoke.  At this point, Manajiri/Katoh reveals his true name (spoiler alert: he's the master ninja), and as one more puppet darts towards Karamata, he "pffts" at fighting it because it'll just be another illusion.

Katoh, at this point, helpfully informs him that he can only make illusions of things he's seen, and he hasn't seen that one before.  The doll plunges a blade-tipped fan into Karamata's center mass, ripping apart a few of the gears around him.  The doll's mask falls away revealing that Rangiku (who previously couldn't take more than a dozen steps without tripping), was able to run along the rooftop amidst the random bursts of steam and plunge the weapon into the man who killed her father and the horrible abomination he now wore.

This causes the doll's gears to go into overdrive (I'd have to spend a lot more time studying the doll to figure out why this happens, but I think at that point I'm paying more attention to it than the artist), and as the doll explodes into pieces, the strain of it pulling itself apart also manages to rip Karamata in half.

That's a pretty good way to make sure the bad guy's actually dead.

Rangiku and Manajiri leave the tower after they set it on fire, and because this is Japan, Rangiku suddenly remembers that she promised to do "something" with Manajiri at the waterfall, which he desperately tries to backpedal from.  Oh, Japan.

The Good:

This is by no means a great anime, but I really like it.  While I still maintain that possessed dolls and toys are an incredibly stupid hook for a horror movie, I could see puppets and what are essentially clockwork monstrosities controlled by people being terrifying when done correctly.  A simple tug of a string triggers a latch that releases a spring that snaps out a blade, cutting off a head.  An enemy you can't really outfit like you have enough brute power to shatter it to pieces, because it'll simply let you get in close and grab hold.

And that whole "undead army built from gears and the flesh of children" ... man, that's just sixteen layers of creepy and a really good way to get someone to hate your villain (as well as the hero's father) without any effort.  Strangely enough, while I can't accept Satan chilling out in a Teddy Ruxpin, I'm willing to accept a combination of dark arts (see: skin) and gears creating some unnatural chimera of life and machine.

The Bad:

Honestly, the only things that are bad are the things that make it truly Japanese.  The naive young woman who doesn't understand that a guy was going to sexually assault her, the random pratfalls, and the corny dialogue keep it from reaching the same status as, say, Perfect Blue.  Then again, Perfect Blue was more psychological.

Also, the artwork isn't great.  The faces of a lot of the people are twisted up into grotesque features, and while I'm not sure that "over-drawn" is used in such a way, it's just a bit beyond the perfect level of "realistic facial expressions" and "horror."


A Japanese "horror" story I genuinely like, Puppet Princess isn't anything too original or brilliantly told, but the intriguing hook it does have (seriously, when have you ever seen anybody control a giant fighting machine from the outside before?) is enough to keep my interest.  I liked the two heroes (despite the near-assault), and felt the story did a good job of getting itself from point A to point B with just a little bit of over-exposition.

Considering it's an anime, a "little bit" of over-exposition is pretty amazing, actually.

It's not going to (and didn't) win any awards, but I still enjoyed it.

So, what's in store for day two of Halloween Month?  We're going to dig into video games for a bit, because making a video game that's actually scary instead of just a continuous series of jump-scares is apparently really difficult.

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