Mamoru Oshii is one director who has always impressed me with his execution of mood, human angst, thought-provoking themes and style such as in the classic anime sci-fi film “Ghost in the Shell” and “Sky Crawlers”. I was quite intrigued when he first came out with his 2001 live action film, “Avalon”; that film was a slow-moving experience that engaged with its narrative and it also had enough action to spark the senses. “Assault Girls” (2009) is a follow up to that film and it takes place in a world where religion and politics has been shunned in place of technology. People’s desires have been transferred into the world of video games. Where “Avalon” placed players in a world where military and tactical skills proved their worth, “Avalon-F” allows players to hone their skills in subterfuge and manipulation against the gigantic worms of this virtual world called “Sand Whales”. (ala-"Dune")
In a futuristic world of virtual reality, three female players Gray (sexy Meisa Kuroki), Colonel (Hinako Saeki) and Lucifer (Rinko Kikuchi) are on the hunt for completing this game level to advance. They all have their different individual approaches but it seems to be that they would be unsuccessful unless they band together and accept a male drifter into their group named Jager (Yoshikazu Fujiki). Putting aside their differences, the four work together to beat the perils of this virtual world and kill the top sand whale which is the final level.
The film opens with an 8-minute long narration that maps out the history of this world we are about to see. Like many of Oshii’s films, he had created a world with its own rules and history and so attention is a must. Unfortunately, the film was already short (70 minutes) and stretching out a scene with a lot of heavy dialogue can be challenging to most viewers. This I believe was an effect of the film’s low budget and rushed production, and as good and ambitious Oshii is, it doesn’t give a very good first impression. The film is shot in both English and Japanese languages, and I appreciated this approach, but the subtitles are oftentimes necessary since there is a lot of mumbling.
Not that the film didn’t have some strong social, human and political commentary going for it. Oshii brings forth certain philosophies that define the story, they are metaphors and even serves us bits of symbolism. The film is a study of human behavior; the strong prey upon the weak, the journey is half the fulfillment of one’s goals (“I haven’t finished eating my bacon!“) and that humans have to work together to achieve a lot more. It also defines the natural human trait to step on its fellow men, humans can betray just as quickly as they can work together for profit. Oshii’s commentary is pretty strong and effective. For me the subtle messages helped the film’s otherwise slow pacing.
It is also good that the actresses looked very seductive and enticing in their game gear. They are the titular characters after all, and Kuroki, Saeki and Kikuchi does have what ti takes to grab my attention with their anime-like posturing and attitude. They actually embody the natures of an audience since men would rather watch hot women in battle gear than watch a man who looks like a sushi chef fight giant worms. There are some bits of witticism and humor as the three bond with the only male character (Jager) in the game. One is more calculating and cunning (Gray), one is playful (Lucifer) and the other is the more determined kind (Colonel) who likes to help (as symbolized with Oshii’s scenes with the snail). Their personalities reflect the choices they make with weapons and abilities (including advanced weaponry and magic), or as they say "points". Jager seemed to be the more practical of the four, and is in it for adventure. There is a lot of mood in the direction and their actions actually mean a lot, so remember that this is a Mamoru Oshii film, you’ll have to learn to read a lot between the lines.
Yes, not much happens in the film and I admit even I wondered at times where the posturing around the desert was really leading up to. So does the movie deliver in the giant worm encounters? Well, the film is rich with visuals and they looked exactly the way they were supposed to look; it is a virtual reality game so the CGI looks real but maintains that video game look. The battles were quick and cool, but it did feel like a game and not much for realism. When a Sand Whale is terminated, it dies and becomes a batch of electrons. I guess while Oshii wanted to express a futuristic way of life in a world of video games, the stakes didn’t feel high enough for it to generate suspense. Yes, the movie is impressive in ways of CGI, set and character designs and it does look like a live-action sci-fi anime. But it lacks a little in the excitement factor; players don’t die and they just become “reset” in this level of the games. It also doesn’t help when the final fight felt a little underwhelming.
Oshii wanted to express a world where human beings can be in total control while in the shadow of authority and he does get this point across; but there really isn't much of a story here which is a disappointment when you consider the brilliant lengths that Oshii's cerebral execution went in his previous movies. “Assault Girls” is an expression of human nature; too bad it wasn’t more complex and polished in direction and plotting, it was decent for a short film; but it did dash my hopes for it since I liked “Avalon”. Good thing the actresses looked really good while fighting worms, but those scenes should have been longer…too bad it wasn’t more compelling than it should’ve been.
RENTAL [2 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
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Assault Girls (アサルトガールズ?) is a Japanese live-action feature written and directed by Mamoru Oshii. In the aftermath of global thermonuclear war, three battle tested women - with an assortment of weaponry - wage war against giant mutant sandwhales in a barren digital landscape, all to achieve points within the virtual reality video game called Avalon. It's here that these beautiful women, known as Assault Girls, must test their fighting skills in an epic virtual battle. As the virtual game begins to unfold, the sparkle of "muzzle flash" begins to fade and assault ships gather overhead. The end is near when suddenly a gigantic super mutation called "Madara Sunakujira" attacks and the battle for survival begins.