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Movies and comic books have plenty in commondisreputable origins, visual storytelling, larger-than-life charactersso why can’t they just get along? Already this year, Hollywood has failed to click with Daredevil, the Hulk, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although the second X-Men movie wasn’t as dull as the first. Now, with the summer-blockbuster season fading, come two comics adaptations from further afield: American Splendor is derived from Harvey Pekar’s long-running autobiographical series, featuring perhaps the least heroic comics protagonist ever, whereas The Princess Blade is from Japan, where comic books are as commonplace as green tea.
Underground comics haven’t yielded as many movies as Marvel and DC’s superhero franchises, but American Splendor fits into a small and sporadically growing tradition. Working as a VA-hospital file clerk in Cleveland, Pekar was inspired to script real-life comic-book vignettes by his friendship with onetime Clevelander R. Crumb, the subject of a documentary by Terry Zwigoff, who later brought Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World to the screen. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s adaptation of Pekar’s work falls between Zwigoff’s two films. It’s partially a semifictional feature, with slump-shouldered Paul Giamatti as Pekar and deadpan Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner, who marries him midway through the story. But the directors (whose previous film was a documentary about the closing of a Hollywood in-crowd restaurant) can’t resist adding footage of the actual Pekar and Brabner, as well as a few of the crabby clerk’s eccentric co-workers.
Perhaps this multileveled approach is justified by American Splendor’s visual discontinuity. Because Pekar doesn’t draw, in the comic’s 27 years of publication he’s been depicted by many artists, including Crumb (played in the film by James Urbaniak). Even so, the published Pekar has a consistency the cinematic one lacks. With the real Pekar offering scratchy-larynxed voice-over commentary on the actions of Giamatti’s embodiment of himself, and the drawn Pekar intruding in both still and animated form, the movie seems unsure that the everyday life of a Cleveland paper pusher is sufficiently diverting.
Maybe it isn’t. Anyone who’s even sort of followed Pekar’s rise to semi-celebrity can guess which incidents from his life will be dramatized: Pekar browses flea markets for rare jazz and blues records; begins his comic and becomes an underground notable; has a blunt, hasty courtship with Brabner, his tart soul mate; serves as a freak of the week on David Letterman’s ’80s TV show (a gig that ends when Pekar decides to attack NBC parent GE’s nuclear connection); and survives cancer to become a foster parent. Through it all, Pekar is at best unimpressedat worst, he’s ready to explode at such nemeses as old Jewish women who linger at supermarket checkouts. (A bush-league Lenny Bruce, Pekar argues that he’s allowed to single out these matrons because he’s a “Yid” himself.)
So far American Splendor has been well-received by critics, both for its large conceptual flourishes (it’s as much a meta-movie as Adaptation) and its small details (working-class vibe, Rust Belt locations, performers who don’t look as if they’ve just arrived from a fashion shoot). Still, the film is more interesting for what it isn’t than for what it is. Although outfitted with two versions of “Ain’t That Peculiar” and a closing Pekarian disclaimer”don’t think this is some happy ending”Berman and Pulcini’s movie just can’t be as weird or as alienating as it wishes. In fact, the ending does seem pretty happy, and Giamatti’s performance is just another in a string of recent skillful but hollow portrayals of losers, mostly by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. Although American Splendor labors to be authentic, it ultimately departs from its source by caring about something the comic-book Pekar never considered: entertainment value.
In the United States, animated films are for kids, so Hollywood must struggle to convert drawn characters to live action every time it undertakes a PG- or R-rated comics flick. Japanese filmmakers don’t face that problem. Because just about everyone in that country watches anime, comics are routinely made into animated movies and TV series meant for adult audiences. The team that made The Princess Blade was actually taking a risk by adapting Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura’s comic as a live-action film. Still, director Shinsuke Sato did begin with two significant assets: Hong Kong fight choreographer Donnie Yen, whose résumé includes Shanghai Knights and Blade II, and star Yumiko Shaku, a popular Japanese TV personality and winner of the 2000 All-Japan Swimsuit Grand Prix.
Koike is best known for Lone Wolf and Cub, a manga about a masterless samurai who wanders the country with his young son. (The series was the source for, among other things, Road to Perdition.) Sato’s film of Koike and Kamimura’s Shirayukihime (“Princess Snow White”) is also the tale of a solitary samurai, but a female one who lives in an era not unlike our own. Set in the near future in an unidentified country that’s sequestered from the outside worldas Japan was in its feudal periodthe movie opens with an attack by the Takemikazuchi, a clan of assassins who still use samurai swords in an age of cars and guns. Among the Takemikazuchi’s most effective killers is almost-20-year-old Yuki (the agile, pretty, and blank Shaku), who ruthlessly slaughters members of a rebel group seeking to overthrow the government. Then an old Takemikazuchi defector informs Yuki that it was the clan’s current leader, Byakurai (Kyusaku Shimada), who killed her mother. Yuki turns against her cohorts, and by chance takes refuge with Takashi (Hideaki Ito), one of the rebels.
That synopsis doesn’t mention all the battle scenes, but it does cover the bulk of the plot. Whereas most manga-derived movies are choked with incident, The Princess Blade does little more than leap from fight to fight. (Yuki, who gets thoroughly cut up more than once, is a fast healer.) Sato and co-scripter Kei Kunii do briefly broach a few themes: While Yuki struggles to quit the right-wing Takemikazuchi, Takashi attempts to renounce his left-wing terrorist cell. Yuki, who’s never known anything but swords and killing, must acknowledge her femininity, symbolized rather obviously by the white dress Takashi gives her to wear after she removes her shredded, blood-soaked black combat attire. And of course there’s that samurai- (and cowboy-) flick standby, the essential aloneness of the frontier fighter.
Shot mostly in forests, run-down industrial sites, and the remote gas station where Takashi lives, The Princess Blade offers none of the neon-dappled cityscapes so common in Japanese and Hong Kong movies. That adds to the stark, blue-tinted atmosphere and frees the filmmakers from having to show what this particular Tomorrowland looks like. Although it was clearly made on a modest budget, the movie seldom appears cheesy. (The weakest link is Kenji Kawai’s sub-Prokofiev score.) The action sequences, which are the film’s reason to exist, are fluid, kinetic, and visceral.
What they aren’t is particularly Japanese, at least in the sense of classic samurai films. Like Yuki herself, the movie is grimly efficient, and not much interested in the moral nuances of Kurosawa or Mizoguchi. The result is an Asian equivalent of the contemporary European genre-flick co-production: visually adept but dramatically undernourished. Compared to such recent East Asian soulful-assassin fables as Suzuki Seijun’s Pistol Opera and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s Fulltime Killer, Sato’s film lacks personality. For anyone who just wants the flash of samurai steel unencumbered by all that period-picture baggage, however, The Princess Blade cuts to the quick. CP