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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams (The Story): a.k.a. "Skip the Stage": The Movie

Well, since I just reviewed a movie that was made up of nothing but video game footage, why not review another instance of this happening? Yes, Shenmue the Movie may have been the first time a video game became a movie in the most literal sense, but it certainly wasn't the last. In 2006, Capcom tried their hand at such an absurd concept by making a 2 hour movie out of the last entry of the Onimusha franchise, (Shin/New) Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams. Said movie edit (sub-subtitled The Story in Japan) came out direct-to-DVD in Japan on July 26, 2006, exactly five months after the game had come out in Japan. Taking all of the cutscenes from the game, while also apparently adding in some new ones just for this version, it would become nothing more than an odd bit of trivia until 2013, when Media Blasters picked it up for North American release as one of its first new licenses after nearly dying out. Oddly enough, the DVD is a dual-audio affair (kind of, but we'll get to that later), so let's see if this movie does a good job at explaining the end of Onimusha to people who never played it, like myself.

It's been 16 years since Samanosuke Akechi defeated Nobunaga Oda & his Genma demon army, and Japan has seemingly entered an era of peace that coincides with the end of the Sengoku Era. Unfortunately, the peace doesn't last as Hideyoshi Toyotomi winds up teaming with the Genma in an attempt to take over the world. His plan is to gather all of the Genma trees, twisted masses of humanity, to Kyoto before having them all bloom during the Daigo Blossoming Festival; the trees release Genma insects that transform people into inhuman monsters that show no fear. The only hope to stop him comes from Soki, a "Blue Demon" who is actually Hideyoshi's illegitimate son Hideyasu Yuki. Together with Akane "Jubei" Yagyu (granddaughter of the second Onimusha), Tenkai (a mysterious man who knows Akane's grandfather), Roberto (a Portuguese missionary who wants revenge against his guardian, Luís Fróis), & Ohatsu (a childhood friend of Soki's), they aim to destroy the Genma Mother Tree & hopefully stop the arrival of the Genma's God of Light, Fortinbras.

Whereas Shenmue the Movie did as well of a job as it could with incorporating the gameplay alongside the cutscenes, when needed, Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams doesn't do this at all. In fact, this film can be described with one simple nickname: "Skip the Stage": The Movie. I say it because this movie adaptation is, literally, nothing but the cutscenes from the game. Every single time a stage or boss fight from the game would obviously come next in the timeline, this movie would simply fade to black before fading right back in with the post-stage/fight cutscene. While it does put the story at the forefront of this movie, which already runs at nearly two hours long, it effectively removes most of the actual action that the game was known for. While watching this movie, I honestly kept saying to myself "Skip the Stage!" every time this was obviously done, and even if I had kept tally of how many times I actually said this, I'm sure I would have lost count eventually. I understood that the sub-subtitle of The Story would mean that the gameplay would be removed from the final product, but I seriously didn't expect it to mean that every single millisecond of gameplay would be excised. It really sucks the tension out of what comes before each of these moments, especially with the obvious boss fight sections.

Luckily, this Onimusha does have a strong enough story to help keep the lack of major action from being too debilitating (please note that I am not making judgments about the previous three entries in the franchise with this sentence, but rather I am going to give praise to this entry in particular). The characters are all memorable & enjoyable in their own rights, even if none are based on actual actors, like the previous entries featured. Soki has a great energy to him, and you can really tell that he truly cares about his mission & even his step-father Hideyoshi; as much as he may be an Oni in some ways, he's still a caring human in every way. Akane is a fiesty female warrior (even calling herself "ore" in the Japanese, which is super-rare for females), but luckily her personality doesn't make her annoying or pestering in any way; you care about her mission to kill her uncle Munenori, who has sided with the Genma. The rest of the hero crew don't get quite as much, but thankfully they work well with what they are given. Ohatsu is a caring girl who wants to be with Soki, but still has more to her own story than just being that; she has the most development of the supporting cast. Tenkai & Roberto definitely are given the least, but at least their designs make them memorable. Robert is a tall, muscular man who fights with nothing but his fists & originally only speaks Portuguese, having to come to trust his future allies by their actions more than anything. Tenkai's secret identity is easy to figure out if you just think about it for a few seconds, but the movie doesn't actually play it up in any real way; if you guess it then fine, but otherwise he fits the helpful mystery man motif great.

The villains are all fun in an enjoyably over-the-top fashion. Mitsunari Ishida is an absurdly evil in all of the best ways, even turning the normally honorable Sakon Shima into a killing machine by way of a Genma insect. Fróis, on the other hand, doesn't get much to work with here, with the result being him looking like a portly psychopath; at the very least, it makes you side with Roberto easily. Then there's Yodo, Hideyoshi's concubine & elder sister of Ohatsu, who's generally just as crazy as the others. In fact, Hideyoshi is the least psychotic of his gang, which is really surprising as he's the guy who wants to rule the world via demon trees that can spew forth demon insects that can turn humans into demonic forces. Finally, there's Munenori, who works alongside Hideyoshi's forces of his own accord & is actually the most psychotic of them all. It's because of that psychosis, however, that makes Munenori the absolute best villain in the story. He doesn't just have a screw loose, but rather there's nothing left to hold his mind together. For example, at one point Akane reveals the truth behind his demonic eye, similar to Akane's, which makes Munenori realize the folly of his ways & feel absolute remorse... Until he more or less responds with "Oh well, like hell if I care." He's just one of those villains who's like a cockroach in that he never seems to die, but you kind of don't want him to because then the story would suffer. Munenori is one of those special villains, and almost makes the movie worth watching just for him.

Thankfully, the story itself also has some neat little touches & twists that keep you interested when you may start losing focus. In fact, the finale is outright filled to the brim with fake outs. To my count, there are three false final battles & even two times when you think you're seeing the ending before more happens. To this story's credit, though, the fake outs & false finales don't feel like padding, but rather really do add to the climax; each one adds more to the sense of grandeur. I even have to applaud the movie for not going the usual route for the ending, but instead goes for something surprisingly powerful & even bittersweet. Still, the near-lack of actual battles is really tough to get past, and may even ruin this cinematic adaptation for some people. Even though Shenmue the Movie's use of fighting scenes were obviously taken from actual gameplay footage, it at least still was something to showcase what the story was leading up to right before each one. Onimusha, on the other hand, keeps all of the build up, but removes the payoff for essentially every single major fight, and the bits you do get from the pre-rendered cutscenes & CG cinematics don't do enough to replace them. The movie tries to replace them with narration by Akane recalling bits of the story while some cutscenes play on, which works for how it's used, but it's no replacement in the end.

This movie was produced by Capcom, the same studio that produced the video game, which means that some of the staff technically made their anime/cinematic "debuts" with this movie. It was directed by Kouichi Kimura (Wario World, McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure), produced by Yoshinori Ono (Capcom Fighting Evolution, Street Fighter IV & V), written by Hiroshi Yamashita (Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, Shadow of Rome), & executive produced by Keiji Inafune (creator of Mega Man, Dead Rising, & Soul Sacrifice). To be quite honest, the game's graphics hold up very nicely today, just shy of a decade later, and the CG in particular is really good, too. The characters were designed by Naoto Kuroshima, who left Capcom not long after this title. While Inafune has since admitted that he regrets not basing Soki after an actual actor, like Samanosuke (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Jubei Yagyu (Yusaku Matsuda), & Jacques Blanc (Jean Reno) were, Kuroshima managed to make Soki fit in just fine & his overall design is just as iconic as his predecessors. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, whose designs stick to the general armor & clothing styles of the time, but with enough of a stylistic flourish to keep them looking unique. The music by Hideyuki Fukasawa (Chaos LegionFate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works) is very well done, lending a great sense of grandiosity & emotion to scenes. Also, unlike Shenmue the Movie, the music here plays a major role in giving scenes much more impact. There are also two songs performed by Ayumi Hamasaki at the end of the movie. First up is "rainy day", which plays during the end of the climax & fits the scene like a glove; I dare not say more, as it would go into ruining the mood & feel it needs. Then there's "Startin'", which is the ending theme & is much more rocking & fitting as a way to send off the movie.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Media Blaster's DVD for this movie is technically dual-audio, but the English dub isn't some new product made for this film version. Instead, the dub Capcom produced for the game is included, but since the dub was made only for the game Akane's new narration is left in Japanese. Because of this, the English dub still needs English subtitles on occasion, which is definitely a rarity to see. Sure, the lip flaps don't match the English dub all too well, especially when it's CG, but it's cool to still see available. I don't know if the Japanese DVD includes the dub, but if not then kudos to MB. The Japanese cast all pulls out a very solid performance. Toshiyuki Kusuda (Dan Hibiki in Street Fighter IV) delivers a great Soki, though one could easily mistake Kusuda with Kazuya Nakai here, as the performance sounds very similar to how Nakai's roles generally sound. Akane is voiced by Yukana [Nogami] (Sakuya in Samurai Deeper Kyo, Tessa in Full Metal Panic!), who gives the character a lot of personality while still delivering a lot of believable emotion. Special credit is also to be given to Wataru Hatano (Josuke in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure; All Star Battle, Gajeel in Fairy Tail), who not only does a fine Roberto, but also speaks Portuguese kind of well (at least, as well as I can tell). The rest of the cast includes Hideo Ishikawa (Tenkai), Norio Wakamoto (Mitsunari), & Keiji Fujiwara (Munenori), among others.

The English dub isn't too bad, either, though most of the cast aren't exactly known names. Soki is played by Devid Beron, who helps give the character a good sense of reliability & attitude when needed. Akane is voiced by Nika Futterman, who gives the young girl a little bit of a gruffness in her voice that actually kind of fits. The fact that you hear both Futterman & Yukana in the dub makes it fun to see if they both fit, which they both do. Joshua Keaton pulls double duty here, voicing both Tenkai & Munenori. You can hear a little similarity in between roles, but Keaton manages to make both unique enough from each other. In fact, the more notable voice actors can be found in the supporting cast, like Philip Proctor as Luís Fróis, B.J. Ward as Ohatsu, Tara Strong as Anri, & Brianne Siddall as Minokichi (the little creature that accompanies Soki & gang). Juan Monsalvez's Roberto also works slightly better simply because Monsalvez seems to actually know Portuguese natively. While it's not the greatest dub by any means, as there is the occasional stilted delivery, it's by no means terrible & you can tell that everyone involved definitely put in as solid of a performance as they could.

Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams (The Story) is like a jelly-filled doughnut that's had the jelly removed before you eat it. While the doughnut itself is still tasty & worth eating, you can tell that there's been something substantial removed from it, because there's still some residual jelly left behind. Similarly, this movie still tells a fun & surprisingly well done story via likable leads, enjoyably crazy villains, & an ending that feels very impactful, but you can tell that any sort of real action has been removed because that was done via actual gameplay. Akane's narration works as a way to link the scenes together in some fashion, but it just reminds you all the more that there was likely some really tasty jelly/action housed within originally. Likewise, Media Blasters' DVD isn't perfect. First, though not the fault of MB, is the fact that the movie is presented in 4:3 widescreen. In other words, it's done in the old SD "full-screen" format, but with black bars sandwiching the video from above & below. I understand that the game was made in 4:3 & all of the cutscenes were given black bars for cinematic effect, but could it have killed Capcom to remaster the movie edit, which is nothing but cinematic effect, in anamorphic widescreen, or at least 16:9? For the screenshots in this review, I took the liberty of removing the black bars for you, my readers, so that the actual footage is given the focus.

Anyway, onto the nagging issue with the DVD we got. While there is a separate subtitle track for the dub that only subs Akane's narration, the subtitles in the long run feature the odd missing period on rare occasion, as well as mixing up a name here & there. It's not like entire character's names are swapped, but some characters do feature multiple names or titles, & the subs do mix around which ones are used here & there. It's nothing that ruins the viewing experience, at least not for me, but the more picky people will find the mistypes nagging. I'm going to chalk it up to Media Blasters essentially coming back from near-death. In fact, founder John Sirabella was about to call it quits for MB, after all the messy issues that nearly killed it, until online forum chatter continually insulted the company & refused to let it die out with even a smidgen of dignity. Sirabella decided to give it another go & at least give MB a more dignified death, whenever he decides to do so.

On a more upbeat note, this movie version really makes me want to play the original Dawn of Dreams game on the PS2. Doing so would let me see the actual boss fights, at the very least. Sadly, though, I doubt we'll ever see a fifth main entry in the series, even with this title ending with a lead-in to a final story that would climax at the legendary Battle of Sekigahara. Oh well, it's far from the first time something gets promised but doesn't deliver.

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