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Monday, June 22, 2015

Shenmue the Movie: Don't Stop... Believin'

E3 2015 had some really big surprises, didn't it? Nintendo unleashed the original Mother game onto the Wii U eShop as EarthBound Beginnigs, Microsoft announced a cheap collection of games from Rare (including the first console release of the Battletoads arcade game), & Sony unleashed a two-part nostalgia bomb that luckily didn't kill anyone from sheer shock. The first part was the announcement that Final Fantasy VII, the game that put the JRPG genre on the mainstream map, would finally be getting remade, but the second was the return of a bit of a forgotten innovator, Shenmue.

Shenmue was the brainchild of Yu Suzuki, the man behind innovative arcade classics like After Burner, Space Harrier, Hang On, & the Virtua Fighter series. Originally conceived as Virtua Fighter RPG for the Sega Saturn, Suzuki & his team at Sega AM2 would eventually move production to the Dreamcast before the game finally saw Japanese release in 1999, followed by international releases in 2000. For it's time it was the most ambitious video game ever created, with Suzuki coining his own genre to properly describe it, "Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment"/FREE. An open-world game with NPC that seemed to live their own actual lives, real-time weather effects, day & night cycles, & even combat segments (based on Virtua Fighter, obviously), just to name a few features, Shenmue also coined the phrase "Quick-Time Event/QTE" that has gone on to become a slightly controversial gameplay system (due to some companies' over-reliance on them). All of this ambition did come with a cost, obviously, as it cost $47 million to develop, making it one of the most expensive games of its time (Suzuki originally stated $70 million, but years later gave a proper amount), and it was meant to be a multi-game series that would tell the 11 chapters of the saga. Unfortunately, after Shenmue II saw a Japanese & European release on the Dreamcast in 2001, followed by a port onto the original Xbox in 2002, Sega put the kibosh on the series, even though that game ended on a cliffhanger. Well now there's a Kickstarter for Shenmue III, and over one night it became the fastest game to ever reach $1 million in the site's history (not to mention second-fastest overall, losing only to the Pebble Watch), and the drive is now way into stretch goals as of this post. So, with the dreams of those who never stopped believing finally coming true, let's look at a time when Shenmue was a really, really big deal.

With development of Shenmue II happening, Sega & Yu Suzuki wanted to keep the momentum going, so they did something that was unheard of at the time: They made a movie... kind of. You see, instead of doing a live-action adaptation or anything like that, Sega simply took the major cutscenes of the original game, compiled them in chronological order, & combined them with battle sequences played by expert players; to my knowledge, this was the first time a movie was ever created this way. On January 20, 2001 Shenmue the Movie not only debuted but was screened in Japanese theaters. Yes, a 90-minute movie made entirely of video game footage was theatrically released. It later saw a DVD release that was exclusive to Japan, but when the Xbox port of the sequel was released Sega included its own DVD of the movie, so that newcomers could become caught up with those who played the original game. Yes, this technically isn't an "anime", so why isn't this an Obscusion B-Side review? Well, it's a Japanese movie, but it's not live-action. Therefore, I guess it can be considered a CG movie, henceforth it's anime? Yeah, let's go with that.

It's November 29, 1986, and Ryo Hazuki is rushing home, specifically to the dojo his father Iwao runs. He arrives to see Iwao fighting to the death against a mysterious man named Lan Di, who is looking for an item called the "Dragon Mirror". Ryo tries to intervene after his father is defeated, but Lan Di easily trounces Ryo, even threatening to kill him; Iwao concedes & tells Lan Di where the mirror is. Afterwards, Lan Di repays Iwao by letting him "die as a warrior", as their fight ends with Lan Di delivering a fatal blow. Iwao dies in Ryo's arms, leaving Ryo with only one thing in mind: Find Lan Di. This is only the first chapter of Ryo's journey, which is not just for the sake of revenge but also his destiny.

Shenmue the Movie, like the first game, only covers the "First Chapter - Yokosuka" portion of the entire saga, detailing Ryo's investigations to find out where Lan Di is & how to catch up to him. The movie hits all of the major plot points it needed to hit, like Ryo asking about the black car Lan Di was in, Ryo asking about sailors, translating the Chinese letter sent to his father, getting the job at the dock, etc. Yu Suzuki wasn't just interested in giving the player of Shenmue the same sense of nostalgia for Yokosuka as Suzuki had for his hometown, but rather he also had a grand story to tell, and he wanted to do it as cinematically as he could with the hardware. In that regard, and as a bit of a surprise, the movie actually manages to maintain that sense of feeling like a real cinematic experience. I'd hazard a guess & say that 95% of the movie is made up of cutscenes from the game, each of which uses camera work that wouldn't feel out of place in an actual movie, and in the more story-intensive scenes it really does feel like a movie. Even the shorter & "lesser" (for lack of a better word) scenes do deliver somewhat on the cinematic feel, including the moments that were obviously QTEs in the game.

The major cast of Shenmue's first chapter is small, but each is memorable in his/her own little way. Ryo is completely dedicated to his mission of revenge, but it doesn't take over his complete being. Because of this, Ryo still stays likable & relatable, and you stay engaged in his story. The movie also keeps Ryo's not-quite-girlfriend Nozomi Harasaki involved by utilizing the scenes where Ryo converses with her, leading up to her reveal that she'll be moving to Canada to be with her father. To be frank, while Nozomi isn't a bad character, her inclusion just feels like Suzuki was fulfilling a checklist, since her main use is to give Ryo a love interest who later gets kidnapped & has to be rescued. Doing a much better job are Master Chen Yaowen & his son Guizhang, who teach Ryo more about who Lan Di is & a basic idea of why he was willing to kill Iwao for the Dragon Mirror. Guizhang in particular becomes a comrade in arms for Ryo at the end, helping him take on the Mad Angels gang that helped Lan Di find the Hazuki dojo. For the villains we have Terry, the leader of the Mad Angels, & Chai, a Gollum-esque psycho who works for Lan Di's organization & keeps tabs on Ryo. They don't really do much, but for their purposes they're just fine.

That being said, there's no denying that this is all taken from a video game. While I admire how well the movie delivers on the cinematic experience overall, there are still plenty of moments that simply remind you that you're essentially watching a highly condensed version of someone's Let's Play session. While the previous generation of consoles, especially the PlayStation, were big on utilizing CG, or at least pre-rendered cutscenes made with the game's engine, Shenmue looks to have none of them. Especially with the common use of QTEs, this game was, to my knowledge, entirely in-game-engine. Now while the Dreamcast was probably the first system to really deliver polygonal graphics that still look fine today, and I'll get to that later, it still makes everything look like a game. This is even more blatant during the few moments when the movie has to show actual gameplay, like when Ryo is running or walking somewhere to set up the next cutscene, or when Ryo has to operate a forklift during his employment at the warehouses on the docks. Compared to the more cinematic angles used during cutscenes, the gameplay moments feature very strict camera angles that are obviously meant for making gameplay easy for the player. The movie does try to make movement more flourished by moving the camera in front of Ryo or going for an overhead angle, but it's really obvious. The battle scenes also are affected by this, as there is the occasional odd angle that obscures either Ryo or an enemy.

Still, there's no denying that Shenmue's graphics still hold up very nicely, even after 16 years. While it doesn't have the kind of extreme detail that today's AAA game graphics tend to have, there's still enough detail to everything to help the game age much better than what existed in the generation prior to it; 3D graphics tech had finally reached a level where it could match the developers' dreams. There isn't any awkward aliasing to be found, a.k.a. "jaggies", and it definitely is a game that matches the development costs it had back in the day. Luckily, the moments that were obviously QTEs have completely removed the button prompts & whatnot, not to mention the complete removal of any HUD/Heads Up Display, but there's no denying that Sega AM2 made a movie out of a video game in the most literal sense. Still, at least it wasn't trying to make a movie out of a PS1 or Saturn game, because that would just look rough.

Another really great part of Shenmue is the soundtrack co-composed by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Yuzo Koshiro, Ryuji Iuchi, & Osamu Murata. With the exception of one rock-styled song, played when Ryo heads off to rescue Nozomi, the entire thing is orchestral or done by piano & it's highly effective; it's easy to see why Data Discs is going to release it on vinyl soon. Sadly, however, the movie doesn't really play up the music, with it only being used during either cutscenes or a fight scene or two. In other words, the movie simply copies what the game did when it comes to music, which means that a lot of conversations, which make up most of the movie, have absolutely no music at all. It's a shame that Sega didn't try to play up the cinematic aspect & add in music to the quiet moments when it would have fit, because it results in the music feeling less important. There is also one voiced song, "Wish" by Yumiko Yamamoto, that works very well for the scene where Ryo returns Nozomi back home; not an outstanding song, but a fitting one.

Oddly enough, however, there are two moments where the sound effect that plays when Ryo acquires an important item is kept in; I guess they were kept for effect, but it still sounds odd to hear in a movie edit. Another odd bit when it comes to sound is that the DVD I have, the "Xbox Edition" that came with Shenmue II, calls the English voice work the "original" audio, while the included Japanese audio is called a "dub", but it's obvious that the lip-synching was done to match the Japanese voices. Therefore, the English voices occasionally go into "old Godzilla dub" territory, i.e. lips will either start flapping noticeably before any voice comes out, or the lips continue moving for a bit after the character is done speaking. There are also Japanese subtitles, timed to go with the English voicework, but no English subtitles for the Japanese audio; not even dubtitles are included. It's similar to when Bandai Entertainment released a dual-audio DVD of G-Saviour, the live-action Gundam movie, but didn't include English subs for the Japanese dub.

Since the English cast is considered the "original", I'll start with them. In that case, I have to point out the obvious & state that the English dub can be pretty rough. The major cast does an okay job with their lines, but there are all sorts of long pauses & odd inflections, likely due to their half-hearted attempts to match the lip movements & the fact that the cast was filled with people who weren't really pros. Minor characters & NPCs, however, just range all over the place in terms of quality; some are good, while others are outright terrible. Still, the English cast has remained a favorite for fans of the series, & I don't think it's just down to nostalgia. Even with the awkward voice work & all-over-the-place lip-synching, each of the major cast members voices still match their characters very well, and you can tell that they did try to deliver the best performances that they could, considering how restricted they likely were. Corey Marshall (Ryo) still sounds very believable, especially when the movie removes his constant use of silly lines like "Do you know any sailors?" & whatnot. Paul Lucas surprisingly voices both Lan Di & Chai, making both characters sound very different, and Lucas' Chai really goes into Gollum territory, though Lucas' role predates Andy Serkis' performance by at least two years. The rest of the major cast, including Robert Jefferson (Iwao), Ruth Hollyhan (Nozomi), Dennis Falt (Master Chen), & Eric Kelso (Guizhang), all put out okay performance as well. While I can understand why some people would love to have the likes of Marshall & Lucas return for Shenmue III, I'll admit that these characters could still be done better. Yes, they were all obviously gaijin talent that were likely directed by a Japanese man who had less understanding of English than any of the actors, but that's not an excuse; it's merely an explanation.

The Japanese cast, in comparison, is much more professional & sounds way more natural. Ryo is voiced by Masaya Matsukaze (Blues in Rockman.EXE, Teru Mikami in Death Note), who sounds more believable as Ryo & in general delivers a much better performance than Marshall. I will say, however, that Marshall's "NOOOOOOO!" while holding Iwao's dead body at the beginning is way more effective than Matsukaze's "OYAJIIIIII!/FATHEEERRRR!". I guess another reason why fans want Corey Marshall back, though, is because Matsukaze has already signed on to reprise Ryo. Lan Di doesn't say much in this movie, but Takahiro Sakurai does a good performance with what little is heard. The rest of the major cast is actually performed by lesser known actors, with the exception of Issei Futamata, who voices Chai very similarly to Paul Lucas, & Hiroshi Fujioka, who voices the Segata Sanshiro-inspired Iwao. Still, Megumi Yasu (Nozomi), Shinichi Namiki (Master Chen), & Tetsuya Sakai (Guizhang) pull their weight just fine. It's also entertaining to hear all of the sailors at the docks voiced by obvious Americans who work in Japan as gaijin talent, as all of their lines feature some mix of perfect English & purposefully awkward Japanese.

Shenmue the Movie, interestingly enough, is a production that manages to work, almost in spite of itself. Just by looking at the footage it's obvious that this is literally a movie comprised of video game footage, but at the time same time it's obvious that Yu Suzuki made Shenmue to be a cinematic experience as well as a true open world gaming experience. While the moments that are obviously taken from gameplay footage do feel awkward from a cinematic side of things, they are few & far between. In comparison, the cutscenes that make up the majority of the movie match that cinematic feel perfectly, and even the battle scenes fit well enough. The so-called expert player doesn't make Ryo look like an unstoppable force of nature, instead having Ryo take a few blows here & there, though I'm sure a couple of them were unavoidable in some instances. It just always amazes me that this was actually shown in Japanese theaters to some extent, as it really showcases how big of a deal Shenmue was back in the day. In fact, I actually kind of prefer this first chapter of the game in movie form, mainly because the original game was very slow paced. It was meant to be more of an experience in having a game feel like real life than it was in feeling like a movie, which means that it had a lot of walking around, waiting for time to move forward to activate specific instances, & literally having to go to work at the docks for days on end just for the story to advance. In comparison, Shenmue II apparently is a much faster & exciting experience, putting the story, QTEs, & action more at the forefront. If anything, seeing the beginnings of Shenmue as a movie makes the entire franchise seem more like an actual multimedia experience, which helps make it feel just as different as it was back when it debuted in 1999. In fact, chapter two of the story takes place between both games & was told via a short manga, so the multimedia experience idea has more merit to it.

Some feel that Shenmue is more of an internet meme now that relies on people's nostalgia instead of being an actual good game. I think the fact that it still has the kind of following that can make a Kickstarter for a third game's multi-million funding goal succeed in a matter of hours, not to mention make people who talk about games for a living act like this, shows that it's more than just nostalgia. There's a legitimate appeal & relation that has been built up by something to make people react the way they have at Shenmue III's announcement, & I'd argue that those who downplay how much the series means to people are probably only going off of just the first game, which is admittedly an acquired taste because of how slow-paced & casually is takes itself. Of course, that's just how I see it; we'll just have to wait until the end of 2017 to see who's right, won't we?

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