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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Review: Aragne: Sign of Vermillion

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- Our Czech participant reviews the Japanese body horror anime by Saku Sakamoto, made outside the country's studio system, to mixed results

GoCritic! Review: Aragne: Sign of Vermillion

The supernatural horror anime Aragne: Sign of Vermillion is a new, independent, audiovisual project from Japan, a country where it’s almost impossible to succeed outside of the established production system. It could be said that the film, which screened in the Grand Competition for Feature Films at Animafest Zagreb, is an extreme form of auteur cinema, as the director Saku Sakamoto (known for his work as a digital effects supervisor on Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence) is also the writer, animator and musical composer of the film, and was helped in his work by his devoted producer Osamu Fukutani.

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Contemporary Japanese horror cinema is born out of three distinctive layers of national culture –traditional folklore, full of mysterious entities and characterised by deep interconnections between human and other worlds, the memory of the brutal destruction which took place during the Second World War, and modern life in metropolises populated by alienated individuals. Each and every trait of Japanese horror films - their particular narrative structure, their cause and effect chain and their motifs – plays into the unique and recognizable atmosphere that they create. Aragne: Sign of Vermillion is an amalgamation of these principles; an accomplished though not entirely coherent animated body horror film.

Ria, a modern-thinking, independent woman, has fallen foul of a real estate agency and its promises of a smart, sunshine-bathed apartment surrounded by greenery. Her dream home has actually turned out to be more of a nightmare: it’s a building with endless rows of windows, long empty staircases, and corridors resembling a maze from which the only exit is locked.

At the beginning of the film, several young women have been murdered. The local media describe these killings as the work of a serial killer. However, when Ria meets a young student who lives in the neighbourhood, the girl refers to him as a saviour who helps poor souls who’ve lost their purpose in life. One night, in the corridors of her building, Ria sees a large bug burrowing out of the arm of an old lady. She sets out to unravel the mystery behind these paranormal creatures and her quest will take her to a library where a historian tells her about a myth involving ancient "Spirit Bugs". One particular variation of these creatures is able to separate bodies from souls and to then use the body as a murderous puppet. Apparently, the serial killer (or saviour) is destroying these possessed human zombies. Later in the film, Ria discovers that these spiritual bugs’ reappearance could hark back to a terrible medical experiment carried out on humans during the Second World War, in a location just a few metres away from her current home.

Various side characters tell different parts of the story in different ways and it seems impossible to unravel the entire mystery. Myths are intermixed with the collective memory of the Japanese people, as well as with Ria's own memory of her one and only sin, an act which will haunt her right up until her moment of salvation when she finally asks for forgiveness. This complex, multi-layered, and often incoherent narrative finally culminates in what might be described as a dystopian version of reality.

Aragne: Sign of Vermillion combines a number of structural devices and horror genre themes, the most prominent of these being body horror. But is it possible to create a work of this subgenre through the medium of animation, or to modify a cartoon body, which doesn’t possess the physical materiality of human flesh, in any kind of believable way? It appears to be a fight the director is unable to win. That said, whilst Sakamoto may not have succeeded in achieving this particular feat, he has, however, managed to produce an evocatively discomforting anime through a special combination of animation styles and techniques: the radioactive sunshine sets a nightmarish tone; a realistic CGI rendering of the post-industrial landscape contrasts sharply with the appearance of Ria, who looks like a magical fairy with her deep, photorealistic eyes which are able to look beyond the grey mundanity of the housing complex and see human bodies becoming puppets - twisted minions who execute the commands of a higher entity.

Sakamoto has mixed computer-generated animation with classically drawn characters in order to create a fictional world where the lines between dream and reality, past and present, are ever shifting. The wild variety of visual styles heightens the possibility endless terror. Ria becomes an almost believably vivid character who can’t escape her own fate and who, as such, has been sentenced to suffer.

Even though the film’s confusing plot serves more as a backdrop for horrifying moments than offering any real kind of comprehensible story, the disorientating nature of the film allows Aragne: Sign of Vermillion to move closer to its goal of intriguing, impressing and scaring (or at least grossing out) its audience.

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