Chances are you know Hideaki Anno only from his involvement in Evangelion. The man rose to fame when his series aired 15 years ago. It marked the start for a series of sequels, reboots, manga adaptations and an unlimited slew of marketing potential. But Hideaki Anno is more than just Evangelion, he also made a couple of live action film of which Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu] is by far the most accomplished one. A ravishing look into the mind of an exceptional (and exceptionally distraught) woman, brought to life the way only an animation expert could.
Hideaki Anno may be one of the most famous anime directors out there (Evangelion being one of the most critically acclaimed animation series), but very few people seem to care for his live action work. A major problem that Asian cinema in general has been facing for the past decade. You can successfully market an Asian film in the West, but marketing an Asian director is neigh impossible. Even the big guys (like Takeshi Kitano, Takeshi Miike or Kim Ki-duk) failed to land proper (global) releases for their latest films. Hell, even Yimou Zhang's Flowers Of War passed us by without so much of a splash, and that film had Christian Bale in the lead. A sad state of affairs but it seems very difficult to counter.
It's a real shame, because it's often the films that don't make it to the West that are the most interesting ones. I'm not really big on Evangelion, but Ritual stands firmly as one of my all-time favorite films ever. Luckily the nice folks of Ghibli released an English-friendly DVD back when, allowing the West at least a small (yet expensive) opportunity to sample Anno's live action work. Rest assured though that the film is well worth the investment.
Ritual is an adaptation of Ayako Fujitani's novel Touhimu, a book based on the feelings she experienced when she lived in Los Angeles. While this makes it sound a bit like the reversed version of Lost In Translation, Ritual is not so much a film about cultural differences as it is a film about the inability of a young girl to process certain events in her life. Instead she retreats in her own mind, locking herself in a perpetual dream world, ruled by a series of daily rituals. This world is turned upside down when she bumps into a director experiencing a serious case of writer's block. He decides to follow her out of boredom, but becomes slowly transfixed by this strange and unusual woman.
Having an animation director direct a live action film is not a guarantee for strong visuals (Otomo's World Apartment Horror was somewhat of a disappointment), but it certainly seems to help (personally I assume it's because they are used to starting from a blank page and building the entire visualization from scratch). Whatever the case, Ritual looks absolutely stunning. Ayako's house is a visual paradise, the outside scenes are framed with a minute sense of detail and Anno's use of light and color is simply impeccable. Save some weird CG/train sequences this film is a true visual delight.
The soundtrack is a little less adventurous, yet it's one of the best of its kind. Subtle yet captivating piano music alternated by a select few Japanese pop songs. Usually these can quickly ruin the mood, but it seems Anno has a keen ear for quality music. The end credits song serves as the perfect example. It's not really a soundtrack that will blow you away as it exists mainly in the background, but it provides a perfect base for the subtle and touching atmosphere that flows from the film.
One of the major strengths of Ritual is the casting. Ayako herself takes up the lead role, which clearly helped in establishing her role. Ayako's character is quite complex, but as she's really just playing herself she has little trouble hitting the right marks. Right across her she finds Shunji Iwai (director of Hana and Alice) who is the exact opposite of Ayako's manic and fickle persona. Iwai is calm, controlled and patient, though the relationship between the both of them remains fragile. There are hardly any secondary characters, most of the time is spent following Ayako and Iwai. Somewhat of a gamble, but both actors put in such strong performances that it hardly seems to matter. On the contrary even, when other characters appear on screen it almost feels like an unwelcome intrusion.
Ritual is one of the few character studies that combines profound emotions with strong styling without becoming too abstract or distant. Ayako's pain is tangible throughout the entire film in a very real and direct way, but this never stands in the way of the film's luscious exterior. A rare combination that makes this film all the more worthwhile. Fans of Anno will be extra rewarded as the film also makes a couple of reflections on the director's world, clearly this is the voice of Anno himself speaking.
Ritual is rather long, running a little over two hours, especially when you consider the fact that the characters you'll be spending your time with aren't all that charming or lovable. They are extremely intriguing though and while Anno delves into their personas you slowly familiarize with them, without the need to find any actual similarities between you and the characters. Ritual is by far Anno's most accomplished film and it supersedes all his other efforts with gratifying ease. It's one of the most unique dramas I've ever seen, keeping me interested from start to finish without even a hint of boredom on the horizon. Make sure you don't miss out on this one.