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Aragne: Sign of Vermillion
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by Jay Seaver

"Looks great but can't bring its story together."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Aragne: Sign of Vermillion" is the sort of anime that would has always excited audiences looking for something they couldn't find in American cinema a generation ago, a combination of science fiction, horror, and mystery that plays has a whiff of the exotic and has plenty of room for fan theories and speculation. Those movies are not always as rich as they seem, unfortunately, and this one suffers badly for not having a more defined story, even though horror can often get further on atmosphere than other genres.

After opening with a nightmarish vision by a mental patient - or did that actually happen? - focus shifts to Rin Shida (voice of Kana Hanazawa), a timid university student living in an apartment that does not live up to its billing as "eco-friendly living atop a reclaimed toxic site". She's catching glimpses of strange, insect-related horrors, but are they real or in her head, her imagination working overtime to connect a series of mysterious deaths and rumored cult activity?

Well, maybe that's not really what's going on, but it might as well be. Writer/director Saku Sakamoto keeps throwing new revelations and explanations at the audience, but as good as he is at creating striking imagery, he's not that great at building a story, almost seeming indecisive at times. Here, he'll talk about some sort of rare insect-borne disease from decades ago being the explanation for a series of deaths, but then it's some sort of weapons development from decades before that. Characters are introduced in such perfunctory manner that they don't even feel mysterious because you need to know something to figure that the rest doesn't fit. It winds up feeling like Sakamoto had an idea but couldn't get a feature-length story out of it, and wound up tacking other bits on until the movie was feature-length but the original central story had been buried.

It makes for a disjointed film that is not done many favors by its tendency to make the audience distrust what they are watching. Sakamoto repeats fading to black and then having Rin wake up disconnected from the previous action - repeat it one more time and the audience probably starts laughing at it rather than holding that in - and for all that this sort of feeling of moving from one nightmare to another helps create atmosphere, it doesn't give the audience much to hang on to. Later on in the movie, there are what appear to be strange revelations about Rin, but given that the audience hasn't really gotten to know her that well, there's not a lot of impact to "everything you know is wrong".

That sort of plot-oriented storytelling doesn't really seem to be Sakamoto's forte - he has come up through effects animation - but there's no denying that he is good at the visual half of the storytelling. He draws Rin as both ethereal and down-to-earth, gets a great visual gag out of the difference between how the apartment building was advertised and the reality, and does a really spectacular job of going for the gross-out throughout the movie. From moth wings to brain beetles, he gets the most out of the "spirit bugs" he introduces early. He does have a bit of a weakness for filters at times, but does a fair job of integrating obviously first-person material into a movie that is otherwise trying to use the aesthetic of traditional animation.

To be fair to Sakamoto, this is an independent production in a way that is often only possible with animation - he wrote, directed, composed the music, and handled the visual effects, mostly crowdfunding the work. If this has some success, he'll probably have more assistance to smooth over his weaknesses and help him learn later on. For right now, he's still got a lot of storytelling to learn, because this movie doesn't hold together at all.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32363&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/17/18 01:03:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Saku Sakamoto

Written by
  Saku Sakamoto

Cast
  Kana Hanazawa



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