Farewell, Goddess | Moon Over Tao: Makaraga (1997) Review

Directed by Keita Amemiya
Starring Sayaka Yoshino, Hiroshi Abe, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Yuko Moriyama

This is it. After the Zeiram duology and Mechanical Violator Hakaider, director Keita Amemiya turns in his final live-action feature. Three years later, Yuko Moriyama would retire from film without a word. The end of an era, and it’s bittersweet but satisfying that Moon Over Tao is the swan song. Unlike the adaptations Hakaider and Amemiya’s debut Mirai Ninja, and even the Zeirams which incited a franchise — however modest — Moon Over Tao stands alone. It is purer, and landing at the end of a directing career, it possibly commands a larger budget. Very likely, this will be our most vivid glimpse into an auteur’s mind, to which “purity” is surely the theme. Still, my favorite aspect of the Amemiya mythos is the ship between director and actress. Where usually the director’s relationship or obsession with the lead is uncomfortable (Underworld, Planet Terror, Final Fantasy XIII), Amemiya continues to lens Moriyama with the same low-angled awe as he does the giant animatronic monster. I believe she’s a wholesome muse, and the ship culminates here with three times as many Yuko Moriyamas as usual.

The actress pulls triple duty as three identical alien goddesses, Marien, Abira, and Kuzto. Granted, Kuzto is killed almost immediately, when she and Marien arrive on Earth in their all-black, scale-textured diving suits to seal away an ancient demon called Makaraga. The scheming, white-haired Abira shows up and a sisterly sword fight ends in Kuzto’s death. While neither of the surviving two Moriyamas becomes the ultimate lead, that’s a vacancy never filled. Parallel to this alien invasion, a samurai Hayate and a wizard Suikyou are dispatched by a warlord to investigate a magical sword. It’s a journey across a forest that terminates suddenly in a village. In the bandit-occupied forest, however, this traveling pair encounters and befriends a young girl named Renge, apparently played by a Japanese mega-idol before she was famous. Renge is probably the lead character, though she takes the least action in the story. The samurai and wizard are introduced first, but their interests are secondary to the main conflict. Of course, that main conflict is only revealed after the midpoint, so it’s all up for debate anyway.

And so, we’ve arrived at the flipside of Amemiya. He’s a specialist, in this case as an art and character designer, so necessarily his other talents are lesser. That’s the subconscious logic. He doesn’t need to be a film director, and indeed this is his final film. The script, co-written with Hajime Matsumoto and Toru Tanaka (probably not the late Professor), never quite pulls together its admittedly unusual structure to buttress the dramatic consequences. The samurai and the wizard develop an instant mutual liking, but share too few words to fully express friendship. The family tragedy between the alien sister-clones calls back to pre-story events via telepathy, handily keeping everyone apart. Renge doesn’t come of age or learn anything — didn’t need to learn anything, really.

There may be something going on in the central conflict, with the implicit comparison between the tyrannical warlords of 16th-century Japan and the imperial alien gods. Both societies clamor for a superweapon, which takes the shape of our resident movie monster. The titular Makaraga is difficult to describe, something like a crab-horse centaur with the affect of the first boss of Altered Beast? Because of his unusual shape, he’s less interactive than Zeiram, but kung fu remains viable and the climactic fight never devolves into the Godzilla beam show you get with four-legged Ghidorah versus the mobile two-legged. However, for any part of a thematic equation to meaningfully exist, the whole of that equation is required. How do you defeat a weapon? Not by creating another one, as the scientists in the original Godzilla learn. Probably you subvert it somehow, like with the power of friendship. In Moon Over Tao, the trick was using that gadget the aliens told us about. Not a mystery, not a revelation, no creative solution. It’s fine.

Now, what I don’t want to do is condescend or patronize. The problem is, I fear I’ve found a filmmaker incapable of offending me, and that dulls my critical ability. Yes, the characters are not “well realized” in dramatic terms, though Moriyama’s alien fashion is totally chic. Amemiya and his creative team spend time realizing these other aspects, attending to them with a terribly nerdy fastidiousness. Whatever condescension or patronizing is my reflex against anything that reminds me of myself, and Amemiya’s live-action movies are so goddamn nerdy. That would be fine if not for the presence of a beautiful actress at the center of it all. What does she think of this? Does she like this? I’m from that generation where you learned shame for anime and video game fandom, and you liked it. Moon Over Tao is a sci-fi/fantasy samurai movie with aliens and magic. Jesus. But first of all, you can’t do that.

In Star Wars, there’s a single fantasy element within the science-fiction setting. It isn’t Krull, or The Chronicles of Riddick. That’s a fine line, isn’t it? Here, the meld of science-fiction and fantasy actually produces a coherent aesthetic, far less wild than what I’ve seen of Mirai Ninja, with the lasers and walking robot houses? Of course, we do witness an exceptionally silly wizard battle, where the combatants conjure a Mortal Kombat screen between them and grunt occasionally. Otherwise, the action is classic tokusatsu, though with samurai-bandits rather than armored teens. So it presents more like, well, a samurai movie, but with a distinct enough character to still invent in the amalgam. We finally have the realization of the bounty hunter tease from Zeiram 2, a multi-man melee wherein Moriyama kicks a lot of ass, and with a different style than Iria’s. Her movements are stiff — alien. That nerd-insecure part of me hopes Moriyama enjoyed the strange but thoughtful characterization she’s brought to life. Without a doubt, she commits to these parts, especially the evil, sneering Abira, and in general, she has so much control and screen presence for a mere ten-year film career.

Making these movies in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, I’m not sure if Amemiya worked at the wrong time or the best possible. There isn’t that digital control over the color grading evincing “style,” and in fact, the generous, anti-atmospheric lighting of Moon Over Tao prepares one insufficiently for the occasional spouts of extreme bloodshed. A good chuckle each time. While the evolved budget shows in the sheer amount of bodies on screen, all dressed up and shifting around, there are but three locations. Three, and when shared by a 96-minute runtime, we see how a low budget influences pacing. The very first scene is eight minutes long.

While Moriyama’s premature retirement remains a mystery, I think I understand why Keita Amemiya moved on from film directing. The recipe of a feature film calls for ingredients outside his specialty, whether it’s the electricians poking around the Zone or samurai in the forest. Such non-genre scenes could be the work of anyone, and those in Moon Over Tao unfortunately lack the surprisingly effective comedy of the Zeiram movies. There remain funny, clever ideas, like the reduction of an enemy to a wine cup and aliens who breathe through water, optionally. It’s a crazy world, where a gaggle of bandits inevitably surrounds, sniffs, and menaces any female form. That’s kind of a litmus test for all period-set stories, but the second time it’s Marien, and she beats the bandits up so bad the last guy runs away.

According to an online interview apparently conducted in 1996, Yuko Moriyama believed at the time that Zeiram 3 would be produced, following Moon Over Tao. There must have been discussions, and possibly those talks laid the groundwork for the eventual anime OVA. Did you know that John Woo’s unproduced Metroid movie inspired Nintendo to focus on cinematic story in Metroid: Other M? Development hell is not a vacuum, and anyway, speaking of space bounty hunters. I would’ve loved to have seen what Moriyama brought to Iria after her performance here, and what new designs Amemiya would’ve come up with for her to kick. As it is, Moon Over Tao offers a single monster, and while he’s a doozy, I was surprised there was no metamorphosis. It’s just enough for me to keep wondering, not only about that theoretical Zeiram 3, but the rest of Amemiya’s career spread out over TV shows and specials and video games. Perhaps his vibrant dreams have found better homes, that a wholesome muse is easy come, easy go.

That’s what I’ll say, anyway, as I cry myself to sleep.

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