A colourful, fantasy-samurai adventure that was somewhat overshadowed at Scotland Loves Anime 2013 by (the admittedly delightful) Patema Inverted, Fuse marks the feature film debut of Ghibli alumni Masayuki Miyaji – but has his time at the House of Totoro taught him well?
Borrowing elements from the Hakkenden, an oft-adapted staple of Japanese literature from the 19th century, Fuse is the story of Hamaji, a young hunter living in her family home in the mountains, but, left alone since her Grandfather’s death, she decides to head for the capital city of Edo, to join her wayward brother, Dousetsu. Seeking quick entry into Edo’s samurai elite, he convinces her that fame and fortune await them if they can flush out and kill a pair of ‘fuse’, werewolf-like monsters who are apparently preying upon the citizens. Unfortunately, his plan goes badly awry when Hamaji quickly becomes close to Shino, a charismatic actor with a grudge against the shogun.
For its first third or so, Fuse plays out in a fairly conventional fashion, with Hamaji and Dousetsu tracking one of the beasts to Yoshiwara, Edo’s seedy pleasure quarter, while the film makes it clear to all but them that Shino is their other quarry. The middle section, however, becomes more interesting, as the film adds both the original author of the Hakkenden and his pulp-writing granddaughter to its cast. This allows for some surprising narrative touches, as the glimpses we get into the stories that they are constructing begin to overlap with and even alter the main story we’ve been watching so far. Shino’s subsequent performance in a kabuki play also throws new light on some of the more fanciful touches earlier on in the film, raising interesting questions about exactly whose reality it is that we’re seeing.
The film’s visuals are equally offbeat. The character design sticks to a naïve, retro aesthetic (not dissimilar to the Ghibli house style), that keeps the cast looking simplistic and rather homely, but backdrops are sumptuous and colourful; much time and effort clearly lavished on accurate period detail, jazzed up with fantastical flourishes. Of particular note is Yoshiwara, rendered as a gaudily attractive mercantile paradise that seems to sit somewhere between sweet shop and bordello.
Unfortunately, the film is not wholly successful. Hamaji is a pleasing protagonist; the countrified fish, out of water in the city and suddenly questioning the brutality of her vocation now that her grandfather is gone, but the characters around her are rarely as engaging and tend not to elicit the sympathy that the story suggests we ought to be feeling. Particularly underdeveloped are the fuse themselves. The film clearly wants us to ask how much of a threat the fuse really are, but this is made difficult when Shino’s first appearance on screen sees him reaping bloody vengeance against the shogun’s hunters. This is probably a good indication of the film’s wider problems with tone; generally playing close to the lighter territory one might expect of a Ghibli adventure, but often interrupted by moments of jarringly graphic bloodshed.
The biggest disappointment, however, is that director Miyaji’s film seems unable to reign in its own story. Even without the intriguing hints of meta-narrative, sub-plot after sub-plot seems packed into its relatively short running time without the kind of grand pay-off that would have justified it all. Giving the confusing third act the benefit of the doubt, the film also seems to be trading on an assumed audience knowledge of Japanese history and the Hakkenden story. The climax may make sense to a Japanese audience, but for clueless foreigners like me, I was at a complete loss and felt like the plot had finally collapsed in on itself.
Fuse is far from a dead loss, being a colourful and offbeat adventure that certainly has ideas above its station, even if it ultimately can’t make good on its early promise. Given the choice, I would (nearly) always rather watch an ambitious failure than a mediocre success, but while Miyaji is certainly a name to watch out for in future, he has some ways to go to escape the shadow of his peers at Ghibli.
Fuse lacks a UK release at the time of writing, but is readily available to buy on BD from the US.