jainsafel writes: I’ve attached a translation I did of a review of the Two Towers movie by none other than Mamoru Oshii, director of Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, Angel’s Egg, ect, taken from the film program book. I hope it’s of interest!

“Never-Before Seen Action and Undreamt-Of Battle”

Translation by jainsafel, 03/03/03

The Lord of the Rings’ great achievement is its crafting of a heretofore unsurpassed work of creative fantasy that can weather the scrutiny of adults. For once, long ago, “Fantasy” meant the smell of blood. There would fate and destiny unfold together with the murder of family or the cruel death of innocents, all holding true to the balance between Beauty and Blood.

And that balance of Light and Dark is even more pronounced in The Two Towers than in its predecessor. The first film left me with the strong image of scene after (beautiful) scene of the Hobbit countryside or the Valley of the Elves, which I felt could have been made shorter. On the one hand you must care for the story’s rhythm, but on the other, create a sense of the Fairy-Tale. In practice this is fraught with danger and it is all too easy to break the delicate balance between the two.

But this time, I didn’t feel the passing of time at all. The opening feels just right, unsullied as it is by any summary of the previous chapter, and the film as a whole is easy to watch – but even better was how characters introduced in Fellowship suddenly begin to live and breathe. Depicting the three separate journeys of the divided Fellowship by cutting back and forth between them makes for a far more cinematic experience. Even when taken from a visual standpoint, I believe that groups of about three work far better than nine people leisurely walking about.

Besides, whatever else you want to say about it, there are the battles. If I were to give the greatest reason for this installment’s success, I would start with the making of “battle” into its theme, and end there. When you hold the fighting as your ultimate objective, you can accomplish many things with clarity. The film begins flowing towards that end automatically, and so everything else snaps into place. With the incredibly powerful technique of “battle” at one’s disposal, you can push and push and push.

The most magnificent battle of all is, as you might well imagine, the finale – the attack of Helm’s Deep. I don’t think the scene where the horse-riders charge and penetrate the enemy lines would normally be cut in that way. Typically whenever I had a situation with two sides crashing into each other, I thought of it as the movie’s task to show it all in one cut, with the characters approaching only so far – an idea that The Two Towers successfully discards. To do so is truly remarkable. Of course, it wouldn’t even have been possible without special effects, and yet the effect used turns out to be an almost absurdly small, simple job. Digital effects are often likened to magic, but in reality they take a ridiculous amount of labor and time. Only the constant efforts of human beings keep them bound to reality. And yet in spite of all this they use effects for such small details, and I can only sit in amazement.

Speaking of the tactics of that scene – the long-spear wielding Uruk Hai form a screen of spears and await the cavalry led by Gandalf. That is an actual battle strategy, and the only way to defend against a cavalry charge. It’s not something one can pull off without studying group warfare. And just as surely, by mimicking the great nostalgic battles of movie past, such as those in El Cid or Ben Hur, a style of action that had all but disappeared has been revived. This time, unlike before in Fellowship, action scenes like the above highlight were mounted like jewels throughout the film, and I watched and waited with eager anticipation for the next battle.

In order for these battle scenes to live, helmets, armor, and weapons become very important, but in this too the film excels. As I said previously, the great achievement of this series is its ability to depict a Fairy-Tale fantasy with both its feet firmly planted on the ground. Our heroes are merely “human”; they walk and sleep in the fields, and their hair gets dirty and tangled. When they gird themselves for battle, the armor seems almost too heavy for them to bear, and when they fell an enemy, they stay felled. These and other details the film depicts with precision. The design-work on the helmets and armor vary depending on the clan who wear them, and you can sense the painstaking craftsmanship that went into their creation.

As for the artwork, as always no corners are cut. Take for example the Hall of Rohan, built in the midst of natural desolation. The scene where Eowyn stands motionless before that Hall made of wood and stone is such a wonderful shot – it seems to say “Ah, so people live in such a forlorn place…” I actually prefer this to the much more “fantasy-style” Tower of Isengard.

This outing introduces many more creatures than the first. The dragon-like flying creature that the Nazgul rides is called a wyvern [translator’s note: I thought it was just a “Fell Beast”…?] – a yokuryuu (“winged dragon”), in other words. It’s quite famous in the world of fantasy, but the film version is unusual. I had a few problems with how it flaps its wings to fly, but the long-necked design is simply perfect. The way the wyvern makes its appearance is a very satisfactory shot. As for the warg ridden by the Uruk Hai, they are also famous fantasy creatures – we’d call them marou (“demon wolves”) in Japanese. I don’t much care for their design, but their movement isn’t bad. More to my liking are the elephant-like oliphaunts. They are well made and resemble the now-extinct mammoths.

The most decisive “creature” of all is the CG character Gollum, a very gutsy move indeed. To have a CG character act – in the most important acting role of the movie – is normally so terrifying as to be unfeasible. This touches very close to my own professional world (animation director), and when I look at it through those eyes I wonder if there isn’t a tenuous thread between it and the viability of animated acting?

Character-wise, there are many delicious scenes, many of them involving Legolas the Elf, but in the end Aragorn dominates. In the first film he came off as very easy-going due to the many love scenes, but this time those scenes are lessened, and he becomes more fierce. There is a scene he has, a conversation with a young soldier in the stronghold of Helm’s Deep, that comes on the heels of the outpouring of his all-too human nature in the supply room, where war-weary old men and young boys are given their weapons and armor. He wants to tell the boy something, but cannot find the words. Even though the boy will probably not live to see the dawn – all this emotion is condensed into this small episode, and it is among my favorite scenes. In this way are we able to keep a vigilant eye on the characters, and see the seeds sown in the first movie begin to bloom. Also working in its favor is the series’ one-year-per book organization, which keeps them fresh in everyone’s memories.

Come to think of it, I’ve been watching movies on the big screen only ever since Fellowship. I have little doubt that I will also see the upcoming Return of the King in theaters as well.

[From the Japanese Two Towers program book.]