It's easy to presume that when we call something influential, that the influence in question is always positive, when this is far from true. Neon Genesis Evangelion's influence has been as much baneful as positive, spawning (if not wittingly) dozens of imitations and half-clones, and narrowing the field of possibility for anime as much as it widened it. The same caveat applies to the use of the word classic, because one person's classic anime may just be old to someone else. Or, while a given title may have prominence (as described with words like "important", "seminal"), it isn't always a positive sort of prominence — no, not even when it means a live-action remake the material is in the offing.
Kite is one of a handful of anime that are famous for being infamous, and that's about all there is to it. Take away the infamy — the extreme violence, the graphic (and questionable) sexuality — and there isn't much left. The whole of Kite is about the pushing of boundaries in salacious ways, meaning at this point in time it's mostly of interest to two kinds of people: those curious about the history of transgressive topics in anime, and those looking for a cheap thrill. I put myself somewhat in the first category and not at all in the second, so I can safely say that reading up about controversy around Kite, and pondering the implications of its presence, have been far more interesting than actually watching the stupid thing.
You can see, then, why word of a live-action of Kite had me rolling my eyes. Greenlighting such a product might well have been inevitable, since the bare bones of the story do lend themselves to the kind of grimy, trashy, repugnant action film likely to earn the wrong kind of cult following. The surprise is that the live-action Kite may be the better of the two productions — but only because it's intermittently foul, instead of relentlessly and unrepentantly foul. It's better only in the sense that it makes you less sick. I leave it the audience to decide if that constitutes a recommendation.
La femme Sawa
The original Kite, released in 1998 as two half-hour OVA episodes (released outside of Japan in a single edited-together episode), dealt with a teenager named Sawa who has fallen under the control of a corrupt cop. He provides her with weapons — mainly, a pop-out trick gun that shoots time-delay exploding bullets — a list of targets, and protection. She kills, and most of the people she kills are scum who fly above the law, so clearly they deserve it, or something. She grows close to a young man, Oburi, who also kills for the same corrupt cop, and the two of them plot to escape, but not without a high body count and the need for a few trips to the cleaners.
And that, as they say, is it. The rest of the story is all stylistic excursions, with the uncut version of the OVA adding a number of pornographic interludes to ratchet up the notoriety even further. It's obvious Umetsu wanted to pay homage to things like La Femme Nikita or, more to the point, Leon/The Professional, especially where the latter dealt with the power dynamic between an underage character and an older male father figure. Too bad he didn't come up with much of a story to do justice to those ideas, and the end result is a production that doesn't outlive its shock value. There are moments that do work out of their sheer brio: there's an utterly insane shootout in a restroom that escalates until it destroys part of a street intersection and a subway station, like a Hong Kong gun-fu movie where the fluid has run out of the brakes. But that sequence doesn't need the movie around it to be of any use. It stands just as well on its own, scissored out and made part of one of those YouTube clip compilations that seem like the best possible resting places for projects like this.
The most noteworthy thing about Kite, again, is its notoriety — specifically because of the sex scenes, which were originally scissored out of the international release, dropping almost ten solid minutes from the running time. By degrees and over subsequent releases, like the proverbial camel's nose entering the tent, the pornography was all restored, but the most readily available version (e.g., the Netflix edition) is still the cut-down one. This provoked some thought from me along the lines of one entertained by film critic Stephen Farber in his rare and eye-opening book on the early years of the MPAA, The Movie Rating Game, wherein he professed unease for the idea that works of "quality" were somehow more deserving of less restrictive ratings. Did filmmakers deserve to be punished with an R or an X (now NC-17), or the re-editing of their movies to receive wider release, simply because they were less talented or worked on a smaller budget? Likewise, is it hypocritical not to be all that upset about Kite getting cut down, because such outrage is better saved for a title that is "more deserving" of it? I'm still not sure, but you see what I mean about the arguments around Kite being more interesting than the thing in itself.
Given that the original material was no great shakes at its core, there seemed little to look forward to when a $12 million live-action version of Kite went into production, with Samuel L. Jackson in the corrupt-cop role to give the movie a little name-brand power. The surprise is that the live-action film does a half-decent job of extracting the few worthy ideas that exist in the original story and plugging them into a new production. Half-decent, but again, no more decent than that: it delivers what few goods there are to be delivered with a production like this, which is to say, not very many.
Kite (the film) works along roughly the same starting lines as Kite (the anime), but adds some setting, characterization, backstory, and motive that we didn't see before. It helps, but not much. After some kind of major financial collapse, the world — or at least the corner of it shown in the film — exists in a state of crumbling anarchy a la Mad Max or Dredd. Sawa (now Caucasian, played by India Eisley) masquerades as a call girl, using police-only weapons provided to her by her cop controller, Aker (Jackson), to slaughter various slimy underworld types. Her mission in life is to find the monsters who killed her father (also a cop) and mother, and Aker uses this vendetta to also (allegedly) clean up a human-trafficking ring. Sawa spends a good deal of her time hopped up on "amp", a narcotic that gives her stamina and strength while also sabotaging her memory, but Aker can use this to control her — especially after she ices an undercover detective, and the noose starts tightening around both of them.
Most of this stuff is routine — it isn't hard to predict where the movie's going by around the halfway mark — but there are, again, individual pieces that work much better than the whole package. The movie makes good use of existing locations in South Africa to generate an appropriately grimy, wrecked flavor, and some of the exchanges between Sawa and others are directed with more sensitivity and intelligence than I expected. Some of that, I suspect, might have been due to a last-minute change of personnel: the original director, David R. Ellis (Snakes on a Plane), died partway through production, and another director, Ralph Ziman (The Zookeeper, Hearts and Minds) was brought in to finish the job. The movie also keeps the violence but not the sex from the original, although the extremes the original indulged in are hinted at obliquely — e.g., there's a funny/horrible moment when we discover what the dildo Sawa keeps in her bag really does. Some might argue that leaving out the sex but keeping the violence was hypocritical — after all, if you're going to go over the top, you might as well do it on all fronts, right? But to me that seems less like a plea for artistic integrity, and more like a cheap way to make the final product all the more appealing to the sort of crowd that fashions drinking games from the severity of onscreen kills.
Back when anime was still a niche interest with little in the way of a market, it was genuinely shocking to see something of Kite's ilk, especially in a novel format like animation. Audiences looking for a new, transgressive kind of thrill had it. Decades have since gone by, with any manner of extreme material now available on demand. The days of something having shock value by dint of being clandestine are long gone. Judging from the quality of both the original Kite and its remake, maybe we're all the better off for it.