Movie Review: “Kite”- A History of Violence

Written by Angela April 10, 2015

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Ralph Ziman’s 2014 feature “Kite” is a lacklustre action film that not even an over-the-top performance from Samuel L. Jackson can save from crashing and burning. That being said, it can be worth the watch when one considers how much this thing has quietly impacted pop culture in the past sixteen years leading up to its release.

Before the internet connected the world, certain international commodities were fairly hard to come by. I’m talking, of course, about anime—more specifically, good quality anime. Flash back to the mid nineties and the best you could hope for in the way of decent Japanese animation was the latest VHS release from either Manga or Media Blasters to hit the Music World shelves. It was there that some of you may have found a copy of 1999’s “Kite.”

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Written and directed by Yasuomi Umetsu, 1999’s “Kite” is a film that has nothing to with kites and everything to do with exploitation. It tells the tale of Sawa, your archetypical orphaned anime high school girl, pigtails and all. When she’s not in class, Sawa seeks to avenge her parents and works as an assassin for her two guardians, detectives Akai and Kanie. Sounds like the stuff of fan service fodder, right? Well, Akai seems to think so too, and thus this seemingly innocuous action movie veers straight into hentai (anime-porn) territory as Akai has a sexual relationship with his underage charge. Obviously, the North American version omits certain scenes, but this aspect of the film caused its banning in several countries.

Aside from the sex, “Kite” is obscenely violent. But due to its beautiful art, gorgeously streamlined action sequences and its intriguing plot (controversial sex aside), “Kite” became something of an icon. Hype Williams wrote No Doubt’s Ex-Girlfriend music video to pay homage to the film’s spectacular bathroom showdown. Quentin Tarantino famously instructed Chiaki Kuriyama to watch “Kite” in preparation for her role as Gogo Yubari. It was only a matter of time that “Kite” would be adapted into a live-action film.

After being passed from one director to the next, “Kite” finally landed in the hands of Ralph Ziman. In 2014, Sawa (India Eisley) is an orphaned assassin secretly kept under the guardianship of detective Karl Aker (Jackson). In this version, Aker oppresses Sawa by keeping her hooked on a street drug called Amp, which fogs her memory and keeps her adrenaline pumping during her dangerous missions. Other significant differences surround Sawa’s aim—to avenge her parents and eliminate the flesh cartels which plague her city—and the dystopian South African setting, as opposed to the original’s metropolitan Japan.

The censored cut of 1999’s “Kite” is an arresting movie that plays with themes of power and corruption. Yet even as the live action version steers entirely clear of connecting Sawa and Karl sexually, this film somehow manages to hypersexualize Sawa more intensely than its progenitor. Scenes of Sawa infiltrating a cartel’s hideout while posing as a prostitute are beyond uncomfortable, and her mounting a thug to cut open his jugular does little in the way of absolution. Eisley may have the fine bone structure and wide eyes needed to pull off looking like an anime heroine, but her limited acting skills overpower her looks in such a way that every minute of her frame time feels more like a high budget cosplay tribute than an actual studio film. Meanwhile, the plot strings the scenes along with cobweb-like flimsiness; there are moments when even Jackson looks utterly mystified as to what his character’s motivations are. The last nail is hammered when the twist of the original version appears at the last minute and is as lazily edited as possible. As a narrative, Ziman’s “Kite” is utterly lost in translation. But aside from all that, it may be the best anime adaptation made to date.

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Against the graffiti, gangs and grit of the South African setting, the neon bubblegum and electric yellows that define Sawa’s aesthetic pop as sharply as they did in the anime. In fact, the choice to relocate the film to an exaggerated Johannesburg is on pointe, as it allows for the same atmosphere of gang activity, poverty and interesting visual backgrounds as the original. Eisley’s line delivery is comically weak, but her action sequences are as violent and energized as one would hope, amounting to thirty minutes of screen time that are actually quite sensational. On the whole, the film makes a sincere attempt to re-imagine the original while staying true to its gritty spirit, and for this it is commendable, especially when one considers other live action monstrosities as “Dragon Ball:Evolution” and “Speed Racer.”

Umestu’s Sawa most likely made an impact in North America for being a cool futuristic re-visioning of the ultimate detached femme fatale, with a deeply disturbing past and a thirst for revenge. Keeping that in mind, this film could have and should have been much better than it turned out to be. For fans of the original film, “Kite” is worth the watch, while those who won’t “get” it are advised to give this a pass—at least until the story winds up in more capable hands.

My Rating: 5/10

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About Angela

Angela McInnes is an English major and up-and-coming horror film aficionado. To her, happiness is a bottle of rum and a creature-feature on a Saturday night.

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