In a refreshing change of pace (at least lately, it seems) Shunsuke Sato’s (Princess Blade, Gantz 1 & 2) Library Wars looks to something other than terrorism for its narrative inspiration. Based on a relatively recent light novel series by Hiro Arakawa (there’s also a manga adaptation and an anime series produced by I.G.), Library Wars instead addresses the topic of reading censorship.
Censorship is neither an invented issue nor a new one, particularly in Japan. Only recently (August 2013), the Matsue Board of Education declared its intention to remove the post-war manga series Barefoot Gen from free-access shelves in school libraries, on the grounds that it was too disturbing for children to view (they later backed down from this move after vocal opposition). Earlier in the year, Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee and two members of his Tokyo publishing company were arrested for printing and distributing Kee’s artbook of uncensored nude male photographs, on the grounds the work was obscene (Japan Daily Press).
In Library Wars, censorship is taken to a whole other level; one involving guns and kevlar, raids and near Nazi-like book burning. While it’s a little difficult to believe that the film’s opening scene – a shocking and senseless attack on a bunch of people who are doing nothing more seditious than reading in a library – could ever happen, the basic premise is disturbingly easy to swallow. Believing books to be the evil, inciting things they are, the government appoints the Media Betterment Department to seize potentially dangerous material, but their authority gets a little out of hand, and eventually the Library Defence Force, a paramilitary organisation given sanction to oppose the increasingly strict censorship laws, is established.
Kasahara (Nana Eikura) is inspired to join the LDF after an incident in a bookstore, where Censorship Agency troops conduct a raid and attempt to take from her the long awaited last book in a series. She resists (last book in the series? I would have damn well resisted too) and both she and the book are saved by a member of the LDF. From that point on, Kasahara knows what she wants to do: be just like her “prince” and protect the innocent from the heavy hand of unjust censorship.
Life in the LDF is a little harder than she anticipated though. As a cadet, she faces fierce competition amongst her peers, and is constantly being chewed out by her training officer, the tough, chilly (short!) Doujou (Junichi Okada). But she can’t be swayed from her ultimate dream and eventually comes to the attention of Doujou’s superior, Kenta (Jun Hashimoto) head of the elite Task Force branch of the LDF. Cue military training montage (like Katy Perry’s Part of Me video only with less makeup) until eventually, as the story progresses, Kasahara proves that she is in fact perfect Library Defence Force material.
That this sounds like a cookie cutter plot line (and it is) completely misses the fact that Library Wars is both hugely and surprisingly entertaining. Eikura is more than capable of carrying this movie, balancing effortlessly between “sweet and ditzy” and “tough and committed”, and Okada is unexpectedly convincing as the older, gruff Doujou. The support cast too provides some delightful moments – especially Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale, Azumi 2) as Kasahara’s bestie Shibasaki, and Kei Tanaka as Doujou’s cheeky 2IC Komaki – and fight/stunt choreographer Yuji Shimomura (Alien vs Ninja, Shinobi, The Returner) delivers action packed right where it’s needed. The showdown in the now gutted bookstore where the movie began is some of the tightest, most believable fighting I have seen from a non-Chinese film in a fairly long time.
That this film failed to exploit the dark, dystopian potential so obviously associated with concepts of facist-like control of thought (Orwell’s 1984, anybody?) is a valid complaint, but the original light novel was in fact a romance set against this backdrop, so perhaps it’s better not to expect too much. Certainly the story does suffer from a dose of (Over)Stating the Obvious when it comes to the growing romantic entanglements between Kasahara and Doujou (yes, we get that he likes her despite himself; there’s really no need for this long drive down Emotional Introspection Lane now is there?), and that tends to slow down what otherwise could have been a taut action flick.
However, the movie’s weaknesses are easily outweighed by its strengths, and in the end it gets at the very least a silver star in all of its classes. Any story that can make you actually feel good when a shipping container full of books is saved while soldiers are falling in its defence is a movie that deserves a degree of respect. It may seem old fashioned, but try burning my books and see how fast I start an army in their defence.
Library Wars is currently screening around the country at the 17th Japanese Film Festival until December 8. Please check the website for screening times in your city.