Considering the loaded discourse around video games and gender at the moment, a character like Bayonetta – already a polarising one – seems particularly ripe for revisiting. The critically acclaimed but (perhaps tellingly) commercially underwhelming Bayonetta was almost an instant cult hit in 2009; a combat-heavy game along the lines of the God of War or Devil May Cry franchises, with a rich mythology and backstory that, despite its linear plotting, felt expansive, combined with a love of kitsch and tongue-in-cheek cheese alongside its saga of angels and demons. But most notable was the character of Bayonetta herself, who, depending on your viewpoint, was either one of the most sexist and exploitative examples of the misogynist hyper-sexualisation of female game characters, or a perfect postmodern satire and indictment of those same tropes. With Sexy Librarian™ glasses and an anatomically impossible figure, dressed in tight leather that was off as often as it was on, Bayonetta was a physically ludicrous invention at odds with what is otherwise a rare characterisation – a strong female figure with independent and violent tendencies who doesn’t form romantic relationships across her narrative arc. Either way, it was a game that, pardon the pun, pushed buttons.
The franchise hasn’t led to multiple AAA sequel titles – Bayonetta 2 was a Wii-exclusive – but spawned an anime film adaptation released in November last year in a limited Japanese theatrical run, and it makes its way to home video via Madman this month. And it’s an interesting film indeed. The opening narration fills us in with some crucial context as to the universe’s wider mythology – an age-old war waged between angels (Lumen Sages) and Umbra witches, thought to be long dormant. Enter Bayonetta, awakening after several centuries with no memory of her past, mysteries which she uncovers alongside a young girl who calls her “Mommy”, a human journalist who claims she killed his father and another witch with mysterious motives who seems to be Bayonetta’s equal in combat. Any further plot and I’d lose you, but that’s the premise from which the film progresses, and with flashbacks and narration the film pulls together the tapestry of the story alongside frequent stunning fight sequences. With guns as stiletto heels and liberal freedoms of space and gravity, there are some pretty out there sequences as the film unfolds.
It’s a mostly impressive video game adaptation, but one that does fall into some traps that such an endeavour invariably does – namely, despite an impressive attempt at narrowing down the game to a trim 90 minutes, it feels necessarily over-stuffed and plot-heavy, which leads to some uneven pacing between action setpieces. What is most impressive, however, is that the filmmakers keep much of what set the first game apart (and not just the ironic J-pop inspired theme songs). The direction of the game continually fetishized Bayonetta to an outrageous degree, framing shots and action sequences around the protagonist’s assets, and the film does the same – oftentimes there are shots of secondary characters talking, with the camera behind Bayonetta, foregrounding her backside so egregiously that it’s hard not to see it as parody of video games and anime more broadly, so aware are we of the male gaze in the film. In fact, the film probably takes this element to even further extremes than the game did. Combined with phallic symbols, continual double entendres and a wild climax that takes this festishisation to literal cosmic levels, the film is deliriously brazen and over-the-top in this regard, and to what extent Bayonetta is a feminist heroine is a really fascinating discussion to have. As I mentioned, this aspect of course polarised commentators of the original game and the adaptation is unlikely to sway either side of that debate.
It’s visually gorgeous, with some really strong and inspired art design that translates the video game CGI to 2D animation really faithfully.1 Its visual influences come from everywhere – German Expressionism, sci-fi and solid dollops of noir and cyberpunk meshed together into a patchwork aesthetic that is a really interesting backdrop environment to the main story. So despite some inevitable problems from the brave challenge of adapting the game, this is a strong film that I had a lot of fun with.
As you would expect from Madman by now with anime, their visual presentation is essentially a flawless reproduction of the film – there are no signs that this 1080p transfer of the animation could conceivably look any better. It’s a film with visual schemes that depend interchangeably on bright, rich colours as well as shadows and darkness, and both extremes are really pleasing to the eye with no sacrifice to detail.
Two audio tracks are offered – Japanese and English – and it’s worth noting that while fans of anime often have reservations about English dubs, the original game was English language only, and the majority of the voice cast reprise their roles here, so fans of the video game will likely appreciate the effort taken here and this was the track I used throughout. Technically it sounds fantastic, the film’s interesting sound design bolstered by a really strong and immersive sound mix that benefits highly from a solid surround-sound setup through its action sequences in particular. In the extras department we have original storyboards which will be of interest to animation fans (especially in light of the films aforementioned provocative and gendered cinematography), and a commentary track with Jonathan Klein, director of the English language dubbing version, and Hellena Taylor, the distinctive voice of Bayonetta. Mileage may vary with your experience of this commentary – it’s very conversational and has some interesting insight to the voiceover side of the film (Taylor was uncredited in the original game) rather than any sort of in-depth scene by scene analysis of the film but it’s a nice addition.
Ultimately, fans of the game should be interested. Others perhaps less so; there’s a lot of plot and context that a background knowledge would assist, but the film’s gorgeous visuals combined with Madman’s strong technical presentation mean I can recommend this relatively safely to fans of animation more broadly.