"Mardock Scramble: The First Compression (UK Edition)": When You Stare Into The Abyss, The Abyss Stares Back Into You.
Rune-Balot is a 15-year-old prostitute who has the misfortune of becoming attached to Shell, a professional gambler who systematically kills ideal women as part of a process designed to turn them into diamonds. Balot is barely saved from this fate by a pair of legal agents, Dr. Easter, and his creation, Oeufcoque, a genetically engineered mouse who can transform into relatively any item. Using technology designed for a past war they resurrect Balot in an enhanced body and urge her to press for legal proceedings against Shell in hopes of exposing his role as a money launderer for a sinister corporation.
Most would likely define entertainment as something joyful to watch or engage in, usually escapist in nature. However, fiction has also always been a way for mankind to explore the darker themes and vices of its existence, a shadow puppet show cast against the wall of reality by the light of human actions. These stories might not be the most comfortable, but they speak of the realities of human life which to deny is to will ignorance.
Mardock Scramble is clearly one of those kinds of story. This is made clear when the first spoken line of dialogue in the film is “I want to die”.
The film is a look at sexual perversion and how a child unwillingly drawn into it identifies both themselves and the world. Balot is a tragic character, with a painful backstory that is slowly revealed over the course of the film. Conflicted between wanting a reason to continue living and considering herself hopelessly ‘damaged goods’, it’s a painful look at how wrecked a child’s psyche can become when invaded by the selfish, sexual and primal desires of an adult with no concern for lives outside his own. The idea of making a wounded female character into a prostitute has seen a fair amount of prominence in the last few decades, but mishandled it can really just come off as a cheap shock tactic that exposes a writer’s own misogyny. The script here, though, is smart enough to make it relevant for exploring an uncomfortable topic.
Balot’s rebirth through Easter’s technology is a subtle piece of symbolism, as from him and Oeufcoque she receives the human treatment and respect the rest of her life has lacked. Oeufcoque in particular receives the most screen time as he serves as Balot’s protector, both as a weapon and most importantly as a patient mentor and friend. Genetically enhanced animal characters might exist in quite a few Japanese works, but Oeufcoque is fairly unique. He’s not a hyperactive mascot but a grounded creation of science who serves as a mature anchor for both Balot and his creator. Indeed, Oeufcoque prioritises Balot’s well being in a way that breaks away from the incredibly clichéd “I do not understand human emotions” act artificial life characters are often cast in. Although Balot initially views the pair as yet more men who will “save” her only to dispose of her once they’ve got what they want (furthered by Easter’s admission that taking cases like hers is all that stops them from being executed as relics of the war), she and Oeufcoque develop a touching bond as both are in their own way trying to find a reason to live despite their inner fears of being mistakes.
This fledgling bond is put to the test in a tragic sequence towards the end of the film when hired killers are sent to eliminate Balot. In painful detail, it explores what happens when those who have suffered at the hands of power suddenly have it.
The killers themselves are possibly the most bizarre, disturbing and outright nauseating set of antagonists I have ever seen: a group of psychopaths obsessed with stealing one particular part of anatomy from other humans and grafting it to themselves. Probably all I need to tell you is that their leader is codenamed ‘Welldone the Pussyhand’ and leave the rest to your imagination. They stand for the idea of physical attraction turning into flat-out psychotic lust, setting out after Balot with the promise of cannibalising her body from Shell’s right hand man.
That character, named Boiled, is an interesting one. He works for Shell in the same way Oeufcoque and Easter work for Balot, and it’s implied he has a history with the pair that will be fully explored further into this trilogy. Indeed, for an hour-long presentation the film covers just enough ground before building to a satisfying cliffhanger end point.
Visually, the film seems to take inspiration from Ghost in the Shell (Boiled in particular looks like Batou with longer hair). The overall style seems to communicate a world that’s about a century or so away from ours, with modern architecture slowly disappearing beneath higher rising modern buildings and futuristic holographic motorways. The animation is of a consistent standard but seems to continue a weird quirk I’ve noticed with Japanese theatrical animation: whenever a fight scene occurs the animation seems to get more sketchy and frantic. I suspect this falls somewhere between likely having a different animation director for these sequences and trying to make them faster paced than the other sequences but the result is just distracting and makes me think of low-budget student animations.
Music is used well, adding a sad, melancholy feel to the feature without hamfistedly tugging at heart strings. There’s actually one early moment in particular where the animation and music combine to really grab your undivided attention.
Extras consist of a set of television adverts and trailers and, most importantly, the Director’s Cut of the film. This extended cut adds roughly five minutes of new scenes, in addition to removing the censoring of nudity and sexual acts. The extra scenes are mostly given over to showcasing how Balot is developing a genuine affection for Easter and Oeufcoque, adding extra depth not only to the characters but also scenes in the standard cut. A new scene of Balot presenting Easter with a new suit to replace his standard clothing is inserted before an existing sequence where Balot’s actual lawyer compliments Easter on the new look before complaining that her adoption of a similar style will reduce the court’s ability to believe she lived as a prostitute. Combined, it makes a statement on how systems designed to protect aren’t always paragons of virtue and how some involved with the case are willing to use Balot after all.
Mardock Scramble: The First Compression is not a title to recommend lightly. It’s a story that plunges into and probes the depths of human vices. Whilst Balot is the main character, I’d struggle to call her a heroine. She’s tragic, certainly, but the story isn’t so simple (and dare I say) childlike as to paint her as a good-hearted waif who can dust everything off with a hug. It’s a look at realities of human nature that most of us choose to ignore and the issue of how a child’s mind tries to rationalise them when cruelly dragged into them, trapped in the confusion of pain and misplaced guilt. I recommend it for those who can stomach a story that intentionally scrutinises dark themes, but it is not a story for children or the faint-hearted.
Mardock Scramble: The First Compression (UK Edition) can be purchased through Amazon.co.uk on DVD and Blu-ray