“Scott in the comics almost reminds me of Homer Simpson; you get to see what’s going on in his head, and there’s not much going on,” says Hollywood indie poster-boy Michael Cera when asked about his role as the title character in the adrenaline-soaked action comedy “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.”
“There’s always something very comfortable about playing an idiot,” he adds. “You don’t have to try to sound smart.”
You know how half the Japanese blockbuster movies these days are based on some famous manga? Well “Scott Pilgrim” is based on a series of comic books too — but these ones were written and set in Canada, and soaked to the core in Japanese anime and video-game references. It’s one of the most outlandish movies to come out of Hollywood in a while.
Scott (Cera) is a sweet but shallow 22-year-old Toronto native who leads a “precious little life” (to quote the first book in the series, drawn and written by Bryan Lee O’Malley and published in 2004). Oblivious beyond repair, Scott floats along in a clueless state. He has a 17-year-old “girlfriend” (“We almost held hands once, but then she got embarrassed”), and pays the minimum possible commitment to his going-nowhere garage-rock band, Sex Bob-omb, in which he plays bass. He’s in permanent shell shock, his senses dulled since his ex-girlfriend Envy Adams (Brie Larson) dumped him a year earlier and then became a famous singer.
But then Ramona Flowers turns up, and Scott’s tiny world changes forever.
Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a transplant from New York. She’s bold, mysterious, smart, and way too good for Scott and so of course he falls for her instantly. He even succeeds in winning her over. The bad news? It soon transpires that in order to date Ramona, Scott must defeat her “seven evil exes.” Cue a series of impossible video-game-style boss fights rendered with amazing choreography and visual effects and punctuated with outsider humor.
“It’s like you’re watching the universe that’s inside Scott’s head,” says Edgar Wright, the acclaimed young British director behind “Scott Pilgrim” as well as cult hits “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead,” as he and Cera sit with The Japan Times on a recent promotional trip to Tokyo. “We like to think of it as being Scott’s perfect-world version of events. He’s grown up playing video games, reading comics and watching anime, and that’s how he likes to live his life.”
As well as enduring two solid days of interviews, on this visit Cera and Wright also turned up to a special advance screening of the film to take questions from its audience, and then spoke in front of fans at a Shibuya restaurant (disappointingly, the pair then left this meet-and-greet without actually meeting many people — not even the chap who turned up dressed as Shaun from “Shaun of the Dead”). The organizers of this latter event include Rintaro Watanabe, a movie nut whose fan petitions have resulted in Japanese releases for cult flicks including Wright’s “Hot Fuzz.”
After opening in the West in August 2010, a theatrical release in Japan this week sees “Scott Pilgrim” finally reach the land of O’Malley and Wright’s inspiration. Similar to how Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” took elements from 1973 classic “Shurayuki Hime (Lady Snowblood)” and other Japanese movies, “Scott Pilgrim” incorporates images, music and sound effects that will be instantly recognizable to a certain generation weaned on Japanese video games. If you were a kid in the 8-bit golden age of Nintendo vs. Sega, then this is the film for you.
“In the books, there are a lot of Nintendo references, and Sega and Capcom — pretty much all of the classic Japanese games,” says Wright. “And Michael grew up on ‘Super Mario 3,’ right?”
“Yeah,” replies Cera, “some of my earliest memories are of playing that game. It’s so magical.”
As you might imagine, the Japanese games industry has gone absolutely potty over “Scott Pilgrim.” Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the “Final Fantasy” series, flew to Tokyo from his home in Hawaii to attend the meet-and-greet (Scott plays music from “Final Fantasy II” on his bass in the movie; Sakaguchi is quoted in the film’s publicity material as saying his “entire family has become ‘Scott Pilgrim’ fans”); renegade game director Goichi Suda (aka Suda51) has lent the support of his company, Grasshopper Manufacture, to the film’s promotion here; and even Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind Mario, has shown his approval.
“We wanted to expand the ‘Enter Goddess’ music (from ‘The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’) to a big orchestral version, and that’s when we had to show a scene to Mr. Miyamoto for him to give it clearance. (Score composer) Nigel Godrich made an orchestral version of the ‘Zelda’ music and we had to get the OK from Miyamoto himself — which we got!”
“Scott Pilgrim” benefits massively from its soundtrack. Scott is after all a musician, albeit a halfhearted one, and some of his fight scenes take the form of surreal sound clashes. The original soundtrack was put together by Godrich, best known as Radiohead’s producer, and songs by Sex Bob-omb were written by lo-fi star Beck, with Canadian staples Broken Social Scene and Metric providing music for other bands in the film.
One track, used in Scott’s showdown with the Katayanagi Twins (Keita and Shota Saito), was created by Japanese studio boffin Cornelius [see sidebar]. But that was not the only Japanese musical influence.
“There’s a small reference to Guitar Wolf in the movie: the ‘Jet Generation’ poster right at the start,” says Wright. Guitar Wolf are of course a stalwart Tokyo garage-rock band, who in 2000 made their own zombie B-movie, “Wild Zero.”
“I’m a big ‘Wild Zero’ fan,” says Wright. “I’ve tried to get a print of it on 35 mm to show (at special screenings) in the States and in London, but it’s quite difficult to get hold of a print. I hope someone can help me find it!”
It’s quite amazing just how much “Scott Pilgrim” packs into its 112 minutes. Music, comedy, a love story — and let’s not forget the action. In addition to Wright’s signature fast-cut editing style and a bucketful of ludicrous CG effects, the stunt work is impeccable, choreographed as it was by members of Jackie Chan’s own team and pulled off well by the leads and their doubles.
Hang on, Michael Cera doing martial arts? That one really does come out of left field; after all, Cera is better known as the loveable wimp in movies such as “Juno” and “Superbad,” a role into which he has been typecast ever since his breakthrough in the TV comedy series “Arrested Development.” Surely that sissy can’t do a roundhouse kick to save his life — not even against Jason Schwartzman, the onscreen pantywaist star of films such as “Rushmore,” who plays head evil ex Gideon Graves.
This absurdity is not lost on Cera: “Those (fight scenes) were taken pretty seriously, and in the movie I think they’re treated very seriously. But there’s this underlying humor the whole time that it’s me and Schwarzman throwing a sword at each other.”
“Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” (Japan title: “Sukotto Pirugurimu Vs. Jaaku na Moto Kare Gundan”) is now showing. The six original graphic novels are published by Oni Press.
“Katayanagi Twins Attack,” the tune used by the titular twins in “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” as an aural assault on Scott’s band, was provided by Keigo Oyamada — aka Japanese electronic musician Cornelius. Oyamada tells us about his involvement with the project:
“I first met (director) Edgar Wright when he came to see my show at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. After that, we met up a few times in Tokyo and London, went for dinner and just hung out.
“When I started working on the project, he didn’t give me any particular direction for the music. He just sent me some video and I worked on the music to match what was on the screen.
“My favorite song in the film is ‘Ramona’ by Beck: It’s such a Beck-like chord progression, but at the same time it’s a bit strange. That really appeals to me!”