Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Memories (1995)

Memories (1995)

Directors: Koji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura, Katsuhiro Otomo

Katsuhiro Otomo, the director behind the seminal anime film Akira (1988) is one busy dude. He not only produces, he also writes and animates! His productions include some of the best anime anthologies around; I’m talking about films like Robot Carnival (1987), Neo Tokyo (1987) and most recently Short Peace (2013), an anime anthology that I will try to get a hold of soon, so expect a review for it in the near future. Otomo also produced the anime anthology I’ll be reviewing today: Memories (1995). I’m really enjoying watching all of these anime anthologies because they offer a quick jolt of awesomeness. Though each individual story lasts about forty minutes or less, they are always entertaining because the filmmakers involved in each short give it their all in both the story and animation departments. Memories doess just that, visually it packs a wallop, yet it also has some depth to it. Let’s not forget these anthologies are an artistic tour de force, compiling a lot of talent into one single movie. As you can see, animated anthologies have a lot to offer. So, what’s this particular one all about?

Anthologies are usually connected by a theme, something that holds them together.  But in the case of Memories, the shorts have no real connection to one another; all three stories are totally different. The first one is called ‘Magnetic Rose’ and it comes to use from director Koji Morimoto, a director I’m not entirely familiar with, but whose work I have seen a lot of. For example, he’s worked as an animator in films like The Animatrix (2003), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Space Adventure Cobra (1982). He also directed the ‘Franken’s Gears’ segment in Robot Carnival (1987). So anyways, he’s the director behind ‘Magnetic Rose’, a short that shows many interesting influences. The story is all about these space garbage men, who are suddenly given the responsibility of responding to a distress signal from a derelict spaceship. When they board the ship, they discover that the ships A.I. has created a holographic world completely composed of one woman’s memories. As they explore the ship, the astronauts begin to encounter visions of a woman called Eva. Who is she? And why are they all experiencing supernatural shenanigans?

This short reminded me of various films, but most of all, it reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) because for example, the whole short uses classical music, just like Kubrick used classical music in 2001. The similarities don’t stop there; the short is all about discovering a derelict spaceship and a ghost like entity living in rooms furnished in European style. It’s also about astronauts drifting through space for all eternity, so, if you’re a fan of Kubrick’s 2001, then you’ll more than likely spot the parallels because the filmmakers behind ‘Magnetic Rose’ obviously loved Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film. Magnetic Rose also reminded me of Event Horizon (1997) because it deals with astronauts facing their fears due to a supernatural force that’s messing with their minds, so you can expect a “ghost in the machine” type of story with this short.

Then we move on to ‘Stink Bomb’ my favorite short in the whole anthology and in my opinion, the one they should have closed the anthology with. This one was directed by Tensai Okamura, a director who’s concentrated most of his career on television series like Samurai Champloo (2004) and Wolf’s Rain (2003) rather than on theatrical features, but you wouldn't know it from seeing this short. As it turns out, Stink Bomb is the most entertaining of the three shorts on this anthology. It’s all about this lab technician named Nobuo. A regular Joe who works in a science lab. Unfortunately, he also has a cold! When he mistakes a bottle of experimental pills for cold medicine, he unwillingly becomes a walking weapon of mass destruction! When he took the experimental pills, he really took pills that are part of a weapons experiment being conducted in collaboration between the Japanese and American governments! After he takes the pills, he becomes a walking death bomb! Wherever he goes death follows! Anybody who comes within a few steps of Nobuo instantly dies! This short turns real epic real fast, my recommendation is stick with it till the very end, it’s a very entertaining and rewarding short. Because of its funny tone, you don’t expect it to get so epic, but it does!  This short speaks about weapons of mass destruction, but it’s really just a fun short that plays out a bit like a Godzilla movie, with Nobuo being the destructive force headed towards Tokyo, while the military tries their best to stop him.

Finally, the anthology ends with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Cannon Fodder, a short that takes place in a fantasy world where society is built around war. Every single building in this walled city has a cannon or a gun sticking out of it. The story takes place in a city where its people only live for making bullets for their giant cannons, to shoot at an enemy they don’t even know. All they care about is shooting their cannons. It’s interesting, thematically, it reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, because it’s a dreary, sad society whose only focus is producing, producing, producing. When they are not producing, they are being programmed to hate an invisible enemy they have never seen themselves. Since the short focuses on how a child sees the world, it comments on how the environment we grow up in forges our dreams and aspirations. The idea being that if we are surrounded by guns and violence; chances are we will want to become something associated with that world. Hence, the little boy who stars in the short draws guns with his crayons and aspires to become the man who pulls the trigger of the big cannon.

When this anthology was released, the short that received the most acclaim was Magnetic Rose, and I agree, it is the deepest of all the shorts, playing in the same ball park as Kubrick’s 2001, but also Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). ‘Stink Bomb’ was heralded as the most entertaining and funny of the bunch, though it wasn’t praised for its depth. Interestingly enough, it was ‘Cannon Fodder’, the short that comes from the most acclaimed of the directors involved on this anthology that got the worst reviews. Not that it’s a bad short; actually, it’s very unique visually. It focuses more on style and a certain type of tone. Stylistically, Cannon Fodder is amazing, very unique looking and it has a distinctive anti war message to it, which I think is where its thematic strengths lie. It sticks to its one theme through and through. I personally dug all three shorts for different reasons. One is deep and haunting, one is entertaining, funny and epic and one is stylish and offers social commentary. So we get a little bit of everything on this anthology. When we see it as a whole, it’s another gem in the world of anime anthologies. Highly recommend it.

Rating: 5 out of 5   

Friday, April 17, 2015

Harlock Space Pirate (2013)

Harlock Space Pirate (2013)

Director: Shinji Aramaki

The universe of science fiction anime films is vast and wondrous, I’ve been exploring it as of late, I hope you guys are enjoying my exploration of anime films. But anyways, within anime science fiction, there’s a small niche reserved for films about space pirates. For example, today I’ll be talking about Harlock Space Pirate, but there’s Space Adventure Cobra (1982), also about a space pirate. There’s a bunch of other anime sci-fi films worth mentioning in case you feel the need to explore this type of film more, for example there’s Space Battleship Yamato (1979), Final Yamato (1983), and yet another one we could mention is one of my all time favorite anime science fiction films: Lensman: The Secret of the Lens (1984) a film that I’ll be reviewing here soon, so keep your eyes peeled. But what concerns me today is this super cool animated film called Harlock Space Pirate (2013). I’d never seen the series or read the manga that it is based on, but there was something about the concept of a space pirate driving a gigantic spaceship that looks like a skull, that just grabbed me. There’s just something cool about the idea…add to that the James Cameron quote on the cover that reads: “This is truly an unprecedented movie. This movie is already legendary, with its overflowing imagination and magnificent visuals; this movie is one that the world has never seen before. Harlock leads the way to a world of new ideas!” and I was sold. I’m ultra happy I decided to buy this one; it’s an amazing science fiction film! Epic in every sense of the word!

Harlock Space Pirate (2013) is a computer animated film based on the manga written and illustrated by Leiji Matsumoto. I have never read the manga or seen the television series that followed, so I went into Harlock Space Pirate without any previous knowledge of the character or its mythos. I don’t know if this is even considered a good adaptation, but if the positive reviews are any indication, then it is. So what was my impression? I was blown away! That’s my official impression! Totally blown away. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of computer animated films, because sometimes the result can be cold and mechanical because sometimes the filmmakers focus so much on the visuals that they forget that story is equally important for a movie to work, which is why we get films like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), big on visuals, not so big on creating characters and stories we can identify with. Which is one of the many things I loved about Harlock Space Pirate (2013), it has a story that grabs you and characters you can care about. It has a heart!

The story concerns Captain Harlock, a pirate that’s going around the universe placing these bombs in specific points in the universe. When he blows up all 100 bombs, the explosion is supposed to trigger some sort of cataclysmic event that would send the universe back in time, to a time when there wasn’t an over population of planet earth, to a time when humans hadn’t destroyed the earth beyond recognition. Of course, not everybody wants this to happen. The powers that be want the status quo to remain as is, so of course, it’s the government chasing Captain Harlock through the universe, trying to stop him from detonating the bombs. Will the corrupt Gaia Coalition stop Harlock and his crew of space pirates from blowing up the galaxy and restarting humanity? 

So like I was saying, it’s the characters that pulled me in first because they are all a bunch of rebels who fly through the cosmos with one concept on their minds: freedom! Freedom is what drives their ship; it’s the reason why you become part of the crew, because you believe in freedom. The filmmakers managed to make Captain Harlock a truly intriguing and fascinating character, at first they don’t show him much to keep you in anticipation, but once Captain Harlock takes over the film, let’s just say he has an intriguing and magnetic personality, he’s a very fleshed out character. I’m sure that has a lot to do with all the back story the character has, what with the manga and various television series to back him up, well, of course Captain Harlock didn’t end up being a cardboard cutout of a character.  This is a character with a well established personality and solid motivations. He is a man who will stop at nothing until things are set right for the human race! But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the story behind this film, there’s a lot of intrigue, there’s revenge and plots within plots. In other words, even though this film has tons of style and coolness to it, it doesn’t forget to back that up with decent story and characters.

When a film has awesome story and characters, and is accompanied by amazing effects and visuals, well, it makes it a perfect package for me. And boy did this movie blow me away with its concepts and visuals! I mean, here’s a film that puts a lot of effort into making things look cool, this movie just oozes coolness from every pore! I loved the numerous space battles! Captain Harlock’s ship looks like something H.R. Giger might have designed, with this giant skull on the front, which at some points smashes into other spaceships! What’s so cool about Harlock's ship is that besides the skull in the front, it also looks like an old pirate ship…and get this, the spaceship has a healing factor! It repairs itself! From what I gather, on the cartoon show the spaceship looks even more like a pirate ship, with these awesome laser cannons on the side, which made it onto the movie as well. It’s just an awesome visual, a pirate ship shooting lasers in space, in fact, the characters in this movie are so well developed that even Captain Harlock’s spaceship (called The Arcadia) has a shroud of mystery about it, even the ship is a character on its own! There are scenes with hundreds of spaceships shooting lasers at each other! Suddenly it feels like a pirate movie, but instead of cannonballs, the spaceships shoot lasers, the result is pure eye candy!

Final word is I loved this movie and the character of Captain Harlock so much that I will be purchasing some of the old television series to explore this character further; this is no easy task because this character has had many incarnations throughout the years. This 2013 film was directed by Shinki Aramaki, the director behind most of the Appleseed computer animated films like Appleseed (2004), Appleseed Ex Machina (2007) and most recently Appleseed: Alpha (2014). But for those of you interested in exploring the character past, there’s been a couple of different Captain Harlock series. They are: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978), The Mystery of the Arcadia (1978), Arcadia of My Youth (1982), which by the way was a feature film. It was followed by a series called Albator or Orbit Road/SSX (1982). Then came Harlock Saga (1999) and Space Pirate Captain Harlock: The Endless Odyssey (2002). I’m really looking forward to seeing all of these and catching up with this excellent character and the universe that surrounds him. But as far this new 2013 movie goes, I highly recommend it to lovers of epic science fiction with an emphasis on cool.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Behind the Scenes Awesomeness: Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) director Joe Dante

Christopher Lee and Joe Dante

Producer Steven Spielberg and Director Joe Dante 

Special Effects Genius Rick Baker manipulating one of his creations for Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Corey Feldman, Zach Galligan and Joe Dante

Joe Dante and Rick Baker

Monday, April 13, 2015

Neo Tokyo (1987)

Title: Neo Tokyo (1987)

Directors: Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Katsuhiro Otomo

I’ve been doing some catching up with old anime movies I haven’t seen, because let’s face it, there’s so much cool stuff out there to see that sometimes movies just slip through the cracks. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, boom, there’s universes within universes to explore. Case in point: Japanese animation. As I mentioned on my review for Robot Carnival (1987), Japanese animators love to do anthology films because it gives them a chance to expose their talent to the world. I’ve come to really enjoy a lot of these Japanese animation anthologies…here’s another one I think you guys will dig. It’s called Neo Tokyo (1987) and it includes the work of some truly awesome animators! Let’s see, first we have Rintaro, the director behind The Dagger of Kamui (1985), Metropolis (2001) and X (1996). He directed the segment entitled ‘Labyrinth, Labyrinthos’. Yoshiaki Kawajiri the director behind Ninja Scroll (1993), Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000), Highlander: The Search for Vengeance (2007) and The Animatrix (2003) directed the short entitled ‘The Running Man’. And finally we have anime legend Katsuhiro Otomo, the mastermind behind Akira (1988), Steamboy (2004) and one of the shorts on Robot Carnival (1987). He directed the short entitled ‘Construction Cancellation Order’. So we have three masters of Japanese Animation working on this anthology, how did it turn out?

Wowzers is all I can say about this one. I mean, considering this was released the same year as Robot Carnival, the animation on Neo Tokyo is far superior in my book. I don’t know what it is; it just looks better, more modern somehow. Robot Carnival, though released on the same year, had an old school feel to it, even though it was about robots. I guess it just shows what a unique touch a director can give to their films. Without that vision, that idea, that feeling that a director wants to convey, a movie just isn’t the same. If you have an uninspired director behind the camera, then the film will be equally uninspiring. Which was not the case with Neo Tokyo, it’s quite evident from the first frames that we have a skilled and talented group of directors gathered for this anthology, each with their unique and voice.

First up we have the short entitled ‘The Running Man’ which is just an amazing short. It grabbed me from the first images and didn’t let me go. The control over sight and sound is so superior here…I mean, the visuals go so well with the sound, they create an otherworldly landscape of nightmares, and futuristic speed racing. Imagine mixing the world of Blade Runner (1982), with its neon lights and dark city landscapes and mix it with the podracing scenes from The Phantom Menace (1999) and you’ll get an idea of what to expect. Now mix in some ghosts…and you have your first ghost filled speed racing movie, with mind meld included in there for good measure. First off, stylistically speaking, this short is mind blowingly cool. The visuals will capture you, I mean, these race cars are so freaking cool looking! I want to drive one of these things! Second, it’s so much like Blade Runner, right down to having a detective investigating the whole thing. And a short film that appears to exist within Blade Runner is cool for me any day of the week. And third, it’s bat shit insane. I mean, what the hell? I had to watch this one a couple of times to fully understand it, but from what I could grasp, it was about this dude who controls the driver of a racing car with the power of his mind? The ghosts figure into the story somehow? Freaking crazy! Still, this is exactly what I enjoyed so much about the shorts presented on Neo Tokyo, they challenge your mind. And speaking of mind bending stories…

Then we get Rintaro’s collaboration to this anthology, a story entitled ‘Labyrinth, Labyrinthos’ a.k.a. ‘The Labyrinth Story’. And here’s where this anthology dives deeply into the surreal and dreamlike. So far, this is the most surreal anime short film I’ve seen. It is as if we were watching everything from the point of view of a child. We follow the child as he is playing inside his house….things are show from such strange angles that they seem different. It reminded of feelings I had when I was a child. You know how when you are a child, simple things can seem scary? This short harkens back to that, to when a childs imagination could transport him to a whole other world entirely. Mirrors are suddenly doors that can take us to another dimension filled with images that seem to make sense, yet they do at the same time when we look at the in a symbolic sort of way. You see all these crazy images which end up making sense when compared to your wildest craziest dreams. Feels like being a kid and seeing the world through eyes that get frightened easily. This short just blew me away as well. To me it felt like I was watching the film of a very distinctive filmmaker, one with a clear vision of what he wanted to convey; that weird, frightening, yet wonderful way in which a child looks at the world. This short was so amazing…obviously a master filmmaker at work here. One of the best things I can say about it is that it was an exercise in atmosphere, some scenes are spooky, they seem to come out of an old fashioned horror film. This short was one of the highlights of the anthology.

Finally, we move on to Katushiro Otomo’s ‘Construction Cancellation Order‘ which is all about this representative of an important development company who due to a change in government is now responsible for overseeing the cancellation of a construction project. The cancellation of this Project 444 presents its own set of challenges. First off, this development company was building a huge city in the middle of a dense jungle, so we have a futuristic city in ruins, being overtaken by nature. Second, the whole project was being constructed entirely by robots, with one robot overseeing everything. The problem is that the robots won’t stop working, since that’s all they were programmed to do and their one human supervisor has gone missing, they won’t follow any other order! So it becomes this gargantuan task to stop them. Again, same as in Robot Carnival (1987) the theme of man vs. machine pops up, but who will win? To me this short is amazing because of its design. You can see glimpses of the complex city designs that Otomo later uses in Akira (1988), also, it ends similar to Akira’s because it has its protagonist going up against a gigantic tentacled creature. While I enjoyed this short, I was disappointed with its ending, which feels unfinished. Just when you think you’re going to see this whole Man vs. Machine theme taken to its limits, poof, it’s fade to black and the short ends. What happened here? Did they purposely leave the audience hanging, or did something happen behind the scenes of the making of this short that didn’t allow them to follow through to the end? Whatever the case, the short is still amazing, and well worth watching. But if you ask me, the other two shorts are superior.  

After, Construction Cancellation Order, the anthology closes by going back to Rintaro’s Labyrinth Labyrintho’s and its back to surreal territory with the child still living out one of his horrible nightmares which involves circus clowns and black slimy monsters surrounding the child and his fat cat. But no worries, somehow, it all ends on a happy note and same as Robot Carnival, the short ends in a parade of fireworks, clowns and music, which brought to mind the final scenes in Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), which ends in a similar fashion. When the film ends, it feels like those last minutes in a circus, where all the characters from the circus reappear to say goodbye to us. The film dazzled and amazed us and it is now ending with some eye candy so you can leave happy. I know I did! Though this anthology film is short in running time (only 50 minutes long) its amazing every step of the way and well worth including in your anime/animation collection.

Rating:  5 out of 5 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Robot Carnival (1987)

Title: Robot Carnival (1987)

Directors: Atsuko Fukoshima, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Hiroyiki Kitasume, Koji Morimoto, Takashi Nakamura, Yasuomi Umetsu, Manabu Ohashi, Hidetoshi Omori, Katsuhiro Otomo

I love anime movies, the problem with some of them is that sometimes they are so hard to get! Take for example Robot Carnival (1987), the film I’ll be discussing today. It’s an amazing animated film that I’m sure any anime fan would love to have in their collection, yet it to this day it hasn’t be released on dvd or blueray, and the only way you can see it is either by buying a bootleg copy with bad resolution, or you seeing it the way I did, on You Tube. Now normally I never watch movies on You Tube because to me it’s a travesty having to see a movie that way, but sometimes it’s the only way to see them, specially the more obscure ones. So anyhow, I finally got around to seeing Robot Carnival which was recommended to me by my good friend Sci-Fi Fanatic over at Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic, where he wrote this amazing article on abunch of anime films, some of which I have not seen yet. Robot Carnival was one of them. Of course I immediately searched this one out and well, here are my thoughts on it.

Robot Carnival is an anthology film composed of seven stories from seven different anime directors. Anthology films can be cool precisely because of this, because we get to see different stories, with different tones, themes and styles. Japanese animation director’s love making these anthology films, there’s a ton of them and I have to say, I’ve enjoyed all of the ones I have seen. I’d recommend checking out Memories (1995), which includes three animated shorts; one of them from Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of Akira (1988) called ‘Cannon Fodder’, great animation on that one. On Robot Carnival the stories are as diverse as they are entertaining and thought provoking. Some stories are simply an exercise in style, others are filled with sentiment. The one thing that holds these shorts together is that they are all about robots.  In the end Robot Carnival is one big mash up of great animation, it actually gathers an amazing group of animators, some of which went on to make milestones in the world of animation, like the aforementioned, Katsuhiro Otomo who went on to direct Akira (1988) and Steamboy (2004), two amazing anime films I urge you guys and gals out there to see at some point. Other animators who participated on Robot Carnival worked on films like The Animatrix (2003) and Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), so we have an amazing pool of talent on Robot Carnival.

So what is Robot Carnival about? Well, since it’s an anthology film it’s about a lot of things. But for starters, the film opens with these huge stone letters coming out of a dune in the dessert. When we take a good look, the letters spell the words “Robot Carnival”. Soon, from the letters, guns appear and start to shoot fireworks, then, an orchestra appears that starts shooting lasers out of their trombones. Suddenly we realize that this awesome fireworks display and these huge stone letters are really the title sequence announcing the opening of the film! As if saying, “Here’s our big Robot movie check it out! It’s going to be spectacular!” And that it was. It seemed to me like what these directors were doing was showcasing their artistic and storytelling abilities, showing the world what they are made of. You can tell that with each different short, the directors were trying their best to create a visual feast, something dazzling to look at. This is probably why a lot of the shorts don’t have a lot of story to them, in fact some of them don’t even have dialog, they simply focus on amazing us with the visuals, a quick jolt of coolness. In this way, it's a bit like Disney's Fantasia (1940). On the other hand, some shorts on Robot Carnival are thought provoking and even introspective; others cram so much story into them, that you feel like you’ve fallen right smack in the middle of a movie already in progress.  So as you can see, tones, themes are stories will jump all over the place, which is what’s cool about anthology films. So now, I’ll break down the shorts for you guys:

Star Light Angel -  is about these two girls who go to an amusement park filled with robots. One of the girls ends up falling for a guy in the amusement park who just so happens to be a guy that ends up turning into an evil giant robot. Then a good robot comes to save her and it felt a bit like an animated version of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), with the good robot boyfriend vs. the evil giant robot ex boyfriend. It's a lighthearted short, filled with lots of colors and mostly happy moments. 

Cloud - is a very ‘artsy fartsy’ short, very symbolic in nature. I took it as a robot watching the history of mankind unfolding in front of its very eyes, from our birth, to our own self destruction, then to rebirth.

Deprive - has a hero, a girl in peril and evil alien robots taking over the earth. This short goes at a million miles per second, blink and you’ll miss something, but it’s cool stuff happening all the time. We get aliens, tentacled robots, lasers and the earth saved all in the course of a few minutes.

Franken’s Gears - is a homage to Frankenstein. In this short a mad scientist creates a giant robot in his dark laboratory. At first he thinks it’s not alive but after a few switches are flipped, lightning strikes and voila! The robot is alive! The robot begins to imitate its creator. Will this be for the good of the mad scientist? Or will it be his doom? Visually striking, loved this one.

Presence - This one also has an inventor working on a robot, this time in a secret secluded cottage in the middle of the woods. He ends up having conversations with the robot who expresses her desire to go out into the world and experience life. She reminded me of the robots from Blade Runner (1982), asking for life. It’s one of those stories that touches upon the idea of robots outliving their own creators. 

A tale of Two Robots Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion - is ‘steam punkish’ in nature because it’s all about two giant wooden robots fighting in the middle of a city, but not in modern times. It’s a period film, set in the 19th century, but with machinery that runs on steam. It’s visually impressive, what with giant wood robots walking about the city and all, yet it is also light on themes. It feels like we are watching a small part of a larger story.  

Nightmare - Is the darkest and most apocalyptic of all the shorts, it takes place in a darck city, as giant robots roam about the streets. Lightning bolts destroy the city and robot armies are formed, as humans run away from the chaos, trying to survive. This short is all about The Human vs. The mechanical. It has no dialog and gives lots of emphasis to mixing music with visuals. Very atmospheric and gloomy.

Then the film ends with another ‘wrap around’ story that ends the film with a bang. Robot Carnival is a great anthology film, a display of awesome talent in the field of animation. You’ll never feel bored because you’ll always see something different. You can tell this film was made by artists, its main emphasis is on creating striking visuals. So from that angle, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for a deep film, look elsewhere, because you’ll get depth only from a few of the shorts, the rest are eye candy, which is a good thing as well. Some films are meant to be enjoyed solely for their escapism. If you’re a fan of anime, science fiction and robots, you should definitely check this one out.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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