The word roujin means ‘old person’ and the classic anime film Roujin Z is a hilarious nightmare of old age. You’re wrinkly, bedridden and incontinent, but that’s just the start. The younger generation has dumped you in a computerised superbed, and wheeled you on stage for a product demonstration in front of gawping med students. Before their eyes, and without leaving the bed, you’re bathed, taken to the toilet, and mercilessly exercised, all with clamps and – ugh! – suction pumps.
It’s one of anime’s great black comedy scenes, with the ludicrousness of Monty Python and the savagery of Swift. Japan may have a chronic ‘ageing population’ problem, but the bed has equal bite in England and America. Roujin Z, though,takes its satiric starting point and runs with it to epic extremes. The superbed takes on the character of the old man’s late wife, determined to take him away to the beach. It’ll be an OAP holiday with smashed buildings, riot police and the mother of massive mecha fights…
First released in 1991, Roujin Z came out of a time when anime got political, between Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor films and anticipating the rise of Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) and Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers). Kon handled Roujin Z’s art design(his first anime gig), working with his world-famous mentor, Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo. Otomo’s is probably the name most associated with Roujin Z; he wrote the script and contributed to the robot designs, and it has numerous affinities with Akira.
Partly it’s the worldview; this is another film where women, even the cute ones, are strong, and the males mostly bluster. Like Akira, Roujin Z presents a barbedly believable view of relationships; a young male med student longs for the heroine, Haruko, but is willing to settle for a casual night with her friend. It’s interesting that the supercomputer-robot is female, perhaps influenced by the early Alien films with their ‘Mother’ computer and powersuited Ripley. On the male side, corporate man Terada, in his own pressed suit, has a presence surprisingly reminiscent of Akira’s Colonel, different as those characters are. Also like Akira, the film is set in a daily-life Tokyo of pachinko parlours and shopping malls.
What makes Roujin Z different, though, is the way it harnesses a heavyweight, tragic theme to a delightfully light-footed comedy, with knowingly pulpy nods toward horror; you could imagine it being remade by a 1980s-vintage John Carpenter. It does, indeed, demand a tolerance toward retro styles and limited budgets. ‘The film-makers are economical with their animation of background and secondary characters,’ wrote the US critic Roger Ebert in his review. ‘They break the film down into storyboarded shots as a comic book might, using unexpected angles and perspectives, shadows and light, surrealism and visual invention, so that the animation feels rich and complex.’
The histrionics and bawdy humour are reminiscent of the Lupin franchise. The limited animation is punctuated by flashes of old-school cool, such as the robot colossus swinging beneath a monorail (and frantically using an oncoming train as a climbing frame), and a shot of the hapless ‘useless guy’ character being knocked off his bike and bouncing painfully along on his bum. The latter moment was drawn by the revered action animator Toshiyuki Inoue, who drew much of Akira’s motorbike duelling, as well as flying broomsticks in Kiki’s Delivery Service and city-eating blobs in Paranoia Agent.
But perhaps the element of Roujin Z that lingers most in the mind is its supporting chorus of geriatric hackers, who play a crucial role in the plot. They’re portrayed as gleefully dirty, trouser-dropping gits, but also as wily foxes who run rings around the complacent corporate world of their kids, hacking data like they’re lifting sweets from newborns. They’re terrific comic creations; they also offer us hope that we might age into them, rather than into a spoonfed wretch in a bed-bath. And if we’re really good, we could come back as a supercomputer.
Roujin Z is out on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment. Andrew Osmond isn't really 82.
Sports have been around in anime from very early in its history, but the first identifiable sports anime, Yasuji Murata's Animal Olympics in 1928, didn't feature soccer. In fact, the beautiful game was a latecomer to the anime sports world. Compared with baseball, soccer had few fans.
The Japan Football Association was founded in 1921, but the sport was strictly amateur. Foreshadowing the corporate totalitarianism of Norman Jewison's 1975 Rollerball, though without the balletic violence, teams were owned and players employed by major corporations. Top players, however, did little or no pen-pushing or assembly-line work.
Despite this, there was enough interest for NTV to screen an anime series devoted to soccer in 1970. Red-Blooded Eleven put a group of high-school slackers on the pitch to pit their makeshift team against the official squad headed by a sadistic coach. Based on a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Kosei Sonoda, the show ran for a respectable 52 episodes, but it focussed on high school drama off the field rather than action on it.
Japan's second soccer anime Captain Tsubasa was, and still is, in a different league. Although only 4% of Japanese actually participated in soccer when Yuichi Takahashi's manga first appeared in 1981, readers of Shonen Jump magazine rated his series twice as highly as macho slugfest Fist of the North Star, making animation a foregone conclusion. A 128-episode TV series ran from October 1983 to March 1986 alongside four theatrical movies, all directed by Isamu Imakake.
The manga and anime followed the rules which had made baseball anime so successful: dramatic gameplay, realistic football backgrounds (and later, matches against real teams and players, renamed to avoid legal problems,) themes of rivalry and friendship, and constantly renewed challenges. Young hero Tsubasa Ozora moves up from school sports to national youth team, then to youth international level. The manga ended its successful run in 1988, and despite a further video series in 1989 it seemed Captain Tsubasa's national career was at an end.
In 1992 the first J-League tournament was fought by ten teams. The following year, regular League competition was established. Interest in the very foreign teams that Captain Tsubasa and his team-mates had emulated led young Japanese to take the game to their hearts. Takahashi brought out a new manga in 1994, allowing Tsubasa to turn pro and start a new footballing life in Brazil. Imakake made a new one-shot video, and a TV series, Captain Tsubasa J, ran for a respectable 47 episodes on TV Tokyo.
In 1998 Japan survived the elimination rounds of the World Cup and was chosen to co-host the tournament in 2002. This led to another new Captain Tsubasa manga, Road to 2002, and allowed Barcelona fan Takahashi to transfer his hero to Barca. A new TV anime series helmed by Gisaburo Streetfighter II Sugii was produced at Madhouse. There is currently no new anime on the horizon, but Takahashi has kept the manga going, with several new subtitles, into this year.
Captain Tsubasa has legions of fans outside Japan. Like much other anime, it's widely screened in Asia, but it has spread much further afield. Dubbed into Arabic as Captain Majid, Tsubasa became known across the Middle East. Arabic dubbed anime has been aired since the early 1980s: his footballing skills were admired in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule. The show was also dubbed into Farsi, extending its Middle Eastern spread even further. Animax screened Flash Kicker and one of the movies in India in 2007.
Tsubasa's fictional transfer to Barca made local headlines in Spain, where he already had his own fan base. The show was screened there as Campeones: Oliver y Benji, while in Portugal it was Capitão Falcaõ, playing on the "wing" reference in the hero's Japanese name. It's also widely screened in South America. In France it's known as Olive et Tom, in Italy as Holly e Benji, and in the USA as Flash Kicker. In Germany the show was known as Die tollen fussballstars, and in Poland Captain Hawk.
Juventus captain Alessandro del Piero remembersHolly e Benji as one of his favourite TV shows in childhood, while Spanish international and Liverpool striker Fernando Torres says on his website that Oliver y Benji taught him "what is sportsmanship, (the) concept of values for life and (the) importance of friendship." He recommends "every kid who wants to be a footballer" to watch the show.
Perhaps Torres' endorsement will help Captain Tsubasa gain some credibility in Britain. The home of the beautiful game has not taken soccer anime to its heart. Even the more modern incarnations of the show were not likely to appeal to the sci-fi, action-adventure-biased British anime companies of the 90s. They were looking for something with cyberpunk, or irony, or tentacles, ideally all, three, not a series packed with healthy, sporty lads and earnest, do-your-best sentiments.
Yet Captain Tsubasa didn't exactly kick open the door of domestic or international success to other soccer anime. Ganbare Kickers (Kickers) lasted just 23 episodes on NTV in 1986. Topstriker (Moero Topstriker!) fared better in 1991. Its presentation of the game is more realistic than most of its precursors, and combined with an attractive Italian setting, this may be what earned it a following in France as well as Japan.
1992 was a year of replays. Free Kick for Tomorrow (Ashita e Free Kick) revamped the Japanese-player-abroad premise of Topstriker and Offside reprised the Kickers storyline in a one-shot, later revamped for satellite TV in 2002. Half a dozen more series followed in the decade from the foundation of the J-League to the Asian World Cup, with a couple of 2002 guest appearances in soccer shorts: The Doraemons: Goal! Goal! Goal! and One Piece: Dream Soccer King. In the last ten years we've seen another half-dozen titles, none memorable, culminating in April's new TV series Ginga e Kickoff on NHK.
But Tsubasa Ozora still has the pitch to himself as the world's top anime soccer superstar.
Yoko Kanno is composer, keyboardist, vocalist, and mistress of a whole range of musical styles form the laid-back piano jazz of Cowboy Bebop to the heavy vocal basslines of Vision of Escaflowne, from the driving pop/rock of Macross Plus to the more questioning tones of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
Not bad going, for someone who never planned a career as a composer and is largely self-taught on piano. She went to university to study Japanese literature, planning to be a novelist, but lasted just a week.
One of Japan’s busiest composer/arrangers, Kanno crosses media from film and pop music to games and ads. Her first game score, for Romance of the Three Kingdoms on the PC-8801 and Sharp X1, was recorded in 1985, when she was just 21. Seven years later she arranged the ending theme on Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Porco Rosso. Long before that, her work in advertising ensured that millions of Japanese with no interest in anime or games hummed her catchy commercials.
Her advertising work also linked her to another Kyushu native who was directing commercials and dreaming of making it big in movies: Tetsuya Nakashima, five years her senior and now an internationally renowned director of hits such as Kokuhaku (Confessions, 2010) and Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuga Monogatari, 2004.) Interviewed for a French website in 2006, he said:
“We’ve known each other since we were very young, the time when we were both unknown and she wrote the music for my advertising work. That’s why I can tell her what I want; on this film, for instance, I was the one who insisted she make this kind of music… Normally, she’s so famous that directors trust her with the music and she does what she wants … That’s really why she doesn’t like working with me, because she has to listen to me and give in to my demands.”
Since Kamikaze Girlswas his third film scored by Kanno, she obviously takes Nakashima’s demands in good part. They made beautiful music on 1997’s Natsu jikan no otonotachi and 1998’s Beautiful Sunday, Happy Go Lucky. In the same year they made Kamikaze Girls, Kanno also provided the music for Nakashima’s spoof sentai short featuring Japan’s perennial pop idol boyband SMAP.
Kanno initially turned down Nakashima’s offer to work on Kamikaze Girls because of scheduling conflicts. But once he persuaded her to look at the completed footage she was lost. “I just thought “Who else but me can compose for this movie?”… there are not so many composers who can squeeze all the essence of this film… and the director’s sarcasm into 2 hours.” And despite Nakashima’s renowned pickiness, he didn’t give Kanno any specific direction, except that she should make the music sound “like a yakuza movie.”
More recently, Nakashima has worked with rising Italian star Gabriele Roberto on a number of movies – which causes some confusion with Kanno’s vocal/lyricist alias, Gabriela Robin. But these two old friends have made some interesting music together.
Kamikaze Girlsis out on UK DVD from Third Window Films. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Matt Kamen takes you to the pastoral paradise of Spice and Wolf
Meet Kraft Lawrence – 25-year old travelling merchant, roaming from town to town on his trusty cart, slowly earning enough to open his own store. It’s a lonely, quiet life for the young entrepreneur, until he trundles into the village of Pasloe to sell his wares and stock up on supplies. On top of the wheat harvest, he also picks up Holo, a stowaway who jumps aboard as he leaves. Despite looking like a teenaged girl wearing cosplay ears and a tail, she’s actually a haughty 600-year old Pagan wolf goddess, desperate to return to her home, Yoitsu.
The pair strike up something between a friendship and a partnership – Lawrence agrees to take Horo along as they head north, and she uses her abilities and bossy personality to improve his business deals. Their burgeoning relationship is put to the test though, not least because of their early personality clashes. A rival trader, Zeelen, puts them at risk with an edgy scam, while Horo is hunted wherever they go by a new Church seeking to wipe out the old gods. Suddenly, solitude seems more appealing to the young Lawrence....
Spice and Wolf first grabbed attention back in 2006, when the original books by Isuna Hasekura were first published. The series was published until last year; the story having reached its conclusion after seventeen volumes, each boasting detailed illustrations by Ju Ayakura that helped to bring the fantasy world to life. Though it was his first published work – having won the Silver Prize in the twelfth annual Dengeki Novel Prize in 2005 – Hasekura built up a complex and involving world that is rich in its own lore.
Making the jump to the TV screen came courtesy of director Takeo Takahashi and the animation studio Imagin. Having previously made the ethereal fantasy series Mushishi, Imagin was a prime choice to tackle the similarly paced Spice and Wolf. However, a few changes were made along the way – most notably, the anime introduces an original character, Chloe. A former student of Lawrence, she balances wanting to become a successful merchant in her own right with her lingering feelings for her old teacher.
Spice and Wolf is at times slow, considered, and steeped more in the pettiness and quarrelsome nature of humanity than in the godly nature of Holo. There are no epic battles to speak of, but the duo’s journey north is fraught with peril all the same. The character designs are elegant and considered, but brought to life with a fluidity and grace of motion that should be admired. In short, it is a very different experience to most anime series but one that will thoroughly enchant anyone who joins Lawrence and Holo on their journey.
Daniel Robson lets the Japanese train take the strain
I wonder how the great geniuses of human civilisation – Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Morrissey – would react if confronted with a Tokyo train map. Part of the problem is that there isn’t one: With the train and subway lines run by about a dozen different competing private companies, there is no single map uniting the countless lines that tangle their way around Tokyo. There’s one map for the subway lines, one for all the train lines operated by JR East, and one for all the others. And even then, each map looks like a plate of multicoloured spaghetti.
Then there are the super-stations, such as Shinjuku, housing not only dozens of platforms but also several department stores, eateries, kiosks and juice stands, spread over a mind-boggling space with literally scores of exits. The first time I ever used Shinjuku Station on my own, I walked in big circles for half an hour until I finally found my platform. It doesn’t help that few of the signs are translated into English, and appear in an inconsistent mess of colours. Even the Japanese ones often fail to direct you to where you’re trying to go.
When you do successfully locate the platform, you then have to work out which train stops at your destination – the Rapid, Express, Rapid Express, Semi Express, Section Semi-Express, Local…. Still, the trains in Tokyo, and indeed all of Japan, are amazingly efficient. Usually steering the train in at the exact minute written on the timetable, the drivers are drilled to stop at a precise point so that the markings on the platform match up with the doors, allowing passengers to queue ahead of time in an orderly fashion. Conductors make peculiar hand gestures and calls, even when alone, apparently a technique designed to keep them alert. And when someone throws themselves in front of a train (a popular form of suicide, since it’s a final finger to the conformist rat-race system), the whole mess is cleared up within 30 minutes and charged to the victim’s family, minimising disruption to commuters.
It’s also cheaper. Although there’s no equivalent to London’s Travelcard, minimum fare is usually around 130 yen (£1), and if you buy the wrong ticket you can simply pay the difference on arrival at a Fare Adjustment machine – no nasty penalty fares. Or you can use a Pasmo or Suica card, equivalent to an Oyster card.
The trains themselves are roomier than those in England. Even the subway trains have overhead luggage racks and plenty of legroom, so you’re not sitting toe-to-toe as on the London Underground. They’re also air-conditioned, taking some of the stench out of the morning commute.
That’s not to say they don’t get crowded. The Inokashira Line, which runs from Kichijoji to Shibuya and which I ride every day, gets so crowded at rush hour that they employ platform staff to squeeze passengers into the carriages like cattle. The overcrowding makes it easy for certain perverts to indulge in groping, and as such, some trains offer a women-only carriage at certain times of day.
For further-flung destinations, there are a range of fast trains, most famous of which are the Shinkansen (bullet trains). The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka covers 250 miles in two and a half hours – three times quicker than riding a regular Limited Express train. Though sadly not as exciting as you’d imagine (you’re not pinned to your seat by the G-force or anything), they do feature buffet carts selling hot and cold food, as well as revolving seats that allow you to sit in a group of four anywhere in the carriage.
Tokyo is also served by buses, of course. I rarely ride them, because they’re slower and often more expensive than the train. Also, there are no night buses. As the trains all finish at around 1am, a night of drinking will often lead you to Tokyo’s other mode of public transport: taxis.
Taxi drivers in Tokyo are among the most useless in the world. Although their cars are usually equipped with sat-nav, the drivers rarely know how to get where you’re going. You tell them your destination, and eight times out of 10 they reply, “OK. So what’s the best way to get there?” Clearly not by taxi.
Oh, the amount of times I’ve been late because I mistakenly thought it would be quicker to go by taxi than by train or on foot. And the amount of times I’ve had to haggle down the price on the meter after the driver got hopelessly lost. Once I sat watching the meter rack up nearly double the usual cost in a stationary taxi as the driver struggled clumsily to find my home on his satnav; it turned out we were around literally one corner. And several times, I’ve had to sit and wait while the driver got out to ask directions.
Part of the problem is that a large percentage of Tokyo taxi drivers don’t actually live in Tokyo; they come in from Yokohama, Chiba and other neighbouring towns, lured by Tokyo’s dense population. It’s never hard to find a taxi in Tokyo; they’re like ants. Except, of course, that ants usually know where they’re going.
For all its faults, Tokyo’s transit system beats the hell out of London’s. I’ve never felt I need a car in Tokyo (though I do have a bicycle). Just remember that when navigating Tokyo, if you get lost or ripped off, you’re not the only one...
Tom Smith on the unfortunately-named band SUPER BEAVER
The latest Naruto Shippuden box set brings with it another hapless victim in Japan’s ever-spiralling series of ill-advised names. This time it’s a Japanese pop-rock band that goes by the entirely unintentionally obnoxious moniker of SUPER BEAVER. At least I like to think their naming process is innocent, any immature attempt at a double entendre would go against their clean-cut and happy image. Take their song ‘Shinkokyu’, the ninth ending of ninja-themed series mentioned above, for example. In English its title means ‘Deep Breath’ and its lyrics tell a vague tale of working hard for the future and moving on from the pains of yesterday.
Now compare everything you’ve just read to Spread Beaver, another Japanese band but one knowing full well what its name can also mean in English. The group was the backing band for hide, a notorious figure for Japan’s alternative youth whose influence is still felt strongly today, some 14 years since his untimely passing. hide was originally part of X Japan, the biggest visual kei band in history, and visual kei, much like the west’s rock ‘n roll, is highly sexed up – hide was no different. What would you expect from the pink-haired man that penned a song called ‘Electric Cucumber'? (It means exactly what your filthy mind is thinking).
The point is, it’s fairly simple to tell when someone or thing is exploiting the ambiguity of language in a provocative way. SUPER BEAVER’s image sways towards blissful ignorance, while hide’s does not, and could do with an antiseptic wipe. Yet, this journalist can’t help but wonder if those foreign companies and individuals with inadvertently provoking names, slogans or products are entirely innocent – the results are far too amusing to be a whimsical accident. There must be an evil English-language genius running around causing havoc at their expense, mustn’t there?
Anyone that witnessed L’Arc en Ciel live in London recently can confirm that the band’s leader and bass player tetsuya is a cheeky perv. With a glint in his eye, he asked the audience if they’d like to eat his banana or suck on his lollipop (gasp), which makes me think that the collaboration between the band and electrical giants Canon was no mere accidental language booboo when they revealed the Wonder BJ.
It’s not always dirty words or phrases they’re seemingly playing with; there are also clean names so ridiculous that the whole family can enjoy them. Trying to lose weight and have your suspicions that the water you’re drinking could be part of the problem? Try some low-fat Diet Water!
Are your colleagues at work or friends from school a bit too happy in the morning? Simple, slip them a can of Deepresso coffee, to really bring them down. And what office doesn’t need a handshredder?
It’s not always the Japanese suffering from misinformed English. It can work the other way too. Just imagine what the Japanese must think of Australia’s town of Eromanga, for example.
It’s gratifying to see a generation of people so interested in hygiene – that must be why you’re lining up to buy a series called ‘Bleach’, right? If some orange haired janitor with a fancy mop (mop, magical talking death sword – whatever) excites you, hold on for these other heroes of the Japanese cupboard space!
Take Lion Corporation’s BRIGHT: it’s a liquid oxygen bleaching system that employs a two-way cap to provide an easy to use application nozzle. We’re blown away, and that’s even before we noticed Lion’s promise that its "Bright efficiency direct agent" uses powerful ingredients to remove both odour and yellowing!
That might be a bit harsh for your domestic needs though. If all you need is to clean up after your less toilet-ready family members, try Pigeon’s Baby White bleach. It’s a softer formula, one designed for cleaning food or mess stains from baby clothes, fabrics, carpets or certain hard surfaces. About the only things you can’t use it on are wool and actual babies.
Applying potent chemicals to various surfaces isn’t the only household chore you may need to do – there’s laundry too. If you want truly soft and fluffy clothes, we recommend Sarasa, a detergent boasting perfumed fragrance and a cleaning effect enhanced by naturally-derived citric acid. It’s suitable for contact with skin OR clothes, so you probably can wash a baby with this. Make sure to hand wash though, as infants tend not to be machine-safe.
Of course, to take care of those irksome tasks around the home in a completely Japanese manner, you need to go a little insane. And what better way to get the cleaning done in an authentically genki way than decorating the bottles as an adorable plush animal? You’ll want to hunt down something like these spray bottle covers. They’re definitely not a complete waste of money, and nothing will make monotonous jobs more enjoyable than pretending to throttle a cute puppy (or a lamb, bunny, penguin) with every resentful, laborious squirt of window cleaner.
Of course, our favourite Japanese cleaning product is but a figment of our imaginations – but we like to think Mr Sparkle would eradicate dirt, grime and limescale, and leave surfaces with a gleaming shine and a zesty lemony aroma. If only it wasn’t made up for The Simpsons. Frankly, it’s a bit disappointing that no canny businessmen have capitalised on the idea – tie-in merchandising and housework, now in one great product!
Alternatively, you can shirk your chores, let the rubbish pile up and just enjoy the other brand of Bleach on offer with the release of series 8, part 2. It’s on sale now – but it won’t disinfect your toilet.
Andrew Osmond interviews artist and designer Patrick Awa
Patrick Awa has seen anime and animation from many sides, stepping between East and West since he was born. His parents are Japanese; he was born in California, then taken to Japan before he was one. He’s been involved with anime that fans may have missed; hands up if you’ve heard of the penguin CGI film Hopper, or the SF Baton. But they’re only a tiny part of Awa’s artistic career. When we conducted this interview, Awa was just about to display his art at the haleARTS Space gallery in Santa Monica. You can see images from the show on his Five Ringsblog.
Awa went to school in Tokyo, then to university in Chiba, studying Industrial and Product Design. He speaks of drawing as something he never grew out of. “I was one of those average infants with crayolas, making a mess on mom's favourite kitchen wall,” he told the blog of the animation studio Maverix. “I think usually kids find other interesting things to do like baseball or skateboards as they get older, and only a few uncelebrated ones are left behind with stubby crayolas. That's me.”
At university, Awa thought of being a product designer at Toyota or Sony. However, one of his teachers was Toshi Kawahara, who’d founded Polygon Pictures in 1983. Polygon was (and is) one of the oldest studios to specialise in CGI, working in a range of media: TV commercials, special effects and films for exhibitions. It’s also worked with Production I.G, providing the stunning titles for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and cloud battles for The Sky Crawlers.
“Pixar has just released Toy Story,” remembers Awa, “and I had not even touched Photoshop yet. Polygon’s R&D team created original 3D software when there was no major commercial software available. When I first visited Polygon, they were a small group of artistic innovators. Their CGI work felt a bit like an unconventional new design tool to me, like when the synthesiser came out in the music scene.”
For about three years, Awa worked at Polygon as a rookie designer. Then in 1997, Kawahara developed a dream – to produce the first wholly CG Japanese feature film. It would have been called Hopper, about penguins nine years before Happy Feet. Kawahara created a separate Tokyo studio, dedicated to featurs, and opened a US pre-production office to hire American artists and writers. Hopper was planned to appeal to an international audience. Awa was picked to join the American team as a character designer, a move taking him back to his birthplace, Santa Monica.
The roster of American talent on Hopper was awesome. John Stevenson, who would later co-direct Kung Fu Panda, was the head of story. Chris Miller (Shrek The Third, Puss in Boots) and Tom McGrath (Madagascar) were lead story artists. Barry Jackson, who has numerous Hollywood credits, was a production designer, and Peter de Seve, who would design Ice Age’s nut-loving Scrat, drew concept sketches. “I do not know how much you need to put these people back together now,” says Awa.
Awa was the head of the character design department. His team spent a year and half on Hopper’spre-production. “We had a small tour of San Diego Zoo to play with Antarctic penguins in their freezing habitat. We did some sketches until our hands could not hold pencils any longer. It was my first experience in many respects, to work with an international staff, to learn the feature film making process... Everything was new to me.”
How would Hopper have compared with Hollywood’s Happy Feet and Surf’s Up? “It’s a tough question,” says Awa. “Story-wise we were trying to make something that could fit the Hollywood standard. But way back then, the only CGI film was Toy Story, so we were not sure how to sculpt our film. We were going more for an epic drama than a comedy, I think. Visually, we were going for semi-photoreal, like Happy Feet, though we were working with the beta version of the very first Maya software, so there could have been have been many technical problems to resolve.”
You're the son of world-famous anime director Hayao Miyazaki. You’re asked to make a movie at his fabled Ghibli studio, but you've never worked on a cartoon in your life. Do you start with something modest? Do you heck! No, you animate the classic Earthsea novels by Ursula Le Guin.
Result: you receive two national prizes from Japanese critics… for worst film and worst director. Your film gets a ton of one-star kickings on Japanese websites. Then it lingers on in memory, a black mark on the Ghibli brand, far worse than just a great studio underperforming. Pixar’s Cars 2 was a let-down; Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea is a betrayal.
Well, that’s one side of the story. There are other ways to look at Goro Miyazaki’s sombre fable of a troubled boy-prince in a magic world, who becomes a murderer and outcast and is caught in a war between wizards. To declare an interest, I thought Tales from Earthsea was an interesting failure, “a pious fable about a sinner seeking redemption,” worth about two Cat Returns or a hundred Eragon films. The rather more famous Mark Kermode judged the film, “a beautifully realised, full-blooded tale of dragons and darkness, good and evil, drugs and damnation.”Most reviewers were far harsher. Earthsea’s creatorLe Guin criticised much of the film, and was plainly disappointed by it, though she points out saving graces. For example, she enjoyed the interpretation of Ged by veteran Japanese actor Bunta Sugawara; the “calmness” of the farm scenes; and the depiction of the animals, including a relative of the “Yakkul” deer seen in Princess Mononoke and Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980s picture-book Shuna’s Journey (bits of which were borrowed by Goro).
Le Guin also said that she received many emails from Japan about Tales from Earthsea. Some were from viewers disappointed by the film, but others were from fans defending it. According to one correspondent, there was a “distinct division” of opinion on Japanese internet sites. “While many are devastated by the movie, there are also many who are elated with it… . The fervour with which they defend it brings to mind someone lost in a maze who has just found an engraving of an arrow on a door, only to be told by another traveller that the corridor behind it is a dead end.”
Then there’s Goro Miyazaki own story, told in episodic blog form on the Ghibli studio website in the months leading up to the film’s release. An unofficial translation, created by Paul Barnier, is available online. The early entries make clear that, whatever you might think of the film, Goro approached Earthsea with deep respect. He’d read the original trilogy as a teenager, then revisited it as an adult, pondering the change in his reactions. As a schoolboy, Goro identified with the callow, headstrong Ged of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea. As an adult, he felt more kinship with the mature Ged of the later novels, who’s portrayed fairly faithfully on screen.
Goro’s blog is enlightening on several other points, including his argument for animating Earthsea in a rough, retro style harking back to Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and even the 1960s Toei film The Little Norse Prince. Perhaps the style is most obvious in an early Earthsea scene where the nihilist prince Arren is attacked by wolves in the desert, like the feistier Hols in Norse Prince. Arren himself can be seen as a version of the troubled girl Hilda, whose animation by the great artist Yasuji Mori was a revelation to Prince’s staff. Goro Miyazaki admitted, though, that his characterisation of Arren bewildered his own animation director, Takeshi Inamura.
All these points, though, were obscured by the most infamous blog entries; Goro’s blunt criticisms of Hayao Miyazaki as a father, including his claim that Papa Miyazaki scored full marks as a director, zero as a dad. Goro also claimed Hayao opposed him directing Earthsea, which Hayao himself had tried and failed to adapt in the 1980s. Surprised fans suddenly had front-ring seats to a family brawl, involving Japan’s most beloved uncle having his face metaphorically scratched by an undutiful son. And how does Tales from Earthsea start? With a kingly father stabbed to death by his demented offspring.
Andrew Osmond comes back from the dead for Angel Beats
In the first minutes of the tragi-comic-loony-weepy fantasy series Angel Beats, a teen boy awakes on the grounds of a strange school, with no memory of how he got there. He’s greeted by a girl squinting down a rifle, with an attitude suggesting, “Call me cute, make my day.” She tells him briskly that he’s dead, and that his mission – if he doesn’t want to be erased by God – is to rebel against the afterlife, and specifically the white-haired girl she’s aiming at, called Angel. The boy decides he can’t be having with all this, and goes to talk with Angel, who extrudes a blade from her hand and kills him. Game over.
But only for a bit. The boy wakes up again and gradually learns more about this daft-seeming world. He gets killed some more along the way, but it doesn’t matter – death here is a mere annoyance, though the rebels warn him against imitating the background students who act like this is a normal school. If he does that, our hero is told, he will vanish. The only way to endure is to fight the system, in the Afterlife Battlefront or whatever is its name that day – the teens’ arguments about what to call themselves are straight from Monty Python’sLife of Brian.
That’s just the beginning. Angel Beats’ storyline mutates a fantastical amount in its thirteen episodes, swinging from extremes of slapstick to tragedy, sometimes in seconds. If you were going to categorise it, though, you might place it in the vicinity of Western standards like A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day, whose protagonists get magically yanked outside life only to peer back in, without being conventional ghosts. Another running thread is that these characters are offered fantastical second chances and resets. Through Angel Beats, the Afterlife Battlefront is (mostly) wiped out several times over, and still comes back for more.
The Western titles, though, all had adult heroes, whereas Angel Beats substitutes teenagers. Hayao Miyazaki once remarked that youngsters experience nostalgia as keenly as grown-ups (just watch Spirited Away). That especially applies to adolescents nearing the end of school; the world still seems open and boundless, yet a part of their lives is closing off before they’ve really understood it. Angel Beats tugs these strings with ruthless efficiency, as did The Girl who Leapt Time, which offered its heroine endless resets to stop the drifting adolescent days ending. Slightly older protagonists figure in the similarly-themed anime by director Masaaki Yuasa, who made the run-from-God film Mind Game (still awaiting a British release) and the timelooping series The Tatami Galaxy.
All these anime must be discovered without spoilers, though it’s fascinating to compare the very eccentric journeys that they take, plots looping and corkscrewing and planting fiendishly crafty story hints. The crowning revelation in the last moments of Angel Beats – and it’s a jaw-dropper – is signposted so massively that you’ll kick yourself for not spotting it. It’s also worth comparing how the anime handle conflict, in scenarios that seem to be inherently anti-conflict, with characters who can come back from death and undo catastrophes.
An afterlife anime like the charming Haibane Renmei had barely any conflict at all. In stark contrast, Angel Beats masterfully establishes a conflict in the opening moments – the Afterlife Battlefront versus the pint-sized Angel – then leaves us to wonder if the fight is meaningful, or just invented to give them the cast something to do, reflecting genre storytelling. The series continually mucks with our expectations, confronting the Battlefront with overtly artificial monsters and threats, which just might have an ulterior purpose in moving the story on.
As of writing, it’s possible that the next Hollywood example of this sub-genre could be taken from Japan. Warner Brothers is reportedly developing a live-action film of All You Need Is KILL, a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. (It’s available in English translation from the publisher Haikasoru, with an anime-style cover by Yoshitoshi Abe.) The plot is alien war meets Groundhog Day. A soldier dies fighting monstrous frog-like invaders, but wakes on the previous day, ready to go through the nightmare again. The humans fight in robot suits – a crimson-suited girl warrior wields a mean axe-blade - and the protagonist levels up his fighting prowess over looped time like a Shonen Jump hero. The actors linked to the film? Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt…
Angel Beats is out this week on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.
Salarymen to the left of me, shoppers to the right. And here I am, stuck in the middle with otaku. Well, more accurately I’m frolicking with them, in Hibiya Open-Air Concert Hall, a concrete amphitheatre that’s dwarfed by the towering skyscrapers of Tokyo’s business district to the west, and high-end retail haven Ginza to the east. Between the two is the venue, hidden in the peaceful Hibiya Park. Peaceful, that is, until 3,000 anime fans descend en masse, clutching chunky glow batons, wearing identical shirts and all waiting for the latest lady-singer that tickles the tastes of otaku to hit the stage; LiSA.
Born Risa Oribe, this 24-year old singer is probably best known to anime fans as Yui, one of the two vocalists from Girls Dead Monster, the fictional girl group of Angel Beats!. The animated band has had very real success too. All three of their singles ranked top five or higher in Japan’s Oricon single chart, and their first and only album Keep The Beats! was awarded gold by the Recording Industry Association of Japan.
A band linked to a 13-episode anime will naturally have a limited life span, and once Girls Dead Monster had gone as far as it could, Oribe-san started work on her next musical project. Recruiting help from some of the indie band members she used to hangout with before her anime fame, she formed LiSA, an acronym for Love is Same All – not to be confused with the completely uppercase J-pop singer LISA. LiSA’s recently released full-length album LOVER“S”MiLE, debut EP Letters to U and her maxi single Oath Sign, are now available digitally from Amazon and iTunes stores across 20 countries, including the UK.
Staying faithful to her fans, ‘Oath Sign’ continued in the anime vein by featuring as the opening to the series Fate/Zero, the prequel to MVM’s Fate Stay Night. And her debut EP also had stars working on it from Japan’s doujin, popular with the crowds of Comiket – a festival celebrating all things fan-made and self-published.
What all this means is that her fans are a very different type than those of typical pop stars, idol singers and the like. They’re the type of devoted fans Akihabara is famous for, and LiSA’s record label knows it! After all, they gave shops in the area exclusive LiSA posters to give away with every CD sale.
These fans are out in force today, away from their natural habitat and sizzling under the sun. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve experienced all sorts of live shows in Japan, from super arenas to hidden underground live houses and everything in-between – but I’ve yet to see fans as devoted as these. There’s tears, there’s cheers, there’s the waving of glow sticks in perfect unison like some kind of tribal dance. And they’re doing it from start to finish – everyone. Even at the end of the show fans refuse to go home and begin singing LiSA songs in full, a cappella style – and I’m not talking about the bits before the encore. Or even right after the encore. The crew are out dismantling the stage and still the fans refuse to go home. It’s all rather endearing.
Will fans outside of Japan appreciate her music in quite the same way? Only time will tell, but with her releases now out worldwide, and a show in the pipeline for America this summer, the time to find out may not be that far away.
Angel Beats! Complete Series Collection, featuring the vocal talents of Risa Oribe, is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment 25th June.