Japan is the land of mascots – organisations big and small use them to present friendly faces to the public. In May 2012 a Japanese newspaper ran a feature article on how mascots help shrinking towns and industries. The city of Ugo boosted rice sales five-fold with a drawing of a cute girl, while Kannagi fans got together to help Shichigahama, where the animeis set, after the March 2011 tsunami.
Japan welcomes mascots from all over the world, but when it comes to sports, not many of them get their own anime. Britain’s 2012 Olympians Wenlock and Mandeville (already facing competition from the unofficial but much cuter Re-Ment London Olympics Hello Kitty) may struggle to make an impact.
Only two Olympic mascots have made it big in anime. One is Eagle Sam, mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. A friendly, perky bird in a stars ‘n’ stripes top hat and bow tie, Sam was designed by Disney artist Robert C. Moore. He was a star in Japan long before the Games began, thanks to Hideo Nishimaki’s anime series, which premiered on TBS early in April 1983.
Sam was beaten to anime gold by Bear Cub Misha, the 1980 Moscow Olympic mascot designed by illustrator Victor Chizhikov. Misha was big in Japan in 1979 with Koguma no Misha, a TV Asahi series directed by Yoshimichi Nitta, also seen in Europe and the Arab world. He was the first Olympic mascot to star in his own cartoon show, and also the first to have a girlfriend, making him a beacon of hope for young geeks unsure how to talk to girls.
Misha was extremely cute, a useful quality if you want to be an anime star. Yet some of the cutest Olympic mascots missed out on their own anime. Munich’s rainbow dachshund Waldi was certainly sweet enough to qualify, but was overshadowed by the horrific massacre at the 1972 Games. Montreal’s elegant beaver Amik from 1976 was probably too minimalist to attract Japan’s animators. If differentiating between characters with black hair onscreen is difficult, animating a ground-hugging all-black oval would be a nightmare. Seoul was represented by Hodori the Siberian tiger in 1988, and Barcelona in 1992 was fronted by Cobi the Catalan sheepdog – both cute, marketable, loved at home to this day, and ignored by anime studios.
The Beijing Olympic mascots of 2008 proved as controversial as cute. The Fuwa, or ‘good-luck dolls’ were designed by artist Han Meilin, but didn’t bring him much luck. He designed over 1,000 characters and had two heart attacks before choosing Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini.
The five didn’t get their own anime, though they made cameo appearances in Sega’s game Mario & Sonic at the Beijing Olympics. Their Chinese cartoon series, which began airing in August 2007, was widely noted for its ‘anime-like’ style. It garnered good ratings and won a major award.
Yet Chinese bloggers named them ‘witch dolls’ after a series of coincidences tagged ‘the curse of the Fuwa’. Basing one of them on a Tibetan antelope, an ironclad political statement in a cute plushie wrapper, went too far for some. Their creator has since disowned them.
Will Britain’s mascots make the podium? Probably not. They may be too much like Athena and Phoibos (Athens 2004,) described on the official Beijing 2008 website in very unflattering terms, or Izzy, Atlanta’s 1996 cartoon blob. Only the cutest win anime Olympic gold.
Launched in 1984 in the pages of Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump, Akira Toriyama’s original Dragon Ball was a very different beast to the one western viewers would eventually meet. introduced the boisterous Son Goku, an adventurous and unusally strong boy with no social graces whatsoever. Raised in seclusion by his adoptive grandfather, he doesn’t even that know what girls are – making for some prime gag moments when he meets treasure hunter Bulma. Soon teaming up, the pair track down seven rare ‘Dragon Balls’ – powerful items that can summon the wish-granting dragon Shenron. These early stories were very loosely based on Chinese fables but Toriyama gave them a fresh twist, his distinctive art style and perfect balance of comedy and action making the series a hit.
After many escapades with young Goku, Toriyama jumped ahead five years in the story’s timeline, and though his manga kept its name throughout its ten year run, the anime adaptation was rebranded to Dragon Ball Z after 153 episodes (compare to the similar shift that gave us Naruto Shippuden). Shifting focus to epic and lengthy battles instead of treasure hunts and martial arts tournaments, this version shot the series to global success. If you grew up watching Cartoon Network in the late 1990s or early 2000s, chances are you came across the show frequently, albeit in its edited form.
The change in tone and setting allowed Toriyama to perform a soft reboot on his ongoing work, re-explaining Goku’s origin as being an alien orphan rocketed to Earth – a riff on his favourite western superhero, Superman. Unlike the last son of Krypton, Goku was revealed to be the child of a race of world conquerors called Saiyans, sent here to take over the planet. Thankfully, a head injury early in life wiped out that mental programming, and he instead grew to be the world’s greatest hero.
For those new to the series, the first season of Dragon Ball Z starts with a reintroduction of the existing cast, showing how they’ve changed in the five-year gap. It’s a brief reunion though, as it’s not long before they’re facing off against an invasion of Goku’s extra-terrestrial relatives. His long-lost brother Raditz appears first – and defeating him costs Goku his life. Even worse, Raditz is a mere herald for the terrifying Vegeta and Nappa who follow in his wake. However, despite introducing the new sci-fi elements, Toriyama’s universe remained one of wonder and imagination, one where death was barely an inconvenience and the gods can teach kung fu. The heroic sacrifice just provides opportunity for some spiritual super training, while those still alive must track down the Dragon Balls to wish their friend back to life.
Can the Earth survive the invasion? Find out in the complete first season of Dragon Ball Z, on UK DVD for the first time ever!
Can’t tell one pointy-haired warrior from another? Don’t worry – here’s your first look at the expansive cast of Dragon Ball Z!
Son Goku. Goku was originally cast as a naive but powerful young boy who was spurred onto the path of adventure following the death of his grandfather. By the time Dragon Ball Z rolls around, Goku’s a full-grown adult, the victor of several martial arts tournaments and a married man. He’s only slightly less naive though, and his strict wife Chichi frequently has to rein in his less socially acceptable habits and wilder impulses. The first arc of the series marks Goku learning of his alien origins for the first time – before meeting other Saiyans, he thought he was just another average monkey-tailed boy!
Son Gohan. Goku and Chichi’s son, only four years old at the start of the series. The unique combination of his Saiyan and Human DNA unlocks the potential for him to be even more powerful than his father – if only his mother would let him train! Instead he’s a shy and retiring lad, more at home in the library than the dojo. The imminent arrival of the Saiyans changes that, and Gohan is forced into a brutal sink-or-swim training regime. Like Goku in his youth, Gohan has a tail and changes into a monstrous, powerful giant ape when he sees the full moon. Such a transformation might be useful against the Saiyans, if only he could control it.
Krillin. Goku’s oldest friend, and the toughest pure-bred human ever! His martial arts training is second only to Goku’s. If he spent a little less time perving over girls with the teacher, Master Roshi, he might be even stronger. Though he’ll fight to the end if need be, Krillin also has a cowardly streak and tends to underestimate his own abilities. He also has something of a complex over his lack of hair.
Piccolo. Once Goku’s greatest enemy, now a grudging ally – even if he is the reincarnation of an alien demon king! In short, Piccolo’s past is a bit complicated. Having lost his final battle against the spiky-haired hero at the end of the original Dragon Ball, he goes off to live in solitude. When his power level is detected by the approaching Raditz, Piccolo almost loses his life to the ferocious alien, forcing him to team up with his old enemy. Taking Gohan into the wilderness and teaching him to fight, he slowly comes to care for the young boy – can the former ‘Great Demon King’ possibly have a softer side?
Bulma. The unfortunately named Bulma Briefs is a feisty super-genius – something that runs in the family. Her father founded the scientific organisation Capsule Corp, the crazy inventions of which are peppered throughout the series. Bulma herself created the Dragon Radar, allowing the heroes to track down the seven magical orbs in order to have their wishes granted, though she originally just wanted to wish for the perfect boyfriend. She can also quickly adapt new or unfamiliar technology to give the good guys an edge, Bulma also plays an important role in securing the Earth’s future as the series progresses.
Vegeta. Prince and namesake of the Saiyan homeworld, and the most dangerous opponent Goku has ever faced. A prideful and conceited man, Vegeta doesn’t look like much but his short and small frame belies his immense fighting skills, durability and raw power. Having travelled to Earth with his partner Nappa, his goal is to destroy the entire planet. After blowing up at least one other world en route here, he’s already got a track record of global genocide – will our world be next on Vegeta’s hit list?
Andrew Osmond points out that sometimes it really is kids' stuff
The film Welcome to the Space Show, released today on DVD and Blu-ray, lives up to its name, sending us through a bright universe of exotic aliens and crazy cities. Five perky Japanese kids find an injured dog - only the dog is a well-spoken alien called Pochi, who offers to be their intergalactic guide. Naturally, the adventure spins out of control, but what’s showmanship without a little danger?
Welcome to the Space Show has points in common with most Western cartoon films. It’s suitable for all ages; it’s a self-contained story with its own characters; and it’s an epic fantasy adventure. It’s also one of several expensive, ambitious family films by heavyweight anime studios in recent years.
But first, here’s a cautionary tale about an American family cartoon film, to strike a chord with anime artists and executives. Back in the 1990s, Warner Brothers made a fairy-tale toon musical for families, called Thumbelina. The story goes that before it opened, Warners held two test screenings, showing Thumbelina clips to see how audiences would respond.
On the first screening, the audience reaction was “Meh.”
On the second, the test scores soared.
Can you guess what naughty Warner Brothers did the second time?
Answer – it had stuck the Disney logo on the Thumbelina footage. We all know that branding is king, but it’s spectacularly obvious in the field of family animated movies. Let’s consider 2010, when Space Show came out in Japan. 2010 saw other standalone family anime films; the child’s-eye drama Mai Mai Miracle, and the computer-animated Yona Yona Penguin. Both latter films were made by the prolific Madhouse studio – yes, the home of Ninja Scroll and Black Lagoon!
So how much did these family films earn? Here’s some context: that year’s Pokemon and One Piece films, both spun off from hugely popular manga and TV shows, each earned more than $50 million in Japan. Ghibli’s new film, Arrietty, earned $111 million. The films from two other franchises, Detective Conan (aka Case Closed) and Doraemon, pulled in $38 million. Below them were more franchise spinoffs: a Crayon Shin-chan film (about a naughty little boy) at $15 million, and the new PreCure or Pretty Cure pic (magical girl fare), earning just under $14 million.
And Welcome to the Space Show, Mai Mai Miracle, and Yona Yona Penguin?All three earned less than a million dollars each at Japanese cinemas.
Don’t feel too bad for them. Most Japanese cinema films aren’t expected to make their money back on the big-screen. The original Ghost in the Shell didn’t turn a profit on its Japanese cinema release, where it played only a fortnight; nor did a landmark epic like Wings of Honneamise. Still, the box-office disparity between the “brand” films and the standalone films is a bit of a shock. It’s certainly not because Pokemon XIV is fifty times better than Welcome to the Space Show or Mai Mai Miracle. It’s because of the power of the franchise. An anime film without the infrastructure of TV and manga (or the Ghibli name) just won’t do Pikachu figures.
But then there are the foreign markets. Western fans may complain that anime is often treated as one undifferentiated mass, with titles removed from their Japanese contexts. By the same token, though, it lessens the stranglehold of anime brands. There are a few powerful Japanese names in the British market, like Akira, Miyazaki and (ahem) Pikachu. But there’s also much more space for neglected titles to get recognition.
That goes especially for animated family films, where – series like Ice Age and Shrek aside – we expect self-contained stories that don’t need prior knowledge. The Girl who Leapt Through Time was based on a famous Japanese story, but it didn’t need that leg-up to sell in Britain. Anime in Japan is primarily a TV medium; in the West, it’s driven by hit movies. Family films like Welcome to the Space Show or Spirited Away show a friendly face to newbie foreigners who wouldn’t buy, say, the first Bleach box set.
The recent anime season at the BFI Southbank in London showcased several such films. They included Production I.G.’s Letter to Momo, the same studio’s CGI fantasy Oblivion Island, and Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below. The BFI notes accompanying the season said, “A frequent misconception is that anime is invariably violent, or only for adults, but titles such as Momo or Oblivion Island are perfectly suitable for children.”
There’s no sign of such films running out. This May, Toei Animation released Rainbow-Coloured Fireflies: The Eternal Summer Vacation, about a young boy time-slipping back thirty years. July will see Mamoru Hosoda, director of The Girl who Leapt… and Summer Wars, release the furry-kids film The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki. Fans of the late Satsohi Kon, meanwhile, still hope the Madhouse studio will complete his last project, The Dream Machine, “a road movie with robots” that’s suitable for children.
Of course, there’s still the problem of how such films will fare outside Japan against Western brands: Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Aardman… Every anime studio must have envied Ghibli when its mascot Totoro had a walk-on in the Pixar megahit, Toy Story 3. Then there’s the Japanese CGI Friends: Naki of Monster Island, which opened in Japan last December. Judging by its cinema trailer, it has very Asian-folklorish trappings, like Production I.G.’s Letter to Momo. However, the story of a human baby adopted by monsters seems strikingly close to a certain Pixar film.
Friends has reportedly earned in the region of $20 million – a great haul in Japan, though not enough to worry Pikachu or Luffy. Ironically, Friends’ echoes of Pixar may be a liability in the West; they could make it look like a knockoff. Welcome to the Space Show, on the other hand, has its lush old-style drawings, of the kind seldom seen in Hollywood animation these days. True, it’s not as commercially sure-fire as a Totoro logo. But maybe it’ll show people that classy anime doesn’t need killer brands.
Welcome to the Space Show is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.
Photographer Paul Jacques snaps the best of the MCM cosplayers
Rebeka Webb has a ripping time cosplaying as Madame Red from the anime series Black Butler. Just one of the the world-class costumes found at the most recent London MCM Expo, caught on camera by our very own Paul Jacques.
Black Butler complete series two is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Paul Jacques goes commando for a Gainax cosplay...
Knickers to that! Cosplayers Beth Cox and Kara Hook play the fallen angels to a tee, dressed as Gainax's transforming-lingerie ghost-busting coin-collectors (no, really), the Anarchy sisters Panty and Stocking.
Helen McCarthy on just a few of the many faces of the Monkey King
“In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order, but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless eons wheeled and passed. Time, and the pure essences of heaven, the moisture of the earth, the powers of the sun and the moon, all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation, and it became magically fertile. That first egg was named Thought. Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said: ‘With our thoughts, we make the world’. Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey! The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!”
Most Western fans know the name Son Goku best through Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. Toriyama’s mad quest for rotund reptilian relics, said by some overly-hopeful admirers to have outsold the Bible, is one of a select few manga to have the distinction of circulating in Catalan. Yet its innocent lead character has little in common with his great namesake, and all pretense of shadowing the original legend is sidelined early in both manga and anime versions. The first Son Goku was a very different person, and his story has been a staple of Asian culture for centuries before the first animators started messing around with this new film stuff.
Irrepressible, irresponsible and a pain in the backside of more sober, sensible spirits, the Monkey King first sprang to written fame in a book by Wu Cheng En. The 16th century tale Xiyouji records a hazardous, adventure-packed journey to India by a seventh century Buddhist priest intent on bringing back priceless sutras to his Chinese homeland. In Japanese, the same characters are read Saiyuki – Journey to the West. In the legend, the Monkey King is one of the priest’s magical companions on this great journey, but the legend is firmly rooted in reality. A real seventh-century priest made a real journey along the Silk Road, the great trade artery that ran from China to India and beyond and supplied Europe with many luxury imports, returning 16 years later with over 600 sutras. Along its own journey from travelogue into legend, the world’s first road movie picked up many souvenirs of its adventures. The Monkey King may be one of these, a snapshot of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
In the legend, a Stone Monkey is born full-grown from a rock by the ocean. His boastful, irrepressible nature soon starts to cause a stir on Earth as he makes himself king of all the monkeys by finding them a wonderful new home, a cave on a mountain laden with fruit and flowers. His followers change his name from Stone Monkey to Handsome Monkey King, and, with touching faith in his powers, ask him to find the secret of immortality so they can enjoy their new life on the mountain forever. The quest leads him to a great spiritual master, Subhuti, who teaches him martial arts, magic and the Buddhist Way and renames him Sun Wu Kong (in Japanese, Son Goku) meaning Monkey Awakened to Emptiness. However, simply renaming the vain and mischievous creature isn’t enough to change him, and he is thrown out for causing trouble. He returns home with his magic cloud for transport, knowledge of the 72 Transformations and much increased potential for mayhem, but still no immortality and no enlightenment.
Back on his mountain, he finds that demons have taken over his cave, but the skills he has learned from Subhuti enable him to throw them out. The Demon King’s brothers, realising that he’s not quite as smart as he thinks, trick him into sneaking into the Dragon King’s palace and stealing a famous weapon, a miraculous iron staff that can change size on command. Sun Wu Kong is brought before the Jade Emperor for punishment. In an effort to keep him out of trouble he is given a post in the Heavenly hierarchy, but causes more problems and is thrown out again.
Home again and still as vain as ever, he proclaims himself as “The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven”, and despite being challenged by deities he manages to trick his way back into Heaven. There he proceeds to eat all the Peaches of Immortality and wash them down with the Elixir of Life. An army of 10,000 heavenly warriors chases him back to earth to kill him, but he defeats them all. Finally restrained in a magical diamond noose, he is taken down to Hell, but since he has eaten the Peaches of Immortality there isn’t much the Gods can do to punish him. The Jade Emperor appeals for help from the Buddha, and Buddha bets Wu Kong that he can’t jump out of his palm. Of course, Wu Kong loses [Note: betting against Buddha is not recommended – Ed] and is imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain in China. Born from a rock, he is once more held inside a rock awaiting ‘rebirth’ to freedom. But the freedom he finds will not be what he thinks.
After 500 years, the priest Xuanzang (aka Tripitaka) frees Wu Kong to accompany his pilgrimage to India, controlling him by a magic circlet that tightens round his head whenever he causes trouble. However, to help him guard the fragile boy-priest the Monkey also gets three magical hairs which will help when trouble comes looking for him. On the journey the pair meet a pig-changeling called Pigze and Monk Sand, a river spirit who was once a Heavenly guard. After Wu Kong defeats them, they both join the pilgrimage.
The legend was rewritten into many forms, and made its way into Japanese animation as early as 1926, in the black and white short Legend of Son Goku, which used cut-out figures animated by stop-motion. Just two years later, it was animated again as the two-reel Son Goku, directed by Takahiro Ishikawa. Monkey’s first truly big splash in Japan came when the 1941 Chinese cartoon Xiyouji (dir. Zhang Shankun) was released as Princess Iron Fan (above). Featuring one particular chapter from the legend, when Monkey and friends need to steal a magic fan from Mount Inferno, the film so impressed a 16-year-old boy called Osamu Tezuka that he resolved to make his own version. Ten years later, he began writing My Son Goku in 1952, using the same Mount Inferno chapters as his base.
In 1957, Taiji Yabushita’s New Adventures of Hanuman harked back to Monkey’s Indian ancestry, but it was an American rather than a Japanese production, made by Occupation staff to promote harmony and friendship between the Japanese and their American conquerors. The choice of Hanuman rather than Son Goku was deliberate – the US Government wanted the Japanese to get the idea of individual freedom, but felt that a character whose main aim in life is revolt against authority was not the most suitable folk hero for the times (for similar reasons during the war, the Japanese censor lopped 20 minutes off the running time of Princess Iron Fan).
But Yabushita would return to Monkey in 1960, when he directed the anime version of Tezuka’s Boku no Son Goku. Retitled Saiyuki in Japan and Alakazam the Great in the US, the film featured many similarities to the Chinese film that inspired Tezuka. Not only did it keep to the Mount Inferno scenes, but it also played up the moment when Monkey, Pigze and Sandy decide to cooperate for the first time, and featured a final aerial battle when the characters’ feet were surrounded by airbrushed cloud.
Before long, Tezuka’s Monkey was back again, this time in the 1967 television series Goku’s Great Adventure, directed by Street Fighter’s very own Gisaburo Sugii. Sugii was so taken with the story that he, too, would remake it as a TV movie with Hideo Takayanagi in 1982 as Son Goku Flies the Silk Road. Others were infected, too. Leiji Matsumoto, whose angst-ridden tales of heroes nobly doing what a hero’s gotta do include Captain Harlock and the more recent Queen Emeraldas, was the first to take Son Goku into SF territory in the 1978 TV series SF Saiyuki Starzinger, where the legend was warped into a quest to save the universe by a beautiful girl, helped by three cyborg exiles who will win freedom if she succeeds. Starzinger II followed, and the series eventually crossed to the US as Spaceketeers. Taking Matsumoto’s SF influence less seriously, the Fujiko-Fujio duo explored the idea of parallel worlds in yet another of their longrunning series of Doraemon films in 1988, with Doraemon’s Parallel Journey to the West.
A year later, at the other end of the SF spectrum, Buichi Terasawa used the legend as the basis for Midnight Eye Goku, in which the Monkey King is a hardbitten ex-cop with a cybernetic eye, a direct link that lets him control any computer in the world and a miraculous iron pole of his own. His adventures bring him up against a menagerie of deadly exotica including a woman with a truly hypnotic tail and a biker girl with a difference. Despite his amoral and cynical nature, he uses his new powers against the truly evil men of this world, just as his rumbustious precursor was drawn into helping a virtuous priest, at first by coercion but increasingly out of affectionate admiration.
Among the many manga artists who have followed in Tezuka’s footsteps, Johji Manabe (of Outlanders fame) produced the Saiyuki-inspired Viva! Rabbit. Go Devilman Nagai made his contribution to the Monkey comics collection with Super Saiyuki and Dirty Pair creator Haruka Takachiho collaborated with Nagai’s sometime partner Ken Ishikawa on Southern Cross Kid. US fan favourite Ippongi Bang made her own contribution to the myth with Change Commander Goku, an everyday tale of sex and drugs and rock ’n’roll in modern Tokyo. There are also ‘guest appearances’ by individual characters from the myth embedded in many anime and manga, like the blue-faced Yohei of Giant Robo with his magical size-shifting staff. The new versions continue even today, with the serials Monkey Magic and Total Fun (in Japanese Sai Yuki, geddit!), a 1999 video that has just been converted into a fully-fledged television series, which all goes to show that the nature of Monkey is irrepressible.
But it’s the 1979 live-action television series that sent Monkey on a genuine journey to the West. Made by NTV for the Japanese market, but bought for UK transmission with dizzying speed, the BBCdidn’t waste licence-payers’ money on anything as soppy as a translation; instead, the Monkey series was adapted by David Weir, who unblushingly claimed in the Radio Times that he was “the reincarnation of a 19th century Mandarin”. He spoke no Chinese or Japanese and claimed no prior interest in the Orient whatsoever. Luckily for him, someone had already done the really hard part – the Japanese had been properly turned into English by an anonymous translator; all Weir had to do was tart it up.
Armed with this support and a superb confidence all his own, Weir set about filleting the hour-long episode scripts for Western consumption. He told the Radio Times that he had “cut out hours of samurai sword-fighting and re-interpreted the dialogue so that the plot and motivations would be comprehensible to Western viewers”. The result was handed over to future Manga Video dubbing director Michael Bakewell and a classic was born.
The English voice cast enhanced the effect by giving it the full chop-socky treatment, yet the essential nature of the characters transcends the limitations of the dub. Masaaki Sakai was perfectly cast as Monkey, with expressively simian facial features and seemingly superhuman acrobatic ability, as well as a very powerful pair of lungs. He has the legend’s magic staff and flying cloud, and his magical hairs have survived – he can clone himself from strands of his fur, as well as transforming himself in other ways. The young priest Tripitaka was given the perfect combination of physical delicacy and spiritual strength by actress and model Masako Natsume. Matters were confused further when the boy who was played by a girl was given a girl’s voice in the English dub. Shiro Kishibe played Sandy, aka Monk Sand, as a seriously wet spirit, morose and sometimes maudlin. Yet for all his misery, he could pack a good wallop with his bladed staff. Pigze is now Pigsy (Toshiaki Nishida) a spirit kicked out of Heaven for greed and lust, who brings his own muck-rake to battle when he’s not chasing human girls.
NTV made a second 26-episode series, replacing Nishida with Tonpei Hidari and adding a new character from in the form of Tripitaka’s shapeshifting horse Yu-Lung, played by Shunji Fujimura. There was life after Monkey for all the actors, but sadly not a long one for the beautiful Natsume, who died of leukaemia in 1985. Sakai continues to thrive as a television host , covering material from cookery to game shows, in which capacity he made a return appearance to UK television in one of Chris Tarrant’s infamous compilations of world television. Nishida, meanwhile, carved a serious career in drama, while Kishibe became a ping-pong champion.
The series continues to be popular in Japan, its theme song even inspiring the 1998 anime series Gandhara, but the journey was never shown in its entirety on British television. The second season was cherry-picked for its best moments, and episodes 3-9, 14, 19 and 22-25 were omitted. The final chapter “At the Top of the Mountain” made it through, but anyone who genuinely wants to see the whole Monkey will need a pal in Japan who can tape it off the telly (and it’s still on, even now!). Tripitaka and friends never reached Gandhara in the series, although they did get there in the opera Journey to the West, heavily inspired in equal parts by the original legend and by the Japanese TV series that first introduced it to co-creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. A suitably Buddhist finale shows the young priest realising that “enlightenment is a journey, not a destination”, and continuing with his guardians on the road to India. Now they’re on the road again, spreading enlightenment to a whole new generation of fans and reminding us that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, as long as you can have some fun and do some good on the way. [That’s enough. Nothing lasts forever. In all the universe there are only two constants, and these are one. There will be change, and something that changes. The eternal things are natural, like the seasons, and the life and death of stars. – Mystic Ed.].
Matt Kamen on just how far Hetalia pushes its luck
Hetaliareturns for its third season this month, and aside from a title change – goodbye, Axis Powers; welcome to the World Series – it’s business as usual for the cast of Hidekazu Himaruya’s comedy manga turned rapid-fire series of anime shorts. But portraying entire nations as human characters based on their country’s most common stereotypes leads to some edgy and decidedly politically incorrect humour– and here’s our pick of the best of the worst!
Triple Filtered Vodka and Violence! Russians love vodka. How much? The late president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin – famously a fan of the hard liquor himself – had to crack down on illegal home brew variations by doubling tax on it, such was the people’s thirst for the drink. In Hetalia, Russia considers Vodka his fuel, shutting down without a steady supply and frequently drinking others under the table. However, just like the real country has shady chapters in its history, particularly during the Cold War, so too are Russia’s surrounding nations terrified of his darker tempers and penchant for cruelty. A drunken, violent giant – we wouldn’t cross him either!
Everyone Ignores Canada! Although he’s one of the G8 nations and in many of the world council meetings in Hetalia, most of the other countries ignore him, even though his ideas are usually the most sensible. He’s constantly overshadowed by America’s loud and boisterous nature, to the point that England and France – Canada’s parents, after a fashion – forget about him. Of course, this mirrors the real world where, despite Canada’s significantly higher standard of living for its citizens and more peaceable global outlook, the USA is the more vocal and feared North American nation. So spare a thought for Canada – nobody else will!
England Can’t Cook! National pride comes into play here, as Hetalia comes up with the spurious insinuation that British cooking isn’t up to scratch! Every time England cooks for his friends and allies, the end result is some disgusting culinary nightmare, food poisoning, or worse. Sure, we have some strange entries on our collective menu – black pudding being just one of the oddities – but clearly, the fault is on the rest of the world for having such overly sensitive palates, not on England for preparing sub-par food!
Japan is Shy! World Powers introduces a burgeoning friendship between Greece and Japan. When the duo go sightseeing together, Greece shows off his illustrious past, his pantheon of gods, his.... naked Spartan training sessions. Poor Japan is a bit taken aback and becomes very shy as a result, not wanting to discuss nudity or sex. Despite the real-world western perception of Japan as being home to bizarre sexual proclivities and weird, hyper-fetishised pornography, the country has a declining birth rate and over a third of marriages are statistically sexless. It’s nice to see that, along with mocking the rest of the world, Hetalia’s clearly not above teasing its home country’s own prudish behaviour – and for added insult, the English dub gives Japan a thick ‘Engrish’ accent!
Hetalia’s off-colour sense of humour has something to amuse or offend just about everyone – see how raucous it can get in the complete third season, on sale now!
Matt Kamen on the satanic servants of Black Butler 2
The first series of Black Butler, based on Yana Toboso’s manga, was a parable on the cost of revenge, following the single-minded Ciel Phantomhive as he sought vengeance against his family's murderers. Ciel’s only aid came from his demonic butler, Sebastian Michaelis, to whom he paid the ultimate price. In contrast, the anime-original second series explores the price of greed and obsession. Introducing the cruel and scheming Alois Trancy and his own malevolent manservant, Claude Faustus, the 12-episode run spotlights the machinations of the new young lord as he vies for the prestige of the Phantomhive name.
But the rise of Alois Trancy doesn’t mean an end to the legacy of Ciel Phantomhive, and despite the seemingly final ending of the first season, viewers haven’t seen the last of the popular anti-hero. While Sebastian’s fee was paid in full, he has further need of his former master, acting to bring about his resurrection – could the demon actually care for a human? Meanwhile, Alois plots to usurp his rival’s life, taking everything from his name and fortune, to his position of service to the Throne of England and his very soul, coveted above all others in Hell.
Wanting to cast Alois as the opposite of Ciel, new director Hirofumi Ogura and returning writer Mari Okada inverted both his personality and his supporting cast to be in stark contrast to those of his predecessor. Where Ciel was outwardly cold and stern, he was frequently shown to actually care deeply for his family and friends. Alois instead often appears friendly, sweet even, only to nonchalantly abuse the people around him. While their respective butlers are similar in demeanour – perfect in all manner of housekeeping, the pinnacle of decorum and deadly capable in battle – the rest of their servants couldn’t be more different. The Phantomhive staff – chef Bardroy, gardener Finny, steward Tanaka and maid Mey-Rin – are a chaotic bunch, always squabbling and fighting. Conversely, Trancy’s estate is tended to by an unsettlingly ordered lot. His handmaid Hannah is meek and submissive, even after Alois casually gouges out her left eye for a perceived slight, while three identical triplets – only once referred to by their given names of Timber, Thompson and Canterbury – work together in perfect, silent synchronicity, be it in tending to the house or engaging in combat. Perhaps most tellingly, while Ciel does his best to hide the mark of his demonic contract behind his eye patch, Alois constantly shows off his sigil with pride, burnt into his tongue. For Ciel, selling his soul was an unpleasant means to an end; for Alois, a trivial price to satiate his avarice.
With the players arranged like pieces on a chess board, the final battle between Ciel and Alois lays ahead. However, the Ciel that has returned from the grave seems different than before. Can the support of his allies restore him, or is the end nigh for the Phantomhive line?
Imagine, if you will, Heaven: eternal peace, endless bliss, perfect contentment – sounds pretty boring, right? It’s the things that are bad for us that make life exciting, so it’s easy to imagine why two ne’er-do-well angels got kicked out of paradise. Banished to Daten City, an inbetween realm bordering Hell, Panty and Stocking – known as the super-powered Anarchy Sisters – are charged with taking down evil ghosts to earn their way back into the good graces of the powers that be. Unfortunately, Panty is more interested in sleeping her way through 1000 men, while Stocking would rather stuff her face with cakes and sweets than get involved with troublesome spectres. Both girls are put under the watchful eye of the afro-sporting Garterbelt, and while they’ll reluctantly follow his orders, it’s usually only if they can get something for themselves out of doing so. Throw in a geeky sidekick to abuse, a strange green dog as a mascot and a pair of demonic rivals, and the stage is set for chaos!
Panty & Stocking is a huge departure from much of Gainax’s catalogue. Be it the girls’ main combat ability – turning their underwear into magical guns – or the bizarre nature of some of the ghosts they have to apprehend, Panty and Stocking’s world is one that’s designed to be as outrageous as possible. It’s perhaps the ultimate example of cartoons not all being kids’ stuff, with episodes featuring the vengeful spirits of discarded sperm causing a tissue paper shortage, a toilet ghost that literally wants to take a dump on Daten City, a rogue porn tape, and a legendary penis that can open the gates of Hell.
In developing the series, director Hiroyuki Imaishi and his co-creators, including writer Hiromi Wakabayashi and character designer Atsushi Nishigori, deliberately looked to create something far removed from anything typically found in anime. Instead of looking at their peers and contemporaries in Japan’s animation industry, they took inspiration from western animated shows, such as Craig McCracken’s Powerpuff Girls and Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein’s Drawn Together. Episodes of Panty & Stocking are a lightning-fast explosion of dynamic action and bad-taste jokes, peppered with pop-culture references to Nirvana, The Beatles, My Chemical Romance, Pink Floyd and Gorillaz. That last one is key, as Jamie Hewlett’s art for the animated rock band, plus his earlier Tank Girl graphic novels, are clear influences on the highly stylised appearance of the show. Western movies from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to Michael Bay’s Transformers are also mocked outright, as are constant nods towards Gainax’s other serials.
The self-knowing pre-credits warning of another intentionally crass western show, South Park, probably sums up Panty & Stocking’s appeal best: “The following program contains coarse language and due to its content should not be viewed.... by anyone.” Yet just like the bad behaviour that got its heroines kicked out of Heaven, this is a show that proves really is the things that seem wrong that make life exciting.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the funkiest of them all? Judging from its silence, the mirror cares not for such matters. But, if a name alone means anything, then Okinawa’s seven-strong unit FUNKIST may just be the answer.
Their small sub-tropical island, south-west of mainland Japan, is only half of the influence behind the band’s sound. Okinawa has long been a hotbed for cultural mash-ups throughout history. Before the heavy U.S. military presence following World War II, it showed evidence of cultural impressions from various places, particularly those of Chinese, Australasian and Thai origin, which shaped the island’s unique customs, martial arts and cuisine. Without such influences, karate, champloo and the island’s token alcoholic beverage awamori would certainly not exist.
More recently America’s muscled its way into Okinawan culture, resulting in a much higher number of bands drawing inspiration from eastern and western music than found in mainland Japan. Examples of such artists include Orange Range (from thisNaruto opening) and HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR (used in thatBleach opening). Both are from Okinawa, and both draw feature elements found in American hip hop and metal. To keep the island’s American population happy, there are a large number of radio stations and clubs that play only western music in Okinawa. I was there for two weeks and the only Japanese songs I heard were traditional ones played on a sanshin. Compare that to Tokyo, where my ears were bombarded with AKB48, Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu tunes on a daily – perhaps even hourly – basis.
FUNKIST comes from the same Okinawan mixing-pool, though this band’s point of reference takes a slight African and Caribbean approach. Their vocalist Someya Saigo is half South African; his mother a ballet dancer and his Japanese father a flamenco guitarist. Naturally, he grew up up listening to music of all sorts and this upbringing has left its mark on the band’s sound.
Someya’s roots also took the band to whole new places – literally! FUNKIST managed to tour Japan, Macau and a country rarely visited by Japanese bands, South Africa. They managed it all independently too, to promote their first two indie EPs; Okinawa and SOUL Japarikan (see what they did there?). Soon after, Japan began to take notice, and after their single ‘The white world’ reached number one in Tower Record’s J-indie chart, it was only a matter of time until they signed a major label, soon leading to FUNKIST making their anime debut in Fairy Tail.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news. Due to poor health, flute player Youko Kasugai had to leave the band soon after recording ‘Snow Fairy’, the opening song from Fairy Tail: Part 1. From here on, the flute parts often took a less prominent role in the FUNKIST’s funk. Though, the opening from Faity Tail: Part 3, ‘ft.’, is still rather flutalicious – both tracks appear on the band’s album FUNKIST CUP. Regrettably, Youko lost the fight to her illness on 13th October 2011. However, the band continues on and can still be found releasing records and touring Japan to this day