Roving cameraman Paul Jacques snaps zombie hunters at the Expo
Hannah #1, Hannah #2, Emma and Sarah are locked and loaded and looking for the undead, cosplaying at the MCM Expo as the characters Rei, Saeko, Saya and Shizuka from the hit anime seriesHighschool of the Dead.
Roving cameraman Paul Jacques snaps Soul Eater cosplay
Cosplayer Mikey Soe suits up as Soul Evans, the hero of the hit anime series Soul Eater. He didn't bring his own piano, though, and we're not sure if he brought a small hallucinatory ogre with him or not. But the clothes are right!
Soul Eater is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
It appears that the team behind Strike Witches, a franchise which features ladies flying about in their panties, have a soft spot for much more than just knickers. They also like Yoko Ishida, the singer from the first series’ opening song. They like her so much that despite the hoo-ha of switching animation studios, moving from Gonzo to AIC for the second series, they decided bring her back to record the new opening; ‘STRIKE WITCHES 2 ~Egao no Mahou~’ (‘Magic Smile’).
Yoko Ishida spirited her way into anime at the age of 19. She entered 1992’s Anime Song Singer Contest and won, landing herself a record deal with Columbia records. Her debut song ‘Otome no Policy’ was released a year later and used as the theme to Sailor Moon R. It soon became a karaoke classic for magical-girl fans across Japan, with the single selling over 300,000 copies.
The song, her only tie-in with anime at up until this point, left an impression with entertainment giant Geneon. Seven years after the track’s release, Yoko’s contract with Columbia had expired and Geneon was there waiting to snap her up. They had a plan, a plan to establish her as one of the hottest names in anime – and they succeeded.
Straight off the bat Geneon had Yoko Ishida singing the opening them to the cutesy Little Snow Fairy Sugar, followed by Ai Yori Aoshi, Petite Princess Yucie, Gunparade March and This Ugly Yet Beautiful World – the latter two anime receiving a UK release.
She didn’t stop there! Having built a steady amount of followers with a penchant for animation, Geneon’s next move was to release an anime cover album featuring the vocalist – and not just any cover album, a para para style one! Featuring distinctive takes on classic Gundam, Chobits and many other anime theme tunes, the album proved so popular that it spawned a further two volumes, bumping up Yoko’s cover catalogue to includes the likes of Cowboy Bebop, Gurren Lagann and Evangelion.
Yoko’s popularity began to spill overseas too, and once a chunk of her prior releases were made available in America, it wasn’t long until she was jetting off from Japan and touring the States, as well as Europe, South America and east Asia.
What awaited upon her return to Japan? Why, a whole new season of anime to record the themes for! Ah! My Goddess, Shakugan no Shana and of course, Strike Witches series one and two (If you really want to impress your friends with Strike Witch knowledge, series’ director Kazuhiro Takamura also wrote all the lyrics to the show’s opening themes). More recently (as in, the last few months!), Yoko finished recorded the new opening for the Strike Witches movie, which she’s currently promoting in Japan through a number of themed live performances in its honour. UK based anime fans can only sit and ponder how long it will be until she ventures to these parts with such promotions.
Gundam doesn’t just stop with the television series. Part of its popularity is based in the model kits and collectable figures that accompany new iterations of the show. But in Japan, the uses of Gundam go far beyond such small items. Bandai, for example, has long featured a “life size” Gundam head at their Toy Museum in Omocha no machi (Town of Toys) in Mibu.
It has also been possible for a while to “drink” Gundam. The northern town of Sendai has a “Gundam Shot Bar Zion”, and there also appears to be a “G-Dining Bar Zeon” even further north in Aomori. But for the official way to eat and drink in the style of Gundam, you need to go to the Gundam Cafés. The first was opened in downtown Akihabara in 2010, right next door to the AKB48 pop group’s café. These two establishments seem to be competing for who can achieve the longest queues. But, for hungry fans of Gundam, all is not lost, because the giant Gundam anniversary statue has now moved to Tokyo’s Odaiba district, and sits outside a second Gundam Café that opened this summer as part of the new Diver City shopping centre.When I visited the Akiba Gundam Café, it offered a split menu: family-friendly for the day, when the queues were smaller, and additional alcoholic beverages for the evenings. The interior is super-modern, but it does feel a little like a fast food joint (you queue at a counter during the day, and are served by cosplaying staff. Everything has a Gundam twist, from the Jaburo coffee menu, named for the headquarters of Gundam’s Earth Federation forces, to the “Beam” churros. The drinks are made using coloured ingredients that match those of Gundam machines, for instance the red, rum-based “Sazabi” and the yellow, gin-based “Hyaku Shiki”. The main meals seem to be mostly Italian-inspired, and also come in the shapes and colours of your favourite characters. So, for Gundam-themed eating and drinking, you really can’t go wrong.
A main meal costs around £8.00 and a cocktail about £7.00. To get there, take the JR line to Akihabara and then leaving the station by the Denkigai exit. For the Daiba city branch, I recommend taking the Yurikamamoe Line over the Rainbow Bridge (a feature in many Japanese films and TV shows) to Daiba statyion. You can then walk past the Fuji Television building, which has a fun shop that is worth a look if you watch live-action Japanese films or TV to Diver City. Make sure you walk past initial entrances, the giant Gundam is outside the front of the building. There is, of course, a gift shop for both cafes. One of the specialities is sweet bean-filled Gundam-shaped snacks, but there is now a full range of Gundam café goods, including reusable eco-coffee cups, as well as the usual toys, T-Shirts and bags.
Tom Smith on one of Japan’s collaboration-heavy rappers
SEAMO is the alias of Naoki Takada, a hip hop artist who shot to fame wearing a sombrero and dodgy tash, and still managed to be cool. It was 2006, and he featured alongside BENNIE K, a Japanese female duo highly influenced by America’s urban music scene. His career was established almost instantly, and his follow up solo single ‘Mata Aimashou’ managed to chart in exactly the same position as ‘A Love Story’, reaching the 14th spot. Not bad at all when you consider that he could barely peak in the top 50 chart before collaborating with the well-established BENNIE K girls.
‘Mata Aimashou’ managed to sell upwards of two-million, and knocked about in the charts for 34 weeks, making the song’s title (‘Let’s Meet Again’, in English) seem all the more potent. After a string of equally successful releases, it was only a matter of time until artists were knocking on SEAMO’s door to feature on his tracks, instead of the other way around. Korean superstar BoA was one such artist keen to team up. She appeared as the guest vocalist on SEAMO’s 2008 track ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, while a different collaborations saw SEAMO record the track ‘Honey Honey’ for the second series of xxxHOLiC with R’n’B (standing for rhythm and beauty, if her promotional team are to be believed) singer Ayuse Kozue.
Working on xxxHOLiC would also lead to SEAMO’s path crossing with that of Shikao Suga , whose songs have appeared in every series of the CLAMP anime. The respected musician, joined by Anna Tsuchiya, recorded an exclusive track for SEAMO’s collaboration album cheekily entitled ‘S.ex. with TSUCHIYA ANNA and SUGA SHIKAO’ – a title which I hope I never ever have to repeat for as long as I shall live.
Being a closet anime and manga fan, SEAMO relished in the fact that his work was being used in anime series. In fact, when he was first establishing his musical career he’d go by the name of SEAMONATER, inspired by the comedy manga strip Yuke!! Nangoku Ice Hockey-Bu and his favourite film, The Terminator. Thankfully, he decided (well, was more forced by the label…) to lose the ‘NATOR’ part of his name before adopting fame.
That path of fame would also lead him back to anime for a second time. His 12th single ‘My ANSWER’ would become the tenth ending to Naruto Shippuden, supplying the final song played out during the episodes found in Box Set 10 of the series.
The lyrics to the song couldn’t fit any more perfectly into the world of Naruto. Its encouraging chorus goes ‘even if you can’t do it now, don’t stress, don’t give up. Just go at your own pace and have confidence in yourself’, it’s almost as if the little orange jump-suited ninja-boy wrote it himself!
Lucy, Natsu and the rest of Fairy Tail’s guild of misfits return to DVD this September with the fourth part of their adventure, charting their escapades between episodes 37-48. And joining them through this part of their quest is the brand new opening theme ‘R.P.G.: - Rockin’ Playing Game’, from the visual kei band SuG.
These rockin’ game players present another example of English being bent beyond recognition by imaginative Japanese minds (you can see other attempts by clicking here). Believe it or not, SuG named themselves after the English word ‘thug’ (say it with a thick Japanese accent…) but thug for life they ain’t – just look at them! The only thing they’re ‘representin’ is most likely some kind of hair spray or the hippest new colourful brand from Harajuku. This bunch of musical, cutesy rascals would much rather be bustin’ bubble gum beats than poppin’ caps in asses.
So why use the word ‘thug’ at all? It stems from the Japanese word ‘akuyuu’, which literally means ‘shady friends / company’, but can be used informally to refer one’s partner/s in crime. It’s this latter, more playful meaning which vocalist Takeru and his bunch of misbehaving vagabonds wanted to capture with SuG.
Any doubts to these chaps’ cheekiness can be rectified by their lyrical content and cheery melodies. One of their newer singles to be released in the UK, ‘Toy Soldiers’, comes slapped with an explicit contents sticker, which is highly unheard of from a Japanese artist. Even creepy metallers DIR EN GREY, whose songs contain the most morbid and controversial of subject matters, rarely make the realm of the warning sticker (their music videos are different story entirely). Instead, SuG’s fluffy little rockers take their self-branded ‘heavy positive rock’ to mischievous levels. The aforementioned single, despite encouraging the listener to be happy with who they are, was also promoted as a ‘hard and naughty military march’ – my Japanese can’t quite fathom exactly how hard or how naughty their march is, but it certainly had the censorship bods wagging their collective finger and shielding the ears of the innocent.
‘R.P.G.’, SuG’s track from Fairy Tail, can be found on their fifth album, Thrill Ride Pirates. The album received a limited release across Europe via CLJ Records, though its singles, and those after it, remain available on iTunes despites the albums falling out of license. ‘R.P.G,’ is also just as encouraging and upbeat as ‘Toy Soldiers’, containing an energetic mix of sped-up punk spirit mixed with unique Japanese pop-rock, and features alongside bouncy tracks such as ‘Crazy Bunny Coaster’, ‘funky idiot’ and ‘Fast Food Hunters’ – a song for our times, indeed.
If only all thugs were like SuG… the world would be a happier, more colourful, and somewhat naughtier place to live in… until then, there’s always Harajuku.
SuG’s single ‘R.P.G.’ is also available digitally from iTunes. Fairy Tail Part 4 is out on UK DVD from 17 September from Manga Entertainment.
Orphaned at a young age and separated from his elder sister Sawawa, Hiro Hiyorimi thinks his life’s about to take a turn for the positive when she invites him to come and live with her. Unfortunately, Sawawa’s job is caretaker for a boarded up and decidedly ominous mansion, one that seems to be completely abandoned when Hiro arrives. Searching for his sister, Hiro instead crosses paths with an elaborately dressed woman with long, pale hair – and pushes her out of the way of certain death from falling construction beams, killing himself in the process. Clearly, the boy doesn’t have much luck.
However, the woman he saves hovers over him as he lies dying, offering him one last chance at life. Revealing herself as princess of the monster world, and referring to herself only by her royal title, she resurrects Hiro as her servant. His future looks a little tougher than dishing out tea and changing the bedsheets – he’s now a conscript in the Princess’ ongoing battle against her demonic siblings. While he’s not gained any notable powers through his supernatural rebirth, he is at least semi-immortal, so long as the Princess sustains his life force. Able to survive wounds that would kill anyone else, Hiro’s just been promoted to ‘human shield’ in the war for the monster world’s throne.
Hiro’s woeful tale of servitude beyond death comes courtesy of manga creator Yasunori Mitsunaga. Born in Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture, Mitsunaga had his debut in 2001 with Trafficker – a three-volume series focusing on an elite cycle courier drawn into an underground speed circuit, a story liberally inspired by Shuichi Shigeno’s Initial D. Princess Resurrection’s gothic fight for the throne first saw print in Kodansha’s Monthly Shonen Sirius anthology from July 2005, with Mitsunaga’s darkly elegant style and eye for intricate detail (plus a healthy dose of fanservice) attracting a loyal readership. While still producing fresh chapters of his best known series, Mitsunaga has also clearly found horror manga to be his calling, peppering his works with references to classic monster movies and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. More recent strips include Shinbashi no Miko and Kantantei D&W, both dealing with elements of the supernatural impacting on the mortal world, plus writing duties on Demon 72, a tale of a summoner and his indentured demon, with art by Satoshi Ueda. Mitsunaga’s only diversion from the genre has been 2008’s Cheer! Cheer!, a sexy cheerleading comedy set in an all-girl school – providing plenty of opportunities for even more fanservice!
Madhouse, the studio responsible for bringing zombie horror Highschool of the Dead to the screen, was tapped for Princess Resurrection’s animated outing, appointing Masayuki Sakoi to direct. The 26-episode series adapts the best of Mitsunaga’s manga, capturing the lighter comedy moments as well as Hiro and the Princess’ procession of tussles with vampires, werewolves and worse.
Princess Resurrection is out now on UK DVD – and unlike Hiro, you won’t have to die to find out how this particular game of thrones plays out.
Andrew Osmond interviews the woman who went from Bournemouth to Belleville, and beyond…
There’s probably only one animator in the world who has worked for Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosoda and Sylvain Chomet (the French director of Belleville Rendez-Vous and The Illusionist). Her name is Aya Suzuki, and she studied animation in Bournemouth, training which stood her in good stead on Chomet’s The Illusionist, Kon’s unfinished The Dream Machine and Hosoda’s The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki. And where is Suzuki now? A little place called Studio Ghibli…
It’s the rainy season and there’s a typhoon raging in Tokyo. She was born here, but her father’s business took his family to the UK when she was three. “I spent five years there, then moved back to Japan at the age of eight,” she explains. “I moved to America for a year at 15, then back to the UK and finished my A-levels.”
Inevitably, Japanese trips brought her into contact with anime. “I visited my relatives in Japan every year. Because I’d moved to the UK when I was three, I couldn’t speak Japanese. So my relatives were wondering, what are we going to do with this kid who doesn’t speak Japanese? So they’d slap on Totoro, and I’d go quiet for a couple of hours! As a child, I was fortunate enough to watch animation from all over the world. I loved animation and drawing; I never wanted to do anything else, so it was either being a graphic novel artist or an animator.”
Suzuki went to the Arts Institute of Bournemouth (now the Arts University College Bournemouth). Her course director was Peter Parr, who’d trained generations of animators through the decades. “The most important thing is that, whether you were a 3D animation student or a modelmaker or anything, Parr would just make you draw. A lot of animation courses in the UK don’t actually tell you to draw any more, because the industry is moving into Flash or Maya or whatever, and you’re not actually holding a pencil. But for Peter, it didn’t matter – you just draw, because that’ll be useful. Most of my classmates are in the animation industry at the moment, and I think it proves it works.”
In the summer holidays, Suzuki went to animation festivals, and eventually decided to apply to the one in Hiroshima. It helped that she was now bilingual; “My parents forced me to speak Japanese in the house, because they didn’t want me to just be an English speaker.” The Hiroshima event gave Suzuki a job as an interpreter, helping guests out on the festival floor.
For an animation student, it was the networking opportunity from heaven. “It was just the best position to be in, interpreting for these people,” Suzuki says. During the event, Belleville Rendez-vous director Sylvain Chomet mentioned he would soon be starting a new animated feature in the UK. Back in London, Suzuki showed him her portfolio and was accepted. “I had asked him what he wanted to see in my portfolio and he gave me the specifics, and then that’s all I filled my portfolio with until I showed it to him! He was happy to see what he was asking for, and also that he could communicate with me – I did pretty much exactly what he’d asked,” Suzuki says.
Chomet’s new film, released in Britain in 2010, was The Illusionist, based on an unmade script by Jacques Tati. In the story, the Tati character is a struggling magician, chasing dwindling audiences, who eventually comes to Scotland. Here he’s joined by an ingénue called Alice, who’s about the only person to be enchanted by his quaint magic. The two land up in Edinburgh, where the film’s main studio was based in reality. There, Suzuki began in storyboarding, working with the animator Laurent Kircher. Later, she worked on Alice’s character development and costume design. “After a while I was supervising the assistant animation for Alice, putting all her animation on-model. Eventually they put me onto animation. I spent four years in total working on The Illusionist!”
Like many Western animated movies, The Illusionist assigned animators to draw particular characters; in anime features, animators are likelier to take on particular scenes, including all the characters in them, for reasons we’ll get to later. Suzuki handled much of Alice’s animation; for example, when the blossoming girl encounters a handsome swain at her window. “Sylvain told me to study anatomy… I just studied the human body like crazy,” Suzuki says. She acknowledges it was often gruelling to animate the same character for years on end: “Whenever I got to do something other than Alice, I was so happy!”
Suzuki’s experience on The Illusionist would be vital for one of her later jobs in Japan, precisely because Chomet’s film had no big “action”. However, the experience was very different from Suzuki’s later anime work, especially in the staff make-up. “The people on The Illusionist were from all over the place – for a while, I was the most British person there! There were people from Spain, France, Germany, Italy, America, Denmark, Holland… Everybody was speaking their own languages at the studio.”
In principle, could the same kind of mixed team work on an anime film? “I don’t think it would be a bad thing to have an environment like that, but the only problem is that communication with the director is vital in Japan,” Suzuki says. “It’s different from the western system, because anime films are pretty much director-driven, not production-run. The way that I see it, though, if that somebody wants to work in Japan, then they’ll learn the language and do it. I see people do that.”
“But strangely,” Suzuki continues, “a lot of Japanese animation studios were hesitant to have me on board because I come from a ‘different’ industry to them. I found this quite ridiculous, because it is the same industry and it’s pretty much the same skill. You just need to adjust. Even if I’d worked for a different company in Europe after The Illusionist, I’d still have had to adjust for a different director and company. I don’t really like the mental block the Japanese seem to have; they seem to think the western industry is so different from the Japanese one. I was very lucky to meet Satoshi Kon, who was particularly open-minded.”
Suzuki met Kon not through an animator but a lawyer for a Japanese animation union, who interviewed her about working conditions in Europe. “I was just talking with him and he told me that Kon was recruiting for his next film. I applied immediately through The Dream Machine’s website and Kon got back, saying he was very interested in having me on the team. Strangely enough, at the same time, I also applied for Madhouse [the studio which produced The Dream Machine] as an inbetweener. Madhouse never got back, but Kon did; I was rejected for inbetweening but got a job animating for Satoshi Kon!”
Kon, Suzuki explains, wanted to test her before bringing her over to Japan. “He sent storyboards for a scene, and model and character sheets, to my address in London. Over Skype, we went over the storyboards and he instructed me about constructing the scene.” (This kind of meeting is called “scene casting.”) “After that, I just knocked out the layouts, and sent them to him online – it took about ten days. He got back to me immediately saying he’d like me on the team, and I moved to Japan.”
The Dream Machine was conceived as a road movie set in a world of robots; there would be no human characters at all. Kon fans were still happily awaiting the film in August 2010, when the shocking news broke; Kon had succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. With the film still unfinished, Suzuki cannot talk about its content, although she remembers working on it warmly. Despite her Japanese fluency, she had to grapple with a different system of terminology from Western animation. “A dope sheet would be a time sheet, an overlay is called a book for some odd reason! At meetings, I would be asking what were probably the most stupid questions, but Kon would always explain things to me… I think he enjoyed the fact that I didn’t know these things, because that means they’re doing it differently, I think he enjoyed the contrast. Kon’s a very adventurous person, and I think he saw that hiring me could be entertaining for himself as well.”
Having visited DreamWorks and other Hollywood animation studios, Kon had his own views about the differences between Japanese and Western animation. “He said the industry was like a bunch of people trying to form a circle. The way the European and American industries work is that they put a lot of people together, shoulder by shoulder, and if there’s a space, then they’ll put another person in that gap. In Japan, what everyone has to do is reach out their hands and join them, because they don’t have any more people.”
It was Kon’s way of explaining the lack of division of labour in anime, compared to Western animation. “In the western world, everything is separated; you get the animation director, the supervising animator, the lead animator, the junior animator, the assistant animator, the in-betweener, the clean-up artist… In Japan, there are genga animators and doga animators, which roughly correspond to key animators and inbetweeners. But Genga animators do background layouts, character layouts, the effects, and pretty much the clean-up. Doga do the in-betweening tracing, and sometimes the assistant animation as well. In the western industry, they’ve got probably five different people doing the job of two in Japan – that’s how Kon explained it.”
Animating on The Dream Machine, Suzuki and the other artists reported to Kon directly. “You get your scenes, you’re casted them [i.e. scene casting], and then you’re responsible for those scenes.” Like most anime directors, Kon storyboarded the film himself; less usually, he handled most of the background layouts, which Suzuki describes as a scene’s architecture, defining its space and perspective. It was the job of Suzuki and her fellow animators to add in the characters (“character layouts”) and provide background layouts on occasion. “Usually in the west, you have an artist who just specialises in layouts, whereas in Japan we have to do it all.” It’s hard to compare team sizes directly, as animated films always outsource parts of the work, but Suzuki doesn’t doubt The Illusionist employed far more artists than any of the anime she’s worked on since. “Again, I think it’s a reflection on the budget and the way of working.”
Would she make any other comparisons between East and West? “I find that when you’re on a Japanese film, it’s very much made for a Japanese audience,” she says. “My feeling is that The Illusionist wasn’t just for France or the U.K., but for a very broad market. The budgets in Japan are [comparatively] very low, but the industry can survive just by the Japanese market. The international market is like a bonus.”
Production on The Dream Machine continued after Kon’s passing, but halted in April 2011. While Madhouse’s president Masao Maruyama has said he’s determined to finish the film, Suzuki had to look for other work. She moved to The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, directed by Mamoru Hosoda. The director had made his acclaimed previous films, The Girl who Leapt through Time and Summer Wars, at Madhouse, but for The Wolf Children he elected to begin a new studio, Chizu. The director was actively seeking Suzuki, not because of her tenure on The Dream Machine but rather for her experience on The Illusionist.
“Hosoda needed animators who could animate day-to-day life, so it was my work on The Illusionist that was important,” Suzuki explains. “He had heard of an Illusionist animator at Madhouse, but at first he couldn’t remember my name! When I went in to Chizu, they gave me the storyboards for Wolf Children; I loved them, and decided to stay in Japan another year.”
The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki opened in Japan this July. The film is the story of a woman who falls in love with a wolf man and has two adorable children with him, girl Yuki and boy Ame. The film follows the family’s fortunes, as the kids grow up with their dual identities, shapeshifting merrily between human and hairy. “It was really good to work on,” says Suzuki. “It was very difficult because I had never animated children before, and that was challenging. But Hosoda is fantastic to work for, and I hope to do so again.”
From Studio Chizu, Suzuki has moved to Studio Ghibli. “Several of my previous colleagues from Dream Machine and Wolf Children had joined Ghibli and recommended me, so Ghibli got in touch. After Wolf Children, I was again planning to go back to Europe, but Ghibli was the only studio that could have tied me to Japan for another year!” Ghibli had distributed The Illusionist in Japan; Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) was responsible, having previously handled Chomet’s Belleville Rendez-vous.
At Ghibli, Suzuki had an especially pleasant surprise when she encountered legendary female animator Atsuko Tanaka (not to be confused with Kusanagi’s voice-actress of the same name in Ghost in the Shell). Tanaka has drawn everything from Lupin’s frantic roof leap in Castle of Cagliostro to the swarming sea life at the start of Ponyo. “When I started at Ghibli she actually came to my desk and introduced herself to me – I was so shocked!” Suzuki recalls. “She said she was impressed by The Illusionist, and asked me this and that about Alice, how we did her dress… It was shocking coming from someone with such an incredible career.”
“I’ve done a couple of interviews in Japan,” Suzuki reflects, “and they tend to ask me: So, you’ve moved back to Japan? I always say that no, I haven’t moved back to Japan, because I never lived here properly before! I moved here for the job; it wasn’t particularly Japan I was interested in, it was Kon’s film I wanted to work on. But Japanese animation films are made quite quickly; I’ve worked on three in a row now! So I haven’t particularly “moved” to Japan; rather, I’m happy to move wherever there’s an interesting project.”
Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki screens at the Edinburgh Film House on 21st October as part of Scotland Loves Anime.
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings returns for a second season of deliriously ahistoric warfare, set in Japan’s Warring States period that led to the formation of the single country we know today.
The climactic end to Sengoku Basara’s first season saw competing heroes Sanada Yukimura and Date Masamune combining forces to defeat the evil warlord Oda Nobunaga. Oda has become a popular figure to demonise in Japanese media – he’s the arch-nemesis in video game developer Capcom’s Onimusha series, as well as Koei’s Samurai Warriors and Nobunaga’s Ambition lines. The anime series Yotoden casts him as a demon in human form, and he even popped up as the final boss in strategy spin-off Pokémon Conquest. With such a bad reputation, he must have been pure evil in real life, right?
Not quite. Born in 1534 and recorded as being a rambunctious, troublesome youth, Oda Nobunaga became the single figure arguably most responsible for the eventual unification of Japan. He achieved this through a mixture of manipulative politicking and keen battlefield tactics but his monstrous persona likely stems from some of the deplorable depths he stooped to in pursuit of power. Nobunaga killed his own brother, Nobuyuki, after he rebelled against his expansionist plans, and was ruthless in combat against enemies. One of his most impressive victories was at the Battle of Okehazama in 1560. Oda claimed victory over rival warlord Imagawa Yoshimoto’s 35,000-strong army with a mere 3,000 men of his own, thanks to misdirection and a sneak attack on the enemy camp. Oda died in June 1582 following the betrayal of his retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide, who forced him to commit ritual suicide, though he was avenged a month later by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Toyotomi himself turns up in Sengoku Basara, presented as a new opponent for Date and Sanada to overcome, a giant figure with an army and goals of his own. While the anime version views Oda as a chaotic figure whose ambitions were dangerously out of control, the historical figure was a loyal vassal and Oda’s eventual successor. After killing Akechi, Toyotomi insinuated himself further into the Oda family by backing the younger son, Hidenobu, as heir, before obliterating contesting forces lead by former Oda general Shibata Katsuie at the 1583 Battle of Shizugatake. This consolidated the majority of the Oda clan under Toyotomi’s own control, a cudgel he would use to continue Nobunaga’s unification plans. The real life Toyotomi was a slight, unimposing man, making his hulking frame in game and anime all the more unusual.
While Oda and Toyotomi are known as the first and second of the ‘Great Unifiers’ of Japan, it was the third, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would ultimately be the one to succeed in bringing the country together. Despite emerging victorious from the notorious Battle of Sekigahara and founding the Shogunate that would rule the nation from 1600-1858, Tokugawa fares considerably less well in the anime. Appearing in the first season, his character arc ends with him assassinated by Akechi Mitsuhide – a far cry from achieving his glorious role in history.
With Sengoku Basara taking more than a few scenic diversions away from accuracy – as if half the cast wielding elemental superpowers weren’t inaccurate enough – anything goes in this battle for the fate of Japan. Find out who will reign supreme in the complete second season, on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Superheroes turn Japanese in Tiger and Bunny: The Beginning, which screens in Edinburgh ahead of its Japanese premiere, and in London just afterwards. It’s not just a superhero spectacle. It’s a buddy drama, a reality-media satire, and a hero’s journey about a middle-aged man doing what he must do, even when he’s a corporate cog in an outfit covered with brand logos.
That man is Kotetsu Kaburagi, known to the world as “Wild Tiger,” a superhero with deeper problems than chasing crooks or getting girls. To his family, he’s a widowed single dad who constantly disappoints his resentful young daughter. To the public, he’s a fading sad-sack star overshadowed by the younger generation on Hero TV. Uncool and outmoded, Kotetsu faces being canned altogether. Then he gets unceremoniously paired with Hero TV’s newest recruit, the dashing Barnaby Brooks, who looks like a pop idol dreamboat but has something dark under the surface.
Barnaby is scornful of the klutzy, blustering Tiger; Kotetsu resents Brooks’ youthful arrogance. Can Tiger and “Bunny” – Kotetsu’s barbed nickname for his partner in a big-eared suit – become a team, conquer evil and beat the ratings?
Since its debut as a TV series last year, the Tiger and Bunny franchise has flourished in many forms. There’s been a drama CD, and a stage production in Tokyo, featuring the title duo’s voice-actors in an original story. The new film, Tiger and Bunny: The Beginning, gives a new entry point for newbies, showing the characters’ first meeting. According to producer Masayuki Ozaki, the film mixes material from the early episodes with new scenes, some set before the TV story. The TV version streams on the Anime on Demand website and hits DVD and Blu-ray early next year.
The show was deliberately made to appeal to a broad international audience, including viewers who don’t like anime or superheroes. For Western fans, it’s a fascinating genre-cultural crossover, with more than fifty years of East-West exchange behind it. It has incandescent capes and mutant genes. There are men swinging from buildings, and a hero laying flowers for his murdered parents and childhood. Tiger and Bunny’s central theme of the ageing hero is long embedded into the genre, thanks to Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Pixar’s The Incredibles.
But Tiger and Bunnyalso has masked heroes in robot power suits, riding motorbikes and making obliquely stylised hand gestures. Some have powers that inconveniently run out after a few minutes’ use (sound familiar, Ultraman and Evangelion fans?). Moreover, Tiger and Bunny treats the whole superhero idea in a very unusual way. In this show, being a superhero isn’t a teenage rebellion, an unleashing of inner demons or a shining crusade for truth and justice; though some players make it those things on the side. No, being a superhero is a celebrity popularity contest; it’s an extended commercial where you wear corporate logos, perform in pop videos, and swill soft drinks in TV commercials. And as Tiger is bitterly aware, it’s a job that’s definitely not guaranteed for life.
This isn’t because the Japanese don’t understand the western genre of superheroes. On the contrary, artists such as Tiger and Bunny character designer Masakazu Katsura (the famed creator of I’’s and Video Girl Ai), are huge fans of the form. Japanese studios contributed to the anthology Batman Gotham Knight, while Studio Madhouse’s series of Iron Man, Wolverine,X-Men and Blade still await a British release. But Tiger and Bunny isn’t hidebound by genre expectations, because superheroes aren’t so “mainstream” in Japan. Let us take you on a history tour, starting with a superhero star as you’ve never seen him before.
School days are complicated enough without the addition of family conflicts, love interests or sick-girls with a taste for drama – something Tomoya Okazaki knows all too well. Now in his final year, as documented in the hotly released Clannad After Story, things are looking much more positive; not least because he’s managed to transcend the dreaded friendzone and become the boyfriend of Nagisa Okazaki!
School wasn’t any less complicated for the artist behind the series’ opening and closing themes, Lia. On top of all the regular curriculum-based campaigns and social battlefields, she also had to contend with a whole new language. Not content with simply graduating from the coveted Berklee Music College (whose graduates include Quincy Jones, Steve Vai and John Mayer), Lia wanted more, and temporarily relocated to Los Angeles to further her musical thirst.
Her efforts paid off, and after answering an advert seeking a female vocalist in America, she oddly found herself emerged into the world of Japan’s visual novel, nearly five-and-a-half-thousand miles from home. Hokkido’s trance production company I’ve Sound happened to be State-side at the same time. And thus ‘Tori no Uta’ was born, one of Lia’s first professional recording jobs. Originally recorded for the visual novel of AIR at the turn of the millennium, the song would later return as Lia’s very own single five years later, after featuring in the visual novel’s the anime adaptation.
‘Tori no Uta’ wasn’t Lia’s first major single though, despite being amongst her earliest recordings. Instead, that would be the honour of ‘Natsukage / Nostalgia’. This started life simply as background music in the AIR visual novel too, while bizarrely featuring Nagisa from Clannad on the single’s cover.
Strangely, Clannad fans would have to wait a good few years for Lia to record songs for the anime. She slipped in the track ‘Ana’ as the second ending to the first series, but producers had her back to record all of the themes to the show’s second series Clannad After Story. Its first opening and closing tracks became Lia’s double A sided single ‘Toki o Kizamu Uta (‘A Song to Pass the Time’ )/ TORCH’, and gained her a position in Japan’s Oricon single chart at number 15.
Lia gained an even higher chart place with her next single, ‘My Soul, Your Beats! / Brave Song’. This release was a joint effort with former voice actress Aoi Tada, and after both tracks appeared as endings and openings to Angel Beats!, the release rocketed up the charts, peaking at number 3.
More recently Lia’s taken her trance roots with I’ve Sound further by launching a separate career as a happy hardcore producer, changing her name to capitals to differentiate the releases. And when vocaloid became a force to be reckoned with, Lia was approached to record the voice behind the digital star The IA: Aria on the Planetes. Her music can even be found over here too. Hit new music app SongPop features tracks from Lia’s career in its Jpop section. So if you’re nervous about the new school year, or changing job or location, don’t worry and just think of Lia and how far her life has spiralled from venturing into the unknown.
Clannad After Story, featuring theme songs by Lia, is out 24 September on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.