Helen McCarthy follows the yellow brick road to Japan
An American girl, swept up in a whirlwind, is deposited in a magical land. Tiny, strangely-dressed people with a quaint way of speaking send her on a magical journey. She meets wizards, witches and a disparate group of friends who become more than the sum of their individual selves.
Tropes from The Wizard of Oz litter anime as thickly as any other form of fantasy. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, thefirst in a 14-volume series, appeared in 1900. Author L. Frank Baum, a political activist in his youth, packed political references into the 1901 Broadway musical based on his book. Their interpretation has generated debate ever since. Elements of Oz can even be read as references to Japan – an expression of the US Government's interest in the Pacific.
The story was animated in short form as a 15-minute episode of Manga World Fairytales in 1978. The first feature-length anime based on the land of Oz was a 1982 movie from Toho, but it didn't air in Japan until 1986. Director Fumihiko Takayama's Oz no Mahotsukai made its debut in the USA as a 78-minute feature from distributor Fred Ladd, with dialogue recorded in English. It was cut to an hour and redubbed for Japanese audiences. It features a blonde Dorothy, but otherwise follows the 1939 American movie in sticking closely to the plot of the first novel. The music was by Joe Hisaishi, who went on to write the scores for Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky.
Akira Miyazaki, who wrote the screenplay, is credited with writing the 53-episode Oz no Mahotsukai TV series, in production at the same time. Hiroshi Saito, a stalwart of children's book adaptation, worked with him on the series. Toho and Panmedia produced the show for NHK, but it was screened in the USA in 1984 before making its Japanese debut in 1986. It was dropped by NHK and then ran on TV Tokyo, the 53 episodes reduced to 52 by cramming the last two into an hour-long "special". To add to the confusion, the series then went out on video edited into feature-length chunks, although having a brunette rather than a blonde Dorothy helped to differentiate it from the earlier version.
In 1988, another short version formed part of Mushi Pro's Video Picture Book series. There have been a number of other Japanese visits to Baum's universe, including a 1991 puppet animation, the 1992 sci-fi remake Wonderful Galaxy of Oz, and the anime series based on Natsumi Itsuki's bleak 1988 post-apocalyptic manga Oz, also released in 1992.
Perhaps the most obscure reference comes in alien-invasion series RahXephon,where a character as manipulative as Baum's wizard is shot while holding a copy of the novel - referring to the line Baum gave to his would-be master of magic: "Pay no attention to what the man behind the curtain is doing." Over a century later, the great and powerful wizard is still at work.
Helen McCarthy on anime’s first colour feature, Hakujaden
The Toei film company established an animation division in 1956 by buying Japan Animated Films (Nihon Dogasha, aka Nichido) and renaming it Toei Doga. Toei president Hiroshi Okada wanted to make his fledgling studio “the Disney of Asia", creating top-quality animation for sale overseas, expanding Japan's exports and rebuilding her image across the world, especially in Asia. So the company's first feature was a full-colour retelling of a Chinese legend.
A folktale from the Song Dynasty tells of a white snake goddess who falls in love with a human boy, giving up her magic to marry him. Toho Studios released a live-action version in 1956, winning honourable mention at that year's Berlin International Film Festival. Taiji Yabushita wrote the anime script from Shin Uehara's screenplay, and co-directed with Kazuhiko Okabe, who did double duty as art director alongside Kiyoshi Hashimoto. The producer was Sanae Yamamoto, who had worked for Seitaro Kitayama, one of the founding directors of anime, in the 1920s.
Yabushita had worked with key animator Yasuji Mori before, at Nichido, on 1948 short Tora-chan & The Bride (Tora-chan to Hanayome). All their experience was needed to drive a production that pushed the boundaries of Japanese animation technology. Mori and Akira Daikubara were the only key animators, but Toei used over 13,500 staff for the project, completing it in eight months. The male voices were all provided by one actor: Hisaya Morishige, who would voice boar-god Okkotonushi in Hayao Miyazaki's movie Princess Mononoke almost 40 years later. Mariko Miyagi voiced all the female characters.
Hakujaden was released on 22nd October 1958 and won a prestigious award at the 1959 Venice Children's Film Festival. As Panda and the Magic Serpent, it was the first anime feature film released in America in 1961. It is still available on US DVD.
Yabushita co-directed Toei's animated features Saiyuki (aka Alakazam the Great,1960)and Magic Boy (Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, 1961) both of which sold to the USA. Mori became mentor to many of Toei's young animators, including Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who described his influence on anime as "incalculable".
The movie was a springboard for many anime stars. Seventeen-year-old Rintaro had his first job as an inbetweener, alongside future Ghibli guru Yasuo Otsuka, director Gisaburo Sugii, Reiko Okuyama, who would become Toei's first female animation director, and Kazuko Nakamura, who joined Tezuka's Mushi Productions and became the first female animation director of an entire series on Ribon no Kishi (Princess Knight.)
Like the heroine of Hakujaden, inbetweener Akemi Ota chose human life and love over the magical power of animation. She married Hayao Miyazaki, who joined Toei in 1963, giving up her career when their second son Goro was born. But they would never have met had Miyazaki not been moved to tears when he saw Hakujaden in the cinema, deciding to become an animator.
Tiger & Bunny is a true crossover, designed for Japanese and Western viewers, including those who don’t normally watch anime or superheroes. The show rests on its two title characters. Tiger is the grumpy, middle-aged, old-school superhero. Bunny is the arrogant, male-idol glamorous new kid on the block. Both are voiced by top-drawer Japanese actors. Masakazu Morita (Bunny) is effectively Mr Bleach; he voiced Bleach’s hero Ichigo though seven years and 366 episodes of soul reaping. It’s his co-star, though, who has the tiger’s share of the comedy. Tiger is voiced by Hiroaki Hirata, who was Benny in Black Lagoon and Mutta in the ongoing Space Brothers. He’s better known, though, as Sanji, Luffy’s kick-fighting cook in One Piece.
For many fans, Tiger is the star, but the programme’s makers weren’t sure he’d click. As this blog has complained, anime shows are often dominated by school-age leads, with bishonen like Bunny at the top of the age-range. Tiger, then, is chronically out of place. He’s a middle-aged hero; he’s also a widower and a single dad. Worst of all, he has a hairy face. At the American “Otakon” convention in 2011, producer Masayuki Ozaki explained, “Apparently, Japanese women do not feel attracted to men with facial hair.”
But as it turned out, Tiger was embraced by fans. That’s probably because they could relate to his frailties, his mistakes, his insecurities as both a hero and a dad. He drew more female viewers than the studio expected – for example, housewives who never normally watched anime. And surely even school kids empathised with the accident-prone Tiger. Tiger & Bunny was targeted both at adults and future adults – the reverse of something like Spirited Away, which was aimed at children and grown-ups missing childhood.
Ozaki noted he was encouraged by certain Hollywood franchises where the leading men age along with their characters. (Just think about some action-movie parts fours and fives that you’ve seen!) The show targeted two kinds of older viewer, outside the otaku market. One was the lapsed anime viewer, those who’d drifted away from anime over the years. The other, intriguingly, was the fan of live-action American TV imports. In Tiger & Bunny, the superhero action is framed as a live reality entertainment show. Ozaki was specifically inspired by American TV, including Formula 1 racing shows.
As Ozaki explained to Anime News Network, he was struck by an argument involving swimmers at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was claimed that one type of swimsuit would enable athletes to set record speeds. However, some of the contestants had contracts with Japanese companies, which forbade them from wearing the suit in question.
“That's where we started, with the idea that superheroes are all corporate sponsored,” Ozaki said. Like the fallibility of Tiger, the sponsor device is a witty resonance of the real world – of course superheroes would be branded! It’s also a handy way of funding the series, via product placement that’s part of the story. And that’s not the show’s only crafty bit of marketing.
In the announcements that end each show, you can hear Tiger struggle with the English-language title of the next episode. Despite this bumbling, Tiger & Bunny is very serious about selling itself to foreigners. The show is set in a version of New York, and includes characters who plainly aren’t Japanese, including the Chinese Dragon Kid and the flamboyant Fire Emblem. Nearly all the on-screen writing is in English. Ozaki said even the show’s extensive use of CGI, showing power-suits and other mecha, was done with an eye to the wider world. “Because of Pixar and Disney, CG animation is the visual style people around the world are most used to seeing.”
It’s always tricky when a product is aimed at foreign markets. That goes doubly so for anime. After all, many Westerners like anime when it’s being “Japanese” and not made with an eye to the foreign market. With Tiger & Bunny, though, the Sunrise studio which made the show may have hit the right balance. It’s a show that takes the Western superhero genre and reworks it in a thoroughly Japanese way; then sells it back to us.
Tiger & Bunny is out in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray from Kaze Animation.
Andrew Osmond brings the stupid for Summon the Beasts
So, what is Baka and Test – Summon the Beasts (currently available in two complete series boxsets) all about? The short answer is it’s about being very, very silly, in a very anime-ish way. There are manic school students and squealing pocket-sized monsters. There’s cross-dressing, gender-bending, and naughty jokes galore. There’s a bit of a plot, though quite honestly the show forgets it much of the time. It’s really about finding fresh ways to tell loads of running gags, which it hammers happily into the ground a la The Fast Show or Little Britain.
The setting is Fumizaki Academy, a mercilessly elitist school where the top students are rewarded with luxury classrooms and the dunces have to glue their own tables together. Like many British comedies, the show sides with the losers – Class 2F, whose members aren’t prepared to accept life at the bottom of the heap. In a Pokemon-style twist, the classes can better their positions by waging wars using “beasts” – cute chibi cartoons of the students themselves. To make things more fun, every time a beast gets brained, fried etc, the pain is passed to its owner, and the losers are punished with a dreaded remedial class.
Ostensibly, the hero is schoolboy Yoshii. He’s the “baka” (idiot) of the title, whose stupidity in most matters is balanced by his instinctive kindness, especially to any girl in trouble. As you might expect, he gets potentially romantic subplots; for example, with Himeji, a genius girl who was sent to 2F for being ill on exam day, and Shimada, who’s loudly exasperated by Yoshii but is scarily possessive of him. The girls have bosoms on the opposite extremes of the scales, which generates a lot of the gags; Shimada responds to references to her flat chest much like Edward Elric takes comments about his short stature in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
However, this is the kind of show where many viewers will be more amused by Yoshii’s relationship with his big sister (Akira), who’s worryingly, ahem, considerate towards her shrinking sibling. Yes, the brother-sister subplot is one of the show’s entries into naughtiness, though – as with many of the jokes – it’s so silly and lighthanded that it’s more about the cliché than the taboo. In the same way, the show is festooned with gags about skirt-peeking and peeping toms – one of 2F’s student is a chronically compulsive, nose-gushing voyeur who dons ninja gear to pursue his interests – but hardly anything is shown.
Moreover, you can follow Baka and Test just for the characters around the “baka.” Would-be alpha male Yuji is the class’s master and commander, but he’s undercut by his fear of his “girlfriend,” the lethal Shoko, who threatens to eviscerate him at any sign of infidelity. Hideyoshi gets the easiest belly-laughs – he’s a boy so unnervingly feminine that everyone, boy and girl alike, responds to him as a girl (and yes, in those ways too). Himeji may be cute, but she’s also innocently lethal – get your last rites said before accepting any of the packed lunches she offers. And let’s not forget the show’s Terminator-like monster teacher, Iron Man; the hooded student psycho inquisition which pounces on any boy who’s successful with ladies; or the dignified, deadpan narrator who lifts any episode that threatens to get dull.
Like its characters, Baka and Test enjoys cross-dressing and pretending to be something different. One episode shamelessly spoofs Evangelion, with Yoshii hamming it up as the hysterical Shinji. A later “epic” arc revolves round the boys trying to get into the girls’ bathing quarters, ballooning into a neverending Final Battle. But it’s all for silly laughs; and it’s laughs and silliness that this show is all about.
Baka & Test, the Complete Series, is out on UK DVD now from Manga Entertainment.
Eden of the East, released in a new set today that collects the complete TV show and movies on DVD and Blu-ray, hits the ground running. Vacationing in Washington D.C., girl college grad Saki meets an extraordinary youth with no memories, killer rivals and a “magic” phone that can provide anything. Adopting the name Akira Takizawa, our hero slowly learns he’s in the middle of an incredible game. Its goal: to transform Japan forever…
Like much Japanese animation, Eden of the East animates what we’d normally think of as live-action material; in this case, a romantic comedy-action-thriller. It begins on a good-naturedly absurdist note. Saki is unwisely trying to throw a coin in the White House fountain. A run-in with security is interrupted by the appearance of Akira, who’s cheery, amnesiac and stark bollock naked! He only has a gun and the aforementioned phone, connecting him to a chirpy mystery woman called Juiz, who can seemingly give him everything (and we mean everything) he needs. Meanwhile, Tokyo has been battered by missile attacks – though these have done surprisingly little damage – while our hero isn’t the only person with a special phone...
The original 11-part series is funny, exciting and beautifully made, with heavyweight ideas and political provocations if you want them. It’s a blend of Doctor Who daffiness and James Bond operatics. It also has a dissident ethos out of Catcher in the Rye, in which geeks and NEETs may be Japan’s salvation or downfall.
The Doctor Who element is strongest in the beguilingly charming relationship between Saki and Akira. There’s the spontaneous, confident, mysterious trickster hero; and then there’s the female companion who supplies our reactions. Saki is open to criticism, being designed and voiced cute and girly. To extend the Who comparison, she seems less Amy Pond than Jo Grant four decades ago. Saki is voiced in Japanese by Saori Hayami, Musubi in Sekirei and Kiri in Towanoquon.
Yet Saki reveals realistic vulnerabilities and frustrations that have nowt to do with first-love clichés. Indeed, we gradually realise they underpin the story. Saki’s cutesy trappings are brilliantly undercut by the image of a smiley greetings-card with the message, “Leave Me Alone!” Her ensemble of friends and acquaintances, introduced slowly, start off fun and end up loveable, even the manically obnoxious ones. Several of the characters, according to director Kenji Kamiyama, were modelled on members of the real Eden production team, which may explain why they ring true. The best is eternal gooseberry Osugi, a poor lad who never accepts that Saki has only eyes for Akira.
The characters were designed by Honey and Clover artist Chica Umino, and they sometimes look about half the age they’re supposed to be! Umino was chosen by Kamiyma, who said, “I decided to use a lighter character design to make the series easier to watch, and the match was very good.” Studio president Mitshisa Ishikawa acknowledged to this blog that Umino’s input was a ploy to attract female viewers.
Eden was screened in Fuji TV’s “Noitamina” anime block, targeted at women from their late 20s to their early 30s. Kamiyama said the audience influenced him in making Eden funnier. “I had this very serious story, but I wanted people to follow it without it getting too heavy.” Interestingly, though, Kamiyama wanted to make an anime with a strong male lead. In Kamiyama’s view, “When women advanced in society and took on more leadership roles, and also got more purchasing power, they were pushed more and more as the main characters in fiction. Even in anime, you have more female characters than male. It’s difficult to create likeable and fascinating male characters nowadays.”
Eden of the East is a comedy thriller that’s funny andthrilling, and about much more than thrills and laughs. If you’re interested in its political underpinnings, you can find the director’s comments here, though you may want to explore the ideas for yourself. Despite its often batty plotting, Eden of the East is grounded in the reality of modern living, in the manner of Isao Takahata or Satoshi Kon.
The film’s anti-establishment politics echo those of the classic film Patlabor 2, directed by Kamiyama’s mentor Mamoru Oshii. Kamiyama said, “In Eden, I wasn't specifically inspired by Oshii, but after I made the series, there were people saying that it looked like my interpretation of some themes taken up by Oshii in Patlabor 2. So I realised there was probably something inside me. But it wasn’t a specific inspiration, I didn't have it in mind.”
We also get the disconcerting attitudes of a country that hasn’t experienced terrorism since the Tokyo sarin attacks by the Aum cult, seventeen years ago. At one point, Akira compares going NEET (the state of not being in Education, Employment or Training) to an act of terror. “Naw, I wasn’t doing anythin’ so cool!” simpers another character, in a moment more jaw-dropping for Westerners than any of the shock episode endings.
It feels like a real insight into a foreign mindset; though fear not, Eden’s makers like the same things we do, from tankers exploding on highways to punch-the-air action finales (and it’s hard to imagine even the grumpiest fans feeling shortchanged by the showdown in part 11). Even the moments arguably borrowed from Hollywood are revealing when they’re transposed to a Japanese setting. A few years ago, the Michael Mann thriller Collateral revolved round the image of a dead man sitting on a Los Angeles subway train, unnoticed by passers-by. Eden chillingly relocates this image to… the centre of Tokyo.
The two feature film sequels, King of Eden and Paradise Lost, are set several months after the show. They explore the fall-out from the events in the series, and answer some questions at its roots – though others, crucially, are left to the audience. Don’t expect something that’s straightforwardly “more of the same” as the series. There’s less comedy and more drama, though now the humour arises naturally from the characters we know.
The approach of the films is arguably closer to that of Mamoru Oshii, and there’s certainly more politics – there’s a fascinating paper to be written comparing Paradise Lost with Alan Moore’s British revolution fantasy, V for Vendetta. Whereas the first Eden series gave us friends and foes to cheer and boo, by the end, the players are converging. Having given us a big action climax in the series, Kamiyama now seeks to take us past a summer-film mentality… and into something more thoughtful.
Eden of the East, the definitive collection, is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.
Daniel Robson chats to Akihiro Hino, CEO and president of Level5, and director Ken Motomura.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is finally coming to a PS3 near you. This lovingly crafted RPG, made by Level5 in collaboration with revered Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, is a sprawling epic of magic and wonder, packaged complete with a hefty book – an actual book – of spells and lore that is required at certain points in the game. But how did the partnership with Studio Ghibli come about?
Hino: “I have a mutual friend with [Toshio] Suzuki, a producer at Studio Ghibli, and so after countless casual discussions we got to know each other well. So after we presented some initial ideas for this project, they came on board. I am aware that [Hayao] Miyazaki is generally wary of videogames, but after providing Mr Suzuki a glimpse of what we had in mind for this project, I think they were able to see the value of working with us and bringing the game to fruition.”
When you met Miyazaki, were you intimidated at all? What was it like to meet him for the first time?
Hino: “Haha, yes. I look up to Mr Miyazaki as a film director. I met him during the initial phase of the project and I asked him if we could take a photo together! I keep that photo in pride of place. When we first started discussing this project, Ghibli was in the process of making Howl’s Moving Castle. We talked on a very casual basis, in a friendly way. As a director and a creator Mr Miyazaki comes across as very tough, but as a person he was very sweet, and for me as a creator it was a very emotional experience that I treasure deeply.”
In terms of Level5’s day-to-day production of the game, with Ghibli working on things like character design and the soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi, how did that work?
Hino: “Motomura did most of the day-to-day communication with Ghibli. We worked with [Yoshiyuki] Momose, who was the animation director of this project at Ghibli, and we had numerous sessions where he would comment on the staging or the theatrical direction of the project, and so we were able to reach this level of Ghibli-style universe that we could never have reached on our own.”
Motomura: “We would make something and then send it off to Ghibli to review. Specifically, this included things like storyboard checks as well as staging directions in the motion-capture studio and the hand-drawn animation after the motion capture, camera angles and so on. Ghibli was very much involved in the day-to-day work.”
Level5 has a reputation for making family-friendly games, and Ni no Kuni is obviously aimed at younger players as well as older players. But the battle system is pretty deep and quite technical, and there’s a lot to learn. Were you worried that it might be too difficult for younger players?
Hino: “Yes, smaller kids might need to ask their dad to help with the harder bosses. But I like the idea that they can think about it together. It’s important to have that level of challenge – even in a game for younger players!”
I can’t help but think Japan has Valentine’s Day the right way round. And that’s because – miracle of miracles! – in Japan it’s the girls who have to give the boys chocolate.
It’s actually kind of a big deal, too. From young schoolgirls to teenagers to career women, if there’s a bloke she fancies then Valentine’s Day is an all-important opportunity to impress him. Store-bought choccies is one option, and every year in January the top confectioners and upper-class hotels unveil delicate treats priced for the fattest of purses. But if she really wants to win that boy’s heart, it’s time to hit the kitchen.
Supermarkets, convenience stores, boutique department stores – the shelves heave with DIY cooking kits to easily make truffles, cookies, cupcakes and chocolates, while sprinkles, ribbons and heart-shaped containers allow her to embellish her creations for added Cupidosity.
Remember that scene in Battle Royale where schoolgirl Noriko hands her crush a bag of homemade cookies, and hides her true intentions by also giving some to his friends? The pressure of that scene was almost as intense as the bloodbath that followed – and the horror when Takeshi Kitano’s wicked teacher munched the whole bag at the end.
Unfortunately for the lady, it doesn’t end there. In addition to her own Mr Right, she is expected to make “giri choco” (“obligation chocolate”) for the other boys in her class or office, her male teachers or her boss. Again, this is great for us chaps: Last year on Valentine’s I remember bumping into one of my female colleagues from another department in the lift; she was carrying a box of handmade brownies, and the look on her face as she handed one to me – a guy who works on a different floor and was therefore not supposed to be part of the equation – was a picture of pure dejection. Mmm, delicious.
Naruto theme songsters HalCali immortalised the stresses of making Valentine’s treats in their 2011 song Giri Choco, some of whose lyrics translate as “I’ve been planning this for a week / Does he have a sweet tooth? / How should I hand them to him?”
But with bravery comes reward, and our plucky young lady has a chance to reap what she sows – on White Day. On 14 March, it’s they boys’ turn to give chocolates - and if he got one from a girl he likes on Valentine’s Day, he can reveal his feelings by reciprocating. He doesn’t have to cook – Japanese men traditionally aren’t allowed in the kitchen – but his store-bought offering should be around three times the value of the gift he received. Or, you know, some jewellery.
The Valentine’s Day/White Day mechanic is so important in Japan nowadays that Konami was forced to recall copies of its New Love Plus 3DS game last year when a bug made it impossible to give your virtual girlfriend a reciprocal gift on 14th March. That hiccup cost Konami more than a few chocolates’ worth, that’s for sure.
So as Valentine’s Day 2013 rolls around, ladies of Britain, consider yourselves lucky to be on the receiving end at all. And boys, if you start making plans now, you could easily move to Japan in time for February 2014 – the most delicious time of year to be male.
Tom Smith on anime's weirdly named pop-singers LSP.
Larval Stage Planning. It may sound like a company you’d find in Yellow Pages, but if it’s the planning of stages you’re after, then this trio of J-pop beauties will only disappoint. But! If it’s theme songs you desire, it’s an entirely different story. They specialise in them, and the second series of Baka and Test – released on UK DVD this February – just so happens to contain one of their tracks as its opening; ‘Kimi + Nazo + Watashi de JUMP!!’, check it out in the video below.
The unit, which also goes by the initials LSP, was originally formed in 2010. If you thought their full-name was inappropriate, you clearly haven’t met their production company Fuctory Records – yes, it’s pronounced exactly how you think it is. LSP were formed and coached by long-time Fuc-er Eiko Shimamiya; a popular J-pop star that produced under her own name, as well as part of the (also bizarrely named) production collective ‘I’ve’. Eiko is best known for her songs featured in the ultra-violent anime and visual novel Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and probably not so well known for featuring on a Fuctory Records compilation album along with a song called ‘F*CK ME’, without the safely placed apostrophe. If you haven’t already guessed from the not so subtle label name, Fuctory Records dealt with a lot of ‘adult’ game soundtracks.
Not so surprising, then, is that LSP is far from a conventional pop unit. Their first maxi-single ‘Rolling Star’ wasn’t even stocked in music retailers. Instead, if you wanted to pick up a copy you’d have to trot along to your nearest video game shop. The title track of the single was used in the saucy PC title Kisaragi Gold Star, so was conveniently stocked where seedy ‘dating’-sim junkies went to get their digital seduction hits.
‘Kimi + Nazo + Watashi de JUMP!!’ was LSP’s follow up single. This one took the group in a new direction. ‘Rolling Star’ had caught the attention of anime-song specialists Lantis, who soon snapped up the girls to join their ranks alongside the likes of JAM Project (Dragon Ball Z), Milky Holmes and Natsuko Aso (also from Baka and Test). Lantis took the girls into the world of anime and placed their single ‘…JUMP!!’ as the sole opening of Baka and Test series two. It was also LSP’s first exposure to Japan’s official charts. The single managed to scrape into the top 40 of the daily charts, and narrowly missed out on the top 40 of the weekly charts. Their next single ‘Trip -innocent of D-‘, which really isn’t a euphemism, worked on the exposure the girls had gained from Baka and Test and led to their highest chart position to date, at 32 in the weekly charts, while also featuring in the anime High School D x D.
Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts – Complete Series 2, featuring an opening theme by Larval Stage Planning, is out 11 February on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Helen McCarthy on Japan’s chances when America makes the rules
A handful of anime titles made the leap from possible to shortlist for the 85th Academy Awards list. Was this going to be anime’s first shot at animation’s Academy Awards since Spirited Away took the Oscars by storm in 2002?
Hayao Miyazaki was in there pitching again, this time teamed with his son Goro for their movie From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokurikuzara Kara.) Isamu Imakake’s The Mystical Laws (Shinpi no ho) was also listed, though most critics gave this presentation of the Happy Science religious organisation’s theories about as much chance of an Oscar as Scientology’s Battlefield Earth. In the Best Animated Short category, Katsuhiro Otomo had a strong contender in Combustible.
The excitement was premature. No anime made the nomination lists. Five American movies will fight it out for Best Animated Feature. As usual, Best Short Film (Animated) has a more eclectic list, but no Japanese titles. But before the angry tweets start flying, let’s reflect on three facts.
First, and most important, the Oscars are American. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an American body with an American worldview. Naturally, American product concerns the Academy above all else. It celebrates excellence in foreign film, but promoting American movies is its reason for existence. Obviously outstanding foreign films get nominated, especially if, like Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, their directors have strong American advocates. But winning? That’s a whole other ballgame.
In 2012, Steven Spielberg’s strongly fancied Adventures of Tin Tin didn’t make the nominations, but two excellent non-American features were on the list – A Cat In Paris and Chico and Rita. The winner? Talking reptile Western Rango.
Second, the eligibility criteria exclude not just many anime but other foreign films. In 2010, Evangelion 1:0: You Are (Not) Alone didn’t qualify, having opened outside the nomination period. If eight eligible animated features haven’t been theatrically screened that year in Los Angeles County, there won’t even be a Best Animated Feature award.
Third, anime has done at least as well as most foreign animation at the Oscars. The French don’t exactly romp home every year, and the Koreans are nowhere to be seen. In 2009 Kunio Kato’s House of Small Cubes (Tsumiki no Ie) won the short animation Oscar, breaking the seven-year drought since Spirited Away beat four American contenders to take the Best Animated Feature statuette. It was, incidentally, the lowest US grossing film nominated. Koji Yamamura’s Mount Head was also nominated for Best Animated Short in 2002, losing out to Eric Armstrong’s The ChubbChubbs.
And really, the Oscars are not the be-all and end-all of a director’s career, unless you agree that an Academy Award is the only critique. So Mamoru Hosoda’s transcendentally lovely, inventive Summer Wars didn’t get a nomination? Well, Spike Lee, Robert Altman and Christopher Nolan are all still waiting for their first Best Director nod. The list of huge talents with no award is an honour roll in itself, one from which Hayao Miyazaki is now forever excluded.
Andrew Osmond says if you liked that, you might like this...
If you’ve been following the current anime headlines, you should guess why we’re comparing Ghost in the Shell with Mardock Scramble. This January, anime fans had the news they’d long waited for; the confirmation of a new GITS anime, called Ghost in the Shell Arise. Its scripts will be supervised and written by Tow Ubukata, creator of Mardock Scramble. Here’s the trailer for Arise:
Mardock Scramble – which Ubukata wrote in book form, then scripted as an anime - shares many basics with Ghost in the Shell. There’s an artificial heroine who used to be human, a future city, lots of gunplay. Notably, the GITS: Arise series will feature a younger Kusanagi; the heroine in Ubukata’s Mardock Scramble is only fifteen. The formats are similar, too. Ghost in the Shell Arise will be a four-part miniseries, with each episode running fifty minutes and the first part, “Ghost Pain,” confirmed for a Japanese cinema release in June. The three-part Mardock Scramble came out in a very similar manner.
For comparison, here’s the trailer for the opening Mardock film, Mardock Scramble: The First Compression.
The most striking moments in this film could easily be from the GITS universe. One is the city of flowing light in the opening shots, where cars thread overbuildings on fluorescent green ribbons. Another is the heroine’s “birth,” rendered in textured pencil drawings that infuse life into the animation, as she bursts from an egg into an emerald sea.
But Mardock draws on the more disturbing parts of the GITS franchise; the sex dolls in the Innocence movie, those chop-shop killers in Stand Alone Complex.Believe us, Mardock Scramble is rated 18 for a reason. The story features rape, incest, serial killer hordes and livid violence dealt out by psychos and avengers alike. In terms of sensationalist ingredients, it’s not far off Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The heroine Balot is described by Ubukata at the beginning of his novel: “slim body, piercing ebony pupils, faunlike eyes”. She’s an underage prostitute, whose sugar-daddy is the clean-limbed Shell-Septinos, a gambler and casino manager. He takes Rune in in his aerial limousine over the neon-dream city; it’s a dirty magic carpet ride.
What Balot doesn’t know is that Shell is a serial killer. He has his memories wiped clean after each rape-killing, so that sex for him is both a petite-mort and double suicide. He takes Balot to a park, locks her in his car, and blows it up, meaning to turn her ashes into a diamond ring. But someone intervenes; a seedy scientist called Doctor Easter, who rescues Balot’s charred body. He resurrects her Frankenstein-style in a vat of liquid.
In her new state, Balot can manipulate machinery, screw with traffic lights, possess people’s voices and even shoot bulletsfrom the air. Contrary to appearances, Easter’s activities are part of an official programme, Mardock Scramble. In return for her life, Balot is asked to take down Shell-Septinos and his employer. True to cyberpunk form, it’s a massive conglomerate called October Corp, which Easter calls “Our archenemy.”
But one difference between GITS and Mardock Scramble is that Balot has no truck with teams or command structures. Kusanagi and Bateau question their identities in GITS, but Balot is alienated in a far darker way. When asked by a patronising policeman which “lucky fella” took her virginity, she says flatly it was her dad, adding, “Don’t you ever think about touching your daughter?” She makes other comments of the kind you’d expect from Lisbeth Salander rather than an anime girl. (“You men are always saying you know you wanted it too.”)
Yet Balot has a male friend; Easter’s assistant, Oeufcoque. Oeufcoque is wise, protective and trustworthy. He’s also a golden-furred mouse in breeches, at least some of the time. A weapons experiment, Oeufcoque can turn into a gun, or offer Balot wisdom about why she should go on living. Balot loves Oeufcoque because he’s masculine yet non-sexual; a common mix in anime, but worked out very cleverly here. There’s a particularly poignant scene where Oeufcoque is mortified because Balot picked him up by his tail.
Mardock Scramble, then, benefits from two hooks: a straight action-revenge plot, and the charming relationship between Balot and Oeufcoque. It’s no spoiler to say that Balot’s business with Shell-Septinos and October Corp is far from finished by the end of part one, and The Second Compressioncomes to DVD and Blu-ray on March 25. It will be very interesting to compare Balot’s evolution with Kusanagi’s new backstory in Ghost in the Shell Arise. Okay, the inevitable question; which lady would you back in a fight?
Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion is out on DVD on 25th March.