Question Time

Gainax were in the house. Almost all of them. It was a one-hour panel at the Locarno Film Festival, with a veritable football team of famous figures. Takami Akai, creator of Princess Maker, wearing a pair of welding goggles. Yasuhiro Takeda, author of the Notenki Memoirs, sporting a dapper panama hat. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, designer on Evangelion and Summer Wars, with a shock of rock-star hair and a pair of posh spectacles. Hiroyuki Imaishi was there, in a polo shirt (the true uniform of the anime creator). All in all, half a dozen heavyweight figures, and a moderator, and an interpreter, and me, stuck on the end as a sort of intellectual sheepdog.

Locarno, screening hundreds of anime, had dozens of guests in attendance. The Japanese were loving the attention and the exotic vacation quality – Takeshi Koike, director of Redline, was there that week with his new wife, and telling her it was a sort of working honeymoon. Yoshiyuki Tomino, director of Gundam, was there with his wife (a supremely arty sort), and kept making detours to drop in on Swiss art museums to look at famous paintings. The Gainax boys were there with their wives, but since they all worked for Gainax, too, it served to double the number of available industry people with something to say.

Which is great, but at the sharp end it meant finding things for them all to do. At a panel for half a dozen Gainax luminaries, with only an hour allotted, and a packed cinema, I had to make sure that everybody got to answer at least one question, so they weren’t twiddling their thumbs while the big names got the limelight. Which meant one question each, what with all the interpreting and the explication.

And then. And then they threw it open to the crowd. A packed theatre of 800, excited at the first, and so far, only time that Gainax were all in a room, drunk on foreign fun and hospitality, far away from home and ready to tell anime truths. In the first row, a faculty’s worth of PhD students from all over Europe raised their arms. Behind them, a forest of eager hands straining to be noticed, a whole day of comments unmade, reminiscences unsaid, poignant questions unasked. With only a few minutes to go, every second counted. In budgetary terms, what with flights and food and hotels, I’d guess that every minute was costing Locarno a thousand pounds. So you’d better make it count.

The moderator picked a girl near the front.

“Hello,” she said. “I like Evangelion, and I think it’s great. But when I bought a widescreen TV, the image looked all squashy, and the characters were a funny shape and that. I wanted to ask Gainax if they were going to do anything about it?”

The producers looked at the directors with mounting bafflement. The interpreter interpreted. Then she re-interpreted. With the gentlest of Japanese politesse, the Gainax boys sought clarification of the stupidest question in Christendom. A thousand pounds ticked by, as they came to understand that, yes, she really was asking for widescreen telly tech support.

Eventually, Yasuhiro Takeda took the microphone.

“I respectfully suggest,” he said, “that you read the manual.”

This article first appeared in NEO 74, 2010.

Groove in a Grove

Tajomaru is part of a trend in filmmaking that has seen a number of Japanese classics approached from new angles. In Hollywood, we have the Satsuma Rebellion retooled in The Last Samurai, and Keanu Reeves already at work on the forthcoming Forty-seven Ronin. Within Japan, Sogo Ishii’s Gojoe (2000) replayed a famous samurai legend with a gritty, glossy, pop sensibility. Shinji Higuchi’s Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess (2008) re-appraised a Kurosawa classic through the priorities and influences of George Lucas’s Star Wars. Kazuaki Kiriya’s Goemon (2009) retold an old kabuki tale, re-imagined with the weight of a century of potboiler novels and schlocky ninja movies. And now we have Hiroyuki Nakano’s Tajomaru (2009), a retelling of the acclaimed Rashomon (1950), filtered through six decades of Hollywoodisations, changes in priority, and upheavals in the movie business.

In particular, it resembles the recent TV remake of Grave of the Fireflies, both in its repurposing of the material and in its attempt to tell two stories within its running time – the original and a new tale that grows around it like a clinging vine. It is also oddly similar to Ridley Scott’s recent Robin Hood, in its earnest attempts to revere an “original” that does not really exist. Tajomaru is not a genuine historical figure. He is a name from an early twentieth-century short story, who has gained in celebrity over the last fifty years merely because he was played in a film adaptation by the famous Toshiro Mifune. Only now, almost a century after he first appeared, does he get a backstory, and a motivation beyond the basest of desires.

The first, and most noticeable thing about Hiroyuki Nakano’s Tajomaru is its vibrant colour – not unexpected from the former pop-promo director whose best-known video was the psychedelic Groove is in the Heart for Deee-Lite. The original Rashomon film, of course, was made in stark black and white, a teasing counterpoint to the endless shades of grey revealed during its story. But Nakano’s film is saturated with rainbow hues throughout, right from the opening sequence of the young nobles wandering through a forest of cherry trees. Continue reading

Now on Kindle

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, the book, is now available in a Kindle edition, here in the United States, and here in the United Kingdom. In mere moments, all you cyber people can upstream it from the intertubes onto your digithing. Don’t delay, download today!

“With a wealth of insider buzz about all things Japanese and more than you ever thought to ask about… this book is great fun indeed—including the index. A required purchase for all libraries serving otaku patrons.” – Library Journal

“a tour of the medium with the world’s best guide” – SFX

“an intelligent appraisal of a very wide field, both amusing and, frankly, amazing” – Concatenation

“if you’re interested in learning more about anime, from history to production, then this will be an essential addition to any collection.” – UK-Anime.net

“Clements is a sharp writer with an ability to keenly frame his subject… pieces like this have the power to affect how you think about anime.” — Ain’t it Cool News

“honest, sometimes blunt, often humorous… If you want to know just a hint of what goes on behind the press releases, where anime comes from and how it gets here, then this is your book… the ultimate source” — Eye on Anime

“Jonathan Clements is something of a violin in the void… consumers of Asian culture will find much of interest, while I dare say academics could also learn a thing or two.” — Midnight Eye

Spooky Ooky

Danger comes to the forest where kindly spirits have made their home, when a construction company begins evicting tenants from a nearby housing estate. Local child Kenta Miura seeks the help of the 350-year-old ghost-‘boy’ Kitaro after the human residents are plagued by evil spirits. These hauntings turn out to be the work of Kitaro’s fair-weather friend Nezumi Otoko (‘Ratman’), a mischievous spirit who has been hired by the Chaya Construction Company to scare the residents out.

On the run after being discovered by Kitaro, Nezumi Otoko stumbles across a precious stone that he sells to pawnbroker. It is a Spirit Stone, possessed by the evil in the hearts of both men and ghosts, and it soon exerts its evil influence on Kenta’s father. Meanwhile, the town is infested with creatures from the Clan of the Earthly Foxes, determined to steal the stone back for their own purposes…

The Kitaro series has been a feature of Japanese comics, cartoons, films, games and books for the last fifty years. Production began on these new, rebooted Kitaro movies in 2002. With a subtle relationship between Kitaro and a human girl in the foreground, it was decided to base the main plot on three episodes from the original manga by Shigeru Mizuki: ‘Amagitsune’ (Sky Fox), ‘Yokai Daisaiban’ (Great Spirit Trial) and ‘Yokai Ressha’ (‘The Haunted Train’). The human love interest, Kenta’s sister, would be played by Mao Inoue, a teen idol best known in Japan for appearing in the live-action version of the anime series Hana Yori Dango.

A sequel entered production in the same month that the first film opened in Japanese theatres. With an appreciably higher budget and a few stylistic tweaks to make it closer to the original manga, Kitaro and the Millennium Curse was filmed between December 2007 and March 2008. Unlike the previous movie, it featured an all-new plot unrelated to any anime or manga incarnations, with the story of a cursed song that brings death to anyone that hears it. When Kaede Hiramoto (played by a new teen idol, Kii Kitano) hears the Song of Kagome, she has 48 hours to live unless Kitaro can somehow perform a ritual of exorcism. To break the spell, he must find five magical musical instruments, and use them to perform a counter-spell before time runs out. But as he searches desperately for the necessary pieces of the puzzle, he runs into interference from the scheming old spirit Nurari, who has an altogether more apocalyptic plan that will affect the whole human race. Continue reading

Edinburgh Loves Anime

And now the bookings are live for Scotland Loves Anime’s second weekend, over at the Edinburgh Film House from Friday 15th October until Sunday 17th. Films on show include Summer Wars, Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, Redline, and One Piece: Strong World. There is also a rare chance to catch Akira in a cinema.

The organisers are flying in voice actor/director Michael Sinterniklaas from America to talk about dubbing anime, and on the 15th I’ll be handling the morning session of the education day, discussing the miseries that anime creators face in dealing with sponsors, producers and audiences. I will also sign any Schoolgirl Milky Crisis that is proffered, so it’s yet another chance for you to amaze your friends with a personalised copy of the book that the Comics Journal praised for its “easy wit” and “sparkling humour”.

Suffer Little Kildren

“I turned 55 last year,” notes Mamoru Oshii. “When you’re young, there’s so many things you want to do, so many mountains to climb…. Then, it was like I woke up. Suddenly, I’m the adult on the production, and the staff are all younger than me. I thought, very deeply, very strongly, that this film had something to say to the young people of today.”

Oshii is speaking of a common theme in science fiction all around the world, ever since the end of WW2 – the concept that today’s children have never had it so good, and yet don’t appreciate their luck. “Modern Japanese youth live in a country without hunger, without war, without revolution. They don’t have to worry about clothes or food or a home. Everything is just handed to us. But on the flipside, I can’t help but wonder if that is really a sort of misfortune…. Now I’ve got to this age, I wonder if this easy living isn’t doing them more harm than good.”

Hiroshi Mori’s Sky Crawlers was the first of several books to be published about the “Kildren”, clone-like soldiers in an unspecified future war, who fight similar artificial people in what is either the most savage reality TV show ever made, or a genuine war fought by proxy in order to avoid damage to “real” people. Although the origin of the Kildren is no real secret, they are discouraged from dwelling on the implications. Nevertheless, many react to their existence with apathy – after all, what difference does it make if they die in battle if a replacement will be rolled off the production line within days?

Hiroshi Mori’s books have sold over eight million copies in Japanese, and are clearly immensely popular with the young. But director Mamoru Oshii wished to turn Sky Crawlers into a film for his own purposes, regarding it as “a work that should be made into a movie for young people now,” not because it is a book they read, but because, in Oshii’s view, of the attitudes they hold.

Although Sky Crawlers was the first in the sequence of five novels to be published, it is actually one of the last stories in the chronological narrative. Other books, telling the stories of Kusanagi’s first meeting with the Teacher, the fate of Kannami’s predecessor, and the aftermath of the events in Sky Crawlers, were deliberately released out of order, as part of Mori’s desire to make it clear to readers that the books were more rewarding if read out of sequence, leaving the reader as much in the dark about past events as newly-arrived Kildren.

“I guess I got the offer for the film rights about three years ago,” Mori recalls, “when I was writing the second book in the series. I’d always thought that I’d written something unfilmable.” The news came in that Production IG, celebrating its 21st year of operations, wanted to turn Sky Crawlers into a film. Mori was initially reluctant.

“Then I heard that Mamoru Oshii was going to be the director. I thought to myself, ‘Ah, well if it’s going to be Mamoru Oshii, then we’ll be okay.’ I remembered in particular his work on Avalon, and I thought this is a guy I know who will bring out the beauty in my work.” Continue reading