Shall We Dance? (2004)

“We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.”

Quite by accident, I caught the 2004 remake of Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance, with Richard Gere standing in for Koji Yakusho, and Winnipeg standing in for Chicago standing in for Tokyo. It’s often a shot-for-shot remake of the original, complete with its celebration of platonic friendships and quirky obsessions, but Audrey Wells made several alterations to Suo’s script that I list here because that’s the sort of nonsense this blog covers.

1: It features a man torn between Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez, which is an unanswerable conundrum.

2: One of the characters is eventually revealed as gay.

3: Stanley Tucci, as the secret office dancer, gets a moment in which he twirls one of his tormenters, in a sort of kung fu dance vindication.

4: A scene is inserted in which Richard Gere conspicuously chooses his wife and his marriage over his hobby, only for her to insist that he goes off and indulges his hobby. It’s a little bit of a replay of the ending of An Officer & a Gentleman, and I suspect deliberately so.

5: Miss MItzi, the dance teacher, has her own redemption arc in which she is revealed as a struggling alcoholic who is weaned off the booze by her students’ successes.

Otherwise, it retains much of the humour and the narrative beats of the original, as well as two pointless voice-overs that could have been oh-so-easily shot as real scenes to show-not-tell. Notably, however, Gere and Sarandon have two children in this remake, not the only child of the Japanese original.

Monster Kids

“What really comes across is Dockery’s enthusiasm for telling a story about something that, for him as a child and for many of his likely readers, was initially just a hobby. In his investigation of all sorts of areas that ten-dollar wordsmiths might describe as historicity, technological determinism, and industrial economics, he provides his readers with a tantalising, alluring glimpse of the kind of fun you can have when you get to study what you enjoy.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Daniel Dockery’s lively account of the irresistible rise of Pokemon, and can’t resist the opportunity to also plug something that isn’t in the book, which is the terrifying Russian Pikachu song pictured above.

Future Boy Conan

Commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the television channel NHK, Future Boy Conan (1978) was the first and last time that Hayao Miyazaki would oversee a television production from start to finish. A ratings disappointment on its initial broadcast, it became one of the focal points of early anime fandom, and shows the early signs of many tropes and ideas Miyazaki would use in his later works.

Jonathan Clements and Andrew Osmond trace the dramatic story of the “directorial debut” of anime’s most famous visionary, taking the reader on an analysis of this landmark television series, its production, release and historical footprint.

The second part of Anime Limited’s Future Boy Conan complete set includes a 90-page book by me and Andrew Osmond, tackling the history of the series within the anime industry and the career of Hayao Miyazaki. For those that have been asking, unlike my solo work on the life and work of Mitsuyo Seo, this will not be available separately as a Kindle edition — for legal reasons, we were only allowed to write it as an extra in a box set, not as a third-party book in its own right.

Summertime Blues

To Suzhou, China, where the slow clamber back to post-Covid tourism suffered an embarrassing knock this August, when a woman was arrested for wearing a kimono. She had been cosplaying as Ushio Kofune from Summertime Rendering, and was berated by a police officer for dressing up as a Japanese person.

Apparently, everything would have been fine if she had been wearing Hanfu, or traditional Chinese dress.

“If you came here wearing Hanfu, I wouldn’t say this,” he can be heard yelling on snatched phone footage. “But you are wearing a kimono, as a Chinese. You are a Chinese! Are you Chinese?”

The woman’s social media handle was Shi yingzi bushi benren, “This is a shadow, not my real self,” which seems like an aptly self-aware comment on the nature of costuming. Such subtleties, however, were lost on the authorities, who questioned her for five hours until 1am, searched her phone and took away her costume.

One wonders about the context of such an arrest, in a city that, until now, has been famed for its laid-back quality and friendly attitude. My sole encounter with the authorities in Suzhou’s shopping precincts was when I was photo-bombed by a security guard who then pranced off, giggling. But that was in 2017, and a lot has changed over the last five years. Attitudes towards Japan have certainly frosted over, particularly when it comes to cosplaying, which has come to be seen in some quarters as some sort of badge of sedition.

Clearly, clampdowns on Japanese media in China can’t have been that draconian, as otherwise how would she even know what Summertime Rendering was? Yasuki Tanaka’s manga first appeared five years ago, but one assumes the sudden interest in Suzhou was occasioned by Ayumu Watanabe’s anime adaptation, which only ran on TV Tokyo in April this year – both manga and anime versions are accessible in China through the online service BiliBili.

If anything, Summertime Rendering is a cultural ambassador for China, since one of its episodes is essentially a history lesson about how sushi originated there, and is not a Japanese creation by any means. You would think that the Chinese would be super-excited about such as assertion, but instead social media is awhirl with people asking if even dressing up is now off the table.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #224, 2022.

Appleseed: Alpha

The Appleseed franchise has ever been the Cinderella at the anime ball, never quite making the right connections to realise its potential. It was a state-of-the-art cel anime in the year before Akira wiped the floor and changed the rules. It was a forerunner in CG animation before getting bogged down in an acrimonious fight between its producers, some of whom wandered off to make Vexille, while others stayed around for Ex Machina. Despite having the potential to pack similar punch to its sister title Ghost in the Shell, it has been defeated in the past by a series of naff scripts and gung-ho interpretations, hobbled by the limitations of under-funded CG.

Shinji Aramaki’s Appleseed: Alpha is a marked improvement on previous Appleseed CG features, although the bar has been set so incredibly low that that in itself is not much of an achievement. Set before the opening of the manga, in a post-apocalyptic New York and the Wild West desert that is apparently nearby, it plumps for an intriguing zombie aesthetic in its cyberised goons, mixing biomechanic textures, chrome implants and carbon patches with distinctive camo-influenced body art. The film’s design excels at showing rather than telling, hinting at the messy clean-up after a high-tech war, and offering a world in which Deunan Knute appears to be the only unaugmented human – at least, the only one we see.

With a series of box-ticking MacGuffins, wandering-monster encounters and vaguely defined side missions, Appleseed: Alpha feels all too often like one is watching someone else playing a computer game, not the least because several crucial moments are bodged or oddly framed, so that it is not always clear what’s going on. A series of level bosses have convenient Achilles heels, and a series of coincidences serve to impart the feeling of playing on rails, even with the whole of the American wilderness to explore. The plot is so bonkers that even the cast seem incredulous at some of its twists, while there are some odd slips of logic – like a kingpin who is prepared to leave his office to do his own grunt work and a vaccine that nobody seems to actually need.

The script itself is one of the greatest mysteries, packed with redundancies, half-hearted exposition and a series of quips that are less dialogue than they are “barks” – one-liners yapped at one another by sprites in a game when someone presses a certain button or stands on a certain place. The notable exception to this is Chris Hutchison as Dr Matthews, who imparts real meaning and character to his clichéd dialogue. The other voice actors do their best with their one-dimensional material, but are infected with a Marvel Comics virus that forces them to repeatedly think of something witty to say in the middle of every strenuous fight. Credited to a non-Japanese writer, it appears to be the “original” language of this Japanese film, with lip sync matching English words, much as the characters in Resident Evil added a cosmopolitan cachet by speaking English even in the Japanese game.  

Oddly, the smart decision to make this latest film a prequel to the action of the original is undermined by the inclusion of a plot device that earlier versions have used at least twice before – a rogue robot tank. The comedically indestructible gang leader Two Horns blunders through the story like an NPC with a malfunctioning loyalty algorithm, sometimes threatening to kill everybody, sometimes lending a hand, accompanied by random bodyguards who forget to leap to his defence when he is threatened, allow armed enemies to walk into his office, and turn out not to be able to shoot straight, even when they open fire. He is involved in his own private war with the rival cyborg Talos and a sleek lady-android, who turn up late to the party like dinner guests who couldn’t find anywhere to park.

Many elements of the film recall 1980s cyberpunk, with several shots recalling iconic moments from James Cameron movies. But this could easily be another design decision, recalling the inspirations that were so obvious in Masamune Shirow’s original manga.  Appleseed: Alpha is a step closer to the idealised Appleseed franchise that producers and fans undoubtedly dream of, but one wonders how many more missteps it will take before it actually delivers the goods. For the crowd at the screening I attended at Glasgow’s Scotland Loves Anime, much of the film’s shortcomings were taken on the chin and greeted with increasing, good-natured hilarity, as if we were watching a much-loved cheesy action movie from our childhood, complete with quotably corny dialogue and a plot written by a teenage dungeon master who just wanted to get to the fight scenes.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared on the Manga UK blog in October 2014, and is reprinted here after the disappearance of that website.

Hybrid Products

“Although Ichikohji relentlessly focusses on the big picture, his narrative implies the existence of actual personalities who must have had some blistering complaints to voice. He alludes, for example, to the difficulties of implementing software updates when a company is trying to work 24-hour days on two simultaneous productions, which made me feel for Toei’s anonymous I.T. managers.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Takeyasu Ichikohji’s new book A Development Strategy for Hybrid Products: The Case of the Japanese Animation Industry.

Kiyoshi Kobayashi (1933-2022)

Kiyoshi Kobayashi, who died of pneumonia [in July], hated the term “voice actor.” He found it to be belittling and reductive, and insisted on describing himself on documentation and contracts as a plain actor. Despite this, a huge amount of his work was narration or dubbing, and he actively shunned the limelight, claiming that it was detrimental to his performances if people formed an image in their minds of the man who played them.

He started off in theatre, drifting into radio and television in the 1950s after he was approached to perform in an adaptation of The Caine Mutiny. A key player in the Izumiza theatre company, he devoted himself to television when the company folded in 1971.

His early roles included parts in Star of the Giants and Yokai Ningen Bem in the 1960s, but his true heyday was in the 1970s, when he began playing the sharpshooter Daisuke Jigen in the Lupin III series.

“I didn’t think it would become such a popular work,” he once said of Lupin III. “I thought at the start it would be just another job. But I was soon saying, I want to do this as much as possible.”

In fact, he would keep doing it for the rest of his life, remaining in the role of Daisuke Jigen throughout the TV series, films and TV specials. In 2011, when the decision was made to retire the original cast in favour of new blood, Kobayashi expected to be given his marching orders, but was kept on, being told that they couldn’t find anyone to replace him. He did not actually retire as Jigen until 2021, after over fifty years of service.

Jigen, of course, was not his only role. He appeared in many other anime, including stand-out performances in Space Adventure Cobra (Crystal Bowie), Death Note (Watari), and the Japanese dub of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Splinter). But his true metier was live-action dubbing, in which he became the go-to guy for voicing Japanese versions of Lee Marvin and James Coburn and even, after the death of his Lupin co-star Yasuo Yamada, Clint Eastwood. If producers needed someone whose voice could send a shiver down the audience’s spine, be it Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, or Edward Teague (Keith Richards) in Pirates of the Caribbean, they made sure to make Kobayashi their first call.

When asked what his secret was with Jigen, he once confessed that it was the only role he ever played where he had never bothered to “act” at all. In everyday life, he said, “If I speak, it’s Jigen.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #223, 2022.

Kyoto Stories

“Unlike the protagonist of Kyoto Stories, I was never invited as a bonus extra to a wife swappers’ party. Nobody quizzed me about the size of my genitals. I was never offered a bit-part in a B-movie where I had to dress up as a brothel-creeping American GI. At no point, in my teaching career, was I ushered into a room with two gangsters, and ordered to take them from zero to fluency in two months, or else.”

Over at All the Anime, I review ex-Ghibli employee Steve Alpert’s Kyoto Stories, a gleefully unreliable memoir about someone‘s student days.