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

The Secret History of Genghis Khan

Andrei Borisov’s epic film By the Will of Genghis Khan presents the historical figure Temujin not as the terrifying bogeyman of European lore, but as he is remembered across much of the East, as a just ruler, a lawgiver, and a man of honour. It places the lifestyle of the steppe peoples front and centre, presenting the ever moving, herd-following Mongols, Naimans and Buryats as the norm, and questioning the “civilised” notion of putting down roots in one place. The history of Central Asia has long been a story of tension between nomads and farmers; By the Will of Genghis Khan deliberately pushes a nomad’s eye view of the beauty and wonder of life on the steppes.

“In the province of Yeka Mongol, there was a certain man called Chinghis. This man became a mighty hunter. He learned to steal men, and to take them for prey. He ranged into other countries taking as many captives as he could, and joining them unto himself. Also, he allured the men of his own country unto him, who followed him as their captain and ringleader to do mischief.”

— Friar John of Pian de Carpini, 13th century AD

“Not long ago, Genghis Khan evoked only unpleasant memories; he was thought of as a tyrant,” producer Vladimir Ivanov told Variety. “The film will strike a wide audience with its honesty about complex historical facts.”

Temujin (played here by three actors at different stages of his life) might have been a famous Mongol, but the extent of his empire from the edges of Europe to the Pacific coast ensured that his memory had a much larger footprint. The activities of his grandsons, who conquered Hungary, Persia and China, ensure that the name Genghis Khan is a bankable movie idea across the whole of Eurasia. By the Will of Genghis Khan is a truly international production, growing out of a novel and play first performed in the Republic of Yakutia, adapted into cinema form with co-producers in the USA, and a cast including members from China, Germany and a dozen Russian republics. But the bulk of its talent and industry is rooted not in Mongolia as one might expect, but in the vast region of Siberia – once ruled by Genghis Khan, now the Russian Far East. Continue reading

What's Up, Spider Lily?

Higanjima is a multiple pun in Japanese. It literally means Equinox Island, or the Yonder Isle, perhaps even The Island on the Other Side. However, as noted by the characters when they first arrive on the notorious “vampire island”, it is also a reference to higanbana (Lycoris radiata), the red-flowered spider lilies whose poisonous bulbs are sometimes strewn at the edges of Japanese farmhouses to kill mice. Flowering around the time of the autumn equinox, spider lilies have become associated in Buddhist tradition with the onset of winter, and hence the threshold between life and death. They should never be presented to a living person.

In Japan, spider lilies are usually associated with graveyards. In Chinese and Japanese legend, they are said to be the flowers that grow in hell, and also the flowers that mark the path towards reincarnation. For this latter reason, they are sometimes presented as bouquets to the deceased at Japanese funerals. Another superstition suggests that if two associates will never meet again, spider lilies will be found in their path as they part. Hence the ominous tension that surrounds the characters as they come ashore at the island, to find that every path, in every direction, bears the flowering symbol of eternal separation and death.

Koji Yamamoto’s original 2003 manga Higanjima was soon snapped up as a game adaptation, turned into a text-based interactive adventure by Now Productions, released in Japan on the PSP in 2005. The action of the 15-rated game would be reflected in the later movie, with the player guiding Akira on his search for his missing brother. The manga story, however, extends far beyond the events in the movie, introducing numerous new forms of enemy, and setting up Higanjima as the perfect survivalist playground – an island that is literally off the map, infested with evil, and inviting return visits by adventurous heroes. Running at thirty volumes and still ongoing, it is also very popular in France, where many volumes have been translated as L’Ile des Vampires.

Higanjima the manga, and its game spin-off are grab-bags of horror ideas. It eagerly mixes the locked-room combat of Battle Royale with the viral horror of Resident Evil, with just a dash of the old-time religion of The Wicker Man, and presents that most tantalising of locations for the role-playing gamer – a private island of adventure, close to home and yet inhabiting a world of myth and magic. Continue reading

Men in Black

With a gruelling shoot that spanned April 2007 to September 2008 after its leading man’s injury on set, filmed in the sub-tropical heat of Japan’s idyllic Ryukyu island chain, Kamui: The Lone Ninja recreates a lost world of fishing villages on the Inland Sea, a time when the samurai wars were done, and the people of Japan returned to their fields and their boats. It also evokes a savage era where all unwelcome influences were ruthlessly suppressed, and plays with the notion that the Japanese peasantry of the 17th century had formed secret societies of semi-magical assassins.

The son of a renowned left-wing artist, Kamui’s creator Sanpei Shirato (1932- ) was one of the last of the kamishibai painters, making panels of artwork for Japanese “magic lantern” shows. A narrator, or benshi, would tell a lively story to a crowd while pushing pictures through a lit frame. Soon after Shirato’s first kamishibai work, Mister Tomochan (1951), the advent of television destroyed the medium, leading Shirato to transfer his skills into comics. His early work included adaptations of the animal stories of Ernest Seton and works for girls, but it was as the creator of Ninja Bugeicho (Chronicle of a Ninja’s Martial Achievements, 1959-1962) that he achieved true fame. Even in his early days, Shirato was notable for his insistence on an external narrator, a voice outside the story itself that would comment on the action and steer the viewers like an old fashioned benshi.

His first big success in the TV world was Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru (Fujimaru the Wind Ninja, or Ninja the Wonderboy), broadcast in 1962. His original comic was called Ninja Clan, but in a tense compromise for Shirato the committed socialist, the show was renamed to establish a link with its sponsor, Fujisawa Pharmaceuticals. Each episode of the rollicking boys’ drama would open with a Fujimaru theme song that transformed into a jingle for Fujisawa. Notably, it would close with a live-action sequence in which a breathless interviewer would quiz Masaaki Hatsumi, an accomplished martial artist who claimed to know the secrets of the ninja world, and who imparted them to an entire generation of Japanese boys. Continue reading

Fighting the Phonies 1919-2010

“I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life.”

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex makes recurring references to the work of legendary American recluse JD Salinger, whose judgemental Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye bears some similarity to the Laughing Man, and even supplies the quote for his logo. The tune, ‘Comin’ Through the Rye’, is a regular feature of daily life in Japan in everything from elevator doors to pelican crossings, and has cropped up before in the anime Vampire Hunter D and Grey: Digital Target.

Salinger’s short story ‘The Laughing Man’ was first printed in the New Yorker magazine in 1949, and featured a tale within a tale, about a boy kidnapped by Chinese bandits, and vengefully tortured by having his head partly crushed in a vice. Left with a gaping hole where his mouth should be, he takes to obscuring the lower part of his face with a mask. He proves a fast learner, even comprehending the language of wolves, and becomes a bandit with skills he had learned from his former captors. But his whole existence is a case of misdirection, for the story is actually about something else entirely, the tales of banditry and derring-do merely the means employed by a character to distract the reader from the real story going on around him, a thwarted romance.

(Excerpted from Jonathan Clements’s sleeve notes to the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex box set, released in the UK by Manga Entertainment, and reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis).

The Price is Wrong

I was in the post office sending off a translated script, when the man behind the counter said: “We can’t just send it to America Small Packet Rate, we have to know how much it’s worth.”

“That depends,” I said. “The Writers’ Guild say it’s worth £18,000, the Institute of Translators and Interpreters say £12,000, in France it’s a thousand pounds a throw, and The Company That Shall Remain Nameless won’t pay for it at all because they’ve got someone who does it for 50p and a bunch of grapes.”
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Steve Kyte artwork from SMC

As part of the process of getting Schoolgirl Milky Crisis ready, the Big Giant Heads asked around the anime industry if, you know, a book of my speeches and articles was a good idea. These are some of the very nice replies they got back:

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