February 21, 2010
Here we are at my final review for FPS. Although I have been an erstwhile contributor at best, I want everyone to know how much my involvement has meant to me. When I first came to Canada, I could not work or study. I could, however, blog. Emru Townsend gave me the opportunity to do just that, and running around my new home for FPS became a fun, fast way for me to learn about Toronto and about one of my favourite art forms.
Volume 4 of University of Minnesota's annual publication Mechademia edited by Frenchy Lunning and with contributions from Christopher Bolton, Takayuki Tatsumi, Marco Pellitteri and Thomas Lamarre focuses on concepts of war, history and memory in anime. All the usual suspects are here: Evangelion, Grave of the Fireflies, Patlabor 2, Barefoot Gen. While it may surprise some scholars to learn that these titles can still be mined for meaning, the exegesis contained in these pages proves that there is still some blood to be wrung from the mecha, as it were.
Japan's military history is a difficult one. The tensions at play (colonialism, identity and modernity, to name a few) are still painful, and in many ways they still dictate what Japan is as a country today. The critical essays gathered in this volume focus on those tensions and how they continue to shape Japan's national and artistic discourse, from one of Studio Ghibli's most beloved films to the anonymous 2-chan crowds who followed Densha into the battle for his future happiness.
One of the things I enjoy about Mechademia as a publication is the way it examines both obscure and pop culture material from a variety of theoretical standpoints. Some of the essays here are so firmly rooted in critical theory that they can seem almost inscrutable. Christophe Thouny's piece, "Waiting for the Messiah: The Becoming Myth of Evangelion and Densha otoko" falls into this category. It performs the function of all good analyses: instantly alienating a once-familiar text by shining a new light on it, thereby forcing the reader/viewer/participant to re-approach that text.
Other essays are more accessible: Wendy Goldberg's "Transcending the Victim's History: Takahata Isao's Grave of the Fireflies" is a clearly-written piece that nevertheless exposes new areas of investigation inside the film's historical subtext. Similarly, Gavin Walker's "The Filmic Time of Coloniality: On Shinkai Makoto's The Place Promised in Our Early Days" clarifies the multiple narratives and meta-narratives that intersect in Shinkai's stately, almost exposition-free film.
Essays like these, even when they're a tough read or on a topic I know very little about, are one of the reasons I told my students last year to begin reading Mechademia. It's also one of the few peer-reviewed publications that isn't hidden away in the absurd and bizarre labyrinth of university library permissions: you can just order it online like any other book, and then keep it forever. (Though as an academic, I'd really love a digital copy: typing selections out by hand every time I want to use a quotation in an essay is bothersome, compared to cutting and pasting from a PDF. Notice how I haven't really quoted anything, here?) I've had the good fortune of meeting Frenchy Lunning on two separate occasions, and I've corresponded with her and her editorial staff multiple times. I know about the hard work that goes into every issue, and I also enjoy the focus on a single theme for each -- it keeps the volume on point, while gathering all the latest research into one volume for interested scholars. We've needed a publication like Mechademia for a long time, and I'm glad we have it.
September 10, 2009
rumours and speculation about both the Japanese and North American release dates for Studio Ghibli's Ponyo on Blu-ray disc but now we can finally confirm, thanks to the Asian Blu-ray Guide that Gake no ue no Ponyo will be hitting the Japanese market on December 8th! Whether or not we'll see it on this side of the Pacific before is still anyone's guess but this we do know for sure - the Japanese release will not only feature English subtitles but Disney's English dub as well! So, if there's no sign of Ponyo hitting a shop near you before the holidays this year, you can feel safe placing that order for the Blu-ray through YesAsia or other import e-tailer.
Click through for a look at the bonus features you can expect from the Japanese Ponyo Blu-ray:
In other Ghibli/Ponyo news, the delayed (due to music-clearance issues) release of the lengthy "making-of" collection that was supposed to be on shelves back in July should street in Japan the same day, December 8th. This collection will not have the stink of English on it anywhere! It's Japanese language only. No subtitles, no dub. The hope for a bittorrented English fan-sub reigns eternal...
Via: The Blu-ray Blog
Read more: Ponyo Blu-ray Disc Review
July 27, 2009
GREEN LANTERN: FIRST FLIGHT (2009, Blu-ray released July 28, 2009 - MSRP $29.99)
I couldn't help but think of Law and Order: SVU while watching Green Lantern: First Flight. And not just because the lead character is voiced by Chris Meloni, one of the cops on the hit NBC show. But because the take on the character and the group he belongs to is such that we're meant to perceive them as being an intergalactic police force, patrolling the cosmos and protecting life from galaxy to galaxy. Cool concept. And it works.
Green Lantern: First Flight comes to us as the newest DC Comics/Warner direct-to-video animated feature. And it's another in their long line of success stories, following hot on the heels of Wonder Woman and the anime-styled anthology Batman: Gotham Knight. With the understanding that these projects suffer from massive time and budget restraints, the quality that producer Bruce Timm and his teams are able to achieve is simply astounding. Yet still, writer Alan Burnett faced impossible odds, having to shoe-horn poor, old Hal Jordan's origin story into the first ten minutes of the film - ten minutes comprised of a five minute opening titles sequence (Hey guys, how 'bout we drop that from the runtime next time in favour of a little more story?) The upcoming live-action Green Lantern film, directed by Martin Campbell and starring Ryan Reynolds will no doubt make two hours out of that same story material, glossed over here. But while things feel a bit rushed out of the gate, Burnett is soon allowed to settle into a nice rhythm with his script, exploring the relationship of Hal as rookie space-cop in the Green Lantern Corps, being trained to use his new-found magical-ring powers by seasoned vet of the force, Sinestro (Victor Garber). This is Training Day in space!
We get a few scenes that are meant to give us that "cop show" vibe before the story thrusts us into superhero-epic territory, where the film ultimately feels more at home (Was it just me, or did it feel like they were always trying too hard to remind us that the Green Lanterns are cops?) There's a grand, exciting and extremely well animated climax sequence that's worth the price of the disc alone. This is the kind of action you hope to see in a Green Lantern film! Martin Campbell has a lot to live up to now.
I have to give credit to the design team on this film. Wow. Incredible work. Green Lantern: First Flight looks wholly original, with designs more inspired by anime than by North American comics. And man, do they work in this context. In fact, the Japanese influence can perhaps be felt a touch too strongly in one particular instance. It was pointed out to me by nerd-blogger extraordinaire, Rob at Topless Robot, that Green Lantern's initial transformation into the superhero we know and love is almost identical to that of Sailor Moon. Compare the two and see for yourself!
The first five minutes of Green Lantern: First Flight:
And a Sailor Moon transformation:
Pretty similar, huh?! Nevertheless, the animation comes off well, with the character designs rarely falling too off model and the more nuanced and intricate movement being saved for the action sequences. Well done.
The Blu-ray looks great, as well. I can't get enough of 2-D animation in high-def. From Disney classics to Persepolis, I think I could just spend every day watching nothing but old school animation on my PS3. And the audio is no sloutch here either. All in all, a great presentation!
My only real complaint with the Green Lantern: First Flight Blu-ray is directed at the bonus features. While this disc may be packed with extras (including five episodes of Justice League and a Duck Dodgers cartoon!) it doesn't offer a single glimpse behind the curtain. I want to know how this thing was made! We aren't even offered a commentary track this time. At least the Wonder Woman disc gave us that. And what about that early promo featurette? You know the one, showing us Meloni and Garber in the studio, recording their lines. Where is that little piece of film? Urgh...After watching all the little docs that they do offer us, I feel like it's all just a promotion for writer Geoff Johns and his upcoming comic books stories. A shame that Timm, director Lauren Montgomery, Burnett and the team had to be short-changed to shill some comics. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the upcoming Superman/Batman: Public Enemies Blu-ray disc will see fit to show us how the Warner animation magic is made!
Via: The Blu-ray Blog
July 25, 2009
Check out the incredible Iron Man trailer above, and Wolverine below, after the jump!
Via: The Blu-ray Blog
July 19, 2009
“Where do people go when they die?” “They go to hell.”
Hells is a well-executed stylish and action-packed animated exploration into a teenager’s journey back from the depths of hell after she’s the victim of a car accident on her way to her first day at a new school. It’s kind of an afterlife, afterschool special in anime format.
Oh, but it’s not that cut and dry. Linne, the protagonist, wasn’t supposed to end up in Hell and this is discovered because there’s no record of her death and she’s able to bleed—something that doesn’t happen to those who dwell in the netherworld.
Linne does end up at a school in the afterlife known as Death River Academy and she needs to graduate before she makes it through to Heaven because in Hell, you are studying for your next life. Her new school is full of a wild group of teens that don’t fit within the traditional, school uniform-wearing clique. In particular, the headmaster is a big burly red fella named Headmaster Helvis who bears striking resemblance a mash-up between the King and Hellboy.
Hells features some interesting Christian and Buddhist themes such as the classic Cain vs. Abel brother’s quarrel, mention of reincarnation, the power of intention, the energy of mantras, interconnectedness, emptiness, existence and the acceptance of both happiness and unhappiness rather than rejecting one over the other. On this note was the assertion by one of the characters that there is a denial of reality in not accepting death.
The notion of Hell existing in one’s own mind is also explored as one scene within the film was devoted to the perspective that we create the world that we live in and it can be viewed as a Hell if we make it so.
Japan’s Madhouse animation studio has delivered a highly energetic and colorful piece of work with Hells. I encourage checking it out if you are interested in being taken for a wild ride of the human and hell-dweller condition. It’s dark, fast, funny, rock and roll, sad, philosophical, colorful, detailed, shocking, sweet and optic nerve stimulating—all at once.
Check out the trailer here:
Hells has a second showing at Fantasia on Wednesday, July 22nd at 2:00 p.m.
July 6, 2009
In addition to the opening film and animation highlights revealed by the 2009 Fantasia festival, the rest of the films do not merely round out the animation portion of programming. These selections reflect some of the more interesting selections of on the cinematic edge.
The features, in addition to Genius Party Beyond, Hells, and Les Lascars:
July 2, 2009
The entire lineup looks promising at the Fantasia film festival this year, running from July 9 to 29. While fps focuses on animation, Fantasia (the largest event of its kind in North America) is a combination of the best cult film worldwide, and has an impressive lineup of film of all types, including live-action and animated horror, action, fantasy, science fiction, weird and edgy films.
As I said, we like to stick with animation around here, but I have to mention this year's opening film, even though it's got (gasp) real people in it.
This year's opening film is the live-action feature Yatterman that began life as a manga in the 70s, which shortly after became an anime series (that was recently updated in 2008).
This is the part where we usually begin a lament (but not always). Definitely not this time!
The director is the irreverent Takashi Miike who made films such as Audition and Sukiyaki Western Django. To me this is more reason to see it. However, if viewers are worried about how he would do an all-ages film, I point to the fantastic film The Great Yokai War, which featured his signature style, but also was a wonderful film for younger viewers.
I think this film will be the type of fare which is best watched with an enthusiastic audience, in the same way that the live-action version of Cutey Honey (directed by animator Hideako Anno) wowed audiences just a few years ago.
The full Fantasia lineup will be available on Friday, July 3.
May 22, 2009
Good news: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is returning with new episodes to Japanese television screens, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is on YouTube. The two titles mentioned above employ the same castmembers and staff, the same production studios, and both are further explorations of the source texts: the former a series of comedic science fiction novels, the latter Hiromu Arakawa's manga series. (FMA:B promises to adhere more closely to the manga, in a way that the original Fullmetal Alchemist didn't.) Hellsing, Evangelion and the Macross franchise have received similar treatments in recent years. And in an economy like this one, it's not hard to see why -- established titles have a built-in fanbase that can better ensure a return on investments of time and money.
The revival of these series has me wondering what other anime titles I'd like to see resurrected or re-explored. In many cases, anime series are filmed before the manga that precipitated them has ended, meaning that the anime ends at a point that doesn't quite feel like an ending. Here's a list of some series that I'd like to see dusted off and properly finished:
Fruits Basket: With the manga having ended in Japan, I think it's high time Akitaro Daichi brought us another complement of this sweet, zany, and heartrending anime. Every time I watch this series, I want more. And now that the story has a real ending with even deeper revelations, there's nothing to stop us from getting it. Except for time. And money. And availability. But this is Furuba, damn it -- you know you want some.
Ouran High School Host Club: With ANN's recent full subbed stream of the series, I've been watching the episodes in too-large blocks, surprised at how much I enjoy it, how sorry I am not to have been part of the first wave of viewers to enjoy it, and most of all how clever it is at embracing then subverting shoujo stereotypes in order to critique fetishized gender roles. And the manga is now within sight of ending: more, please!
FLCL: GAINAX had only enough time and money for six episodes of the original series, but those six episodes were enough to tell a thoughtful story about growing up, locating your inner strength, and realizing that what you want and what you need are often very different. (Plus, there was giant mecha action. With guitars.) Ideally I'd like to see a "ten years later" treatment, in which Naota and Atomsk team up to fight Medical Mechanica, this time without Haruko's "help." It sounds crazy, but just think: more music by The Pillows!
Samurai Champloo: Watanabe isn't fond of re-visiting his own series, and I can't blame him. They're mostly perfect on their own. But Cowboy Bebop had its own in-series movie treatment with Knockin' on Heaven's Door, and there's no reason that SC coudn't enjoy the same. If not a follow-up to the series that further re-mixes Japan's history with a critique of nation-building while simultaneously exploring the continuing stories of Jin, Mugen, and Fuu, then maybe an extended episode that picks up another famous figure from Edo Period history and twists it beyond recognition. (Admit it: Samurai Champloo: Rebel Without A Pause would be awesome.)
I've had my say: what would you like to see brought back? (And if you say Cowboy Bebop, we're done.)
April 29, 2009
TwitchFilm is streaming the trailer for First Squad, Studio 4°C's latest project. According to ANN, the film was helmed by Yoshiharu Ashino, based on characters created by Russian artists Misha Sprits and Aljosha Klimov. Here's the premise:
This looks like so much fun: all the fantasy pseudo-science of a good conspiracy theory with things like cavalry battles in the snow and utterly terrifying men in pig masks. It'll also be interesting to see how this treats the "Nazi obsession with the occult" theme in comparison to something like Conqueror of Shamballa. The first reviews will be out this May, after Cannes.
March 13, 2009
Were you lucky enough to get your hands on one of the first pressings of Bandai/Honneamise's Akira on Blu-ray? If so, count yourself among the fortunate few. These suckers blew threw retail like a tornado through a Kansas farm, leaving all arms of the distribution chain empty and awaiting a follow-up pressing. There's a reason this thing was so hotly anticipated. Not only was it the first appearance of the classic animated film on a high-def format with a brand-spanking-new remaster that let you see the film as never before, but the initial offering shipped with a limited edition slipcase and a 32 page booklet, making up for the lack of extras on the disc.
Blu-ray.com has an excellent, exclusive feature on the restoration and remaster of Akira for High-def, including an explanation of why you won't find many special features with the release (Hint: It's because they've filled the disc with buckets of awesome!)
March 8, 2009
Wonder Woman (2009 - Blu-ray)
Pretty good. Exactly what I was expecting. Not as focussed, structurally sound or iconic as i'd hoped but completely serviceable. To be fair, nearly every single criticism I can throw at producer Bruce Timm, director Lauren Montgomery and crew's animated Wonder Woman film can be explained away by it's two most villainous foes - budget and running time.
Read more after the jump:
Scribe Michael Jelenic by way of Gail Simone's story makes a grand effort of attempting to tell the definitive origin of DC Comics' Amazonian princess by amalgamating and slightly reshaping the best and most iconic elements found in the comic book series and on television. This Wonder Woman can't fly like the comics or Justice League cartoon incarnations and won't fight in heels like Linda Carter but is steeped in the Greek mythological background stuff that makes the modern DC version of the character feel timeless. In fact, the film skews heavily toward the sword and sandal tone, only allowing a hint of what Princess Diana's adventures in "Man's World" might feel like. And I think that's where it fails for me.
This fable feels most at home when exploring the lives, characters and mythology of the Amazonian world. It spends a glorious amount of its brief seventy-odd minute run-time focused on the toga/sandal crew and reasonably little on our protagonist's fish-out-of-water, island girl in NYC arc. A grave mistake, if you ask me, as that's where the character really shines, where she becomes the Wonder Woman that we all know and love. That version, the ideal status quo for the character is what the whole narrative leads us to in a denouement which really pays off. But along the way, the rush to explore every nook and cranny of the Amazonian plight leads to a juxtaposition of tone and style that doesn't always work, as if the climax of of Frank Miller's 300 was randomly staged in downtown Washington DC without much explanation. In fact, a lot of things get glossed over or unexplained in this story. Like the Invisible Jet that suddenly appears on the primitive Amazon island, for instance.
And, if the production team's comments are to be believed that sloppiness comes as necessitated by restricted budget and time. Sadly, it seems this vision for Wonder Woman was simply too epic to be contained in a short DTV feature. This is meant to be storytelling writ large and long. The music cues, riffing heavily on Shore's Lord of the Rings (with a little of Kilar's Bram Stokers Dracula thrown in for good measure) tell us as much right off the top. But you can feel the edits, the glossed over details, the deleted dialogue and scenes, the moments you were meant to love that ended up on the cutting room floor or the directors storyboard pages, as it were. I mean, this thing works well and looks good for a short, modestly budgeted video project. But ultimately, it serves best as a blueprint for Hollywood to follow and expand upon as they bring Wonder Woman to life, live-action on the big screen.
Compromise. That's the key word here. Director Montgomery talks often about it in the excellent and fairly candid commentary track on the disc. While this film looks and moves extremely well for a direct-to-video offering, sometimes expertly managing armies on screen, it can't compete with bigger budget films, where movement is perpetually fluid, dynamic and engaging and designs are kept strictly on model. Everything about the animation here is simply serviceable, with a small handful of action scenes being afforded extra attention - notably a beautiful sparring scene between Diana and Artemis early in film, boarded by the talented Brandon Vietti (The Batman, Superman: Doomsday) and the incredible call-to-action denouement by Dave Bullock (Kim Possible, Justice League).
Montgomery's character designs skew slightly toward her Disney influences, a welcome departure from Timm's previous 'house' style. Her large eyed, thin nose faces often look fantastic but are unforgiving and crash hard when Moi Animation Studio gets them even slightly off model. Character shading has a heavy anime influence, with more articulated shadows than previous efforts that, along with nice gradients and diffusion filters give the film depth with a more detailed look than WB animation is usually capable of. Add the occasional visceral, hand-held moving camera, common in modern action films and you have a look and feel appropriate to a PG-13 film.
The Final Word:
I really love that Warner is putting it's muscle behind these DTV releases. Despite any criticisms that I might have, i really enjoy the DC heroes in their various animated incarnations. And I can count this Wonder Woman film among my favourites. With a decent transfer and a handful of compelling features I can't help but give this disc a recommendation. As a PG-13 film, it's clearly focussed at fans and certainly not made for children but most viewers who enjoy animated adventure films will get a kick out of it.
Learn more about the Blu-ray and it's special features in my review over at TheBlurayBlog.com.
March 5, 2009
Last night I had the privilege of attending a seminar called "Anime and Contemporary Japanese Society," presented by the Japan Foundation's Toronto branch and the Digital Value Lab at Ryerson University, and supported by the Consulate General of Japan in Toronto. Presenters included Professor Jaqueline Berndt of Yokohama National University, and Professor Kaichiro Morikawa of Meiji University, with a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Eric Cazdyn of the University of Toronto.
After several rounds of applause for all the parties involved, Professor Berndt began a presentation called "Post-Critical Anime: Observations on its 'Identities' within Contemporary Japan." It compared and contrasted The Seven Samurai against Samurai 7, examining not historical accuracy (or the lack thereof) but rather the position each title holds in relationship to an imagined national culture. For Berndt, titles like Samurai 7 and Samurai Champloo are a-historical, existing in a fantasy of the past rather than an historically specific one. This slippery sense of historicity is key to a phenomenon in anime criticism that Professor Berndt wants to question, namely the preoccupation with reading Japanese identity into anime and presuming that anime stands for Japan rather than being a product of Japan. In short, Berndt wishes to undermine the myth of "Japaneseness," and instead focus on taste cultures within the nation.
Similarly, Professor Morikawa delivered a "tour" of otaku Japan, focusing on the geography of Tokyo's taste districts: Ikebukero (yaoi and BL titles, including doujinshi), and Akihabara (moe and hentai titles, including dating sims). Morikawa's presentation was extremely enlightening, exposing the gender and taste boundaries within Tokyo's borders, as well as proposing the idea of these fannish districts as an extension of the "otaku" (a loaded term that is at once a second person pronoun, a word for the household, an insult, and a label appropriated by English-speaking anime and manga fans) space -- a thirdspace where fans are safe to gather and form communities. Morikawa linked the phenomenon of taste districts in Tokyo to the ethnic villages of New York, then contrasted the architecture of these "private" or "closed" fan districts like Akihabara and Ikebukero to the "public" or "transparent" areas of Shibuya where consumption is conspicuous enough to warrant massive glass towers.
Dr. Cazdyn attempted to marry these two presentations through their shared problematization of time. He argued for a relationship between the non-existent past of Samurai 7 and the non-existent future of the Akihabara otaku, a group whose visions of the future, Professor Morikawa suggested, had darkened considerably since 1995 -- the year of both the disastrous Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult (some of whom purported to be fans of Evangelion and other titles). Cazdyn defined anime as created by and through crisis, an idea that reminded me of Susan J. Napier's article When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain. After his remarks, the panel opened itself up to questions from the audience, a conversation which quickly turned lively. Afterward, Professor Berndt remarked that she had never given this talk to so much laughter, and she was surprised at how informed her audience already was on the subjects at play. (Congratulations, Toronto; you know your anime!)
If you have the opportunity to see either of these presenters in action, I heartily recommend them. Their insights as anime fans living in Japan who still maintain critical distance from the subject matter is invaluable. I was struck by Professor Berndt's answer to a question about culture: as a German speaker who had lived in Japan for twenty years, she said, "I don't really know what I am, anymore. I don't know how to categorize myself." It was plain that she viewed this indefinable subject position as a strength, not a weakness. I'm inclined to agree.
February 13, 2009
Anne of Green Gables (Akage no An) is one of Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater classics. The series, based on Lucy Maud Montgommery's book was first broadcast in 1979, and is still popular in Japan to this day. The 26th season of World Masterpiece Theatre slated to start in April will adapt Budge Wilson's book Before Green Gables as Kon'nichiwa Anne 〜 Before Green Gables. It will cover Anne's life before she moves to Green Gables.
Via Anime-days.com (in French)
January 17, 2009
Someone is allowing Keanu Reeves to play Spike Spiegel.
If the response across the web is any indication, fans of Cowboy Bebop are mostly infuriated by the news, with a hopeful few clinging to the notion that Keanu's anime fandom will translate into a performance along the lines of, well, faithful cosplay.
But add it to news of Leonardo DiCaprio's live-action Akira, (with Joseph Gordon Levitt playing Tetsuo), and a live-action Ninja Scroll, plus M. Night Shyamalan's live-action whitewash of Avatar: The Last Airbender,* and we're looking at a definite trend of live-action anime adaptations, the first of which to hit screens being Dragonball Evolution, which also features white actors playing roles originally created, written, directed, animated, and performed by Japanese people.**
According to Edward Said, one of the principles of Orientalism is a belief that Asia cannot speak for herself, and that the West must do it for her, constantly re-interpreting and clarifying the "mysteries of the Orient" for Western audiences, regurgitating the complexities of other cultures into an easily-digestible whole. The trouble with the Orientalist position is that it creates a false discourse that operates on the premise that a whole country and its inhabitants can be reduced to a single brand identity, a cognitive simplification equivalent to saying that "all anime is tentacle porn." Moreover, it assumes a fundamental incapability of the Western mind to grasp the multi-faceted nature of that which is Other, because "the gaijin won't get it."
But as all anime fans know, this is simply not true. However one feels about fansubs and scanlations, they frequently take the time to explain to an eager and intelligent audience the delicate nuance of a Japanese reference or phrase or pun. And if the recent developments at Crunchyroll have proven anything, it's that anime fans want anime, and they want it animated, and soon, not months or years from now.
There's an argument to be made that the purpose of live-action adaptations isn't to appeal to anime fans (although such adaptations doubtless intend on capitalizing on them), but rather to introduce mainstream viewers to anime via the otherwise-familiar milieu of flesh-and-blood cinema. And as self-professed anime fans, this may be Mr. Reeves and Mr. DiCaprio's goal -- to show the rest of the multiplex what arthouse and home viewers have known for decades. But can such a move really benefit the anime industry? Is a live-action adaptation -- especially one that uses white actors in Japanese roles*** -- really a faithful homage to a beloved title? Or it it just an allegedly foreigner-friendly dumbing-down of the original text? We won't know until the films arrive. But in the meantime, my real question:
If you love anime, why not just fund more anime?
The anime industry is barely getting by, at a point in time when its global appeal is most highly recognized. As Roland Kelts points out in Japanamerica, people who believe that anime is a lucrative business for the animators or even directors are sadly deluded. Japanese creators are often separated from royalties when it comes to overseas licensing, because, as Kelts says: "The global anime boom of the twenty-first century has taken Japan, a country whose corporate culture prides itself on knowing the next new thing, almost completely by surprise." (73) But big names like DiCaprio and Reeves could give the industry a much-needed boost by following the Tarantino and Wachowski method: fund your own anime, rather than commissioning adaptations. For the cost of a Hollywood film, couldn't you pay the people at Gonzo or Production IG or Bones to animate your own script? What if, instead of meatsack re-hashings of classic anime titles, we got fresh product done by professionals who know the medium inside and out?
I ask because animation is its own unique medium. It can do things that film can't. It depicts events in a manner that, while not entirely realistic, remains at its best truthful to lived experience. Anime fans have accepted this, and moved on. They understand, respect, and desire more of the art form on its own terms. They know its merits, and its limitations. In fact, they relish in them. And if Mr. Reeves and Mr. DiCaprio were the fans they claim to be, they would feel the same.
Anime does not need Hollwyood to speak for it. Anime does not need a whitewash, an improvement, or a literal incarnation in order to reach an understanding audience. Audiences understand, if given the opportunity. They're smarter than the focus groups say. If producers proclaim to love anime, they should put their money where their mouths are, and buy some more of it.
*I include Avatar: The Last Airbender on this list because it featured both characters and actors of colour: Katara and Sokka, originally dark-skinned (like all Water Tribe people), are now being played by white actors. And while white voice talents were employed, so were Asians: Mako, George Takei, George Hong, Dante Basco, Tsai Chin, and Sab Shimono all contributed their talents (although frequently as guest stars rather than leads, with the exception of Mr. Iwamatsu and Mr. Basco). Notably in Shyamalan's live-action cast is the replacement of Mr. Basco (a Filipino-American who has appeared in live-action films and television) with a blond, blue-eyed pop star.
**And Korean people, let us not forget. Korean animation studios frequently do "in-betweener" animation for both Japanese and American productions, and have done so for years now. This is also true of the afore-mentioned Avatar.
***One could also argue that the role of Spike Spiegel is not Japanese -- Spike was born on Mars, and we don't know his ethnicity. But the characters of Akira and Ninja Scroll are definitely Japanese.
Image credit: Slashfilm
December 22, 2008
A while ago, the folks at Crunchyroll (known online as the "YouTube of anime") asked us if we would like to interview them about their upcoming changes in programming. I jumped on the chance. I spoke with business development manager Vu Nguyen about the anime industry, Louis Vuitton, and DRM.
Crunchyroll started in 2006, and by 2008 it has already changed focus, from fan-produced content to legitimate licensed media. At what point in that short time did you start thinking about changing that focus?
A long time ago, we realized that a huge community was aggregating itself onto Crunchyroll. We also felt that it would be a shame if anime companies couldn't somehow leverage that audience, but we didn't know where or how to begin approaching anime companies. Not until after we left our jobs to work on Crunchyroll fulltime were we able to start getting traction with the industry. Our first licensed simulcast was in April 2007 with Gonzo, which is the first major milestone of the transition, but it actually began long before then.
Draw a thumbnail sketch for our readers that shows them what things are like at Crunchyroll. What is a normal day like for you?
There really isn't a normal day, every day is unique and different because we're doing so many things that haven't been done before. Crunchyroll is still a small operation compared to the companies that have been functioning within this industry for years. So, in a sense, we have to get more done with less, so we rely heavily on our community and users to help. For myself, I put in about 12-16 hours a day doing everything from meetings with producers and advertisers, press releases, interviews, managing servers, coordinating materials and approvals, encoding videos, drafting contracts, and/or talking to users. There is still so much we need to do, but we're making tremendous progress. I think the best is yet to come for Crunchyroll and the industry.
How do you see your role changing once this change happens? Will you be more hands-on, or will you rely even more on the rest of the staff?
We are growing quickly as a company in order to work with all the publishers to bring great content to fans. Everyone on the Crunchyroll team is dedicated to making Crunchyroll the best place online for anime fans, and I rely on each and every one of them, including all our community moderators, and all our supporters to make it happen!
The anime industry is losing profit. A lot of people blame fansubs for that. What is your opinion?
I think it would be naïve and unfair to focus blame on any one reason. The popularity of anime may have grown too quickly for its own good, and I'm sure much of that can be attributed to fansubs early on. The anime industry was enjoying some great growth and revenues a few years ago, especially in new overseas markets. This led to the industry producing and investing in more and more titles in a race to capitalize on the growth, but that ended up saturating (and possibly over-saturating) the market instead. Then the bubble burst which caused a lot of anime companies to lose money. And in those situations, there's never really one simple cause but might be compounded by the shift in consumer behavior and demand. The important part is to learn and adapt to where and how the market is moving and not resist the consumer's natural habits.
Do you think that Crunchyroll is a model for what the anime industry should be doing to thrive?
One of the bright lights is that there are more anime fans than ever before, so if the industry can figure out the right way to tap into the fan base, then it will and can definitely thrive again. We are trying to be part of that solution. Crunchyroll is building a platform for anime companies to interact and communicate directly with fans. Through our platform, they can promote their content to help drive digital sales, DVD sales and merchandise. The internet allows communication to travel faster than ever before, so anime producers have the power to develop a strong community and marketing campaign for their franchises because there are no longer time slot constraints as with television. Every creator has an equal shot at creating the next big thing more easily than ever before. So once anime companies figure out the right way to leverage that, then the biggest hits to come are just around the corner.
Crunchyroll mentions DRM and your desire to keep your new media content DRM-free. Why is this so important to you?
We have nothing against companies wanting to protect their IP. They certainly have every right to do so. But it's important to take a look at the present world reality and study what is happening. DRM has been ineffective in preventing piracy and only frustrates legitimate consumers. DRM makes it extremely difficult or often times impossible for legitimate consumers to view content how they want it – whether it's on Windows, Mac, Linux, iPod, Zune, or a DVD player because it only works with DRM-supported hardware. DRM also has not prevented pirates from figuring out a way to bypass the protection. So the reality is that it's very difficult to expect consumers to choose legitimacy over piracy if the legitimate alternative is crippled relative to the legitimate product. Imagine Louis Vuitton putting out handbags that aren't as good of a product as the knock offs – how could they expect to compete?
Are there any other major changes coming to Crunchyroll?
Crunchyroll is always evolving and making a lot of exciting changes to our site for the benefit of our users and community. In January, we're launching a anime subscription plan (starting price $6.95/month-in conjunction with our launch of NARUTO SHIPPUDEN, GINTAMA, SKIP BEAT!, SHUGO CHARA and many more titles yet to be announced) that will allow fans to get access to content subtitled in English straight from Japan with earlier access, no advertisements and at higher viewing quality. We hope that anime fans will embrace the effort that the industry is putting forth to make this content available to them on an unprecedented schedule. The revenue is being shared directly with the producers and creators. If this program proves successful, then it will be easier for us to persuade companies to simulcast new anime.
For more information, check out Zac Bertschy's interview with Vu Nguyen at the Anime News Network, the company profile, or the site's Alexa traffic statistics.
December 12, 2008
The Anime News Network is now in the streaming anime business -- only you don't have to pay! Visitors can now watch Kite: Liberator, as well as Girl's High and Ramen Fighter Miki.
All three are ad-supported streams, licensed from Media Blasters, available in North America only. With any luck, they'll unveil even more titles soon!
December 11, 2008
Madeline and Brenden have shown quite a bit of love on behalf of fps for Mamoru Oshii's Sky Crawlers (Read Madeline's review from the September TIFF screening).
The film has been showing in Los Angeles since last week (the last screening is today) at the Los Feliz 3 in order to qualify for Oscar eligibility, and will screen at the Lincoln Center in New York twice on Friday, December 12.
If you are lucky enough to be in either city to see it, let me know what you think of the film!
November 21, 2008
Another day, another trailer! This first look at Tezuka's little robot boy in CGI form isn't really filling me with glee. Combine the fact that it all looks somehow wrong (Astro Boy's clothes don't scream manga/anime icon to me) with the lacklustre showing of Imagi's big-screen CGI TMNT debut last year and you can colour me concerned.
If the YouTube version above isn't floating your boat, maybe the HD streams at Moviefone.com will satisfy.
November 18, 2008
On Day 2 of the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema, we got to see a screening of an original 35mm print of Grave of the Fireflies. This is an Isao Takahata, 1988 Studio Ghibli film, based on a short story about a 14-year-old boy who tries to care for his sister after their ailing mother is killed during a raid in the 1945 Kobe bombings. He and his sister experience the fear-inspired selfishness of an aunt and he must find a way to take care of himself and his sister on his own.
There was a panel discussion following the film lead by Fred Schodt, author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics; John O'Donnell, founder of Central Park Media (the publishers who license the film for North America); and Fred Ruh, author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii.
The conversation between the panelists and the audience covered debates as to whether the film was anti-American or rather just anti-war generally, given that the American bombers were barely referred to directly except by the subtle display of some American signage a couple of times on the bomber planes. Another point was raised about the divide between the themes considered culturally sensitive in western animation versus the plain-speaking storytelling of Japanese anime. As a nod to the animated film genre, it was agreed that this socially important, and poignant story couldn't be told the same way in a live-action film (a live-action version was made in 2005), given the youth of the actors required to play the parts and the fact that they couldn't be represented as realistically in the unhealthy conditions in which they were portrayed for the anime version.
This screening was also presented by UrbanEx and their Out Of The Cold programme.
November 17, 2008
Via ANN, we learn two news pieces of interest to Naruto fans:
These developments, as you can imagine, were planned: the Crunchyroll showings are intended for paid subscribers, with free showings appearing seven days later. Viz has been making great strides in trying to monetize their online episodes of other series like Bleach, by showing them on Xbox Live and Hulu (which is no help to Canadian visitors, as Hulu blocks Canadians from viewing). It's all part of a massive campaign to make new material available faster.
November 12, 2008
One of the good things about anime conventions is that they provide opportunities for fans to hear from industry professionals about what's new, and what directions various influential companies might take. For example, Erin Finnegan's excellent coverage of a NYAF panel with representatives from Bandai and FUNimation. The talk was candid:
This news is disappointing for two reasons.
November 4, 2008
According to the Anime News Network,
This is huge. It speaks to Tezuka's lasting power as a brand and a creator, and the beloved position he held (and continues to hold) in Japanese culture. I can think of fewer finer legacies than an act of such generosity.
October 16, 2008
It's been a busy few weeks at the intersection of Law and Fandom. Citizens of Otaku-dom, take note:
UNICEF Japan wants to include animated children under pornography laws. This would mean that depictions of children (not just photographic representations, but drawings too) would count, and that people found to be producing or publicly displaying such depictions would be guilty. However, the Japanese government has decided that a three-year study is necessary to determine the necessity and efficacy of changing existing law.
A similar ban might soon exist based on how the courts determine the PROTECT act in regard to an Iowa manga collector charged with possessing "obscene" manga. Now counseled by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Christopher Handley had his entire manga and anime collection taken as evidence after a postal inspector opened a package sent to him from Japan and found material that he deemed potentially objectionable. Whether Handley goes to prison for the next 20 years hinges on how his manga stands up to the "Miller Test":
Naturally, there are ways to be prosecuted under both the PROTECT act and the DMCA, depending on your doujinshi of choice: US copyright law now allows seizure of your property.
October 12, 2008
Looks like a little company called Project 760 Productions in San Francisco used to produce a neat little cable show called World of Anime back in the day. Check out this clip featuring an interview with anime scholar, Fred Schodt then hop on over to their YouTube channel to watch more archival clips.
Previously on fps:
WFAC 2008 - Fred Schodt, John O'Donnell and Brian Ruh to Discuss Grave of the Fireflies
September 26, 2008
Big news for Ontario Otaku - The new Rebuild of Evangelion film, 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone will have its premiere at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema in Kitchener-Waterloo, November 13th-16th.
All films at the festival are screened from 35mm prints or in Hi-Def at The Gig Theatre (the old Hyland theatre), 137 Ontario Street North, Kitchener.
The Evangelion film joins an incredible list of animated gems being screened at the festival:
Kitchener-Waterloo is approximately 100km, or less than an hours drive from Toronto and can be reached easily by Greyhound bus, Airways Transit and Via Rail.
Read more: Neon Genesis Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone Blu-ray Disc Review
September 13, 2008
Mamoru Oshii's latest film is an adaptation of Hiroshi Mori's novels of the same name, and tells the story of an ageless pilot, Yuichi Kannami, who transfers to a remote airbase controlled by a cold, self-destructive young girl named Suito Kusanagi afflicted with the same condition that keeps him eternally youthful. They also share an affinity for aerial dogfighting, and the relationship between the two ace pilots deepens as Yuichi slowly recollects fragments of his mysterious past and gets to know the odd denizens of the surrounding countryside.
The plot for Oshii's latest film sounds strangely peaceful for a film about war, and it is. The film unfolds at a leisurely pace (it lasts a lavish 122 minutes), with plenty of time to show the viewer intimate details about the alternate Europe that Yuichi and his fellow pilots inhabit. Oshii clearly holds high regard for Mori's fictional environment and sough to reproduce it with love and attention. The simple but startling beauty of the countryside, the quiet shadows of an abandoned city, and the cramped quarters of a converted manor house all resonate sharply in photorealistic animation and perfect sound.
And, of course, there are the dogfights.
Oshii's films, even his live-action work, are known for their sudden swerves into shockingly elegant violence. This is no different. The title is apt: these pilots are insects crawling across a sky that is vast and deep, limitless and unforgiving. While the dogfights are less visceral, perhaps, than the first scene of Innocence, they do communicate the dizzying, nearly nihilistic quality inherent to aerial combat: Yuichi survives because he is a good pilot, not because he's an arrogant flyer who likes to show off. This isn't Top Gun or even Macross Plus: Yuichi has no special moves, no prototype plane, nothing but skill and experience.
But his experience is the heart of the film, as we discover that there is more behind the "Kildren" -- people who, like Yuichi, remain eternally adolescent -- than a simple genetic disorder. There are clues layered throughout, and Yuichi's realizations come slowly but surely, a story that he pieces together rather than a sudden, shocking recollection. The film's ultimate conclusion is surprisingly hopeful for an Oshii film: eternity is not a life sentence, but a chance to start again.
However, there are some standard Oshii issues: a striking lack of exposition, and a lyrical pace that favours characterization and setting over plot or coherence. The story is secondary to the sentiment, but the story is also pure Oshii: a dreamlike exercise in issues of memory, identity, and the role of the military in a peaceful society. Along the way we get a heartbreaking love story, an endearing environment, and several references to Oshii's past work and anime in general (even the afore-mentioned Macross Plus). The story is not about an alternate universe; rather, the universe is the story.
Thankfully, The Sky Crawlers manages to avoid the long, drawn-out mindgames that feature so prominently in Oshii's other work. Gone are the painful, film-interrupting chunks of classical quotations, and gone are the belaboured references to Oshii's beloved Basset Gabu. (Don't worry; Gabu shows up, but as a dog and not an advertisement.) We get a tiny nod to Camus, but the script is remarkably clutter-free.
Featured above is the six-minute promotional trailer available at the Ghibli Museum. Studio Ghibli worked alongside Production IG on the film, and the whole film is infused with expertise from its auteur director to the Skywalker Sound work. Sony Pictures just picked it up, so hopefully we'll see distribution soon.
September 9, 2008
Anime After Dark is a new event being kicked off this year by the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival. On October 18, a collection of anime features will be screened at the Somerville Theatre from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. (Among the lineup: Grave of the Fireflies, Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society, Cat Soup, Project A-ko, Tekkon Kinkreet and Millennium Actress.)
The cost? A mere twenty bucks if you buy tickets now, $25 if you wait until September 20, and $30 at the door.
August 25, 2008
While much of the flavour of the Japan Media Arts Festival is Japanese (duh), they actively look for contributions from around the world, and indeed foreign entries have won top awards in the past.
The Japan Media Arts Festival is very open in what they look for; when they say media, they include animation, manga art, Web works, photographs, installations, still photos, commercial work, independent work, amateur work, etc. (What I cover for Frames Per Second is just a fraction what they display every year.) This is what makes their categories so rich and interesting, in my opinion.
Like last year, the Festival is again seeking recommendations from people about works they may have missed. Complete details for people who want to enter or make recommendations can be found on the Japan Media Arts Plaza. Better hurry, though: while submitters have until September 26 to get their works in, aficionados only have until August 29 to submit their recommendations.
August 19, 2008
Honestly, what's surprising is that it's taken this long.
A couple of companies have started catering to the anime fan/cosplay market by releasing extra-wide contact lenses that will give your eyes the wide-eyed anime look. Priced at $30-$50, they'll even match them up to your particular prescription.
So far it looks like they're only available from Korean companies Geo and Dueba. But hey, if Michael Jackson could go all werewolfy on us in the early 1980s, I'm sure Rick Baker can spend a few minutes to develop something for otaku to channel their inner C-ko.
August 17, 2008
Every year there's something in the Japan Media Arts Festival's Entertainment Division which also happens to be animated, and worth a mention. (The categories are porous like that.) This year that honour goes to the music video for Ryukyudisko's "Nice Day."
The entire video is a progression of still photographs starting somewhere in the 1970s, with a couple getting busy under the covers and producing a young boy. We watch him get older, get a job, and then he hits the clubs and meets a girl–and the whole starts going into reverse, as we go back into the girl's history. However, we find ourselves going back even farther than her parents, for reasons that eventually become apparent—and the eventual trip forward again carries its own surprises.
There's a lot of whimsy in this video, and the pity of the Flash-based video above is that you lose some of the detail in the historical photos, as well as the deliberate colour choices to replicate older film (up to a point—director Junji Kojima skimps a little when he starts getting into the 1930s and earlier).
By the way, if you think the tune is catchy you can drop a couple of sawbucks for an import of the single at Amazon.
Veterans of animation festivals know that the term "short film" is pretty elastic, from Malcolm Bennett's 30-second Rocky to Yuri Norstein's 29-minute Tale of Tales. They also know that the longer films are usually programmed at the tail end of a given screening, and that prior to the end of the Cold War many of those films were from Eastern Bloc countries—often gorgeous, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes dark.
What's surprising about the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival's award-winning works is that there are four films that pass the twenty-minute mark. The longest, Love Rollercoaster, is the most straightforward. The remaining three are reminiscent of those old Eastern Bloc films.
I'll start off with the 21-minute Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor because (a) director Koji Yamamura pretty much roped me in with his Mt. Head and The Old Crocodile a few years back; (b) it's actually based on the work of the Jewish-Czech Kafka, which gives it that weirdness that can be supplied only by Eastern European creators in general, and Kafka in particular; and (c) I can't help re-watching it whenever I can. Like any Kafka story, A Country Doctor starts with a seemingly normal premise combined (a country doctor is summoned at night to take care of a young patient) with some bizarre aspect ("unearthly horses" transport him there instantly). As in Kafka's better-known The Metamorphosis, the introduction of the preternatural element marks the moment the protagonist can never go back to the way things were. As in Yamamura's Mt. Head, the pace, sketchy images, and hand-drawn transformations complement the story nicely. At the rate A Country Doctor has been racking up awards, I think Yamamura's going to have to put serious thought into new shelving.
Ryu Kato's The Clockwork City also mines the surreal with traditional tools. The film is pretty much wordless, and you should expect to have to work at sorting some aspects of it out. A young visitor comes to a new city, and it's quickly apparent she doesn't quite fit in—every person, every bird, and even a few buildings have these wind-up mechanisms stuck in them, and she doesn't. After exploring the city for a little while she meets with the town's honcho (who wears a wind-up crown) and exchanges fruits and other goods. Soon after the city goes to war with an unknown enemy, its soldiers identically featureless and wearing blue ties and white shirts. In the aftermath, our protagonist confronts the top man and his flunkies over the discovery of a giant wind-up key; what mysteries does it hold? This is definitely on my "must rewatch" list.
Yusuke Sakamoto's The Dandelion Sister takes us into the realm of stop-motion animation, where a young girl has to contend with her older, sick sister—who happens to be a giant dandelion. There's a lot going on here: There's the younger sister missing out on social activities because of her responsibilities; her resentment of how much attention is heaped on her sick sister; her inability to draw, and express her feelings; and her fear of her sister's death. Like The Clockwork City, The Dandelion Sister is wordless, but as its concerns are more grounded in reality it's open to a number of interpretations about adolescence, caring for sick relatives, and acceptance.
Akihabara, or "Electric Town," is one of those places that otaku have to visit. It's just required. (Not least because your fellow otaku have a shopping list a mile long that includes all the things they can't buy this side of the Pacific, and have sent you on a quest to tick off all the boxes.) Akiba is a major tourist destination for foreigners and Tokyoites alike. Sundays are the busiest days, and not even the steadily-increasing, surprisingly-chilly August rainstorm could keep out today's visitors. Hugging our arms, we discovered that the rumours are true: you will find maid cafes, you will see goth lolis, you can buy things there that you can't in North America.
Akiba is a very loud place. Seizure-inducing displays are everywhere, and the pachinko parlours never stop. Greeters use megaphones. Anime (most of it moe this season) blares from sidewalk televisions. After some time shopping, we wound our way through the noise to the Tokyo Anime Centre, which the website touts as some kind of museum. What we discovered instead was little more than a glorified gift shop. (In fact, that's a good description of Akiba in general. Imagine an anime-themed casino, then picture the attached gift shop. Now stretch it over several city blocks. That's Akihabara.) Although there is a glassed-in soundbooth for voice actors, and although we saw four women doing their thing inside it, that's about where the education ends.
However, the TAC is useful for one thing: finding out about other museums. In our case, we got lucky and found a brochure for the Suginami Animation Museum . The SAM is way out on the Maranouchi/Chuo Line, but it's open on weekends and features far better content. Among the highlights are the anime reference library, which holds rare films and manga for public use (I watched other people watching Grave of the Fireflies, Crayon Shin-chan, and Russian animation), an anime theatre with regular showings, and workstations where you can learn how to do your own key animation. The museum is geared toward a hands-on approach to showing viewers how anime gets made, and it does the job -- watching short films of animators doing work on both Jin-Roh and One Piece proves how loving and careful these people have to be, even with high technology at their disposal.
The SAM is a tiny museum, but that's because it's concise and not too self-congratulatory (which cannot be said of many special-interest museums). It hosts special exhibitions, and it's accessible for viewers of all ages. It's out in the suburbs, away from the noise, and it's worth the trip. Do as we did: visit Akiba (and K-books) for some fresh manga or artbooks, hit the Akiba Ichi food court (you can't miss it; it's in the same building as the TAC), then get on the train. You'll be glad you did.