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.

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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.

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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":

(1) would the average person find that the material appeals to the prurient interest; (2) does the material depict, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law; (3) does the work, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The jury will have to find that the material fits all three of the criteria in order to convict.

(Source: MangaBlog, which has great coverage of the incident)

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.

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August 16, 2008
When you die, if you've been a bad person, your soul get banished to a place where you stand in an endless line full of damp, sweaty people under a 100F sun, and you can't speak the language, and there's no guarantee of relief. 

But if you've been good, you get to pick up some great manga at the end of it. 

It's hard to describe Comikket in words. I went there looking for doujinshi and found some great stuff, despite having arrived late and getting slim pickings. You can't have your mochi and eat it, too, at Comikket: if you arrive early, you stand in line for hours under a merciless August sun with 80% humidity, but if you arrive late, you deal with hordes of people streaming out and you're little better than a tiny minnow swimming against a mighty current, with only the hope of nearly-empty tables to keep you going. In the end, you have to decide which is more important: waiting until the end and grabbing what looks interesting, or making  list (checking it twice!) and letting the crowd shuffle you along at its own pace. 

There are merits to waiting until the end of the day, however. The doujin-ka are ready to talk, generous with their time, and they really want to move some units. There's also room to move around, which is at a premium in the Tokyo Big Sight. But we also missed out on some of that special fervor that only crowded cons in full swing can generate. 

Things to Remember When You Go:

  • The stop you want is Kokusai-Tenjijo Station, on the Rinkai line. The line merges with the Saikyo (kelly green) line, which passes through major stops like Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya. However, it does a little loop around Ikebukuro, so it's easy to get confused. We got lost by getting on the proper line, but the wrong track. Some tracks are express, others make every stop on the local line (much like in NYC). Be careful, watch for signs, and when in doubt, ask. Train attendants are willing to help, and everyday citizens are very helpful too. (Some helpful Tokyoites sensed our confusion and helped us out without our asking.) When in doubt, look for fellow otaku by surreptitiously examining keitai (mobile phone) charms and looking for giant backpacks or rolling luggage (the better to lug massive amounts of doujinshi with).
  • Go to Cosplay Square to take pictures. Thereafter, ask the cosplayers first. (Seeing a secondary cosplay area, I thought it was okay to snap away and grabbed an awesome picture of Yoko Littner, but her friend asked me to delete it because I had not asked first. (Naturally, I complied.)
  • Take cash. Tokyo in general prefers cash to credit cards, although you can load your Suica (subway pass) card with cash and use it at specially-designated kiosks along the rail lines and in participating kombini (convenience stores) like the ubiquitous Family Mart. Either way, you'll be paying for doujinshi in cash, and most likely everything else, too. 
  • If possible, carry snacks with you. You will be hot, frustrated, and sore, and the last thing you want is low blood sugar. Load up elsewhere unless you want to spend all your time waiting in line at the am/pm in the West Hall or in front of a vending machine. Onigiri (riceballs) can be purchased almost anywhere in a variety of flavours, and they have handy plastic wrapping.
  • Bring a face cloth or a fan. Trust me.
  • Prioritize. Make a plan. Decide what you want to see first, then slog through the crowds until you can make it there. Choose a location on the Big Sight map where you will meet your friends if you get lost or separated. 
  • The other gaijin (foreigners) are not there to help you. Since I've been in Tokyo, I've heard German, French, and Spanish in addition to Japanese and Korean, with fewer Western English speakers than I would have expected. If you see foreigners at Comikket, you are equally likely to experience a language barrier. Develop a roster of useful phrases in Japanese, and toggle through them as necessary. WikiTravel has an excellent Japanese phrasebook to help you start.
I'd like to close with a special memory of Comikket 74: We were exhausted, hungry, and our feet throbbed. We hadn't brought a bag to carry all our new manga. We dreaded the long train ride back to our hotel, knowing that would be standing most of the way. Bells were chiming throughout the Big Sight. At ten minutes to closing, J-rock started blaring on the intercom system. (I recalled that the same technique had once been used on Noriega and his troops.) Stubbornly, we stuck around, determined to wring the last little bit of content out of our final minutes. Then the closing bell rang...

...and everyone clapped. 

All around us, tired-but-happy applause rose through the air. Doujin-ka, hard-working men and women of all ages, genres, and artistic abilities, lauded each other for their endurance and dedication. Some punched the air. Others cheered. 

"How did they know to do this?" my husband asked.

"I don't know," I said, "but they sure as hell deserve it."

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July 4, 2008

If you live in Japan and are tired of using your Nintendo DS for nothing more than playing games, it's time to rejoice. For only $40 (3,980 yen) you can buy yourself a starter kit with adapter, card reader, and a 512MB microSD card that will transform your gaming handheld into an anime paradise!

DSvision is marketing the hardware package to support it's new download service, online and available now. 20 minute animated programs sell for $2 (210 yen) and 200 page manga volumes will run you around $3 (315 yen).

Image: AM3
Via Wired.com

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May 9, 2008

I'm generally not a fan of live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, because they almost always disappoint. The problems usually start with the choices the filmmakers make in order to get animated (or animated-looking) characters into a live action universe. The Flintstones had fake-looking rock sets; Alvin and the Chipmunks and Scooby Doo had CGI critters in an otherwise realistic universe; Fat Albert had the TV characters coming to life in the real world.

In Speed Racer, the Wachowskis do what none of the creators of these other films had the will to do: they created a cohesive universe in which all of the elements in any given frame look like they belong together. In the process, they also highlight something that's been missing from mainstream animation for quite some time.

As I was sitting in the cinema watching Speed Racer, it occurred to me that I already knew how most journalists were going to describe the movie's look. Some would say that it looks like a video game, or that it's anime come to life. They're dead wrong. Outside of some race scenes the movie looks nothing like any video game you've actually played, and outside of a few Akira-like shots and a nod to the original series opener, it looks nothing like any anime you've ever seen. Really, these are just phrases that reviewers use when they want to say that there are lots of things moving around very fast, or that have bright-coloured, futuristic-looking elements.

In a strange way, however, they're also right. Speed Racer, like many video games, demands that its viewers process a lot of visual information at once. Like anime, it stylizes motion in a way that isn't entirely realistic but is believable within its own reality.

If anything, Speed Racer's filmic cues come from green-screen/digital-set movies like the most recent Star Wars trilogy and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, along with shorts that feature heavily processed and manipulated live action, like Gaëlle Denis' City Paradise. But the Wachowskis' real inspiration here is manga. This doesn't just apply to the racing scenes, but to just about anything set outside of the Racer family home. Take a look at these images, and pay special attention to how they put the focus on certain foreground objects or characters and use the backgrounds to denote movement, atmosphere and mood. These compositions are pure manga:

Better still are the transitions, in which the camera moves around a foreground character's head and the backgrounds change to show scenes either as a transition or as a flashback to the past. Some of these scenes are multi-layered, including audio from both the current time and place and the location or time being referenced. There's even one scene where one character tells Speed about about something that will happen in the future; as the camera whirls around Speed, the background shifts to show scenes that highlight what the other character is saying—and eventually we discover this isn't speculation, but what actually happens in the future. The whole sequence interleaves the present moment and flash-forwards, kind of like an episode of Lost on, well, speed. (Lazy journalists will look at all this and make references to audience members with short attention spans or ADD; the truth is, you really have to pay attention if you want to follow it all.)

I'm just scratching the surface here. All in all, Speed Racer is a visual effects spectacle that doesn't reserve its inventiveness for eye-candy money shots; rather, it's a carefully constructed, dynamic reality that is unlike anything seen on the big screen. All of which brings me to the question I kept asking myself when I left the cinema: why haven't I seen anything like this in feature animation for so long?

It's a cliché these days to say that effects-heavy summer movies are cartoon-like, and there's some truth to that. But it's also true that live-action movies have, through the heavy use of CGI, taken animation's "anything can happen here" mentality and run with it. Meanwhile, feature animation has largely concerned itself with looking more realistic, obsessing over things like realistic fur and hair. Even those productions that aren't so fixated are, relatively speaking, conservative. I've very much enjoyed Pixar's films, but when you get right down to it they mostly fit into a niche best described as "Talking ____s," with the blank filled in by toys, bugs, fish, rats or what have you. The Incredibles was an exciting departure, but so far the new direction that it signalled appears to be a dead end.

Where's the wow? Where's that moment when you jump up in your seat, excited because you've been shown something you've never seen before? Speed Racer provides that in spades, but in feature animation it's been sorely lacking. I remember seeing Tron in 1983, Akira in 1988 and Mind Game in 2005 and each time feeling like someone had redefined what was possible in animated cinema because I was being shown things I hadn't seen before. I've had that same feeling many times over since then, but when it comes to animation it's generally been in OAVs, shorts and—much to my surprise—television.

I'm all for the blurring of boundaries, but to me movies like Speed Racer indicate that feature animation is ceding ground to live action. Something is very wrong with this picture.

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February 25, 2008
When I read the first Mechademia volume, I felt that it maintained a tenuous balance between different kinds of scholarly essays on manga and anime. Mechademia Vol. 2: Networks of Desire has about the same amount of works—23 contributions compared to the original's 20—and more of a focus.

The subtitle of this volume accurately describes the book's theme, and essays are divided into four sections (Shojo, Powers of Time, Animalization and Horizons). Each essay spins "desire"—and sometimes its own section title—in different ways.

Five essays in particular are standouts, and worth the price of the book on their own. Deborah Shamoon's "Revolutionary Romance: The Rose of Versailles and the Transformation of Shojo Manga," Toku Masami's "Shojo Manga! Girls' Comics! A Mirror of Girls' Dreams" and Keith Vincent's "A Japanese Electra and her Queer Progeny" combine to provide a rich, textured history of the origins and progression of shojo manga and their depictions of same-sex relationships. Miyao Daisuke's "Thieves of Baghdad: Transnational Networks of Cinema and Anime in the 1920s" offers a fascinating look at the "Japanification" of Noburo Ofuji's 1926 Bagudajo no kozoku (The Thief of Baguda Castle, incidentally part of the Cinémathèque Québecoise's early-anime retrospective), which was a sort of remake of the American live-action feature The Thief of Bagdad.

For me, the crown jewel of the book is Mizuno Hiromi's "When Pacifist Japan Fights: Historicizing Desires in Anime," an look at how the evolution of postwar Japan's militarism, nationalism and masculinity were expressed in 1977's Space Battleship Yamato and 1995's Silent Service. The piece was so compelling it made me want to rewatch Gasaraki and further appreciate Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, both of which featured conspiracies to remilitarize Japan. It's worth noting that this essay is the longest in the book, but reads so smoothly it feels like it's the shortest.

Otherwise, the book is hit or miss depending on the kind of scholarly essays you prefer. As a fan of Occam's Razor, I'm a bit wary of essays that read a lot of symbolism into anime that the creator makes no claim to. Granted, there are those shows like Haibane-Renmei and Neon Genesis Evangelion where the creators are specifically adding layers of meaning, but I had to roll my eyes when Christopher Bolton read various shades of meaning into 2000's Blood: The Last Vampire's use of CGI for mechanical objects, specifically airplanes. While it's true that this was a pioneering blending of CGI and cel in anime then, the same techniques had been used elsewhere in the world for almost 15 years in pretty much exactly the same way. It's a symptom of my long-standing complaint that at times anime aficionados wall themselves off from animation history at large.

This same issue comes up in William L. Benzon's review of Takashi Murakami's Little Boy: The Arts Japan's Exploding Subculture book and exhibition, but in a good way: After thoroughly examining Murakami's thesis of how Japan's unique national trauma (the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their defeat in World War II) explains the frequent use of apocalypse in the country's fiction, he turns around and says he doesn't buy it. Why not? Because "apocalyptic art and fantasy are in no way unique to Japan. For example, apocalypse has been a persistent theme in postwar American culture," despite the fact that the U.S. was never bombed during the war.

It's exactly this kind of intellectual awareness and honesty that anime scholarship (hell, anime fandom) needs more of. There are many things about anime and manga that are unique, and there are many books (including Mechademia) that celebrate that. But if we really want to position these media within the cultures of the world at large, then we need more work that looks at them in relation to what's going on outside of Japan, and there's no better place to do it than within the rigorous structure of academic writing. I'm happy that Mechademia is starting to encourage this kind of thinking, and I hope the next volume takes it further.

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January 29, 2008
This weekend, I had the great fortune to attend transculturELLE: How Girls Cross Cultures, a workshop organized by Dr. Thomas Lamarre and sponsored by the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University in Montreal. (fps contributor Kino Kid hosted me, and is such a good hostess that I had to avoid saying "my roommate" when referring to her.)

The two-day workshop revolved around papers that focused on shoujo titles from various eras, including live-action films like Shimotsuma Monogatari (otherwise known as Kamikaze Girls). As a theme, "How girls cross cultures" yielded fruitful results, with papers examining issues of transcultural flow, fashion, intertextuality, national identity, criminality, perversion, and technology in such titles as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Rose of Versailles, NANA, and Denno Coil. The discussion was deep and long-lasting, and the calibre of participants unparallelled.

Although more and more academic conferences like the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and the Popular Culture Association national conference now hold panels on anime and manga, it's rare to find a conference that's as specific as this one, especially outside the US. Frenchy Lunning, a transculturELLE participant and editor of Mechademia, the top journal of anime and manga criticism, hosts a similar workshop called Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but SGMS is geared toward a slightly different audience. For academics interested in theory and interdisciplinary thinking, workshops like transculturELLE afford the opportunity to discuss Eto Jun, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Toshiya Ueno (or even meet the man) all in the context of anime and manga. This is something I've yearned for since encountering anime to begin with, and it's both heartening and humbling to see established professionals turning the discourse to their interests with such vigour. I eagerly anticipate the next workshop, and hope to tell you all about it soon.

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January 16, 2008
Friday and Saturday, January 25 and 26 at McGill University in Montreal, Thomas Lamarre will be hosting a workshop on shoujo anime and manga. Academic papers on gender, genre, and culture will be presented by the likes of Frenchy Lunning, Toshiya Ueno, and Ian Condry. I will attend and cover the event for fps. There is no charge to attend. For more information, contact Thomas Lamarre.

Here is a prospective list of papers:

Session 1: 11:30 – 14:00

Anne McKnight, USC. ‘Subcultures and Frenchness’

Brian Bergstrom, McGill. ‘Girliness is Next to Godliness: The Girl as Sacred Criminal in Kurahashi Yumiko’s ‘Seishôjo’

Frenchy Lunning, University of Minnesota. ‘Under the Ruffles: Shojo and the Morphology of Abjection’

Session 2: 15:00 – 16:30

Saitô Satomi, McGill. ‘Genre Convergence in the Digital Age: Shojo manga, sekai-kei, and Shinkai Makoto’

Emily Raine, McGill. ‘Kawaii and Capital in t.o.L’s Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space’

Ian Condry, MIT. ‘Future Anime: Girls and Boys who Leap through Time’

Session 3: 17:00 – 18:30

Livia Monnet, UdM. ‘The Anatomy of Permutational Desire: Perversion and the Artificial Girl in Contemporary Japanese Animation’

Tom Looser, NYU. ‘The Utopic Matter of Women’


Session 4: 9:30-11:30

Toshiya Ueno, Wako University. ‘Matriarchy and Criticism in Japan’

Yukiko Hanawa, NYU. ‘Camouflage Time’

Tom Lamarre, McGill. ‘Nature Girls and Culture Times’

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