All posts by wintermuted

Part-time wandering artifact, part-time student, Wintermuted's travels from the wastelands of California's Coachella Valley have crystallized his love of all-things soulful & strange. A child of the VHS era, and often working for the anime man, his voyages continue onward in the name of bridging generations of Japanese popular art together. Can also be found via twitter.com/winterkaijyu , as well as wanderingkaijyu.blogspot.com !

Ghost In The Shell At 20 (Now on Hulu Plus)

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As raved about over Twitter just a short while ago, subscribers to Hulu Plus can now enjoy the recently released HD edition of Mamoru Oshii’s classic adaptation. Now alongside the later (and equally thrilling) television series’, Koukaku Kidotai has itself a nice little home base with the mega streaming service. Debate no more about Hollywood film renditions, irrelevant casting controversies, and just drink in why Production IG and company have Masamune Shirow’s crowning achievement well in hand with its exploration of political intrigue, cybercrime, and groundbreaking hybridization between science fiction and faith.

Memories come rushing back during Ghost’s initial US art house theater run via the folks at Manga Video, and just how well LA audiences reacted to Oshii’s vision. A vision that until this point was largely either unknown or patently ignored by westerners. Coming hot on the heels of the ultra-personal Patlabor 2, Ghost was a pretty unexpected theatrical and home video success story stateside. And considering the cinema world pre-Matrix, this somber and flawed mood poem had so much stacked against it, save for those who knew what a terrific coup between director and material this was. And when I say flawed, I mean this as pure compliment. Before INNOCENCE veered into near ancient library obscurity, Ghost finds itself beautifully poised between crime thriller and existential voyage. And despite it’s occasionally jarring three segment structure, it’s pretty hard to impossible to envision it work any other way.

It is Oshii at his thoughtful, grounded best.

This is especially cool news since the only version Hulu has had available for years was the irksome 2.0. Rust color and unnecessary bad CG no more!

So get on it, already!

Through Older Lenses: Letting Go Of Live Action

 

Anime fans, asian cinema lovers, genre hounds.

It’s time to grow a little.

That’s right, I said it. It is no longer the “salad days” of fandom. It’s train that has long passed. In fact, when the best possible celebration of these things came to our doorstep, it was the international audience who came brandishing that flag to wave it, not us in the states. Solidarity is a nice thought, but it’s something that if even came to pass, wouldn’t make the mainstream quake in its collective boots.

Adaptation should always be about more than casting. These words have been on my mind for almost two weeks now. Whether it happens or not, the Ghost In The Shell project has again stirred the hornet’s nest. After yet another attempt to adapt a beloved Japanese property to the Hollywood realm did its part to unsettle and stir the pot, it felt time to again dish out the whys. Also, to hopefully quell minds with a few good realities to consider.

A quick fix is rarely a good thing.

We see tech offer up simplified answers to often step-packed questions, and technological development does what it can to leapfrog those steps. But skipping about can very often obscure room for nuance, and specificity that can occasionally be important to many. Which is why many stalwart admirers of the longview tend to gather more understanding of process.

As far back as I can remember learning about it, my love of anime has been a protracted lesson in how localization works. From the beginning, it has long been a held reality that direct translation leaves quite a bit to be desired, nor does it better grab the cultural and psychological nuance of a foreign work. So tweaking and fine tuning are an expected norm. And while we have made substantial leaps to best synthesize this into a palatable shared language, there is still nothing like learning and better understanding other languages and cultures. So when the mainstream is confronted with work almost completely in step with classic anime tropes and ideas (see- Pacific Rim), it’s understandable to see the average moviegoer take in such ideas and cock their heads sideways. The response is often not that of revelation.

Even when manga and anime properties are adapted on their home soil, there is disconnect. This is another huge hurdle I have had to get past these last few decades. In writing the column, Live Action Manga Blues at the Kaijyu, it over time came into sharp focus that even the Japanese are saddled with both the budgetary and literal limitations that come with taking something iconographic and making it into fleshy reality. And the reasons here are multifold. After all, we are talking about taking what is often seen as Japan’s hidden id, and bringing it into another plane of existence. To assume that the two can co-exist seamlessly without losing some grand component remains paradoxical, and often unrealistic. Sure, we have had success with certain more “experimental” fare such as Oldboy, Video Girl Ai, and the Speed Racer. But very often, there is a temptation on the part of live action filmmaking to conform the work into a language that rarely melds with the weight and necessity of itself. It either has to be almost indistinguishably gritty, or it needs to be completely gonzo. Rarely anywhere in between. And to a degree, big films like Racer and Pacific Rim are indicators that they can only work in the hands of the rare risk taker that is willing to bet the farm to see their vision to fruition. Artists with the acumen and sneakiness to ostensibly fool already cynically inclined studio heads that this is worthwhile.

(Something the director of Snow White and The Huntsman, hasn’t proven himself to me. Just saying.)

So a huge part of me isn’t expecting much of this recent news. Many would dare to still hope that one day, their favorite property would make the transition, changing the perception of at least one more set of eyes to their favorite thing. But time has perhaps hardened my purview, I suppose. Because the allure of anime is truly its own organism. And it doesn’t require further validation. It’s wild, weird, and enjoyably dysfunctional in ways that would lose fathoms of itself in being conformed to a more docile cinema language. The average mind accepts new ideas when it is time. And frankly, in twenty years we have seen Ghost In The Shell become something of an evergreen that continues to make converts out of film and science fiction fans the world over. And as new animation continues the adventures of Section 9, such windows will continue to open. Because of this shared world we now reside, it takes more than one obligatory, stunt-casting laden feature film to turn heads. Especially when the genuine global article already exists.

Through Older Lenses: The Malleability Of Dieting

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Been quite busy these last few months, and while in the office, I tend to listen to co-workers dish out what they enjoy via their streaming. It has become a unique period in time, one where we are now awash in months- strike that. Hours worth of newly posted visual entertainment is available with a minimum of effort. Now what this does for someone like myself, is create an ever growing cushion of work that I can delve into whenever I feel the inkling. There is an immediacy to the newly released piece of hard media that feels like a special secret had landed upon the doorstep. An effect that doesn’t have the same impact with near real-time online release. Sure, a few seasons have expressed some truly enjoyable work from numerous studios without my making a peep. But to cave in to habitual watching for the sake of it, remains a questionable prospect to me. When I hear said co-workers chirp in excitement over the latest episodes of whatever new series is on Hulu or Netflix, there is a near instinct on my part to either ignore it, or heap it onto the ever growing pile of “not likelies” that have begun to amass since at least 2008.

When only one show has you by the cerebellum, unwilling to let go, it may be time to re-evaluate what we watch, and why we do.

Having reached that hallowed (or is it feared?) fortieth year, there is a natural inclination to seek out work that not only best sums up who you are, but considers where all are going. Which is probably why Kill La Kill continues to shine in my wheelhouse over everything else. Sure, it’s a series that began a year prior, but on its plate were a number of concerns and fetishism that harkened to the more rough and tumble aspects of classic anime, while still being rowdy enough to question the now. This is vital to me in all forms of art. We can continue to laud dramatic effect, and strive for perfection, but one cannot help but wonder why this is even necessary in a landscape that often pathologically avoids reason. Which isn’t to say that creative works cannot move forward, and offer up more articulate means of expressing the anime paradigm. But to forget that so much of the stuff is often knee-jerk in nature, is kind of detrimental to its identity. It’s a delicate dance. And every so often it is nice to be knocked wobbly by a work so uninterested in recently established rules.

It’s all about the questions.

Why anime? Why escapism? Why indulge?

We could use any number of reason/excuse. And while this may trouble some as a statement, I have no issue in admitting that with age, comes less room for trumped-up reasons for being so willing to be cast away into realms of fantasy. And as time has shifted, and films like INTERSTELLAR and EDGE OF TOMORROW, explore previously trodden anime territory, does one come to the revelation that it is not merely enough to call a conceit a conceit, but to ask why it exists these stories at all. This is at the very heart of the current me, and what it means to take in a work, and find our own individual answers. The problem with overindulgence, is that it often becomes a substitute for personal rumination, and thereby epiphany. We stuff ourselves with so much input, that we deprive ourselves of enough energy or time to respond in a work or even a conversation. I cannot tell you how many times I listen to a media fan gasp excitedly about what they have just watched without considering the whys and hows of such choices. It is often only about the existence of this captured moment.

So many subcultures thrive on the idea of the find, rather than the hard work it often requires to create an organic relationship with the work. Be this relationship one of harmony, antipathy, or even “it’s complicated”. It’s how we embrace the creative output of a select few individuals that allows us to think, recept to , and perhaps enact based upon. Which is probably why, as an individual, I tend not to take character “types”, or tropes terribly seriously. They are simply shorthand for other things. And the more one studies about how these come about, or how they are arbitrarily plugged into works, does one need to pull back to see the greater mosaic of the creative process. Like a freeway, some stick to their safest lanes, while others hop erratically, in search of that miracle means of getting to a destination faster. And then there are those few, who understand the flow of traffic, and seek to become one with the entire circuit. Willing to make the freeway an extension of themselves. And once this comes together, it becomes easier to filter through all the roughage we are inundated with on a regular basis now.

Like any good diet, it becomes essential to read up, know the ingredients, and consume accordingly.

And hey, output is important too. Never let anyone tell you different.

New Chassis/ Classic Engine – Ghost In The Shell: ARISE

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Newport City: A.D. 2027

Whilst exhuming a murdered body under investigation, Chief Daisuke Aramaki of Public Security Section 9, meets a young and already dangerous Motoko Kusanagi. There to protect the honor of the man in the casket, the once highly respected Lieutenant Colonel Mamuro, who was working as Security Official for massive tech corporation and arms titan, Harimadara. Concerns regarding what led to his killing and his possible connection to shady arms dealing make this auspicious meeting a little volatile. The investigation party at the cemetery is shocked to discover that within the casket, is not the corpse of an honored soldier, but a small, but very lethal android known as a “Land Mine”. Will the truth ever out? Can Kusanagi uncover the clues, and will she take up Aramaki’s offer of creating a special team of augmented experts to become one of the most feared cyber crime units in the world? Rarely will “more of the same” be something I can equate with sparks of positivity, but in the case of the new Ghost In The Shell, I’m inclined to let that cliche work for me.

As advertised, ARISE offers up an untold backstory to the world of Masamune Shirow’s evergreen universe in a tale of intrigue, hardware, and philosophical questions which are well worn trademarks. This time, we are hosted to the future Major as she tussles with not only authority figures, corrupt officials, cyborgs, and barrier mazes, but with a struggle for her own autonomy.

The revelation here, while not surprising, is in line with many fans already know of her. Raised into the military life, and possessing a largely cybernetic body allowed her to be a prolific Wizard-class programmer, and fighter of cyber crime at a frighteningly young age. She is a prodigy, harboring within her a surprising past that may jar some fans of the second TV series.

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Being a privileged member of Mamuro’s 501st unit, her quest for the truth is a personal one. But with her expensive cyberized body on loan, and the stakes ever increasing, her very physical freedom might be in jeopardy. Not to mention concerns of a “phantom pain” that is slowly causing problems for Kusanagi.Couple this with run-ins with rivals new and old (including longtime sparring opponent, the Batou The Ranger, gambler Pazu, and up and coming Niihama Special Investigator Togusa. .), and twists making the young Major a prime suspect, and ARISE, is full blown GiTS with revelations to spare.

It’s a fresh start to a personal favorite since I first read the Dark Horse release in a Barnes & Noble over two decades ago. Growing up young in the late 1980s left me quite enamored with the myth of cyberpunk, and outside of authors like Gibson or Stephenson, Ghost has long remained a personal visual go-to when talking stories of human flesh intermingled with technology. For my money, it’s a perfect mix between comic pulp, and hard science fiction with an almost spiritual center. Everything that The Matrix adopted, but rarely understood. A big reason as to why Koukaku Kidotai has become so well entrenched in the global anime and manga consciousness, is largely the often successful balancing act Production IG has displayed between the complexities of the show’s world, coupled with sly character dynamics. Since its’ beginnings in the form of the classic Mamoru Oshii film, it has remained one of the most universal examples of the medium. Always feature film ready in its presentation, and borderline literary with its leanings. And thankfully, under longtime Ghost collaborator, Kazuchika Kise, this tradition remains strong. Getting to know some favorite characters again from a refreshing new angle makes for fun, busy viewing (Even if it’s all a bit familiar.)

The first two “Borders” focus on getting us up to speed on these early relationships as the complex digital world post-WWIV has everyone scattered, scraping to define themselves as freelancer types with guns and gear. Aramaki, sporting not-so-gray hair as he attempts to employ Kusanagi’s expertise in hopes of understanding the truth about the military man who trained (and possibly raised) her. The allegations are looking heavy, and her isolation is well reflected in her future colleagues who tend to see her as part of the threat. In Batou’s mind, she is prime suspect in the murder of a comrade and his family, while evidence eventually points to memory tampering. Meanwhile guys like Pazu are working undercover, and not so sure who to trust anymore. Even Kusanagi’s relationship with cute, sentient multiped mecha are in limbo as she is given a LogiKoma as a bodyguard and partner! Penned by science fiction writer, Tow Ubukata, there is mind-bending fun to be had, but little in the deep surprise department. The theme hovering over these first two episodes seems to be shedding pretense in the name of simple bonds. Which feels about right for a series so largely set within the often deceptive realm as cyberspace.

The second of these two episodes, “Ghost Whispers” expands on the first by this time pitting the authorities against a this time disgraced military hero on trial, who may be manipulating a transportation crisis in the city through a secured channel. While not terribly far in model from the first, there is a leap in visual ambition that works for and against the story as Kusanagi and Aramaki seek to make a team come together. All while being led by a mysterious american special agent known only as VV, the story does have its share of fun dips and swerves as allegiances are bought, and exchanged. Where it does make up for this lack of fierce originality, is in the mecha and chase sequences which remain impressive. There has never been a time in the history of this series that this crew of artists have skimped on the hard, weighty action detail, and almost fetishistic love of kinetic showmanship. In fact, once we get to the hard driving finale on the winding freeways outside the city, it becomes clear that this is what the episode was really about. Don’t let the Assange-esque plotting fool you, the action and reversals are marquee here.

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Now to the package as a whole, it would be silly to call this a simple “prequel”. Considering these first two installments, there is a feel that IG was looking for a way to re-introduce rather than to make any hard connections between incarnations. More than anything, ARISE falls closer in feel to a reboot, and as such the voice cast is pretty much entirely new. And unless you’ve been an ardent fan, it’d be hard to notice. But to have Atsuko Tanaka and Akio Otsuka replaced by Maaya Sakamoto (!!) and Kenichirou Matsuda as Kusanagi and Batou respectively, it should have felt..off. It doesn’t. It works quite well actually. Even Ikyu Jyuku’s turn as “Old Ape” Aramaki, is pretty impressive. Everyone acquits themselves to this rebirth with great enthusiasm and grace. There is certainly a feel that is classic GiTS that implies many more adventures to come, and it’s quite welcoming. It’s also a nice way to re-approach the material without giving away all the mystique that so many so-called prequels seem hellbent on demystifying. Even here there is an admission that not every story will be told, and that’s always cool. To top it all off, the musical score by Cornelius is thoughtful, thrilling, and achingly human. With so much quality coming out of every pore, it’s hard to fault ARISE for being what made the world of Section 9 as prolific as it has been. And as long as our current world becomes further entangled and altered by what seems to be our inevitable date with the Singularity, the Major and company will remain thrillingly relevant.

-And no, it didn’t get past me that the so-called “Mobile Land Mines” were in the guise of little girls. Which is especially gallows funny, seeing them mowed over by a speeding APC. Feels like the franchise’s revenge for being gone long enough to let certain proclivities contaminate anime for as long as it did.

While this could merely be the interpretation of this writer, what else could that scene possibly mean?

20 Years of Macross Plus: What Pioneers May Come

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“Dedicated to all pioneers..”

A wink to both the past, and maybe things to come?

It’s a difficult thing, topping what many consider to be a genuine cultural milestone. So many variables to be concerned with as markets feel the pressure for more of the same, but beefed up for the next go-round. One might almost consider it (often have) something of a fool’s errand, an exercise in futility. It’s rare that a well can be revisited, and improved upon with new vision and energy potent enough to become its very own entity. So when we look back, and consider what did exactly happen when the Macross franchise entered the 1990s, we can see both a medium come of age, and a seemingly niche-minded universe find its footing with purpose. The big budget (for its time) Macross Plus OVA series made its debut in August of 1994, featuring the talents of series co-creator, Shoji Kawamori, a young, eager Shinichiro Watanabe, Gainax designer, MASAYUKI, with a screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto. In an era where anime productions for straight-to-video fare were rarely if ever larger than say that of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s Giant Robo, this was something of a creative gauntlet. In an era where budgets for TV anime were beginning to look dire, the OVA was suddenly flirting with grandeur.

Planet Eden. Year: 2040

Brash ace pilot, Isamu Dyson is newly assigned to the hallowed New Edwards base in hopes of keeping the hot headed hotshot from causing UN SPACY further trouble. Upon arrival, he is informed that he is to participate in Project Super Nova, where two upcoming Valkyrie models vie for a spot in the future of aerial mecha combat. Having been an Eden native, Isamu’s return makes for a queasy reunion upon discovery that his competing pilot is none other than his one-time half-Zentraedi best buddy, Guld Goa Bowman. Still fuming after an incident that ruptured this once close bond, tension only rises further upon the arrival of shared childhood friend Myung Fang Lone, now producer to the galaxy’s most beloved idol singer- the virtuoid idol, Sharon Apple. The moment all three are reunited upon Star Hill, it’s very clear that the animosity from days long past is still raw. And despite the once aspiring singer’s position as the digital chanteuse’s producer, the role is closer that of puppet master, controlling Sharon’s performances via her still bruised mind. Further fueling the competition back at the base, the rivalry begins to take on dangerous dimensions as Myung’s scarring memories of those days seem to be creating a bit of a problem. An illegal AI chip has just secretly been installed into the virtual singer’s CPU, making her an interloper of the most terrifying kind.

Echoes of Top Gun aside, what truly sets this entry apart from the classic Macross mold is the eschewing of a star-spanning space war, and a greater focus on the inner lives of the story’s central leads. At the time it was a startling branch away from an already familiar formula, and it makes for what remains the most psychologically complex Macross to date.

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In fact, the central theme this time around shifts the needle away from culture, and onto our increasingly tenuous relationship each other, despite all the advancements surrounding us.To best share feelings on this theme, it’s time to share a few thoughts regarding Plus’ central love polygon. (Yes. We have shot well past the classic Macross love triangle, and have landed somewhere altogether new for the time. Needless to say, it get a little..complicated.)

It’s still pretty fascinating to experience a character like Guld in something like this. While he carries with him an often proud stocism, he is also carrying within this need to be redeemed. While he has excelled as a solider and pilot, there is something very dark and unresolved beneath being his well regarded exterior. Indeed, there is a heroism about him. But lest the truth sees itself through, this painful hurdle might never be passed. He could so easily have been written and directed as a one-dimensional obstacle, but instead it’s a dynamic portrayal of rage versus serenity.

As for Myung, we have the first deconstructive Macross lead in the guise of an idol who never shined. The story hinges intensely upon her as one who saw herself become a part of the literal idol machine. Staying far from old friends, playing behind the curtain. Matters come to a head when fate intervenes, pressuring her to reveal more and more of herself before lives are further damaged. And outside of these painful memories, none of it is truly of her doing. She is fallen by way of a most simple, yet wholly destructive secret. And as such, is one of the first truly postmodern anime characters this side of an Ikari.

Cocky, hotheaded, clueless Isamu. What to say about him? Save for him being the ultra-classic Tom Cruise archetype, he is also perhaps one of the best avatars for unbridled arrogance in anime history. Outside of his love of flying, the guy is hopelessly simpleminded. He found his passion at an early age, and not much has evolved since. More than anything, he is less the central character, and more a sounding board whom everyone else bounces off of. More an audience surrogate than an actual character, Mr. Dyson is little more than a likeable fool right out of a 1990s arcade game.

Going to go ahead and admit it. If there is any character I feel the most empathy for in all of Plus, it’s Lucy McMillan. She was just part of the YF-19 research team, doing her part for the betterment of technology, and got herself hung up on an overgrown twelve-year-old fighter jock. No intention of trouble whatsoever. Save for one understandable act of selfishness, there is much to consider regarding this character despite her brief screentime. She merely wanted to care for a guy, and was subsequently dumped for someone who likely was far from ready to pick up from where they left off. Taste in guys notwithstanding, she comes from a more direct place than most of the leads, and learns a harsh lesson as a result. Talk about your collateral damage.

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Lastly, what words can best be shared to encapsulate the conceptual leap that is Sharon Apple? Japan and the otaku dream of a virtual singer have shared DNA for quite some time before Hatsune Miku and her kin graced monitors, and car commercials everywhere. In fact, it feels very much like a straight up creative trajectory, like it was destined into existence. Anime had already been tinkering with the idea of a computer generated idol, most notably so in the classic AIC video series, Megazone 23. But when many of the same minds behind Macross and Megazone took the jump into CG enhanced animation, the timing never felt more right to create a character so definitive of her time. From large scale holographic performances, to virtual stalking, Sharon remains one of the most indelible idol characters of all time. And yes, we did just say stalking because for a being created out of code, there is an unprecedented complexity to her that is often overlooked. Long before Spike Jonze’s poetics regarding us and our technology, Sharon represents the glory and the fear of melding our worlds. While she draws us in with her abilities, there is certainly no shortage of disturbing behavior coming out of her. She is a Descartian dream gone south. Such power with such insatiable curiosity, and such a broken sample of a mind to work with. And therein lies the tragic majesty of Sharon Apple-none of it is really her fault. She is but a mere reflection of us.

Combine all the drama with some of the very best mecha and dogfight animation in a medium’s history, and you have a striking, nuanced entry in what has long been seen as an otaku evergreen . With Nobumoto and Watanabe added into the mix, there is a sobriety to the storytelling that was new to the Macross brand. (something only peripherally attempted by Kawamori’s later entry, the often-ignored, Macross Zero) With characters like Isamu, Guld, and Myung fighting amongst themselves, the war is an intimate one with a potential for many affected bystanders by way of some serious hardware (and software?). Like many of the great filmed fantasies, there is a careful blending of grand scale action with complex characterization. And within what is ostensibly a movie-length work, it’s a balancing act that hits far more than misses.

When looking deeper into the unique heart of Macross Plus, one can see a thematic throughline regarding increased connectivity between humans and machines. It could be argued that Plus is more concerned with our own will to allow technology to stand-in for our own crucial decision-making methods. While a great many shows of the time bore a more technophobic slant, there seems to be a greater emphasis on human flaws that allow certain problems to arise. This is emphasized via the character of ace pilot, Guld, who’s half-Zentraedi blood leads to an often violent temper, we witness him downing pills to bring himself back to the tranquil person required to fly an experimental machine. Nobumoto’s script harbors a love for people connecting directly, but an equal fear that equates retreating into realms of the virtual with impending disaster. Almost like a warning as the internet was gathering steam as an information and communications resource in the early 1990s. And considering the unprecedented vision of cultural pluralism on display in this series, it’s a concern that remains as prescient now as it did then. It almost feels like a pointed response to the gap that was inevitably closed in the original series. Now that culture has bound us together, now what? While it isn’t spelled out directly, it is haunting every moment of the OVA.

Closer together. Further apart?

The great concern for tech working as a stand-in for our often broken selves is ever at the human core of Plus. For all the archetypes that tend to populate the Macross universe, this is perhaps the one incarnation that chooses challenging characters with unlikeable traits over your typical romantic heroes and idols. The entire show reminds us that despite the advances happening around the principle characters, the peril of machines is simply that they will not stop where we might. Possibly a dated notion, but a potent one nonetheless. One of many firsts for the franchise.

And speaking of firsts, it even went so far as to be one of the first anime releases to have original soundtrack albums distributed in the US via JVC, which was how I was introduced to the music of one Yoko Kanno. Picked up a copy of this from my local outlet, and was instantly enamored with it. As ambitious as the world Kawamori and Watanabe were aiming to achieve, it’s the musical character of the show that makes for the full range iconography of Plus. For these ears, what makes a truly classic soundtrack is an intrinsic understanding of a film’s world and characters. And there isn’t a single track in all of Plus that feels out of place with the universe, or its leads. It promises a new, more nuanced worldview, and it delivers with a rare sense of playfulness and grandeur. From orchestral, to Badalamenti-esque bits of atmosphere, to experimental electronica of the day, Kanno’s work on Plus is the kind of debut work that could very easily signal a one-and-done scenario. The very best of one’s compositional prowess on display for one big splash, never to be equaled. To this day, it remains something of a major accomplishment for anime music, and a personal favorite.

And yet it was only a mere hint of what was just around the bend..

One of the earliest examples of iconic sell-thru anime on the VHS market, Plus reeks of artistic ambition rare for the format. I fondly remember seeing these Manga Video releases adorn the shelves of Circuit City stores, not to mention your local Sam Goodie locations, and was long a darling of rental outlets such as Blockbuster and Hollywood video. Produced with enough budget and panache to compete with even big movie fare, retailers saw Macross Plus as something of a bright spot in the then just piercing-the-surface American anime market.

It’s very rare when anime squares off beautifully with Hollywood quality storytelling, but it has happened. Through Kawamori and Watanabe, we were able to see what was truly possible. Yearning for something beyond anime’s reputation is always something worth hoping for. And Plus remains a potent, indelible reminder of what can happen when a medium shoots for the stratosphere.

True pioneers aim to do nothing less.

How To Muddle A Rebellion: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

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Reinterpretation can often be an exciting, yet dicey thing, especially in regards to classic characters. And upon first catching the often breathtaking teasers for Shinji Aramaki’s opulent computer animated incarnation of Leiji Matsumoto’s ultimate superhero, there was already a sense that a die had been cast. That viewers were soon to be host to a darker, more action-oriented take on the revered space outlaw. And since many icons of comics past have recently seen themselves reflected upon through more challenging lenses, it seemed time to explore this spirit in a new, potentially exciting way. Which makes it all the more troubling to say that Space Pirate Captain Harlock is an ambitious, yet spectacular failure that never finds itself comfortable with this new sheen. It’s the very model of what some may dub as forced corporate tinkering, featuring the best money can buy. A souped up show vehicle with no real engine inside.

Set generations after humankind has left the cradle of Earth, and have long existed on planetary colonies elsewhere which have inevitably dried up. This inexplicable phenomenon leads to what historians call The Homecoming War, a conflict that saw millions of would-be returners unable to return to Earth. One hundred years after this costly war against the installed Communion leadership, Harlock and the crew of his legendary battleship, Arcadia have been fighting to return to Earth, even if it means to merely die there. The secrets of which lie in those fighting days, and perhaps will serve to undo the sins of the past. Meanwhile, the outer colonies dwindle as they are informed by Communion that Earth is seen as sacred ground, and cannot be repopulated.

The tale follows a pair of brothers, swearing an oath to bring down the seemingly immortal space pirate by way of sneaking one of them onto the legendary Arcadia. With the elder brother confined to a wheelchair, and connected directly to Communion’s high officials, it is up to fair-haired Yama(Haruma Miura) to take on the mission. And what he discovers upon becoming a crew member , are Harlock’s vast plans which include altering the now dwindling dominion of humanity in space, and resetting the clock to a time when all was not so lost. This “Genesis Clock” can almost instantly be interpreted as a means of nostalgia, whereas the fanatical high command seek to keep everything business as usual. These two brothers now see themselves at a crossroads as to where humankind could go. And boy, does the film never grant us any good reason for any of these choices. With a forced plot such as all resources outside of Earth are reaching dangerous lows, and a collective need to return should work poetically, but it never stops feeling forced.

Upon the Arcadia, Yama’s encounters with Harlock’s crew offer up reasons as to their defiance of his home government, which never convinces. Upon meeting crew members such as Kei Yuki(Miyuki Sawashiro), and Yattaran(Arata Furuta), we never feel the full breadth of what this means to anyone. Posturing precludes reason throughout Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi’s script, and it never becomes any clearer. Even the classic “outsider” in the ethereal alien, Miime (Yu Aoi) never grants us any better a picture as to what is at stake. In fact, the film’s title character, never gets more than a few moments to grant us something cool to look at, and never addresses what makes him so cool. It is completely unearned, and pretty much smugs all over the screen without any support. There is an almost passive aggressiveness being doled out with the character here, and it never works beyond a “deal with it” attitude. – Which is the worst thing one can do with such an icon.

We could talk all day about the film’s lack of plot clarity, and all the shifting regarding the story’s end game, and what it means for our characters. But the crucial problem that continuously dogs Harlock, is a severe dearth of character clarity. While some may adhere to what they know about the classic Matsumoto character, it is vital that any iteration retain such clarity for the ultimate story to uphold, revere, or even reflect upon him. And a great deal of the film immediately assumes that the audience requires less of this, and more an iconographic interpretation. Meaning that the imagery would sell him. And that this alone (that he is an operatic, brooding, romantic figure) is enough to carry an audience’s sympathy and support. What might have worked better here, is to use the world building as a means of winning us back into understanding Harlock’s tragic burden. But here we have a film where the title character never gets any real juice. And for a character as simple, this is a tragic mistake.

Having seen and loved many of Harlock’s adventures on film over the decades, it isn’t difficult at all to ascertain the kind of noble spirit he can be. So why is it that his big budget CG incarnation lacks any of his simple charm or sense of heroism? The film just plunks him down like an object, and we are expected to follow – no question.

As the film plods along, we are granted closer looks at the reasons behind the brothers’ mission, and how this run in with the Arcadia reshapes their views. And while this could easily have made for an interesting story, we are so bogged down by this lack of character clarity, and emphasis of plot rugby, that it never compels. After a while, all we can ascertain from these characters is that one looks like a young Harlock, while the dignitary brother is an ill-conceived sociopath. So much angst on display, and no real human drama driving it. It is so much that nearly everything outside of the mechanical design work of Atsushi Takeuchi feels overworked, and leaden. The film wants so badly to be taken seriously, but it garners none of the wistful charms nor emotional highs that adorned films such as Arcadia Of My Youth(1982), or the first Galaxy Express 999 features.

After a decade plus of productions like these, and one cannot help but come out and state that Japanese producers perhaps lack a certain grasp of balancing story with grand scale 3D computer animated projects. Unsure as to whether it happens due to a lack of proper prep time, or if they make creative decisions on the fly. Whatever the case, it is a trend that seems to allow so many of these films to be buried under the weight of their own self importance. They never seem to live beyond a need to be taken seriously via their heavy textures, and three dimensional panoramas. There is a deep need to justify the expense, and it often is the visual team’s cross to bear, as writing often takes a tragic backseat. Something that should never be the case with any production of this size. What seems to have happened here in particular, was a need to overwrite, to overemphasize. It is to the point that the film lumbers instead of soars. Baffles, instead of inspires. Too moody to be fun, and too self-conscious to be interesting. Space opera can be complex, but this is overcooked to the nth degree. You cannot Dark Knight such a romantic character unless he comes complete with morally complex baggage. Throwing it on just because that is what big films are doing today, is missing the point entirely.

It’s funny to think of this being released in the same year as a moody Superman reboot. In many ways, one can easily regard the classic Harlock as the Superman of japanese comics. And as such, he seems to have suffered a similar fate this time around. It’s a real shame, as his indomitable spirit should endure. Harlock is at his best when he sails the seas of freedom. Adding more to such simplicity just feels tacked-on. (not to mention dishonest)

The Joneses are simply not worth the backbreaking effort.

Through Older Lenses: Cosmos Pink Shock (1986)

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It’s the year 2206, and a bright pink spacecraft has made an unauthorized launch from Pluto Space Base #17, and is sporting its hyper rocket engines with intense haste. As authorities seek to control, and perhaps even down the runaway craft, a crucial baseball drama is unfolding. With perhaps the Tigers’ 200+ year losing streak at an end, their winning play is thwarted as the troublesome pink streak fouls up the game, rendering a mob of spacefaring fans ready, and eager to destroy the speeding interloper. Not even the denizens of Macross, or Yamato can stop this intergalactic bullet from causing all amounts of nuisance to all in her path. Seriously, she’s a real pain.

Such is the life of headband wearing, pendant-sporting Micchi, pilot of the Pink Shock. Her mission is not very complicated. And it isn’t concerned with your space wars, your losing streak, your culture. She’s having none of it. She’s seventeen years old, and speeds on for love. And not you, nor any militaristic regime can do anything to stop her from reclaiming it.

How is this hard for your to understand?

OVAs in the 1980s are pretty much a wasteland of VHS nonsense, often highlighted by your random Bubblegum Crises, or Megazone 23s, and offer very little in the way of viable historical context. Even in Japan’s anime on home video heyday, these were the shelf stocker equivalent to today’s Asylum Pictures release. They were a dime a dozen, and often made on the quick and cheap. New studios opening, and new studios closing. It was a new market, and something rife with mental images of airborne yen signs just itching for a slice of this new home entertainment pie. So why in the world do we want to talk about 1986’s Cosmos Pink Shock?

Quite frankly, because despite everything in it that is typical, there is also a potent, and perhaps even frightening sliver of prophecy embedded within. From the wet-wafer thin nature of the aforementioned “plot”, there is both a reverence for the era’s legendary love of space war tales, as well as the burgeoning of that now all too worn concept of moé. The show makes every effort imaginable to play into the fetish, and does everything possible to justify its existence. In fact, the entire point of Cosmos Pink Shock, is just that: “Space Wars are annoying, this is the era of the cute girl-STEP OFF.” It has no compunctions saying that the space heroes of the past will have to make way for all the petulant cuteness, as if the show itself were Noah’s dream of a flooded planet, and we had to prepare for the inevitable.

It even goes so far as to introduce a possible foil in the form of woman hating, Gatsupi. A handsome ball of noble whom the ladies like for his looks, but are constantly rebuffed by his declaration of disinterest. Even when the assumption is that of a slashfic narrative, he contends this isn’t the case. Yes, even fangirls of the 1980s were quick to assume this guy to be prime fantasy material. But this Sho Hayami-voiced character holds within a simple reason for his standoffish ways. Perhaps leave it to the newly captured Micchi, to weave her tale of woe, thereby thaw Gatsupi’s frozen heart?

You see, Micchi’s one true love, a boy she was fond of at AGE 4, was abducted by a UFO during the night of the matsuri. Yes. And noone seemed to remember who he was, nor was motivated at all to find him. So naturally, she stowed away on a space shuttle in hopes of finding him. Again. How is this not getting through? Are you just being stubborn?

Looking back at it now, it feels like this was a sentiment that had long been festering until it finally saw a ray of legitimacy with the original Superdimension Fortress Macross series. And from that point on, it became standard practice to keep that element as an integral part of the space war genre. That is until the conditions were right. Cosmos Pink Shock feels like a light handed back slap against the decade preceding it in all its need for hard edged militarism and samurai propriety. Featuring some neat character design work by the always terrific Toshihiro Hirano (of Fight! Iczer One & Vampire Princess Miyu fame), and some impressive animation direction by Keisuke Matsumoto & Yasuo Hasegawa, there is some visual charm happening here. Especially worthy of note are the scenes involving hardsuit armor and even a robot baseball game. There is much to see as mere distraction in Cosmos, that many may see as your typical benign japan toon, but there is just enough moxy, and outright raspberrying to all things Gundam and Yamato, to make it into something of a manifesto. A harbinger of the future.

A future that was barreling closer toward us.

Whether we wanted it..or not. Get out of the way.

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Oh yes, and it features quite a nod to fans of the Hanshin Tigers, granting it a Kansai aura that must have been bubbling in lieu of their once rumored “cursed” state. A running gag that screams “you had to be there”, but is mildly chuckle-inducing regardless.

Bridging The Gap: Longing For The Lyrical (Galaxy Express 999)

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To expound feelings about the upcoming tweets, I cannot help but feel like anime as a medium has long been teetering between iconographic storytelling and didactic overkill. And as a longtime viewer of many a show, it has come to mind that a big reason why so many shows tend to leave me cold, is that so many writers find themselves in some deep need to information dump, or hyper-explain the motivations behind the story, rather than illustrate them by way of the power inherent. While a great many series (see; Evangelion, Kill la Kill, etc.) make their mark by being pretty open with their inner thought process, some of the more interesting, and often impactful series find ways to allow the art and animation do much of the legwork.

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When considering the medium itself, this seems kind of absurd, really. When there is this much freedom and creative possibility, one cannot underestimate the power of a pondered image. Or the potency of a great allegory. Or the emotional power of a well-imagined tale.

So when this longing makes its way back into my mind, the works that first come to mind are the ones of Osamu Tezuka, and of Leiji Matsumoto. But to make my point clearer, let’s consider Rin Taro’s 1979 Galaxy Express 999 film. Regardless of whether we are talking about the original manga, or the classic TV series, the themes of growing up in a civilization where machine people are the 1%, and the rest of humanity are relegated to last class status, there is a power within it that cuts deeper than most. A huge part of its enduring legacy lies in Matsumoto’s achingly honest look at growing up in an industrialized, capitalist civilization. Where roles are determined via often heavily priced means.

To watch many a recent anime series (especially the most popular), one might occasionally see more collectivist themes of working together, aiming for an idealized “top”, or perhaps even romantic love as some manner of ideal. But what 999 posits, is that youth is that one time where all beings are free to self-identify before the machine of the corporatized adult world molds us into functioning parts of society. While the television series and manga do quite well in elaborating on this as the core theme, the film version does a phenomenal job of taking us from point to point with almost Gilliam-esque levels of subconscious wit and poetics.

For the unfamiliar, GE 999 tells the story of Tetsuro Hoshino, a human boy and street urchin who finds himself determined to avenge the murder of his mother by way of a machine man who hunts humans for sport. Hearing of the legends of “free” spirits such as Captain Harlock and Emeraldas, he is inspired to attain a ticket to the fabled Galaxy Express, a means to set off beyond the bounds of a machine dominant Earth, and to attain a mechanical body. His reasoning being that in order to avenge the death of his mother, this is the only way to be able to face the killer, Count Mecha. During a bungled attempt at stealing a ticket to the legendary space train, Tetsuro runs into, and is subsequently saved by the mysterious, Maetel. An almost ethereal beauty who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime, and grants him a pass onto the 999. It doesn’t hurt that the luminous maturity of Maetel seems to remind Tetsuro of his long lost mother, the only person who cared for him in those desolate early days.

From planet to planet, his journey into manhood truly begins.

The means by which the film assembles these allegories is legendarily aggressive. Even when most shows grind to a halt with explanations for character motivations, there is a propulsive sense of knowing that allows the flashbacks to work with energy and efficiency. We are brought up to speed rather quickly, and are quickly off onto Tetsuro’s voyage of self discovery. And while the show certainly states Matsumoto’s thoughts pretty openly, there are also fantastic tidbits of character and events that illustrate these concerns. It becomes less about being told what to feel, and more about Tetsuro learning what it is to “grow up” in a universe where this means casting away your truest self. It is no accident that the machine people portrayed at the train station are cold to others, spitting as they regard those who cannot afford a ticket as lesser beings. This very simple moment, is at the very heart of the film’s worries; that we have turned technological and economic hegemony as a closed-off value scale, rather than a shared goal.

We see more of this “forsaken humanity” theme in the characters of Shadow, of Count Mecha, Ryuz, and of Queen Promethium as the film plays out. Most of the adult cast of 999 is bound by this seemingly ineffable fate that a machine body is what is necessary to make an impact on the world. Be it through sheer willpower, or by way of inheritance, there is a constant conflict between what Tetsuro believes to be his destiny, and what choices he actually has through the course of his life. Starting off as an angry kid with a wish, he is confronted by adults who either worked, or clawed their way to machinehood, only to become shells of their former selves. So when he does confront the truth of his end point, the tragedy is threefold as familial duty becomes a means to an end. But humanity always seems to leave a mark, leading to a climax that remains as powerful now, as it was in 1979. The connection to theatrical audiences then was palpable. They could see what was happening here as an extension of what was truly happening in the real world.

Having lived through a similar situation to Tetsuro’s, there is much to take away from the encounter at Andromeda. Having been in relationships torn between the heart, and familial expectation is a very real thing. And even though the dressings of 999 are that of the most classic space operas, there is a universal nature about the piece that speaks volumes by mere virtue of showing. From the sprawl of an Earth ravaged by corporate mindlessness, to a machine planet, fueled by those with their hearts closed off by way of the “order of things”, there is a very real set of concerns bursting at the seams through Matsumoto and Taro’s vision. They may have even foreseen the breakdown that was to come, and we are witnessing to this very day. Humanity can only see itself as a closed off being for so long. Youth is a check that can only be cashed by way of feeling matters through, and actually experiencing the world through tactile means.

Matsumoto and company saw the future, and had a warning to share..

In summation, anime is an extension of the film medium, and is capable of so much more than is often being churned out. This has always been the case. It’s just more exciting to see when the powers that be allow for such expression to eke itself out. Far too often, the themes that are shared are often in the societal narrative, or some form of shapeless, emotional backlash. And rarely is it done with clarity or grace. There is a great potential in animation, but is often at the mercy of those who would see it as part of a creaky, mass production machine.

Through Older Lenses: Prefectural Earth Defense Force (1986)

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Meanwhile, at Hazama Medical University Hospital..

Ever have one of those bad hospital experiences? The kind that shake your faith in the medical establishment, and all that is right with the universe? You know what I mean. The kind of experience where you’re brought into the ER for a broken leg from a vehicle accident, only for it to end with you being turned into a fully functioning cyborg, complete with missile launching capabilities? Or the kind that does this, leading to your neighborhood nominating you as defender of community, complete with spandex outfits, and a limited expense account as invading hordes goad you into joining their band of local weirdos? Oh be quiet, you know what I am talking about. Liar.

Welcome to 1986’s OVA one-shot, based on the parody manga by Koichiro Yasunaga. One of the more sought after treasures of the anime on home video era. Goofy to a fault, the show pits a ragtag bunch of local miscreants with an augmented Indian transfer student, against the troublesome Telephone Pole Group in a series of overstated encounters and battles taking place in essentially neighborhood backyards. Looking back at it now, one can see the roots of shows like Kill la Kill, just beginning to burrow deep into the soils of anime past. And while the original manga’s punch is given a pretty lavish treatment considering the animation of the time, the focus seems less on story, and more on piling gag upon gag. The 50-minute piece remains charmingly animated, if not altogether fulfilling anywhere else. And while older fans like myself continue to adore works from this era like Project A-Ko, there is something about this OVA that remains elusive when it comes to the big laughs. Which isn’t to say that PEDF isn’t funny. Heck, any show that pokes good fun at so many J-sci-fi cliches can’t be all frownsville.

And yet, there is much to learn from this unrepentant, goofy work. Told in almost episodic vignettes, there is plenty to enjoy as both forces find themselves often undone by mutual incompetence and ensuing property damage. At times it’s the often unprovoked wrath of a missile-launching, blonde-haired foreigner with a bone to pick with-well, everyone. Others, it’s the all-out nuisance of a team of heroes with no sense of subterfuge, PEDF bursts with goofy, and is indicative of an era that simply wasn’t afraid to make up any excuse for an anime wild take. Like A-ko, it is certainly an animator’s work, displaying tons of shots and ideas that reek of a staff ready and willing to play to their talents. While definitely not Urusei Yatsura, there are quite a few jabs at super sentai shows, local politicking, and perhaps even the travails of being a startup business in an iffy market. And with superheroes/villains who can’t even figure out a way to usurp their adversaries with effective ruses, we’re definitely looking at the kind of farce that one simply doesn’t see anymore.

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Upon watching it again recently, I’m reminded of what has been severely lacking in my anime intake as of late. And what Studio Trigger’s recent TV achievement truly stands for. PEDF, while not as classic as some of my just mentioned favorites, is certainly a charming entry in what has long been a neglected subgenre in the anime world. It’s often important to be able to laugh at your own absurdity. Anime once knew this quite well. So happy to see that some animators are keeping those embers nice and toasty.

So break out them S’more kits!

Prefectural Earth Defense Force, is now streaming via The Anime Network!

Kill la Kill FINAL : A Farewell To Uniformity

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Well there’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in an age. Looking back at the first piece I slapped together regarding Studio Trigger’s initial leap into the television series gauntlet, I’m pretty sure there was no awareness of what would happen. In fact, one could say that I was a bit of an unabashed naysayer regarding Kill la Kill. On its face it seemed like just another hyper-referential Imaishi noisefest. And while it maintains this facade throughout the 24 episode run, I sincerely didn’t expect to love it as much as I do now. Now, the mental drifting goes back toward his previous works, and it is clear that this is a show that required a few big warmups before happening. This is a refined and wisened Imaishi & Co., taking on roughly 40 years-plus of a medium’s history, and coming up with one of the most satisfyingly warped serial experiences I have ever witnessed. And just because they are wisened, this in no way implies matured. As far as wacky shows go, Kill la Kill is unrepentant, even as it treads classic alpha vs. omega stories with aplomb. (and that is exactly why it works.)

We can talk all day about the show’s referential nature, but to do so would mean to undermine what Imaishi & Nakashima have fashioned here as pastiche. In order to do this, one has to grasp why this is so. When one thinks of not only anime, but film in general over the last several decades, we must consider the role of post-modernist works, and how they succeed beyond the obvious. And to do this, we must think of some of the most effective uses of direct filmic response over this time period. Star Wars, Matrix comes to mind. The point is, it doesn’t matter how referential your show becomes. What matters is if it is in service of a larger story. And this is where KLK pretty much wins across the table. There is an inherent knowing behind all of the creative decisions. One that might not be as clear to some viewers, but it is present throughout the posturing and fighting.

The goal here is one of deceptive restraint. (Yes, I said “restraint” in a Kill la Kill discussion.) This is where we see a visual nod to a classic work of the past carefully embedded in service of the project’s larger themes. Not merely apparent for obvious reasons, but more as a direct symbolic response. And this is but one place where this show succeeds. It rarely to never feels superfluous, nor tacked on merely for nostalgia reasons. There is a more aware, more heightened reason as to why. Confession: upon my initial viewing of Gainax’s Top Wo Nerae! GUNBUSTER in the early 1990s, there was a feeling that something was being missed in my neophyte mind. I earnestly was not aware of all the anime & classic science fiction nods that were happening throughout, and I was taken by it regardless. THIS – is precisely the kind of effect that is happening here. It does not require us to be medium junkies in order to appreciate it. It’s just enough a melange of past and future, that it hardly seems to be issue-worthy.

So what we’ve just discussed, factors greatly in why the show ends up becoming as multifaceted, and exciting as it is. As much as a lot of it is TRIGGER’s way of respecting their sempai, and doing good by what they learned from their elders at Gainax, it is also a story of generational strife, and what it often does to families. Threads that find themselves at odds by reinforced beliefs between the generations lies burning at the heart of the show. There is a genuine concern for this tension between parental expectation, economic interests, and independent thinking. Even as the world is at last briefly shown as a complete, naked, and honest entity, the show implies that this is a constant struggle. One far beyond one massive spacebound battle for the soul of humanity. With this playing itself out in the most ridiculous, visually assaultive manner possible, the series kind of gets at the heart of why I love anime in the first place.

Before being whittled down to a calculated series of tropes and ideas ready for market, anime was far more emotional, far more unrestrained & far more surreal than it has been for years. And while many may argue that it is only in the post-1990s that we have come to a place where indeed everything and anything could happen within the form, it has long become something synthesized. And by this, I mean..controlled. Kill la Kill is kind of a kiss off to the current model and is also keeping the best elements of the past slung happily around its shoulders. The legacy of many a young, hungry, intense artist is at the heart of Ryuko Matoi’s battle for familial understanding. And even though we can see the initial episodes as being a perpetuation of oh-so many expectations based on toy and hobby item sales, the remainder goes out of its way to see well past all this to become its own, wild, restless entity. By the end, so many of the show’s more questionable qualities become moot, and the focus becomes resoundingly clear for all anime studios to see. Uniformity as an end goal – quite the terrifying prospect to the heart and soul of this project. It sees what has happened, and is daring more fans and makers to alter course.

This is exciting stuff.

So where to now? Where does one go after such a profoundly crazy ride? I could lie, and say that Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan could serve as a happy methadone for the days and weeks ahead, but seriously. This was a show (let me correct myself, IS..a show) that makes careers and possibly leaves a well-planted mark in the story of anime. Whether one finds personal value in the madness inherent or not is beside the point. As a production, it is all something of a miraculous thing to exist. Like a stubborn weed amongst forests of uniformed concrete, the tale of the Kiryuin family, the Makanshoku family, the Elite Four, Nudist Beach, and others find themselves as singular in a medium landscape that will continue to feel fresh and exciting for a long time to come. If TTGL was a loving appetizer, then KLK is that obstinate, scrappy main course that can make one want to be a punk chef of their very own.

Oh, and during the epilogue – I squeed.

Kill la Kill: A Final Stretch (Beyond Gainax)

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Twists at breakneck speeds, revelations abound, and allegiances reversed. There seems to be no stopping the heartpounding freight train that is Kill La Kill’s final stretch of episodes. Common cause has been unveiled, leaving it a war of nudes versus clothed avatars of shame, and former enemies now aligned with the once thought only rebellion. With many of the principle roles now falling perfectly into what could be considered destined ones, only one element remains dangling precariously; heroine, Ryuko Matoi. Traumatized, distraught, and more than a little angry about the truth of her origin, her rudder is all but completely broken off. Unwilling to see herself as part of any side other than her own, it is up to a most unexpected ally to make a grand leap in hopes of her salvation. (even if it means beating the tar out of her first..)

 

Contrary to what the internet would like you to believe, it’s often a great pleasure to be wrong. Looking back at twenty episodes of Studio Trigger’s grand kiss-off/GAINAX love-fest, Kill La Kill, one couldn’t truly be faulted for being a tad presumptuous after years of often disheartening material. So what happened to make this jaded naysayer hit the about-face button so violently? Well, the show as it has been thus far owes much of its success to not only understanding the so-called Gainax formula so well, but to how well it eschews so much of what often hobbles many of the mother studio’s shows. More about playing with form, rather than clumsily taping together with function. What Imaishi and company have successfully fashioned, is the first truly post-Gainax series. One that takes everything since Top Wo Nerae!, and amps up the levels to near murderous methedrine levels, complete with hair-raising cliffhangers every week. Honesty time, it has truly been a long, long time since I have felt this way with any show.

 

Say what one wishes about previous Imaishi efforts, this is the first truly breakthrough series from a director who’s style has often overridden any semblance of meaning within and without. As great as Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan is, there remains a feeling there that is more akin to a dry run at “Hero’s Journey” territory. What KLK offers up, is something both representative of his powers as a stylist, and as a fledgling visual satirist, doling out both incredible energies and sneaking wit beneath oodles of crimson chaos. Even when the show hits an occasional iffy note, more often than not it is countered with something far wilder and more insane that what had come before. Always on the brink of total collapse, the show flirts so often with the bad, and yet it corrects course as if performing a high-wire act, knowing full well that the key to a successful display of showmanship, is the semblance of fallibility. KLK seems to know very well that it’s playing matters quite close to the wire, and yet it never steps away from the edge of that ravine.

 

And it’s all in the service of some very real concerns regarding the delicate balance not only the young must maintain in life affairs, but everyone. Even as the show has made it alarmingly clear that issues are to be approached in grandiose, broad strokes, it does so with such a deft, visual manner that it almost becomes a moving political mural. A warning, not only to the elder otaku set, but to all passionates that the moral standings we take are often of a musical chairs nature. One of the show’s biggest stylistic triumphs is in how it eschews a lot of the typical muddled anime thematic posturing that bogs most series down, and allows action to dictate more. Even as characters spout out about their requisite viewpoints, it is often within battle that their truest intentions for the world are made clear. Imaishi seems to finally have grand control of his best strengths(visual hyperbole and overt visual metaphors), and is hitting far more than missing this time around. And Nakashima’s story supervision has kept the story developing at such a uniquely effective clip, that one doesn’t mind so much when grand escapes happen, and one is asking questions as to how. This particular story is about the language of action, and what happens when we run so hard against another that we begin seeing the other side’s attributes. That there is more than one justice in the world, and in life we find ourselves dabbling in more than one to see what fits. The origin of community as we strive toward larger goods despite differences. While some of these were indeed explored in TTGL, it feels so much more refined and singular here.

 
And yes, I realize the absurdity of using “refined” to describe a series that largely consists of largely disrobed teens fighting to the tune of immense collateral damage. But despite all the anarchy and unisex debasement on display, it all seems to be in the name of greater ambitions for anime on television. Even if Kill La Kill’s final stretch turns out to be a typical series flameout, it will no doubt be spectacular. I can’t imagine the staff behind this having it any other way.

 

(Oh, yes. And I have to remark here that I kind of geeked out about those flashbacks regarding a younger Ragyo & Soichiro Kiryuin. Their hair.  Maaaan.)

Through Older Lenses: Ghibli Night At The Egyptian

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Imagine the saucers I had for eyes upon the discovery that Hollywood’s fabled Egyptian Theatre was hosting a multi-week tribute to the films of Studio Ghibli, and that two longtime favorites were sharing a bill this weekend. Upon hearing the news early Saturday, I told a partner of this and held steadfast that this could be our nocturnal activity. And considering that this new quantity has had little to no knowledge of the works of legendary animators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, this felt like a brilliant entry point. As both films represent Miyazaki at something of a career turning point (firmly planted between humanist blockbuster maven, and quasi-individualist auteur), the commonalities and breaks seemed just right to allow new eyes to survey what it is that has captured the hearts of animation fans the world over. And while personal feelings have shifted some on these films over the years, it was truly magnificent witnessing these films in their full 35mm glory, complete with scratches, pops, and prolonged silences.

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At roughly 7:00pm, we filed on in, and found seats surrounded by fellow attendees. As ideal as the seats were, I was quite impressed by the serious dearth of “anime folk” in the audience. In fact, a great deal of those in the auditorium with us were either fellow cinephiles, the occasional family, and possibly more local animation and effects artist types. The overall feeling was that of a more well-rounded viewership than I have ever been privy to for a screening like this, and that was certainly telling of Ghibli’s impact in the years since Disney/PIxar brought Ghibli’s catalog to the US masses. In a very real way, it felt as if Miyazaki’s works have finally become part of the general fabric of family film in a way that eluded many of us admirers in previous decades. It truly has been a long time since that fateful Cagliostro Castle screening at the Disneyland Hotel, with not only nerds, but parents and kids with eyes aglow at the sheer kinetic artistry gracing that audience.

Truly a long time.

So also imagine my surprise when upon giving Kiki’s Delivery Service(1989) the nth viewing, I found a great deal more to derive personally from it than I had expected. Even in the many years since first watching it, there is a confidence and effective simplicity that still evokes a potent response regarding the inherent potential in all. While many have continued to write the film off as a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s work, it is also very much a touching call to the young, and for them to follow beyond familial piety. As young witch, Kiki seeks to create a name for herself in bayside, Koriko City, there is much to figure out as many a witch have within them a special ability that they hone into their main focus of practice. And in this single year of being away from her family (including a potions-specialist mother who muses about wishing her daughter had taken up potions as her focus), Kiki and her chatty feline familiar, Jiji must find the central meaning to independent life. Through many meetings, trials, errors, and adventures, Kiki is throughout the film faced with her own self-doubts as a girl in the world, let alone a witch. It’s a story where magic is no more than the things we grant to the world as ourselves. Told in a patient, wistful manner, the film never veers far from the focal point that Kiki is that moment between being our family’s child, and our own giving, working individual. (Which is best encapsulated by the film’s opening scene, as Kiki makes the sudden choice to leave for her one-year trip at the behest of unprepared parents. It is both a charming, and heartrending stuff that evokes feelings of that moment so many of us go through, as we move out into the world.)

POTENTIAL SPOILERS(?)

So when Kiki’s journey inevitably leads to a crisis of ability come the latter third, it is vital to consider the preceding hour as lead in for this. With all the pressures that she must carry with her as both girl and witch, as other girls her age in town are living up to many of the atypical fun and relationship building, she must maintain something of an icon of tradition. We even meet another young witch early on that informs us early how this rite of passage can very easily lead us astray, without much room for others. And rather than becoming this, Kiki’s arc largely involves her natural capacity for more hand-based services. While her mother is closer to a doctor/pharmacist-type, she is closer to a public service specialist. And while that may look less than flattering to some, there is something very sneaky and hopeful happening with this in mind. When she suddenly finds herself unable to use her magic abilities, it is no wonder that the broom she came flying into Kokori breaks..is her mother’s.

It is here, and with local artist, Ursula’s advice that even our greatest gifts will experience something of a block at times, that the road to maturity drifts into cruising speed. Kiki finds herself at her best and happiest when she is living up to her own instinctive ideals, rather than any fears she might have about the thoughts of others.

As with the breaking of the mother’s broom, the broom used to rescue airship fanboy/witch fanboy, Tombo from a nasty fate..belongs to an elder street sweeper. A “public servant”. Personal redemption comes from Kiki’s own passion for helping the people of Kokori. It’s a pretty solid tale in the telling that still finds ways to keep me active and enamored throughout.

Porco Rosso(1992), while still a truly personal work for Miyazaki containing some of his most sumptuous imagery and elegaic moments, seems to have lost some luster for me over the years. Hard to say why this is so, but upon this viewing it became evident that the tale of WWI fighter pilot ace, Marco Pagot, while as complex and politically dense as it is, suffers from a lack of a stable central thesis. It really is something of a kitchen sink affair, as Miyazaki struggled to make Porco into a loving tribute to the era, and a tale of personal redemption in a time fraught with change. With Porco, now living the cursed life of a pig after long deserting his life as an air force pilot, and now making a living on the Adriatic as a bounty hunter, the film shakily dances between sweet natured comedy, adventure, and romantic homage. And while much of it works magically (as most Ghibli films of the era did), there is a lack of focus that dogs a majority of the running time.

And yet at the same time, one of the film’s meatier themes is that of a life independent. Not unlike the shame Porco feels for having abstained from serving any nation, as well as the loss of his closest colleagues, it all feels like Kiki’s darker, more battle-worn sibling. Even as the previous film lauded the individual as part of a collective, Porco represents a search for life beyond the state. Miyazaki both praises the talents and honor of those who dedicated their lives to flight, but admonishes governments who would exploit it in the name of foggy politics and control. As Italy seems on the brink of another governmental shift, and the world economy is en route to great depression, taxes and allegiances are on the lips of all. All the while, pilots find themselves in this situation either scraping out a meager living as sky pirates, or as bounty hunters living on the fringes of this now rapidly changing society. Rivalries aside, hunters like Porco and pirates like the Mamma Aiuto gang seem culled from similar cloth. All well represented by all parties cooling their engines in peace at the Andriano bar, a place run by Porco’s lifelong friend and long-suffering love interest, Gina. With these air bound skirmishes growing ever more and more desperate, things exacerbate once the pirates opt to hiring American hot-shot, Curtis, in hopes of taking down the “red pig” once and for all. (Or at the very least, humiliate him..)

Upon losing what even wouldn’t constitute an actual air duel with the eager american, Porco is forced to make a run into fascist led Milan in hopes of repairing his beloved seaplane. So when he is surprised to learn that his long trusted plane engineering and construction genius, Piccolo is bereft of his usual help, it is in the shared labor of the feminine and the talents of his youthful american granddaughter, Fio, that Porco finds within him an unexpected spark. And while much of this is classic storytelling, a great deal of the film feels more interested in the details of the world than in any real character based storytelling. The main throughline, while relatively solid, is equally as happy to examine the the world around them, occasionally to mixed results. So when it comes time for the big rematch between Porco, and the american Rattlesnake, our attentions are recalibrated toward the fate of Fio, who in the event that our hero loses, must go to Curtis, who’s buffoonish aims seem to be mostly intent on getting hitched..even if to an underaged plane engineer.

But the worries Miyazaki has about his own talents and the way in which it is utilized post-success are evident during an important exchange between him and a former colleague-turned fascist ace, Ferrarin inside a movie theatre. As Ferrarin secretly informs Porco that the new government is actively buying off sky pirates, and actively rendering them obsolete, Porco remarks how the standard “Dog Vs. Pig” animation they are watching is lousy. Staying on message seems to be the program. This is only bolstered by Ferrarin’s respone that the animation is great. It’s well considered that Porco, is indeed the spirit of Miyazaki, ever dogged by powers that only see him as a company tool. Ever longing for the freedom to tell the stories he wishes, his way.  Now if only, the film could pick a theme before being merely one of several disparate ones. One could even argue that PR is something of a rail against the changing fates of animators throughout the 1980s. At any rate, there’s simply so much going on that it becomes a little tricky to suss out.

All this said, Porco Rosso remains one of Miyazaki’s most poetic and playful films. There’s no denying the power to entertain here. And as a work that lies in between the thoughtful, straightforward Kiki, and the oft-considered overbearing Princess Mononoke(1997), it’s still a gorgeous movie with a lot on its mind.

So in all, a memorable evening of some of the very best that commercial Japan has to offer, with an audience that was more than adequately receptive. So happy to see that the American Cinemateque is continuing to host these films over the next few weeks, with Takahata’s incredible Grave Of The Fireflies(1988) and Tomomi Mochizuki’s Ocean Waves(1993) tonight, ending with Miyazaki’s Oscar winning, Spirited Away(2001) on Thursday, March 20th. So if you’re in LA over the next few weeks, do give it a consider. The Egyptian remains one of my favorite cinemas, and this is a most exciting way to introduce these works to a whole new world of eyes.

As for the person I shared last night’s event with..I’d say we have a new convert.

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