When anime has such a clear-eyed perspective on the zeitgest, I perk up. Imagine my bemused surprise when a medium so often concerned with appeasing our most questionable wishes, takes a well-timed potshot at itself. Personally, I love it when post-modernism is being used to comment on larger media concerns, and this little gag seemed aimed squarely at fans like me. So when I clicked PLAY on Yasuhiro Yoshiura‘s eight minute short, I was anticipating what Twitter dubbed to be a celebration of classic cinema imagery. What I saw, was the equivalent to a well-executed barside joke.
The Bureau Of Protosociety, takes place in a near nondescript future world where our remaining population lives deep underground. Clearly the result of some vague catastrophe that a clandestine committee continues to mull the cause and effect of. Several members, with screens surrounding them, grant us a window into possible apocalyptic scenarios that have led us to this completely sheltered existence. What ensues from here ranges from war, alien invasion, to plague. All strangely looking familiar while we’re talking about it.
But the references here aren’t what grabbed me most with this. The implication of such a piece, is that in a realm bereft of history, culture is often rendered meaningless. It’s especially biting to discover the nature of the citizenry and the bureau’s concerns over a developing uprising. Almost echoing current political concerns in Japan. A foolish lack of hindsight on the part of a populace, leading to perhaps one of the best summations of the current anime landscape I have seen in some time. (and it doesn’t hurt that the tune at the end brings back many a memory)
Among the many reasons why I have largely enjoyed the Animator Expo series, the ability to play things less commercial and safe remains my favorite. Yoshiura’s reverence for cult, and a bleak sarcasm that could rival bits of Space Dandy, makes this a special standout for those looking for something a little more biting than your usual televised fare. So what if it doesn’t run longer? It’s a nifty little mike drop that deserves your few minutes of snack time. And like all good anime diets, it is crucial that your in-betweens are a greater part of your self-nurturing side.
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.
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.
Hiro Mashima, creator of Fairy Tail, is one of the few popular mangaka‘s from Japan to utilize Twitter in order to interact with his fans. Mashima has tweeted well over 3,700 tweets, and has submitted a multitude of sketches.
Taking a most unusual detour from its previous home at UCLA, I took a short trip from home to spend a few hours as part of american anime lover history celebrated 30 years of mecha, music, and love at Macrossworldcon 2012. This time, taking place deep in Arcadia (no, not that one), CA. , and within a modest-sized business & shopping center, virtually hidden from any manner of public view. After badge pickup, and a colorful yet narrow walkway leading to the heart of the event, I found myself surrounded by a virtual cityscape of toys and items commemorating decades of the Macross franchise, from the original groundbreaking series, to the candy-heavy Frontier. UN S PACY heads from numerous generations and backgrounds convened in what remains a remnant of the anime con that once was..
We arrived just in time for a “Free Art Contest” where a group of talented sketch artists tried their hand at delivering a memorable Macross image with only two stipulations; A) Image must contain an audience-selected character from the franchise, and B) they only had ten minutes to make it so. (Sadly, my idea: An image of hapless Valkyrie pilot, Hayao Kakizaki–a character often characterized as a plate of steak, or a ball of flame, was never voted in.)
Couldn’t help myself from being knocked nostalgic, and also expressing deep excitement at the evolution of character and mecha goods on display. There were times when it felt like member-owned toys and items would never stop coming in to take residence on one of several counters set against the main event room’s walls. Was wonderful enough just to be in the presence of it.
But toys, raffles, and art aside, the major centerpiece of my trip occurred when beloved singer, songwriter (and inimitable voice of Lynn Minmay herself), Mari Iijima took to the main floor, and performed a short and potent set of songs. With Sunset Beach, and a haunting rendition of the legendary Ai Oboete Imasu Ka as the only Macross tracks, we were host to two of her personally written songs which were equally, if not more impressive. True to her ever-self-defining nature, the set was both emotionally charged, and wildly disarming. (Fave track of the day, “Anatano Tame Ni Jibun No Tame Ni” offers up both a charm-filled sense of longing, and a dramatic sense of real knowing that was impressive. A stirring hint that her latest recorded effort, “Take A Picture Against The Light” may be her most deeply personal to date.)
So in all, my day in Arcadia was one filled with smiles, melancholy, and togetherness. A strange feeling again filled me as I stepped out of the venue, back into the real world that we all share, aware that I had just left a room of shared dreams and memories so many would never see. Perhaps just as well, as the event itself embraces something that is far too often missing from modern cons, a sense of unseen, yet solid community.
Welcome to the first Round the Sphere! Every Friday, I will list interesting things I stumbled upon that week. They won’t always involve a theme but this week, let’s take a look at gender. Have a great weekend~
Citing financial difficulties, Aniplex is expected to announce tomorrow that The Blackstone Group is taking an eighty percent stake for an undisclosed sum estimated at $230 million. The rise in the digital distribution of entertainment has eroded the Japanese production company’s margins. This comes at a time when Blackstone, headquartered in New York City, seeks to create synergy among its multitude of holdings. Analysts predict the private equity firm to buyout the remaining shares by year end. The effect of the acquisition on Aniplex’s licensing strategy remains unclear at the moment.
Shares of The Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX) jumped $0.40 in after hours trading.
The Fortune 100 company announced that it’s pulling all figurines from Air off the shelves immediately. Air is an anime TV series that aired in 2005. It is based on a hentai game of the same name. The decision came earlier this week after a student at the Castlemont Elementary School noticed a classmate playing with a Misuzu figurine. The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, had purchased the toy for her eight year old daughter who recently started watching Pokemon and other anime.
A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart stated that the retailer regrets the oversight and has initiated new purchasing guidelines to prevent future incidents.
Well there was no real way this post could be avoided. After finishing this series and realizing that there was little to no way this couldn’t be openly discussed in mere tweets/Facebook discussions, it finally came to pass that an extended post would have to be made regarding Kunihiko Ikuhara’s return to anime television. The very notion that such a long break from the industry that helped bring his name to international prominence in the mid-to latter 1990s by way of Sailor Moon R, and of course, Utena, it would have been safe to assume that any return could only be a disappointment. It seemed an inevitability considering how dramatically different the state of the medium is today. Or so I woefully assumed.
Taken as an entire piece, Mawaru Penguindrum is an unrepentantly unique, and often visionary series the likes of which may delight older fans, and utterly shut out a good portion of modern anime’s devotees with its treatise on a Japan gone from shattered paradigm to helplessly lost world amidst manufactured dreamscapes. Ikuhara alonsgide Takayo Ikami & Brain’s Base, Penguindrum takes very much the same “process” based cinematic techniques that helped make Utena become one of the most accessible, yet bizarre-on-the-surface titles to have ever made a splash on the international fan scene. The story of sickly Himari, and her two older siblings, Shouma and Kanba remains less about a bizarre quest to save her life from almost certain doom with the help of a penguin-hat sporting princess and a trio of hallucinatory birds, but rather the journey of many through a near concrete thick foundation of denial. It is from this outset, not remotely interested in tropes so much as the subversion of them, all the while spinning a tale of what extremities some feel compelled to go through based on perceived positions. Fate and destiny being something of an established chess board, with all characters merely pieces, often willing to turn to amazingly questionable behavior in the name of altering trajectory, or abiding it.
The biggest difference now is that the ante has been sufficiently upped by no longer setting the central action within and around a mythical school life/incubator space where our main characters could fight their ways through. This new expansion of the discussion pitts the characters within something almost resembling contemporary Tokyo, only with a slightly more advanced technological milieu. In fact, much of what many to consider Cool Japan is hyperbolized within this at times unsettling presentation. Colors are intense with pinks and blues, and structures are often day-glo bright. The interior of one of the most often used settings- the subway, is almost wall-to-wall with moving digital advertisement (often featuring the greek chorus in Double-H, who also serve a core purpose around the story). It is almost as if the entire design aesthetic in itself is a paradoxical reflection of internet pop culture Japan. Thereby universalizing the director’s concerns that haven’t subsided any since his previous masterwork. His concerns are Japan’s concerns. His characters may be living in a world of fairy tales, but they certainly don’t see that. In fact, the two-tone reality shared by the majority of Penguindrum’s characters seems to have cornered them to the point that delusions and/or audacious actions seem reasonable. In anime reality, we are quick to judge, but the show continually calls out the viewer, making the case that even wholly reasonable people are capable of such untoward behavior.
Continuing a 17 Year Old Soul Search
As the parentless Takakura children are further tumbling down the story’s rabbit hole, it becomes apparent that not only they are bound by the illogical in order to maintain a rendition of peace, but as are the lives of virtually everyone around them. The three kids, with the youngest mostly in the dark regarding these forces that apparently hold her life in limbo, are eventually surrounded by characters who also seem primed to overstep their moral bounds in order to attain a semblance of happiness. Carrying on the theme that binds all characters in the series, it is a seemingly generational curse that has even left troubling marks on those who came before our central leads. And the more we get to grasp the lives of Tabuki, one of the boys’ most seemingly level-headed schoolteachers, and stage actress celebrity, Yuri, it becomes all the more apparent that the Takakuras lie close the ground zero of a secret that almost brought the contemporary Japanese conscience to its knees. Even as the inexplicable advances of Masako seem ready to systematically “crush” some undisclosed object close-particularly to Kanba (who’s reputation as something of a playboy belies even stranger secrets). Even more troubling still is the role of pretty, yet seemingly ordinary high schooler, Ringo Oginome. A girl who could so easily be an inocuous entity in the story, becomes an unexpected element that may save or destroy all everyone holds dear. Not unlike the American television series, LOST, perceptions are questioned, rugs are constantly pulled, and Mawaru Penguidrum becomes something that series failed to become in six seasons, a tale of a society within stones throw of a heart hampered by a lack of emotional insight. It isn’t that Japan is screwed, but rather that it stopped looking forward when the chips were down. So as the tension ramps up when history seems bent on repeating itself, the world of the show is primed to either play within these assumed constructs, or break free by acting humanly unpredictable.
A big stumbling block this show may experience in regards to fandom outside Japan, may very well be the reality that much of what is discussed within the its 24 episodes. The entire narrative decidedly centers within a wholly Japan-centric mindset. As westernized as Japan currently is, much of what affects, and ultimately motivates the show’s characters is something more akin to post-WWII psychology. And while this may seem like something that is easy for many acclimated anime admirers to overcome, there is still quite a bit of context that is left intentionally unexplained in the confidence that those aware of their surroundings might pick up on it. Which makes the series an interesting twist on what some detractors have been declaring a growing “insular” movement in anime. This is perhaps an ultimate rendition of how that very movement can create something of cultural value without resorting heavily upon familiar tropes, lest they be toyed with in some signature manner. As visually specacular as this series can be, it’s often at the service of continuing a poem Anno helped spur to introspective life in 1995.
Backtracking a little, it is important to consider that Ikuhara has long been friends with Shin Seiki Evangelion director, Hideaki Anno. An artist who became famous for pulling the veneer away from anime’s “fantasy for its own sake” place of safety with his epoch-making series. A show that was in fact affected by the outside world as terror enveloped the nation as the sarin gas attacks, and subsequent trials pertaining to the cult known as Aum Shinrikyo were taking place on tv screens during that time. A nation half a decade into crippling recession, and such events revealed a growing sense of spiritual panic that came symptomatic of a society long neglectful of its heart as profits went up a decade prior, now broken and brimming with an almost insurmountable amount of confusion ready to burst at any moment. For many, Evangelion provided a much needed pressure valve for these emotions homeside, even as the series became a monstrous media success. But it’s also worth noting that despite many series to retread similar territory (as well as Evangelion’s unfortunate “molding” into safer fabrics over the years), it has often come at the sacrifice of likeable characters, and compelling storytelling. Something with Penguindrum never seems to run short on.
Humoring The Blackness
For a series tackling such heavy themes, one wouldn’t expect the series to continue Ikuhara’s trademark surreal humor. This is something Ikuhara’s contemporary could never take away from him, and it is here in full flower, personal quirks and all. From the often amusing antics of the Takakura family’ s newly adopted penguins, to the clever use of repetition, music, love of the takarazuka, and various spins on fan expectations, the series never lets us forget that we are in an exaggeration of matters. What makes this work so well for me is that despite all the goofy antics, there is often a very character-centric reason for it. Even when the penguins acts reach absurds highs like fighting off an octopus on a window-sill, there is often a lyrical purpose to it all that remains unspoken. The show’s faith in its audience to put everything together while laughing about what could very easily become a harsh melodrama is very hard to achieve, and more often than not, it works toward better helping us understand character dimensions we didn’t realize were apparent upon initial glances. “Show. Don’t tell” is a valuable tool in film, and Ikuhara remains a master of constantly playing with this.
Industry Of Seduction
Which plays quite nicely against the series’ ultimate vision of collective antagonism, the enigmatic Sanitoshi’s belief that it doesn’t matter if fleeting love is what it is, as long as one feels it if even for a brief moment. More extravanant and over the top than even the character of Yuri, Sanitoshi with his hopelessly fujoshi-bait image and voice embodies a youth unwilling to compromise with their mission to undo all around him, no matter the cost. The most ironic element within his penchant for things “eletrifying”, and in the moment, his seemingly magical presence belies something of an unerring addiction to simplified solutions to complex daily problems. With all of his smiles and assurances, there is little in the way of anything truly transformative within his motivations. In fact, it is every bit as binary as the world he seems hellbent to destroy. And like all classic visions of Mephisto, Methusela, and Coyote, he is a soothing, seductive presence fully in the mold of what some fans long to adore, all the while tending to a world of emptiness. He is the face of an artistic medium gone commercially desperate.
Which brings me back to the core of why the series carries with it something that has long eluded anime containing elements of the experimental; a solid sense of purpose. Despite years of post-Evangelion attempts to inject a certain “newness” to certain series, eager to capitalize on a growing mature market, most series have had the unfortunate distinction of either taking themselves far too seriously, or suffering from copycat-ism often symptomatic of shows existing in a newly defined environment. And it isn’t that shows like Bakemonogatari are intrinsically flawed, but rather that they often carry lesser baggage and lack the narrative acumen to reach beyond a specific audience. They ultimately become niches unto themselves, making them not only hard to market, but closer to gallery material better suited to a Murakami exhibit. What Mawaru Penguindrum has that most of these series do not is a truly sneaky package, made all the more potent by being especially meticulous about its messages/questions. There never seems to be a moment wasted, or a shot in it for the mere sake of showing it. Ikuhara has observed anime over the last ten-plus years, and clearly has quite a bit to say about it with imagery that spans the absurdist to the terrifying. Most often asking contradictory questions within the same mise en scene, as if the internet age has accelerated our intake of complexity in how we view the world, and he acknowledges this, even as the drama unfolds. Carefully, and provocatively, it beings back the notion of the auteur to television anime in a way that simply has been missing for quite some time.
Smashing The World’s Blu-ray Case
So when the climax comes, and matters for our heroes have reached their irrevocable conclusion, this is where Ikuhara delivers a passionate plea for not only the medium, but its fans. As our most unlikely characters are forced to rise to a challenge that threatens the future of many, including characters we once thought we knew within how the series initially presented itself, we are visually made aware of a world which Ikuhara seems ready to do away with. One that has essentially caged all of our characters, and led them to this desperate, penultimate moment. We are suddenly shown the destruction of a very vessel that binds many a fan the world over.- A batch of anime dvds/Blu-ray. Which in and of itself could very well have been taken alone as an atypical cinematic means of hammering the point home in a one-sided metaphor. But it is immediately amended when this very vessel becomes the means by which salvation is delivered. Interpretation: Mindless consumption carries none of the value that comes with what is being said within the things we value most. In short; Ikuhara’s distaste for ravenous fan culture & preference for something resembling actual substance is made clear within a mere few seconds of animation.
The world model within the series is rhetorically based on years of buying into invisible assumptions (Often bolstered by consumer culture sturm & drang-Something which even more harshly binds the Japanese.), and the form of the show (not unlike certain characters) seems bent on shattering these illusory traps. It seeks honest answers as opposed to perpetuating ad-hoc, otaku posturing. The show opines that destiny is what we determine with our ever changing expressions of inner personal desire, and not on what we are sold into accepting. The cycle begun with Shoujo Kakumei Utena closes with Mawaru Penguidrum, making it both one of the more exciting shows to have ever been given the green light in such a volatile media climate, and a challenging riposte to a decade of hiding beneath a shell of societal assumption. It’s wild, weird, beautiful, gaudy, painful, and imperfect look forward and backward, seeking diverse answers from difficult questions. It’s both an introspective masterpiece for modern Japanese media, and a spectacular yet inelegant kick in the teeth to the addicted, and we are all the healthier for it.