Personally speaking, the best one can wish for in regards to those who inspire and imbue us, is for them to seek (and hopefully find) truest happiness. Already several glances at today’s news, and here I am, hoping it is indeed true. Several hours into the morning, and the news of animation legend, Hayao Miyazaki announcing his retirement from feature direction has been bouncing across my screen like colored lights at a pachinko parlor. And while the animation fan community shares with the expected sad face emoticons and sentimental musings, the only thing that will come out from me as response is, “this had better be serious this time”. Much like another breakup announcement by The Cure, the retirement of this cartoon grandmaster has been one that has been long delayed, and is a relief to hear.
And it isn’t due to any direct disapproval, or wish for any manner of ill will, but rather that in the years post Mononoke Hime (1997), there simply hasn’t been the same manner of flare in Miyazaki’s works that have felt as strident, or as important. Often escalating in visual quality, and much less in narrative or spiritual immediacy, his films have become an almost thinly veiled lament over his inability to retire peacefully. There simply hasn’t been as much for him to say in a while outside of either screeds against contemporary Japan(Chihiro), or to merely dabble in less involved, less coherent tributes to the written works of others. And while there were truly some memorable images and scenes in the films post-1997, it often felt as if there was this lingering feeling that the last word had been said, and everything else was a perfunctory series of bitter and indifferent post-scripts.
But prior to all of this, his career with Studio Ghibli has remained and will remain an all-important benchmark in animation history. From his early television work, to his run with the now Disney-like icon of a wheelhouse, it will be hard to imagine another creative name who will have such a wide-reaching impact. His thematic and artistic imprint has grown to influence generations of visual story lovers, and likely will continue to for generations more. Even as word spreads that he may remain with Ghibli in some other supervisory capacity, it can be finally said without hint of irony, and in best supportive voice, “arigatou kantoku”. (Be free.)
And so it turns out I come out of half-hibernation to reflect upon a pair of interesting announcements to come out of Day One of this year’s TAF (Tokyo Anime Fair). It seems as if a number of souls out in animeland see it the right time to revisit a pair of old favorites. Favorites that even now, helped establish the anime medium as a global contender for thoughtful & amusing science fiction storytelling. And while both touch heavily upon a period of time that is especially close to my heart, one has me giddy with delight, while the other kind of plunks onto the tile like a neglected piece of fruit. And while both are far from either surprising, or potentially earth-shattering, I find them amusing enough to fuel a few brief paragraphs here at least.
The first of these two, comes courtesy of long defunct creatorship, HEADGEAR, whom have delivered upon recent rumblings to bring us back to “Late 1990s” Tokyo with a new PATLABOR live action project. Just in time for Maiden Japan‘s announcement today regarding the DVD re-release of this hard science fiction comedy favorite.
Personally speaking, I could not be more ecstatic. There was something inherently grounded within the world of the SV2, that could translate well in live action. Unlike most projects of this ilk, it’s a choice that makes great sense if one is versed in the world of the series and its memorable cast. Even when the show was at its zanier points, one of the biggest strengths of it all was the interplay between the cops, the higher-ups, and even the mechanics as they struggled to maintain civil peace against ever troubling techno-creep. If HEADGEAR and crew play their cards right, this could very well be on par with the best adaptations of its kind. The tone of it gels almost organically with how Japan makes their big films these days anyway.
And while they haven’t yet specified as to whether this means the project will in fact be a television series, special, or a feature film, original co-creator, Mamoru Oshii was among the few who were hinting at this project weeks ago.
Elated hardly covers it for me.
Then comes the announcement from Gainax..
I never thought it would ever see the light of day, but it looks like early Gainax is ready to come back in a big way with Aoki Uru (AKA Blue Uru), the spiritual follow-up to their prolific, original raison d’ etre, Royal Space Force (AKA Wings Of Honneamise). This is a project dating back to the late 1980s-early 1990s, when the G-folk were looking to expand the universe of their feature film milestone, roughly during the time between Nadia and Evangelion. Re-ensliting the talents of studio head, Hiroyuki Yamaga, and famed character designer, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the old copy once shared rough synopses of a more action-centric tale of a fighter pilot and his quest to rescue his girlfriend in a Streets Of Fire-inspired tale set in the Honneamise world of early space travel & flying machines. The announcement came ripping old memories from long thought forgotten chests of olde today, and to be completely frank, I’m not terribly sure if excitement is the first thing that comes to mind.
It’s simple if I just went ahead and laid it out like this; Age & zeitgeist often do not make for great bed buddies. In fact, more often than not, when a noted creator comes back to familiar territory, it is often a 70-30 proposition that it will not connect on the level that the original did. (One need only watch Prometheus for extended proof.) And while I am more than happy that some big names (and seeing Sadamoto take on something of this size again does make me grin ear to ear) are finally taking on something that does not involve a high school, or clueless teenagers, I cannot help but feel that this is another case of “way too late, man”. Royal Space Force, while not a blazing success upon its initial release, was done so in a time where experimentation was almost encouraged, and genuine alternate-world drama could in fact be made into a feature. A large part of that film’s success is mostly in its grandiosity, and almost tragic naiveté by a group of young animators who didn’t realize just how foolish their grand vision had become from an ambitious short, and a series of lush illustrations. Adding 25 years to this, and one cannot help but feel like this is also not going to have the reckless abandon that the world of Honneamise requires.
But who knows? Perhaps my concerns are for nothing, and Yamaga can finally find himself out of the dregs of projects past (Mahoromatic, anyone?), and back into a realm that best reflects his passions.
One day out of TAF already. Here’s hoping there are a few more squawks from the big wigs that can match these two, because it’s going to be hard to top.
This last weekend marked the 38th anniversary of the day Uchu Senkan Yamato launched onto Japanese TV screens, ushering in a new era for the anime medium. So with such a notable date glaring at me from that north star of my absurdly long fandom, it was with both a natural feeling of apprehension & unfettered excitement that I had been able to get a decent look at the first few installments of Yutaka Izibuchi’s all-star remake of the Yamato legend. This grand scale retelling of the seminal series has the distinction of Izibuchi(RahXephon, Patlabor), not only taking over reins of direction from Hideaki Anno (who started with some initial storyboard work), but Yamato 2199 also sports the work of Junichi Tamamori as lead Mechanical Designer, Nobuteru Yuki(X, Escaflowne) as Character Designer, and starring the voices of Daisuke Ono as Susumu Kodai, and Houko Kuwshima (Martian Successor Nadesico) as Yuki Mori. With a large scale Shochiku theatrical releases of episode bursts, followed by bilingual subbed Blu-ray months before a major TV debut, this is a project on a size that only the prestigious can experience.
And while so many projects come and go by way of massive ad-campaign, and internet hype, Yamato 2199 is in my estimation, the real deal. An event that lives up to every expectation thus far, offering up a faithful, and passionate return to one of anime’s greats. I won’t go too much into plot details as the story is pretty universal, and such heavily covered territory can be discussed elsewhere. But what I can say for now, is that the new series is an at-times lavish affair that is every bit as detailed in its trappings, as it is in its characters. In many ways, the Voyage To Iscandar has been given a denser, almost novel-like treatment, and is most effective when it offers more depth in places that the much lower-budgeted original found itself unable to. From the Battle Of Mars, to the launching of the legendary battleship, the treatment of all these famous moments is nothing short of Class-A.
Among some of the changes made to this rendition, while reflective of more to the minute tastes, rarely to never distracts from matters at this point in the tale. Substituting Dr.Sado’s ever cute cat, with a curvy nurse could so easily have been a bad sign, but Harada turns out to be a fine, thoughtful addition to the crew, as the roles of Science Officer Niimi, and the changing of Zero pilot, Yamamoto from man to woman. But most welcome for me is the upgrade of Yuki Mori, which offers her a more central role on the bridge, as well as a greater amount of complexity right out of the gate. She is clearly a more mysterious character this time around, and a nice change from the one-dimensional “Starbuck” facelift she received in the recent live-action adaptation.
The new design work is a smooth mixture of classic and contemporary, and is more than worth noting. Virtually everything from the underground cities of Earth, to the Gamilas Empire feels weighty enough for a feature film. From the earliest moments of the show, space battles, while in no way carrying the painterly feel of the classic series and films, has an often graceful amount of depth & detail that borders on obsessive. (Turn boosters on the side of each battle class ship!) And the costume changes offer up a more functional look than before. Particularly with the uniforms that hew closer to Nicolas Meyer’s more nautical concepts for his game-changing Star Trek II:The Wrath Of Khan. But perhaps the most impressive, is the design and interior of the Yamato itself, which is lovingly rendered with a sense of the tactile which is more often than not, severely not present in recent anime. Going above and beyond what is usually attainable with current CG-driven animation art, Yamato is so far one of the premier examples of how beautiful science fiction can look through the lens of anime art. (I will not go into just how impressive things get once they reach Jupiter-btw)
But most importantly, all of this comes in the service of retelling a story that is almost as important to the modern Japanese narrative as to animated television. Ostensibly an operatic rumination on the Pacific War by way of romantic space, the Yamato story begins with a sure-handed flow that is unprecedented in today’s climate. The tale of Kodai, a young pilot, eager to understand the man responsible for the loss of his decorated older brother, as humanity makes one last gamble to save itself remains as potent as ever. From the first episodes, it’s pretty clear that no expense was spared in making the world and characters paramount. By the point where I left off, it was also quite apparent that this version of the tale is ready to take on a few new wrinkles that are bound to pleasantly surprise. Whichever way one comes into the universe Yoshinobu Nishizaki & Leiji Matsumoto created, I’m happy to state here that the legacy of Yamato seems to be in ideal hands. Anime lovers parched for something sincere and grand, prepare for a flood come a few months from now.
So happy to see that around the time of my last post, a small group of new shows arrive with my notions well complimented. It seems as though despite the ever glowering cloud of desperation often gumming up recent anime schedules,this worry has finally found a weak spot. That, or the old fixer-upper solutions are no longer working. Whatever the case, it seems that certain prayers may be answered this season as not one, but three shows debuted this last week that offer shining proof that anime can indeed offer more than the expected warm blankie/cocoa combo they’ve been dishing out ad-nauseum over the last several seasons.
(Not that I dislike cocoa, mind you. But one too many makes for a violently upset Wintermuted.)
Starting off with Level E, a punchy, goofy science fiction comedy set in a world where extraterrestrials co-exist amongst the ignorant human population until the day one decides to move into the new home of a young baseball hopeful (Sans permission, and is of the “just won’t go away” quantity.). Both refreshingly funny, and breathlessly retro (the original manga was serialized in the mid 90s-Yes.), the comedy plays like an X-Files parody, with a dose of GTO-like shonen energy for good measure. It is especially fun in how the interplay between lead protagonist, Yukitaka, an ordinary boy who’s prowess in baseball has led him to a potentially exciting new life in a new town, and hopelessly irritating alien prince Baka works. It’s a simple, and yet effective take on the classic straight-man, and the spoiled fool, made all the funnier with the erstwhile prince’s appearance as a strikingly effeminate pretty boy. Add the classic 90s hard manga art style, and the whole package thus far is quite promising. Studio Pierrot (Click Me.) and David may have themselves a memorable little hit on their hands if they continue to expand the world, and drag poor Yukitaka along for the ride.
Level E is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but free within days!).
Second is clearly on a much more familiar stage, and pays homage to two generations of anime fandom, and as such could be a more dicey project. I write simply about Yutaka Yamamoto’s big-scale NoItamina project, Fractale, which plays like a Greatest Hits compilation of not merely anime favorites, but potentially as contemporary metaphor. In the idyllic fantasy world that resembles an Irish isle surrounded by deceptively analog trappings, where youthful wanderer, Clain seems to live amongst virtual citizens called “Doppels”, his seemingly peaceful virtual life is thrown for a loop when he encounters a mysterious girl on a glider chased by roughs in an airship. So already, this should sound terribly familiar. Right on down to the design aesthetic, we are in a post-cyberpunk take on Miyazaki (or Nadia, pick your poison), complete with simple attractive leads, silly, ineffective villainy, and a love of quiet, open space. But knowing that this is being filtered through the minds of both Yamamoto, a director with a full understanding of the form, and noted critic & writer Hiroki Azuma, this is sure to take come interesting turns as we come to learn more about Clain, Phryne, and the world watched over by the mysterious Fractale system.
The problems with this show are evident in presentation, since it depends so much on either full knowledge of the inspiration, or completely new perspective which can either help or cripple the series as a whole. Long and short, this series, while having a promising debut episode needs to gather steam quickly to fully work. So while some critics may find this inexcusably trite and hopelessly post-modern, perhaps this is only the beginning of a unique exploration of anime fandom as well as the increasing allure of insular living. The show seems to definitely be going in this direction. Here’s hoping they find something truly new and exciting along the way.
And lastly, it should be noted that of all the new shows out this season, the one I’m most hopeful for is AIC Classic’s visually rich & utterly fascinating adaptation of Takako Shimura‘s Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son). Telling the take of young middle schoolers, Nitori, and Takatsuki, a boy and girl who share a secret of wishing to switch genders, the story is told with sensitivity, and a truly unique visual style. So much more interested in letting the lives of the two leads take the forefront, rather than going for the cheap and easy trap route is a bold, and human turn in a medium that is often more restrictive of such notions. Right away, the visuals(much like a watercolor storybook come to life) offer the promise of something altogether new. In fact, bold doesn’t begin to describe it.
If there are any true problems with the debut episode, it is that we are thrust in several volumes into the story that was likely an episode count issue, and could very well make or break the series as a whole. We are given glimpses into their respective lives, but it makes the viewer wish for a much smoother means to get to know them. And as a show with a slower pace than others, it would likely benefit from less compression. But given the presentation, this was likely an impossibility. So the mix can be a bit of a conundrum by design. And yet despite all this, a show focusing on issues of gender identity, and the pangs that come with being young makes for potentially important viewing. There is a lot of emotional truth to all of this, something that can go a long way if Ei Aoki & crew stay the course.
Hourou Musuko is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but available free in days!)
So with these new shows in the ether, ready to take on a potentially evolving landscape, here’s hoping fans all over are equally as prepared for change as this new year starts off full throttle. I know I am.