#147 : Animated Classics of Japanese Literature

ACoJL_1Never judge a book by it’s cover… same goes for anything else that is packaged. Advertisers can sell you anything, so long as the branding is attractive to you. Sometimes the plainest of outer shells contain the richest and most profound inner contents; true beauty at it’s best. Let’s recap about books again for a moment, literature if you will. One of the best ways one can look at a culture is to examine the stories that they tell. These tales give the personal experiences, feelings and outlook of those who choose to write it all down and express. Anime often times gets big and over the top and strives for something newer, brighter, more exciting, etc. But what of the classic literary tales of Japan, don’t they deserve a voice as well? Of course they do and with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature you can have your cake and eat it too without ever reading a line of text.

… Of course if you don’t speak, or comprehend Japanese, you will more than likely be reading subtitles for Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, or any other anime unless you have, or choose the route of a dub in your native language. So in the end watching anime can be like reading a book… sort of. Don’t you feel smarter knowing you watch cartoons? No matter which way you slice it, you are going to be reading. …

ACoJL_2On it’s original release, Animated Classics of Japanese Literature went by another name. Sumitomo Life Insurance Youth Anime Complete Collection is the proper title as seen in Japan. The naming that I am familiar with and using in this entry, was used on the DVDs I found from the old Central Park Media catalog. An odd choice for that company back in the day, but I for one am glad that this was part of their repertoire. Similar to another Nippon Animation production, World Masterpiece Theater (Nippon animated both productions by the way), Animated Classics of Japanese Literature would translate native Japanese stories instead of the Western classics more familiar to the previous. Obviously! Except in the case of Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, these would be pocket sized entries as each episode, or two, or three, was a self contained story instead of the longer drawn out full series format. Hence we have an emphasis on the format of the short story rather than the longer novel.

ACoJL_3Even to this day I have yet to see the complete series. The long out of print DVDs released here in the U.S. only cover a dozen of the 34 total episodes. And if I remember correctly, a few more episodes were also available on VHS. With only about one third of the series under my belt I can safely give a proper analysis due to the overarching format being an omnibus collection of smaller stories. This is not for the usual otaku type searching for magical girls or giant robots. These are mundane stories, very plain and mostly ordinary. Many are very dramatic, or at times comedic, depending on the source. As a fan of World Masterpiece Theater this was a no brainer for myself as I enjoy seeing literary classics come to life from my favorite visual medium of animation. As a lover of Eastern culture and philosophy, I welcomed these stories into my home like a traveling friend. As I have grown up in the west, all of these tales are completely foreign to my native experience and serve as an appetizer to introduce me to more of Japan’s literary history. Many of these episodes were memorable, but I always seem to remember The Harp of Burma most fondly.

To finish off, let’s go back to the beginning… never judge a book by it’s cover. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature may not win awards for glorious designs or high end animation. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature is also, in many cases, not what we gravitate towards our choosing of anime subject matter. These are mostly common everyday stories, similar to many of the books we read in school, or choose to now, that pertain to our cultural definition. Often times these stories have lasting value and even with a more budget appearance, their golden centers still shine.

1984… 35 Years (and counting) of Love / A Film Trifecta

1984… ‘Anime’s Golden Summer of Love’. And let me say first and foremost, that this statement is my personal opinion. I am of course paying homage to the famed ‘Summer of Love’ from 1967 that was the high point of the hippie counterculture. An idealistic paradise of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll during an era of intensity and danger. The anime version that I am putting a label on is nothing like 1967, but was a year of ‘Love’ in more ways than one. I was a five year old living in the U.S. during 1984, so I don’t have first hand knowledge of what actually happened in Japan. What I do know is that 1984 could be a serious contender for being a tipping point year in anime. And this is was all down to three beautiful and classic films.

The stars must have been aligned a certain way for a year that featured the directing talents of Noboru Ishiguro with Shoji Kawamori, Mamoru Oshii and Hayao Miyazaki. Three plus one geniuses in terms of animation, story telling and visual presentation. A couple dozen productions made their way into theaters in 1984, but the three movies that these gentlemen directed perhaps… stole the show. One was a reimagining of a popular romantic mecha science fiction TV series, one was a sequel to a film that was part of a long running screwball comedy and the third was an adaptation to an original manga that rocketed it’s creator into superstardom. Funnily enough, only one of the films was released in the summer time, but we are taking this as a collective metaphor.

Let’s start in February of 1984, February 11 to be exact. Oh wow, personal bias… that’s my birthday. This was the release date of Mamoru Oshii’s entry, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. Urusei Yatsura was Rumiko Takahashi’s first huge success and with the successful TV series and manga, films began to follow. The second is the topic of this discussion and it would be the first time that Mamoru Oshii would show his more signature approach to crafting a movie. While Urusei Yatsura was known for high school slapstick silliness, Beautiful Dreamer would show something else. Oshii’s use of the surreal, odd angles, subtlety, lighting and the sublime would be interjected into the project creating something different from the usual Urusei Yatsura fare. These approaches would eventually become his calling cards, but they began to show there potentialities with Beautiful Dreamer.

March 11, 1984. A popular manga from an anime veteran would see release into theaters. This was the work of the now famous Hayao Miyazaki and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind would be his second time behind the directors chair for a film. Miyazaki’s tale of a young heroine passionate for making the world a beautiful and peaceful place struck a chord with audiences and in a BIG way. Nausicaä’s messages of environmentalism and compassion took sci-fi and fantasy down to earth literally. In an era of far out grand space epics, we are thrust to return to our immediate surroundings and confront the issues plaguing in front of us: reconnecting with and preserving nature, witnessing the corruption of power and greed and standing up for what is true and moral that is within our hearts. The film’s success would give us one of Miyazaki’s most beloved characters with Nausicaä, who would become a benchmark for many of his later creations. Miyazaki’s success and growing popularity from Nausicaä would lead him with his partner in crime, Isao Takahata, to found their famed Studio Ghibli.

We now come to summer, July in fact. Debuting on July 7 would be our final film, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love… say that three times fast. Macross was a huge hit on TV for being an amalgam of everything otaku related at the time. Mixing aliens, space opera and mecha with tenderness, romance and beautiful character designs (hooray for Haruhiko Mikimoto!), Macross would reach a large fan base and encapsulated the height of passionate sci-fi idealism of the era. A reinterpreted film would show it’s hand in 1984 bringing the characters back to life yet again after the now defunct TV series left the air. This would be an alternate retelling and helming the directors chairs would be two men, series director and long time industry veteran Noboru Ishiguro and mecha designer/sci-fi fan Shoji Kawamori. Together they resurrected the giant Macross ship for another voyage that left fans, including me, jaw dropped and spellbound.

Of course 1984 was so much more than these three films and in the future I will include a more in depth focus for the year as a whole, but these three movies are something special. This ‘Summer of Love’ came to me because of the fact for the title of the Macross film; an exercise of putting two and two together. But pondering on this title I thought ‘Love’ could stand for a labor of love. All three of these films were created during the analog era of painted cel animation, “Look mom no hands computers.” All three of these films are a testament to the sweat and effort during that era as these productions were well crafted, painstakingly detailed and hold up in terms of quality today. These are three films that I love (one more than the other two because I am an uber fan of Macross) and treasure and I hope that you do as well.

#146 : Astro Boy (1980 TV Series)

AB80_1I bow down before thee, for you Astro Boy are the head patron saint of all anime. But wait, this is not the original version from 1963 that is often considered among the first modern anime to be conceived. No, this is not that version from 2003, nor that animated movie that was… umm… yeah. This telling of Astro Boy is like the middle child of the family, a reimagined version from 1980 that was under the full direction of it’s original creator, the man himself, Osamu Tezuka. I bow yet again. For this time round we present Astro Boy in FULL COLOR!, an upgrade from the black and white of the 1960s. So fancy! Heroes we look up to and admire come in all shapes, sizes and ages, but how many have the heart of an innocent child? Or even better, is an innocent child who is curious and sensitive to himself and everyone around him? Astro Boy is this and that’s why we fans love you!

AB80_2The character of Astro Boy… he is so cute and a lot like a stuffed animal. I just want to hug him and keep him safe from harm, but more than likely he will be the one protecting me instead. A mix of Superman, Frankenstein and Pinnochio that is rolled into an idealistic hope for the future, Astro Boy tells stories with an aesthetic originating in the 1950s/60s with animation advancements from 1980. We are in an idealized utopian world of the nuclear family, school days and good always triumphing over evil. Progress, optimism and the coming of advanced technologies spearheaded with science that includes a product that defines the show, robots. One of those robots is a young boy who was a clone of a boy who was tragically killed in an auto accident. The grief and guilt from the boy’s father led to the birth of our protagonist Astro Boy, which by the way, is the plot for the opening episode.

AB80_3The joy of Astro Boy is that really and truly is a show for children. And yes, it can also be enjoyed by the whole family, or even us youth minded adult types. The storylines for each episode are mostly simple to digest and easy to follow and often times you may be asking yourself, am I too old for this? And then the truth begins to shine from underneath, as is the magic of Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka’s humanitarianism and depth are renowned in every work he created, but it is in full display in Astro Boy. The bright colors and simple designs are just a package for the drama and lessons that each episode portrays. Nothing is held back, including at times the cost of one’s life. Astro Boy is a show with a high body count and often depicts some sort of sacrifice. The difference is that there is always a moral teaching behind everything. Tezuka does not lie to children and shows that loss and even death are a part of our lives and that violence is not always the answer. Tezuka’s Unico movies are of a similar caliber.

AB80_4Each episode is self contained so there is no overarching serialized story that comes to a final conclusion. The episodes featuring arch nemesis Atlas are the closest to a having a larger narrative and offers much in terms of drama. Atlas became my favorite character and his tragic story alongside his beloved Livian, brought much in terms of maturity and personal reflection. Many times anime portrays the villain, or antagonist, as a more appealing character than the hero; Atlas belongs with this grouping of classic beloved bad boys… and girls. On another note one special episode stands out. A crossover story, which features Tezuka alums Black Jack, Rock and Sapphire; a welcome treat for those of us who are fans of the ‘God of Manga’s’ work.

I whole heartedly recommend Astro Boy as a starter anime if you have young children. And for those of you who are full grown, such as myself and I am sure you as well, the 1980 version of Astro Boy is something of an oddity to consider if it crosses your path. Relive the 1950s/60s from the perspective of the 1980s in the current moment of whatever year you consider the present. In the end it’s all the same.

#145 : Crying Freeman

CF_1Crying Freeman… sex and violence… sexy people and intense fighting… bare naked bodies with tattoos and death on the par with Fist of the North Star. If action movies could be infused with cheesy late night erotic dramas they would come out as Crying Freeman. It’s like Golgo 13 sans the James Bond references and stoicism and injected instead with yakuza culture and a protoganist who is more humane than a cold blooded killing machine. Crying Freeman: not politically correct, over the top, erotic and totally not for children… it’s the type of anime that when you were young you stayed up and waited for you parents to go to sleep so you can experience it without their knowledge of what you were doing in the wee hours of the morning. “Hey kids when are you all gonna get some shut eye?”

CF_2Don’t ask my why, but the first episode of Crying Freeman does two things for me. One, I think of the George Michael song Careless Whisper, why was this not on the soundtrack it would have been amazing? “I’m never gonna dance again, Guilty feet have got no rhythm…” And then that saxophone line hits and then it’s all over… Now number two, I laugh and laugh hard. For an OVA that takes itself so seriously on being a ridiculous ultimate fantasy of masculine cock swagger, one can’t help but chuckle at times. Crying Freeman is not a comedy, but it sure can pass as one. In a total of six episodes I can recommend the first two as it sets the foundation of the story and I leave it up to you to finish the final four. By then it becomes repetitive and a top this crazy sexual, or action moment, again and again. … If anything watch the first episode, it’s so good at being bad it’s amazingly entertaining.

CF_3So here is the basic plot… a former artist is turned into a hired killer for the 108 Dragons by means of torture, interrogation and acupuncture. The only humanity left within him appears as crying when he frags someone due to a subconscious reflex. Our hero’s only hope is wanting to be a quote free man again who also has this habit of crying… now this title makes sense. During one mission he is spotted by a beautiful lady artist, which means the poor girl, who for no luck of her own accord, has to be silenced due to being a witness. She has just turned 29 and knowing that she is to be killed has only one wish. To… not… die… a virgin! OK, this is… different. Freeman eventually shows up and she confesses that he can kill her if she can go to bed with him. He agrees and it turns out… he is a virgin… too? SAY WHAT! Two gorgeous specimens of human ideal beauty and both have never had sex? Really? Seriously? Well it could happen to the best of us? You can laugh now if you wish, because I did. In the aftermath of joining together in coitus, a committed relationship would blossom and the plot now centers around Freeman saving his lover from harm. This is only the first episode and it seems so ridiculous, but I can’t help but say that I enjoyed it; who in their right mind came up with this?

CF_4The original manga was penned by the name of Kazuo Koike, who has a reputation for the bizarre and outlandish. I give this man props for being so mind blowing on a level I can’t even comprehend. The other side of course is the man who created the illustrations and character designs, one Ryochi Ikegami. He is the key to Crying Freeman’s biggest saving grace. The man’s style is beautiful and is a much more realistic rendering approach in regards to human anatomy and very much so, facial structure. This is not the usual cartoonish look most associated with anime, Ikegami’s talent is more like great figure drawing.

So often titles fit into the term ‘Manime’ (I hate that term) and Crying Freeman is no exception. The joy of Crying Freeman is in the fact that this is B-grade, maybe even C-grade schlock, but it does have a decent story… decent?… and can always be good if you need a laugh or a WTF moment. Sadly it still does not have George Michael, sigh.

#144 : Bubblegum Crisis

BGC_1The year of 2032… Mega Tokyo… hey what happened to regular Tokyo?… all hell has broken loose with these so called Boomers trashing the place. These androids are even too much for the illustrious AD Police, even with all their firepower and sophisticated technology. I demand to see how much of the tax revenue is being spent for this organization. We must therefore have a need for a third party to aid in this scenario. Welcome to the ’Hurricane’ world of the Knight Sabers. A world where a quartet of armored young women are the best answer for peace and justice. A world known simply as Bubblegum Crisis.

So Bubblegum Crisis… it’s like Blade Runner with both the action intensity and sexiness turned way up high. Plus, get extra hairspray as this is the 80s; tease that hair kidos! I guess if one is to make their own anime homage to a Blade Runner-like universe, one must do it very LOUD! Make is sexy! Drop all that film noir moodiness and introspection and let the action tell the story. And for good measure why not add in a little bit of The Terminator, Batman and Streets of Fire for good measure. Plus why not also spice things up with a little sentai squad action, wearable mechanical armor and good looking characters via Kenichi Sonoda. Hmm, explosions and attractive people with a dash of cyberpunk for good measure, now I see why this OVA gained some notoriety. For a time Bubblegum Crisis defined what anime was for many fans, but as we all know, anime is so much more than just well animated hi-octane action stories.

BGC_2OK just who are these Knight Sabers exactly? A lingerie store owner, a motorcycle obsessed rock singer, an aerobics instructor and a junior member of the AD Police make up our heroic quartet. Interesting… just shows you don’t really know people that well outside the office. While their day jobs are quite ordinary, the Knight Sabers crime fighting skills are anything but. With the aid of skin tight wearable armor that aids in performance, these girls can kick some serious butt. Seriously! Kind of like Saint Seiya with super high end technology that has a more fetish like approach that could rival the robot designs from say The Humanoid? With high heels too! Gatchaman may have thigh high boots, but the Knight Sabers have stilettos. And it is these spike heeled suits that do the best damage against the Genom Corporation’s never ending renegade Boomer population. The AD Police try their best, but they often have a better role as spectators. The fighting style that the Knight Sabers employs reminds me a lot of Casshan… come to think of it he had a streamlined body suit too. Holy cow, where are all these references to other anime coming from?

BGC_3Bubblegum Crisis is perhaps the biggest creation of the studio AIC. Built on the bedrock of Megazone 23 and two other Sonoda designed entries, Wannabies and Gall Force, Bubblegum Crisis is AIC at it’s height. Perhaps these three previous entries led the way like stepping stones towards Bubblegum Crisis? Who can say, but everything was right and in place to bring the Knight Sabers to the OVA market, which by 1987 was really in high gear. Bubblegum Crisis is in many ways an original creation that is an homage to so many pop culture references. Fans of sci-fi and anime making their own anime their way.

BGC_4I know Bubblegum Crisis is beloved by many established fans and everyday is introduced to new ones via whatever method you choose to watch. I will say I like it, but I don’t get all the hype. Maybe because this was one of the best options back in the day as it was easy to come by and it spoke towards certain demographics. I will admit it’s a classic, animated very well (almost seems like each episode is a mini movie; late 80s OVA quality!) and a nice example of cyberpunk as a genre. As a piece of action entertainment Bubblegum Crisis is stellar, but for me at least it starts to wear down particularly in the later episodes. Still, it is fun and has a rockin’ soundtrack, can’t complain about that!

#142 : Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01

M01_1If one is a fan of mecha, machinery, or action with the inclusion of a machine of some sort, then Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 would be considered as close to porn for fans. Watch the opening scene with all the mechanics and electronics… it’s total mecha hentai, second to perhaps the credits of Patlabor 2. Only a mechanical designer would have created something like this OVA and in the case of MADOX-01 that is the truth. The name of Shinji Aramaki is all over the place… director, story creation and mechanical designer. I bet he was the caterer too? … Funny thing about MADOX-01, it reminds me of another OVA, I wonder what it could be? Though it’s not exactly the same it does remind me of… umm? Hmm? Let me think on this one…

M01_2The year, 1987. The place, Japan. The man,  Shinji Aramaki. The rise of the OVA format gave opportunities for many younger and/or junior rank members of the anime industry to take on the big role of directing a project. Names like Ichiro Itano, Koichi Ohata and Toshihiro Hirano went from special effects artists, mechanical designers, or character designers and moved into the realm of the director’s chair. Aramaki’s portfolio was filled with many mechanical designs ranging from anime including: Genesis Climber Mospeada, Megazone 23 (wait a minute!… oh never mind) and Bubblegum Crisis and western based shows like Pole Position, M.A.S.K. and even the original Transformers. Quite a nice lineup there so yes, he can draw machines very well… very well, but what about directing? I suppose its true to stick with your strengths and that is what Aramaki did with MADOX-01. A mechanical designer directing an anime all about mecha… what a surprise.

M01_3The Japanese government has a new fancy weapon, wearable armor in fact. Codenamed the MADOX-01 it showcases quite the firepower and agility. It’s pilot even defeats an old stalwart in more traditional equipment, much to his chagrin. Yeah old man, you lost to a girl! I always thought women were better mecha pilots anyway! 🙂 Later the machine needs to be transported to a new location and somehow becomes lost after an accident (shakes head). Can’t the government afford a decent security transport? Almost like in Black Magic M-66… keep track of your toys kids! Then this fancy device ends up in the hands of some nerdy engineering student who seems to understand how it works (hello Amuro Ray?) and then becomes connected with it literally. Now Mr. Smarty Student has to evade the feds, including that angry guy from before who wants revenge so bad for being beaten before (chuckles). Again a little like Megazone 23 with Shogo with the Garland and being chased by the military and gaining a rival with B.D. …

M01_4… Ah ha, it was Megazone 23 after all? Though I am stretching it a little, there are similarities if you take both OVAs from a certain point of view. Both stories want our protagonists to get back to their respective girlfriends at the end, but they have a minor issue of being wanted, as well as chased, from a larger authority. MADOX-01 is a far simpler story and is more based around the action than the unfolding mystery and drama of Megazone 23 (first installment to be specific). MADOX-01 is fun and has some unique character designs as well , but it is really a one and done sort of viewing. If you love mecha and action you will more than likely rewatch, while if you are more into shojo, or romance, I doubt you would consider it in the first place. I would highly recommend Megazone 23 in either case, just because it is a personal favorite and a far more superior production (my opinion). Either way they are both products of action powerhouse studio AIC!

By the way, in case you are interested in what came of Aramaki-san he continued on as a director years later. Remember the CGI movies of Appleseed and Space Pirate Captain Harlock? He was behind the chair on those films and they really left me flat… I couldn’t do fifteen minutes of either one. MADOX-01 is thankfully watchable, short and old style cel drawn too… mmm, I love the smell of analog in the morning.

#141 : The Dagger of Kamui

You love ninja and samurai stories, I love ninja and samurai stories… we all love a good ninja or samurai story. Here in the west we have the epics of ancient Europe and the American western to delight our tastes in mythology, but for some of us there is a draw from an alternate source, the native myths of the East. Anime’s representation of a skilled man (or woman) is numerous: Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin and Ninja Scroll just to name a few. But what if we can marry the samurai genre with the western genre into a film? Yup, that’s been done before… ever heard of 1985’s The Dagger of Kamui?

DoK_1Even if one is not much into action, ninja skills, or sword mastery, The Dagger of Kamui can still be a worthy watch; even if only just once! The Dagger of Kamui equates the definition of the big epic expensive action film, with an art house twist. Big… no no no… more like say, HUGE! Take a break my friends because this is one of those long journeys that spans Japan, Russia and then the wild west of America. Now that is quite a tour! You even get to meet historic figures like Geronimo and Mark Twain too. What?! And this is still considered a ninja, or samurai film? Or perhaps the ultimate shonen fighter? That may be stretching it, but does it matter? Nah, not at all. Just remember, to tell a large epic journey will take some time and this film is long, two plus hours long. And no intermission either (except the pause button, shh! it’s a secret), so be prepared.

DoK_2The Dagger of Kamui is a great example of ‘the hero’s journey’. The Hero with a Thousand Faces has now reached 1,001; a quick nod to you Joseph Campbell! Our hero is Jiro who is in no better terms, a bastard. He is an illegitimate child adopted into a loving family and also an individual whose heritage is partly Ainu, the native culture of Japan that was once frowned upon. Needless to say the kid is not well liked, or respected for no fault of his own except the ignorance of those around him. These elements don’t help when Jiro returns home to find his mother and sister murdered. Take a guess who gets the blame with no due process? With a dagger in hand that will unlock many clues of his origins and destiny, Jiro goes on the run to at first find the murderer of his family and then… well, that’s the beauty of being on a quest… it’s open to discovery beyond imagination.

DoK_3The story may be huge, the music is funky, with electric guitar and traditional Japanese drumming, but the visuals are a sight to behold. This is one gorgeous movie. Backgrounds are lush. Motion is fluid. Colors are bold. The fight scenes are like expressionist paintings that have come to life that could easily pass as a psychedelic experience. No surprise really as this was made at Madhouse, a studio which seems to have two quality settings in the visual department… amazing and fantastic. That and with a director like Rintaro, the ocular experience triples if not quadruples with his use of editing, color and dynamics. Let me go back to the fight scenes again. They are not like the usual brawl. Think more in terms of a well choreographed dance in a lucid dream you can only have at midnight where all around is magic and wonder to behold and see. Conflict becomes poetic art; danger becomes beautiful.

DoK_480s anime cinema has many standout choices. Many originate from well known directors, franchises, or are just at the right place at the right time. The Dagger of Kamui can fall into line with say the Fist of the North Star film for being a big action epic where our hero has to face up against a his major arch rival in the end, but The Dagger of Kamui is a completely different beast altogether. Some action films are just that, an action film. But there are those action films that are blessed to have been created by an auteur studio and an auteur director as well. There is something special about these movies, even though they can be a little long winded. The Dagger of Kamui is one wild ride!