#155 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Space Chapter

YSC_1The distances between stars or planets can be compared to some of the relationships we have with the closest people we see on a daily basis; many times it can be vast and wide. How well do we really know each other by way of how each of us truly feels about each other? A more intriguing thought, what secrets do we conceal, or what elements from our past do we struggle with that haunt us and affect our current relationships? The final production of Madhouse’s adaptations of Osamu Tezuka’s collective Phoenix manga, The Space Chapter, would leave historic Japan behind for the far future and outer space and would deal with these issues of inner space head on. The lessons of karma, duty and fate are yet again front and center stage.

YSC_2Bias here, this is my personal favorite of the three as this is the most psychological, the darkest and the most passionate in terms of relationship dynamics. As an OVA set in the far future, in deep outer space and with highly advanced technology you would think the clothes of science fiction would overtake the content of the the story’s relationship dynamics with spectacle and fantasy. The Space Chapter is a great example of science fiction done very well by integrating both and pushing the intensity even higher. Outer space can be a place where much contemplation can be observed and where isolation, or being alone, can bring out the best and worst in all of us. If Ingmar Bergman borrowed the set from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to make a movie, I think this would be the product… except in this case it is animated and not live action.

YSC_3Four passengers on an interstellar spaceship are suddenly awoken from stasis to realize that the ship they are traveling on has been hit by a meteor, or something similar. In haste they rush to find their fifth comrade who was piloting and watching over the ship had mysteriously died during their sleep. Realizing the damage is beyond repair, they all decide to all abandon ship in separate escape capsules. Now adrift in space alone with limited air and food, the situation becomes one of survival and opening up about their mysterious fifth crew member. Everyone had a different story to tell. He was rumored to be immortal and forever young. He also seemed to be an android from medical examinations. There were even romantic feelings between him and the lone female crew member. His last words left in the ships log struck a note of fear in the others, someone was out to kill him. Who could it be?

YSC_4To add more drama to our story a mysterious fifth capsule appears and catches up with the other four belonging to the fallen mystery man, including signs of a passenger. One by one the original four members would be reduced to two leaving the remaining duo to land on a mysterious planet. From here the story’s mysteries begin to twist even more with the ultimate truths coming out. … and what of our friend the phoenix? She is most definitely here and is a very integral part of the story as she has a very special relationship with our mysterious crew member. The lessons of karma and balance abound with his past as we see the corruption of what was a good innocent man showing a side of evil that we wish did not exist in humanity.

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll), the inclusion of his personal touch is seen throughout the OVA, minus the super heavy action he is often noted for. The stylized character designs add a layer of maturity to Tezuka’s originals and mixed with Madhouse’s signature heavy use of limited color (blue for this OVA) in the capsule scenes and stark lighting add to this production’s intensity. While this may have been the final outing for Phoenix in the 1980s it would not be the last overall (the 13 episode TV series from the early 2000s is great!). Osamu Tezuka’s work is key and essential for all of us who regard ourselves as fans of Japanese animation. This trilogy as a whole (Karma Chapter and Yamato Chapter) is one of the best examples of the output from the 1980s and is finally now a part of the Classic Anime Museum. It has been a long time coming.

#154 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Yamato Chapter

PYC_1We continue our journey through the Phoenix trilogy from the 1980s with the second part, an adaptation of the Yamato Chapter. Debuting as a followup to the previous year’s film Karma Chapter, 1987 would bring the Yamato Chapter as a direct to home video OVA release. The issues of karma, fate and destiny would be told once again in another historic era from Japan’s history. And riding along side for the ride to make sure that order and fate are in good hands is that beautiful bird of fire herself, that avian goddess, the hi no tori, the firebird, the phoenix.

PYC_2From some quick guerilla research, the Yamato Chapter is loosely based (very loosely) on the famous traditional legend of Yamato Takeru, a name not known very well to us in the west. From time to time and from watching various anime, we may come across and hear this very name… Yamato Takeru No Mikoto… Oh lord not Garzey’s Wing. Yet beyond the experiences we have may hearing this name from oddly dubbed projects we come to learn about the Arthurian qualities of this mythological tale and figure and it’s importance to Japan. … reason #1 to watch anime: you subtly learn more about Japanese culture!… How ironic that historically both king Arthur and Yamato Takeru are from very similar eras in time and even though a great distance existed between both heroes in terms of worldly distance, they arrived concurrently in time. Could this be the work of our friend the phoenix? Hmm… Onward now and back to the Yamato Chapter

PYC_3Tezuka’s reimagined version begins with a pastoral scene featuring a traveling youth, Oguna. While walking along one day he gets shot in the arm by the bow of a beautiful young maiden, Kajika. Too bad this was not cupid’s arrow instead, because from the beginning these two had sparks in their eyes; love at first sight defined. This developing relationship will become the cornerstone, the pillar, the axis, from which the entire story centers itself. Star crossed lovers who share a common destiny. While treating Oguna’s wound, Kajika would introduce her brother, Takeru, leading to a moment of hesitation in the eyes of Oguna. This is a familiar name, but why? Soon Oguna begins to enjoy his stay with the rustic Kumaso tribe and begins to have strong feelings about wanting to join their ranks and marry Kajika. Except there is something that is biting at him. Oguna is actually part of the rival Yamato clan and he has a particular vendetta towards Takeru.

PYC_4A tale of love vs. duty, fate vs. freewill and justice vs. mercy, the Yamato Chapter can be likened to a drama where at the beginning we begin in ignorance and slowly as the plot progresses we move into clarity and truth. Each layer slowly reveals itself to twist the plot in a slightly different direction that finally concludes with a slow tragic tale of love, sacrifice and redemption. The Yamato Chapter becomes at the end of the movie a romance that shows the power of humanity, compassion and trust. The legacy that Oguna and Kajika share together at the end shakes the established order and calls for change, yet it must come in the face of martyrdom; such was their fates. Never think one small step, or sacrifice, towards progress and bringing clarity to all of us is too small as we all have our parts to play in this game of life. Only the phoenix knows what and when our roles have been fulfilled, so keep giving it your best attempt.

Adapting Osamu Tezuka’s original manga was again Madhouse. A double combination of high quality presenting a rare gem of mature genius. As I have said before in regards to any of Tezuka’s Phoenix adaptations, I view these anime productions as one of my sources for spiritual pondering. How many times do we turn to a religion, or spiritual philosophy to find answers to the complexities of life? I know I have and still do yet there is ironically an alternate source via Japanese animation from the pen of anime’s ultimate grandfather. To Osamu Tezuka… I greatly thank you for sharing these stories with us and I hope I can be one source of I don’t know how many to continue your legacy. Peace be with you my friend.

#153 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Karma Chapter

PKC_1The Vedas, The Popul Vuh, The Bible, Hesiod’s Theogony… cultures from around the world have created texts and mythologies explaining the sacred within our universe. All point to similar conclusions since universal order, structure and the balance of harmony are at an essence both in terms of our lives as humans, but also, the grand scope of the cosmos itself. Anime has in my opinion an epic collection of stories as well that show the greater answers to questions we often ponder as we live within the cycles of time and nature. Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix saga is considered his magmum opus, his life’s work and perhaps his most important creation. Several adaptations have been created, but a trilogy made in the mid 1980s will be the focus of this session. In particular, the 1986 film of Hi no Tori: Houou-hen/Phoenix: Karma Chapter.

PKC_2Karma can at times be a difficult subject to fully grasp. We often think the actions put out into the universe will come back to us or others as either good or bad depending on the circumstances. We think also that we control the scheduling of karma and the precise payment for any particular action. In truth… not exactly. We think there is equal justice, divine retribution and free will, but what of predestined fate, or unsuspected surprises? The more I delve into Buddhist philosophies and The Law of Attraction, the more I begin to see that self and other, good and bad, fate and free will are interconnected. The more I see that what I do and what happens to me are in essence one and the same. Tezuka’s Phoenix stories are all about these heavy themes, but for the Karma Chapter, this is played out between the lives of two men, who at two points in their lives meet and share a fate that seems predetermined.

PKC_3One man, Akanemaru, is a sculptor who has a passion for finding a legendary bird to grant him immortal life, the Phoenix. He hopes someday to be recognized for his talents to the point that the need for success and status blinds his humanity. The other man named Gao, is a one armed mass killer with no real goal except to enact his rage. He thinks nothing of causing harm, except for one brief instance where he saves the life of a ladybug. One particular victim would eventually change his perceptions and lead Gao to find a way to atone for his sins. He is a man who is trying to redeem his humanity. Twists of fate for both men as they try on the roles that feed lustful power and compassion. Who is the villain here? Neither as this is a story that draws the line to show that as humans we are both good and evil. All who are good have an essence of evil and the most vile and evil individual also has somewhere a heart that is wounded and wanting love.

PKC_4A grand sculpting competition will eventually settle the fates of both of these men for better or worse and watching alongside is that beautiful bird herself, the phoenix. Is she the great deity of the universe, or a messenger for the gods? We may never know, much like most of the magic of what is life and the totality of the universe. More like a peacock than the usual flaming avian many of us are used to in the west, Tezuka’s phoenix exudes an element of grace and beauty not seen in too many characters of the anime world. Her appearances in every adaptation of Tezuka’s mega epic including the other two chapters of this trilogy (Yamato and Space Chapters), the 1980 film Phoenix 2772 and the 2004 Phoenix TV series are paramount towards the plots for each particular chapter. (I recommend them all if you can find them!)

Telling Tezuka’s grand myth was accomplished via the help of Studio Madhouse along with the directing talent of Rintaro. Adding up three heavyweights should yield a high quality product and without question Phoenix: Karma Chapter is just that. On par with the likes of early Studio Ghibli, Tezuka’s original vision would have a proper presentation in the flashy and colorful 1980s. For many of us, anime titles often become favorites of ours, or fun excursions from reality, but how many become spiritual guidance posts? Tezuka created many classic characters, shows and movies, but for me anything that rings of Phoenix is a holy book deserved to be read and studied.

#67 : The Door into Summer

DiS_1The line between childhood and adulthood can be very arbitrary, if it even exists at all. Physically growing is one thing, but the emotional and psychological circumstances are often the more pronounced to us no matter the age. Sometimes we are ready for growth and other times it smacks on us so hard in surprise that it leaves us in a state of shock. Coming of age stories in anime are many in number with several being dramatic… no… melodramatic. And then there is this 1981 hour long movie that defines, redefines and then turns everything I once knew into a soap opera beyond description. One of my all time favorites, The Door into Summer (Natsu e no Tobira).

To be honest The Door into Summer is much like a guilty pleasure for me. And it shouldn’t be so much, but this production has hot sexual hormones written all over it. And not in the way of being pornographic as The Door into Summer is very sensual in it’s eroticism and yet very dangerous at the same time. Like those naughty romance novels you can’t put down, because each new page is getting to a better part than before. The openness of sexuality is quite an eye opener for 1981, yet… Japan has always been a little more honest about sexuality told in any art form, even though they are known for being a more reserved culture.

DiS_2When begin ironically at an ending, always a great way to start a movie, where we see two boys looking to duel each other the old fashioned way with pistols over the love of a girl. The protagonist, Marion, rushes in to stop this senseless act and asking what has happened this summer break. From here we learn that we are in France in the 1840s as we go back to the beginning of the summer where Marion is left alone at his school residence hall with his school friends due to the fact his mother would rather be with her new husband that her only son. Marion is known as a supposed king of ‘cool’ by being the most rational in his group of friends. After all he stops a fight between two boys who are fighting over a girl that actually loves Marion. In the process, he enters a chicken competition with one of these boys by standing on railroad tracks and waiting for the next train to arrive. Very bold indeed.

DiS_3Upon beginning the movie I began by scratching my head as to the character designs. The Door into Summer is definitely a shojo manga adaptation, but these eyes, these face shapes… who penned these original designs? Then a familiar name came into my lap from some light research… the name of Keiko Takamiya. Ah yes, the original creator of Toward the Terra and Andromeda Stories, this is the answer. And as a shojo in general, the designs in this movie are very, very pretty. Kind of like Rose of Versailles injected with all the best of bishonen of perhaps Saint Seiya. Add to this the fact this was produced by Studio Madhouse showed another level of quality. For me Madhouse equals the creme of the crop and the line work, color and pastel like backgrounds add an ambience that are beyond verbal description.

DiS_4Returning to the aspect of sexuality, it is hard to believe, but during this film we see encounters of jealous suitors in love with the popular girl, a naughty older woman seducing young Marion and a glimpse into one of the boy’s unrequited homosexual desires unfold. Marion has to come to terms with all of this happening around him and with his own sense of self worth and his repressed desires for sexual intimacy. Definitely not a lightweight and thankfully so. Did I ever have a summer like this… not even close. It is entertainment after all, but still these yearnings are the back of all our minds. That feeling of getting down and dirty so to speak, with consent of course.

The Door into Summer is so hot you may get burned… and I bet you’ll watch it again every time you get the chance.

 

#54 : Neo-Tokyo

Short collections are always welcome in my world. Anime often becomes a system of stereotypes… Shonen fighters, magical girls, mecha, Ghibli films. All are great, but is this all that there is to Japanese anime? And of course the answer is absolutely not. There is always something of an alternative. Something more artsy, a little bizarre and uniquely it’s own thing. Art for arts sake and without compromise. A true hallmark of that awesome studio known as Madhouse, welcome to the trilogy Manie-Manie Labyrinth Tales, better known here in the west as Neo-Tokyo.

NT_1We begin with my personal favorite, The Labyrinth. Directed by Rintaro, this a feast of visual delight. Rintaro has always been known for being excessive with visuals to the point that what you are watching becomes more important that the story itself. The story is simple here, an imaginative girl who while playing with her lost and found cat gets sucked into a surreal psychedelic ‘labyrinth’ that leads to a circus via a clock. It just goes to show, watch the invitation you receive from Pierrot-type clowns around grandfather styled clocks. I don’t know if this segment has a meaning or point and I don’t care. It’s pure Rintaro and often when I watch his work I just want to bask in it like a painting in a museum. Plus having the music of Erik Satie is a plus for me 🙂

NT_2The second part known as The Running Man is perhaps the most recognized of the trilogy. I believe this had some play on MTV back in the day and it was in the promotional material of Streamline Pictures. This film looks and feels like its creator, Yoshiyaki Kawajiri. He is best known for a lot of seinen action, think Ninja Scroll, but you cannot deny his talent as a character designer. Top notch, meticulous detail exudes in this tale about a reporter who has followed an unbeatable professional racer throughout his career. How has this man survived for so long in this dangerous sport and how long will he last at the top? The action is fast paced, but the sections where it feel that time or movement slows to a grinding halt is where the real drama begins.

NT_3Now to the final segment, I present Construction Cancelation Order. I can sum this one up with one name, Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s Mr. Akira essentially and yes this is a tale where the societal conditions have gone wrong, except this one has a bit more humor. A nerdy salaryman inspector is to visit a construction site in the remote region of South America to essentially shut it down. And that is a tall order as the machines have total control of the situation. And even though the site is in effect falling apart at the seams and abandoned, the worker robots still continue as programmed. Can our faithful inspector do anything to stop this insanity, or is their a way to just get out alive? This reminds me a lot of Otomo’s later work Roujin Z where he shows how letting technology thrive to solve our everyday problem without a safety net can bring disaster and a chuckle or two.

Hold on… we are going back to the first segment again to finish off as a sort of coda. The labyrinth doors closes… The end. Lets gives a round of applause for our three directors everyone.

NT_4So… what does this trilogy of shorts have to do with a title like Neo-Tokyo? Honestly, I can’t see one, except… except that it was most likely borrowed from that contemporary hit film, Akira. As stated, Akira was a license to print money here in the west back in the early 1990s and it’s creator and director Katsuhiro Otomo was associated with the film right off the bat. I am sure the consensus was… we need to find more work that features this guy to cash in on this Akira trend. And of course Neo-Tokyo was prime for the taking as there was not much else out at the time that had Otomo’s name as director on it. Too bad this film is nothing like Akira and that is neither good, nor bad.

A distant cousin to another all time favorite of mine, the beautiful Robot Carnival, Neo-Tokyo is for me darker and perhaps more streamlined. Helmed by three of Japan’s best directors and produced at Madhouse, Neo-Tokyo stands as one of the best examples of how far Japan stretched animation in the 1980s. I often have forgotten about how unique this one was in the past, but that is true no more.