The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 108 – Tokyo Ghoul

May 25, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Tokyo Ghoul 1

This time we look at a more recent anime, and a particularly violent series, albeit one that has become very popular and was for some the best anime of last year.

Gory horror Tokyo Ghoul first began as a manga, running from 2011 to 2014 by Sui Ishida, and has been spun-off into various other manga, novels and anime. The first anime TV series was broadcast between July and September 2014, with a sequel series entitled Tokyo Ghoul √A being broadcast between January and March this year. For the purposes of this article, we shall only be covering the first series, primarily because the second series is not currently available to British viewers (damn the American streaming service Funimation).

While the series is set in modern-day Tokyo, in this take on the city there are also a band of monsters known as “ghouls” secretly inhabiting the town. These creatures look just like humans, but are also incredibly powerful, can heal up quicker, and feast only on human flesh, finding all other food disgusting and poisonous. Apart from human flesh, only certain drinks like coffee have any taste to a ghoul.

Bookish student Ken Kaneki goes out on a date with a woman named Rize Kamishiro, who turns out to be an especially gluttonous ghoul. She tries to kill Kaneki on a building site but she herself is killed when a pile of steel girders fall on top of her. Kaneki is taken to hospital, only surviving due to a series of organ transplants. The organs in question all come from Rize. Following this, Kaneki discovers to his horror that he has become half-human and half-ghoul, and that he cannot consume normal food.

The combination of the horror of what has happened to him and almost uncontrollable hunger almost drive Kaneki insane, but he is eventually saved by a group of more benevolent ghouls who secretly run a coffee shop called “Antique”. Kaneki takes a job as a waiter at Antique, and under the guidance of the owner Yoshimura and fearsome waitress Toka Kirishima learns how to adapt to both ghoul and human society. One thing Kaneki has to do for example is wear an eyepatch because he has one ghoul eye that turns black-and-red when his more monstrous side takes over.

For Kaneki and the other ghouls at Antique, their main problems are concerned with protecting themselves from other groups that mean them harm. These tend to come in the form of other troublesome ghouls, such as “the gourmet” Shu Tsukiyama who has eccentric tastes in fashion, language, and food, and thus is seems to desire to eat Kaneki. The other major enemy is the Commission of Counter Ghoul (CCG), a branch of the police dedicated to the eradication of all ghouls who are commonly armed with special weapons kept in large steel suitcases.

The main appeal of Tokyo Ghoul is the look and feel of the thing. As anime go this series is particularly violent, with a lot of blood spilt and guts slit. It is not a series for the squeamish. One of the most memorable plots features Kaneki being kidnapped and tortured mercilessly. However, due to the fact that ghouls can heal quicker, the torture just gets repeated over and over again. To make things even worse of Kaneki, he is forced to count from 1,000 to 0 backwards in sevens in order to keep sane, and thus make him even more aware of the pain he is going through. This scene ultimately leads to the turning point and dramatic changes between this series and the √A sequel.

However, the visual aspects of Tokyo Ghoul are not just concerned with the violence. There is also aesthetic beauty. This is mainly in the form of masks, which all ghouls wear when they are out to protect their identities when they are out either fighting or looking for humans to feast on. One of the characters in the anime, Uta, is a guy who looks very alternative with lots of tattoos and always displaying his black-and-red ghoul eyes, but is actually calm and friendly, His job is designing masks for a living and he creates a mask for Kaneki, which consists of an eyepatch over his normal human eye and a fearsome teeth-baring grin with a zip-opening, which looks pretty cool.

As mentioned, Tokyo Ghoul is not for everyone due to the excessive violence, but it has built up a loyal fan-based and proved itself to be highly successful commercially.

The first series of Tokyo Ghoul can be streamed on Netflix. It will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray by All the Anime later in the year.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 107 – Space Pirate Captain Harlock

May 18, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Space Pirate Captain Harlock 1

Returning to television, this week’s anime is regarded as a classic of its type, namely the grand sci-fi genre of “space opera”. It is an epic series in terms of longevity, having begun as a manga back in 1977, turned into an anime the following year, and adaptations, remakes and sequels still being made.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock was created by Leiji Matsumoto, who created many great sci-fi manga back in the 1970s. The five-volume manga first became an anime back in 1978-79 for 42 episodes, but it has had many anime since then, many of which seem to contradict each other despite their quality. The most recent incarnation was a 3D CGI movie released in 2013, which also deviated from the original story significantly.

The original story is set a thousand years into the future from when the original manga was created, in the year 2977 AD. By this time humanity has passed its peak, and is now in a state of general apathy with the rest of the universe. One of the few people who is against the state that Earth is now in is Captain Harlock, a rebellious romantic rebel who is the pirate in space. Aboard his space ship, the Arcadia, Harlock and his crew rebel against both the Earth government and any aliens who are against Harlock’s principles of freedom.

Amongst Harlock’s crew are Kei Yuki, the female chief navigator and often seen as the second-in-command; Miime, a female alien who is the last surviving member of her race and is Harlock’s closest friend; Yattaran, the first mate who has a passion for building model ships; and the most recent member of the crew Tadashi Daiba, who joins the Arcadia following the assassination of his father and Earth government’s reluctance and open hostility to help him. Outside of the Arcadia the only other person Harlock shows true devotion to is Mayu Oyama, a young girl whose late father Tochiro built the Arcadia and to whom Harlock acts as her guardian. Mayu constantly wants to be with Harlock on the Arcadia, but Harlock denies her because of her father’s wish that she should remain on Earth.

Returning to Tadashi Daiba, part of the reason why he came on the Arcadia was to find out more about his father’s assassination. The assassin was a mysterious tall woman who burned to a crisp when she died. Later Harlock, Daiba and the crew learn that she comes from an alien race called the Mazone, who a race of asexual plant-like aliens most of whom are female in appearance, who have left their home planet of and intend to colonise the Earth, eliminating humankind in the process. The Mazone, led by Queen Lafresia, become the main antagonists of the series, but even so Harlock always seems to have a slight sympathy with Lafresia, understanding why they would go to such desperate lengths.

The series’s main focuses on Harlock’s battles with the Mazone, and with the corrupt Earth government who often use Mayu to drag Harlock back in the hope of capturing him. One of the other recurring features is the Arcadia itself, mainly because it seems to have a strange life of its own. Thus, alongside Harlock and his forty-strong crew, Lafresia is constantly trying to figure out if there is another secret crew member aboard.

Captain Harlock is one of the great anime heroes: brave, romantic and intelligent. It is understandable why he and the crew of the Arcadia have become so popular, always seemingly avoiding nearr-certain death, but death is always close. One sign of this could be indicated in another sci-fi series from the same time, but from Britain. In Japan, like many other Far-Eastern nations, certain numbers are lucky and unlucky. For example the number four in Japan, “shi”, also sounds like the word for “death”. Combine that with the number two and you get “shi ni”, meaning unto death. Thus the true total number of crew members and the total number of episodes in the original series add up what coincidentally happens to be 42, the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – indeed, a very Ultimate Answer in this case.

On the downside, looking back at this series you do remember that this was made in the 1970s. There are times when it does feel a tad non-PC, namely when it comes to women. For example it is rather patronising towards the character of Kei. The characters will often say how brilliant she is, despite being a woman. Plus you have the main villains being a race of aliens nearly all of whom look like women. In retrospect Harlock may have slight issues with some viewers.

The other problem is the sequels that came in after. Many contradicted each other. Some titles that were claimed to be sequels were actually more like remakes. Harmony Gold, who made the controversial Robotech series (No. 64) which combined several anime together, also combined this anime with another of Matsumoto’s sci-fi anime, Queen Millennia. The most recent remake is a 2013 3D CGI movie released in English as Harlock: Space Pirate (see trailer below). The film is very well made. It even has an English dub that even I found not too bad (and that’s as high a praise I tend to give on English dubs). However, many people hate the film because it has very little relation to the main series. Aside from the main characters on the Arcadia nearly everything is different. It is set much further into the future, there is no Mayu or Mazone, and the main villains are just the Earth government, who are not even on Earth. However, as separate movie Harlock: Space Pirate is enjoyable.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock is one for die-hard sci-fi fans. It contains all the stuff you need for an epic story, combined with one of anime’s great heroes.

The original Space Pirate Captain Harlock is released on Region 1 DVD by Discotek Media. The 3D CGI film Harlock: Space Pirate is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Manga Entertainment, and can be streamed on Netflix.

What is the truth about the biased BBC?

May 15, 2015 by  
Filed under Features


In September of last year as hostilities flared across the West Bank, OFCOM recorded thousands of complaints made about the BBC. The third most common complaint was that the BBC was biased against Palestine. The second most common complaint was that the BBC was biased against Israel. The most common complaint by a country mile was that an episode of Pointless had been repeated in error.

This describes the position of the BBC in a nutshell. In its attempts to be impartial, none of the people who care are pleased and everyone’s upset. On the plus side, most people can only be stirred from their britches after being deprived of a fresh installment of Richard Osman’s lovely, cheeky hamster face.

The issue of the BBC’s amazing double sided bias has become a political hot potato this week. The Sun ran a column under the headline ‘Licence to Kill’ claiming that the Tories were going to take revenge on the BBC for “decades of bias against the Tories, both subtle and blatant”. On the flip side, Ed Miliband’s currently unemployed spin doctor Tom Baldwin, accused the BBC of playing the Tories tune throughout the election campaign.

The Tories and Labour can’t both be right. So perhaps it would be useful to look at the raw data. Cardiff University lecturer, Mike Berry performed a comprehensive content analysis study of BBC coverage to determine where the so-called bias lay.

One of his findings was that the Conservatives persistently appeared more frequently than their Labour counterparts. Naturally, the party in government will receive more coverage than the party in opposition so Berry contrasted coverage from the BBC from 2007 (when Labour were in power) and 2012 (when the Conservative-Liberal coalition was in power). He found that in 2007, Gordon Brown appeared on the BBC 46 times and David Cameron appeared 26 times. In contrast, in 2012, Cameron featured 53 times and Ed Miliband made only 15 appearances. This means that when Labour were in power, their leader appeared nearly twice as often in BBC coverage as the Conservative’s but when the Conservatives were in power, their leader appeared four times as frequently as the Labour leader.

This finding is consistent across the board in regards to the coverage offered to members of the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet. Labour cabinet ministers appeared twice as often as their Conservative shadows when they were in power, and Conservative cabinet ministers appeared four times as often when they were power – despite being in a power-sharing coalition.

Airtime isn’t everything. After all, the BBC have a habit of letting Grant Shapps loose on television and that’s hardly a resounding endorsement for the Conservatives. In fact, one could even suggest that allowing Grant Shapps to speak on a public platform definitively indicates North Korean levels of left-wing bias. So what about key positions in the BBC itself?

The Conservatives were furious at the appointment of former TUC activist Duncan Weldon as Newsnight’s new economics correspondent. This to them clearly pointed to a left-wing bias and they responded with hyperbolic hysteria which hit fever pitch when some genius decided to brief that it was the position of the Conservatives that Arthur Scargill would have been a more objective appointment. Maybe they could keep him in mind for next time. I think we can all agree that it would be marvelous.

But really, the Conservatives don’t have a lot to complain about given that so many of the BBC’s political and economic correspondents have an unambiguously Conservative background. Nick Robinson was a member of the Young Conservatives, Andrew Neill was a vocal supporter of Thatcher, Michael Portillo and Chris Patten have both served as Conservative ministers and even Jeremy Paxman has claimed to be a ‘one-nation Tory’, albeit after he left Newsnight.

On the basis of the facts, it definitely appears that the BBC has a significant bias towards the centre-right rather than against it. This really begs the question of what the Conservatives have been doing so vociferously condemning the BBC’s non-existent left-wing bias for so many years? One can’t help but wonder if the BBC’s bias towards the right has not been influenced directly by the Conservatives threats against the Corporation for not toeing the official Conservative Party line firmly enough. Perhaps the BBC’s bias towards the right wing is not based in conviction but in fear of what the Conservative Party might do to the organisation.

If that is the case, then the Tories may wish to rethink their plans. Currently, they’re onto a winning strategy. The BBC’s coverage is weighted towards their favour and they still have the room to moan about its fictional left-wing bias if any reporting doesn’t go their way. However, if they dismantle the organisation, remove from public control and allow it to set its own political agenda, the BBC will no longer have to cater to Tory threats and this could seriously backfire on the party. The Conservatives need to be careful what they wish for, they might not like the consequences if they get it.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 106 – My Neighbours the Yamadas

May 11, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

My Neighbours the Yamadas 1

In the last of a bunch of anime films to be covered in this current block, we return to the great Studio Ghibli for one of their more innovative outings.

Released in 1999, My Neighbours the Yamadas was directed by Isao Takahata, whose previous Ghibli films include Grave of the Fireflies (No. 40) and Pom Poko (No. 41), and whom we also covered a few weeks ago with his debut film The Little Norse Prince (No. 102). This movie is a light hearted comedy based on a 4-panel comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii, and thus presented as a series of short sketches. It is however most noted for being the first Ghibli film to be made entirely digitally.

The movie follows the everyday lives of the Yamada family: five-year-old girl Nonoko; her 13-year-old brother Noboru; their father and mother Takashi and Matsuko; Matsuko’s mother and the children’s grandmother Shige; and the family dog Pochi. The film is split into various individual stories, much like that of the original comic it is based on, which tend to be everyday scrapes. For example, there is a story about the family panicking that Nonoko has been abducted by someone. Another sees Noboru attempting to by an adult magazine.

Many of the stories are about the adults in the family. For example, Matsuko tries to do her housework, but often fails in some way and so Shige has to come in to prove that she is more capable than her daughter. Also there are minor battles between Matsuko and Takashi, such as trying to gain control of the TV.

The story not only features the everyday, but also fantasy sequences. For example, one story sees the adults of the family trying to scare away a biker gang. Takashi tries at first, but it is the women, especially Shige, who end up finishing the job successfully. This leads to Takashi dreaming of being a brave superhero biker saving Matsuko and Shige instead.

The film is full of sequences that most people can related to, whether it is work, school or simple family life. However, My Neighbours the Yamadas is mostly famous for the production. The movie is stylised to look like a hand-drawn comic, like the work it is based on. Because of this, rather than using typical animation cels, he used computers, thus making this the first Ghibli film to be made entirely digitally.

Sadly however, the film was not as successful as most Ghibli films. This may be the reason by Takahata did not make another film for another 14 years. His latest film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, is also made to look like it was hand-drawn, but unlike My Neighbours the Yamadas, this film really is hand-drawn. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has been much more successful, and was also nominated for an Oscar.

However, My Neighbours the Yamadas is still an entertaining and funny film in its own right. You should find there are moments to laugh with all the way through it. Also, the style of the film would later become the basis of another, greater film, so it is an important stepping stone in terms of Studio Ghibli’s history.

My Neighbours the Yamadas is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 105 – Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise

May 4, 2015 by  
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Royal Space Force 1

Our current examination of anime films now takes us to what is widely regarded as one of the most important movies in anime history.

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise was released in 1987, directed by Hiroyuki Yamaga and was the first film to be made by one of the greatest anime production companies, Gainax. It was actually the company’s very first commercial work. Unfortunately for them at the time it was a flop in Japan and it took ages for the company to recoup their losses. However, The Wings of Honnêamise is now seen as one of the best anime films ever made, and to some as the best anime film of all.

The film takes place in a parallel version of the Earth. It was not too dissimilar to our world at the time: for example, like the Earth of 1987, it consisted of two major superpowers that were at loggerheads with each other: the Kingdom of Honnêamise, and “The Republic”. Both were on the verge of declaring war on each other and there is fear among the population.

The lead character, lazy Shirotsugh “Shiro” Lhadatt, is a guy from Honnêamise who wanted to be in the Air Force when he was younger but failed to make the grade so he ended up in the Space Force, which is seen as trivial by most people in the country. The Space Force has seen many of their members die in botched space flights and many people wish to stop the space programme and either use the money saved to support their defence or the poor. Following the death of one friend, Shiro becomes even lazier, but then he comes across a woman street preacher named Riquinni Nonderaiko. Riquinni helps to inspire Shiro to motivate himself. Thus, Shiro volunteers for the next mission: to become the first human in space.

The story charts Shiro’s trials as he trains himself to become the first spaceman. However, it is not just the physical and mental strain. He has to face problems from his country’s politicians who want to see the Space Force’s budget slashed or to be rid of altogether; fights off assassination attempts from The Republic; and battles against protests from his fellow countrymen who wish to see the money be used for what they see as more charitable purposes. Shiro even faces temptation from Riquinni, even trying to rape her, which results in their relationship breaking down for a while but then she forgives him.

Eventually the rocket is good to launch, but Honnêamise’s government decides to launch the rocket in a demilitarised zone in the hope of provoking The Republic into war, which it does. However, Shiro is determined to carry out the mission, hoping that it will spread peace.

The Wings of Honnêamise is widely regarded as one of the greatest anime movies ever made. Just about everything about the film has been praised: the story, the animation, the character design, even the little details. For example, the technology used in this version of Earth is often commented on. They have things which we would consider to be TVs, guns or motor vehicles, all of them work differently to the way they do in our world. For example, there are motorbikes that work using a cord that is akin to that on an outboard motor. It is not like a futuristic sci-fi world. It is just our world that took a slightly different turn.

You then have the messages of the film: it is about space travel, it is about religion, it is about war and peace. You have all these different ideas played out in the space of two hours. Then you have the end sequence which sees Shiro’s whole life, and indeed the history of humanity flashing before him.

But despite being one of the most critically acclaimed anime ever, it failed at the box office at the time. It was so expensive to make (¥800million – £4.4million) that this 1987 film would not break even until 1994. Despite this in 1992 Gainax tried to make a sequel set 50 years into the future called Uru in Blue, but a year later production stopped when they ran out of money.

However, this failure led to another success for Gainax. The person who had been put in charge of directing Uru in Blue was the man who did the special effects on The Wings of Honnêamise. The man in question was Hideaki Anno, who was mentioned in last week’s column covering The Diary of Ochibi (No. 104). With Anno now freed from this project he was able to work with other people on new projects, based on Uru in Blue. The result was one of the greatest TV anime ever made: Neon Genesis Evangelion (No. 21).

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise thus should be remember not just for being a great movie in its own right, but being the foundation stone for all of the work Gainax would eventually make. Not just Evangelion, but visually-stunning mecha series Gunbuster (No. 24), the surreal FLCL (No. 7), the gross-out Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (No. 19), and my favourite anime of all Gurren Lagann (No. 50).

But if you are saddened by the fact that a sequel failed to be made, don’t worry. In 2013 it was announced that Uru in Blue wold be produced, albeit without Anno’s involvement, so it looks like we can expect a revival.

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by All the Anime.

Why I’m boycotting Channel 4 over Benefits Street

April 30, 2015 by  
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Benefits Street 1

This article is a plea to my fellow residents of Stockton-on-Tees to boycott not just Channel4 but the whole C4 network of the duration that Series 2 of Benefits Street is broadcast.

The new four-part series will begin at 21.00 on 11th May, and will focus on the residents of Kingston Road in Stockton, the town which I was born in, where I still reside, and which I want to defend against this series which is often referred to as “poverty porn”, a term I think is unfair because even pornography has more dignity that this rubbish.

Also, don’t think you can justify this programme by saying: “What about freedom of speech? We shouldn’t censor the media.” I’m not saying we should prevent this programme from being broadcast, I’m saying we just should not watch it because it is a terrible programme.

I know that some of my fellow residents may be tempted to watch the show to see what it is like – please don’t. If you watch Benefits Street you’ll help boost the ratings, and it is the ratings and attention that make shows like this survive. If you want to stop Benefits Street, don’t watch it, or any other shows made by the network. Harm their ratings and their advertising revenue. I dislike the programme so much that I don’t want to even show images from it in this article.

As before with the first series which was broadcast in Birmingham, there is a concern about exploitation of poor people, but things look even worse in this series. The Independent reports that this new series will feature one person openly taking drugs before going into court. Imagine how you would feel if this was being filmed where you live – not very nice is it. Well, it’s happening where I live, and I can tell you it is horrible.

Benefits Street 2

Benefits Street is not the first dodgy TV show to come to Stockton however. A little while back Sky1 had a show called Ashley Banjo’s Big Town Dance, in which the Diversity performer tried to get 5,000 locals to perform a large street dance – because as we all know, the best way to solve the current problems Stockton has with crime, poverty and unemployment is to make everyone in town to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. What Banjo failed to realise is that it would be much quicker and cheaper to get everyone in Stockton motivated by offering everyone in the town free parmo.

For those who don’t know, parmo is the “national dish” of Teesside, consisting of meat (normally chicken or pork), smothered in béchamel sauce, covered in breadcrumbs and baked in an oven. Don’t knock it until you try it.

One of the major problems with Benefits Street is the way that it has already harmed what little reputation Stockton-on-Tees had with the rest of Teesside. All the other towns around us are so snobbish when it comes to Stockton. I realise “snobbish Teessiders” is a somewhat alien idea to most people, but most people are probably not aware of Yarm.

Yarm is a town between Stockton and Darlington, dominated by three things: cobbles, a large railway viaduct, and a desire to have nothing at all to do with Teesside. Yarm is the poshest town in Teesside. It is the sole reason why my parliamentary constituency of Stockton South has a Conservative MP (which in the north-east is the least cool thing you can possibly have), who is currently fighting to protect a majority of 332 in this year’s General Election. Last year in a non-legally binding poll Yarm residents voted to leave Stockton Council and join North Yorkshire instead. Thornaby, which is directly opposite Stockton on the other side of the River Tees also voted to join North Yorkshire in a similar non-legally binding poll. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me doesn’t want to see these places leave as it would damage Stockton’s reputation even further, but if it means we won’t have a Tory MP again then Yarm can naff off to Yorkshire for all I care.

It’s not just snobbery. Stockton seems to be in the shadow of all the other towns around it. There is Middlesbrough obviously with its not-as-successful-as-we-wish-it-was football club (we couldn’t get automatic promotion to the Premier League, but at least we can go to Wembley in the play-offs), whereas Stockton comes second-fiddle with non-league Norton & Stockton Ancients, Norton being a village which is so much nicer and prettier than Stockton.

Then you have Hartlepool a town which a proud maritime history and is at least fun enough to elect their local football mascot H’Angus the Monkey as mayor to the annoyance of Peter Mandelson; Billingham, although not the prettiest town has its own folk festival and one of the few venues in Britain to combine a theatre, a swimming pool and an ice rink all in the same building; and even Darlington, which is famously connected to Stockton via the railways is better off because it is part of the East Coast mainline. Darlington’s station has many luxuries that Stockton’s station doesn’t have, like a roof and a ticket office.

Benefits Street 3

All of this stuff knocks Stockton down, which is a shame because recently things have improved in the town. After months of work Stockton High Street, which is famous for being the widest in Britain (it’s so wide it actually has buildings in the middle of the street) has undergone a revamp. Amongst the additions is a huge fountain that you can sit around and children can play in, because when you’ve got a High Street as big as ours you might as well do something grand like build a fountain.

There is another aspect to Stockton which is totally different to Teesside’s industrial past, which is that Stockton-on-Tees is arguably the geekiest town in Britain, relative to its size. Venture off our High Street and you will find the Who-Ray! Shop for Doctor Who fans, and Hunter Toys for lovers of Star Wars; then there is the “Geek Quarter” containing the Beanie Games board and trading card game shop; and Sub-Zero Comics which buys and sells all sorts of geeky items. Add yours truly; the author of this website’s weekly anime column and the manga critic for MyM Magazine, and you can see just how geeky we are.

Outside of these you have all these other little business like The Golden Smog micro-pub, where you can get sample all their beers by being served four ⅓ pints on a specially hand-made wooden tray. Then there is the daddy of all of Stockton’s shops: Sound It Out, the last independent record shop left in all of Teesside and a haven for all those who love vinyl and live music. It was subject of a documentary back in 2011, later broadcast on BBC Four. Part of me really hopes that as a protest against Benefits Street the guys at Sound It Out get a set of speakers outside the shop and bellow out “Career Opportunities” by The Clash. Admittedly this might cause problems with some of the people around them, like Stockton Job Centre, but never mind.

So Channel 4 you can keep your poverty porn. If I want anything sexy I’ll buy the original 7” single of “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, a second-hand yaoi manga, and a romantic parmo meal for two.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 104 – The Diary of Ochibi

April 27, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Ochibi 1

We are continuing our current examination of anime films, but this week’s movie is of an entirely different feel to any other film, and indeed any other anime, so far covered in this column. Most anime are animated in a conventional 2D style, but today we looking at a stop-motion animation.

Released only a few weeks ago, The Diary of Ochibi is not only a stop-motion anime; it is a crowdfunded movie; it is also a short movie at only seven minutes long (making this possibly the only article in this column that takes longer to read than to watch the actual thing), and it is also a silent film: there is no dialogue, only background music. It is based on a manga by Moyoco Anno, a highly respected manga artist. The film is part of a series of short anime movies made for the “Japan’s Animator Exhibition” or “Animator Expo”, which is partly organised by Moyoco’s husband Hideaki Anno, who is most famous for his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion (No. 21).

The story follows a boy named Ochibi, recognisable in his red-and-white striped top and bobble hat, who is fascinated by the everything around him. The film is split into four sections, each based on the four seasons and filmed in a particular way.

Starting in “Spring”, the animation takes place in a lunch box (or “bento” as they are called in Japan), where Ochibi is animated on a background of rice, eating the contents of the lunch. Then in the “Summer” the animation is filmed on the back of traditional bamboo fans. In these scenes Ochibi is filmed going to a beach, diving into the sea, and watching a firework display with his two canine companions, Nazeni and Pankui. Moving onto “Fall”, Ochibi is animated using brown leaves. Here he is seen raking up piles of leaves and then playing with them. Finally, in “Winter” the animation takes place on a traditional Japanese tea cup, where Ochibi, Nazeni and Pankui are seen building a snowman.

For such a small film there is much to highlight. Firstly there the four different stop-motion animation techniques that are used to make the film. This is particularly interesting when you consider what people mostly think of in terms of anime style. Here we see something drastically different. It goes to show the appeal of stop-motion animation, which is probably the one form of animation that we British excel at more than anyone else. After all, nearly all the animated Oscars that Britain has won were from stop-motion movies.

But even before this, there is the process of how the film came to be created in the first place. Director Masashi Kawamura used two different crowdfunding websites, the Japanese-language site Green Funding and the English-language site Indiegogo to raise the funds to create the project and did so successfully.

There is also the use of sound in the film. As stated, this is a dialogue-free film, but the background music helps to make the film come alive. For example, in the Summer scene where Ochibi dives into the water, the sound changes so it is as if you too are hearing the music underwater. The animation works wonderfully with music to create rather funny scenes, particular in the Winter scene with regards to the fate of Ochibi’s snowman.

The Diary of Ochibi mixes music, comedy, and different animation styles to create something truly unique. The quality of this seven-minute short is even arguably better than the animation of TV anime that are currently being broadcast.

The Diary of Ochibi can be watched via the Animator Expo website.

Northern Ireland in movies, Part 2: IRA blockbusters

April 23, 2015 by  
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IRA Blockbusters 1

In contrast to Northern Protestants, there is a wealth of films centring on the experience of Northern Catholics. This isn’t to say that the Catholics get the best deal. Films of all origins since the inception of the Troubles have almost entirely subordinated the identity of Northern Catholics to the exploits of the IRA. There are some sensitive, nuanced and intelligent films (and some stinkers too) from British and Irish filmmakers. However, the most widely watched films on the topic are American blockbusters.

The position of the IRA in Hollywood is as a bizarre and fictionalised trope that bears little relation to reality. Often IRA members are removed from Northern Ireland and placed in some foreign land where they seek to cause havoc of a non-specific kind. If they are permitted a backstory, then they will have a dead daddy, killed by the Brits. Aside from that, they have no political opinions whatsoever. Very often, they are not the mainstream IRA, but some splinter group of psychotic calibre. This serves the dual function of allowing the characters to charge around like drooling, apolitical cartoon monsters and relieving the filmmaker of conducting even the most basic research. This is the IRA of The Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own. So often these films are accused of glorifying the IRA which is absurd. Divorcing the IRA from political context and reducing them to cut out gangsters does not amount to glorification.

Removing the IRA from their political context also allows filmmakers to skirt around the complex, shaded relationship the Catholic community in Northern Ireland has towards them. They are protectors, heroes, a source of shame and a perpetual menace. For some people who lived in the areas where they were most active, they are all four simultaneously. It is worth remembering that the IRA were responsible for more Catholic deaths than any other single party in the conflict. This does not bear much scrutiny in cinema where the IRA are presented as the international representatives of the entire Catholic community.

The most recent incarnation of the IRA as a pop-up baddy is in the television show Sons of Anarchy. They are a splinter group, obviously, the True IRA. They don’t have any political opinions. They don’t even have dead daddies what were killed by the Brits. They are empty vessels devoid of all purpose other than causing mayhem. They blow up targets in America, kill anything with a pulse at the slightest provocation and stand about it fields waving bazooka guns and shouting things like; “I could hit a Protestant from three blocks away with this!” in accents that sometimes sound Limerick, sometimes Cork, mainly American.

Irish accents in American films and television shows are a well-known joke. It is said that the Belfast accent is the most difficult in the world to impersonate effectively. This is a fair point. I struggle with it sometimes and I was born there. Particularly in West Belfast, the accent is thick, fast, unwieldy and things are done with vowels that God neither designed nor intended. Do you know who can pull off a West Belfast accent? Actors from West Belfast. They do not appear in these films. This is because people from West Belfast are irrelevant to films about their community.

Fifty Dead Men Walking is an embarrassment of riches of arrogant dismissal of real people and fantastically terrible Irish accents. (Special awards need to be given to Rose McGowan who delivers all her lines like a woman trying to gargle peanut brittle with her tongue nailed to the roof of her mouth.) Fifty Dead Men Walking is rare from transatlantic takes on the Troubles in that it actually places the IRA in their community and takes real life events as its source – the experiences of Special Branch agent, Martin McGartland. McGartland’s biography is imperfect but it is interesting, novel and often darkly comic and captures the ambivalent and conflicted relationship a young Catholic man from Ballymurphy had with the IRA. It has all the material needed to make a great film and maybe someone will make it one day.

Whatever aspects of McGartland’s story are revelatory and specific to the Northern Irish conflict, director Skogland replaces with well-worn Hollywood clichés. Real life figures Davy Adams and Rosena Brown are replaced with Mickey and Grace – a man who spends his time hanging around in cemeteries making sixth form political statements and crying and a bland, wriggly sex-pot. The rest of the IRA are slobbering vampires whose entire existence is dominated by a craving for the sight of spilled blood. McGartland’s real life girlfriend – a staunch Republican with a complicated personal experience of the IRA, is replaced with a wispy idiot who exists to announce she’s pregnant in a Galway accent at inappropriate moments. The real life happenings documented in McGartland’s biography are all but completely removed in favour of creating yet another gangster farce.

What is most problematic in Fifty Dead Men Walking is not merely the insulting spit in the face it delivers to Martin McGartland (who Skogland sees fit to call a coward in her mawkish self-penned song that plays over the end credits) and his family, but the constant use of dead young Catholic men from West Belfast, whose bodies litter the narrative and who have no significance other than plot devices in what is essentially a generic action film. They are given no names, their faces are only briefly glimpsed, they are barely mourned. Their lives and deaths are fodder for cheap cinematic thrills and nothing more.

Imperialism takes many forms. The co-opting of the political conflict in Northern Ireland and the subordination of the Catholic community to the pyrotechnic potential of a fantasy IRA figure is one of its manifestations. If Hollywood executives find the plight of the Catholic community and the organisation of the IRA so compelling then they must begin to treat it with more responsibility and respect rather than as thoroughfare for endless, crude blockbusters.

Northern Ireland in movies, Part 1: Protestants on film

April 22, 2015 by  
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Resurrection Man 1

There is a perverse pride of being on the side of the fallen angels and refusing to get up. – Derek Mahon, “Spring in Belfast”.

In Northern Ireland, dwelling on the trauma of the recent past is a national pastime, something cinema is only too happy to indulge. What actually happened in the recent past depends on who you ask. It is often said that there are two truths in Ireland – a Protestant truth, and a Catholic truth. Both of which are generally lies.

While serving a prison sentence for his role in the Brighton bombing, Patrick Magee completed his PhD, a study in examining depictions of Republicans in fiction. He concluded that fictionalised accounts of Republicans tended to be over-simplified and designed merely to denigrate the ‘enemy’ and extol the virtues of the ‘right side’ – the enemy and the right side being dependent on the author, naturally. In cinema, this also tends to be the case, and there are so many films to look at. Cinematic depictions of PIRA and those who co-existed with them fall out of Hollywood’s arse on a regular basis, covering every possible angle and agenda. A similar investigation could not be conducted of Protestants. In the cinematic world, that community barely exists.

It is a source of deep resentment that the international reputation of Northern Ireland is so overwhelming dominated by stories of thugs and murderers but from a Hollywood producer’s perspective, it is understandable that a story about guns, flashes, bangs and secret organisations are much more marketable than the lives of the quiet, mainly peaceful majority. But why the fixation with the IRA over the loyalist paramilitaries? There are more films about Bobby Sands than the entire loyalist movement. In fact, there are more films about Americans being inadvertently snarled up in the machinations of the IRA than there are about loyalists. It cannot be due to lack of significance. Loyalists were responsible for just as much death and chaos as their Republican counterparts, thank you very much.

The only film centring on loyalists of any note is Resurrection Man, which claims to be based on the deeds of Lenny Murphy and the Shankill Butchers. It is a garbled pile of anti-historical wank that devotes all of its energy into salivating over hideous acts of sadism at the expense of making any kind of sense. When it was released, a Presbyterian reverend objected to the content – but only because there were homoerotic tones to the relationships between the butchers. This, he said, amounted to a slur on family men. A family member of one of Murphy’s victims tartly responded that it was more of a slur on homosexuals. Everyone else just said it was rubbish. The film quickly sank into obscurity and there it remains.

Gary Mitchell stands alone in his dramatic depiction of Northern Irish Protestants. Mitchell grew up in Rathcoole, a poor Protestant estate in North Belfast. Mitchell writes mainly for the stage but has taken the odd foray into television. He says that he can see how the Republican cause is more attractive to filmmakers. They were the side on the attack, which allows for more creative potential.  Further to that, I would say that the Republican cause fits the classic Hollywood template in that it is positively goal-orientated. The goal of the Republicans was to create a new society. The goal of the Unionists was to maintain the status quo. A film about a group of people trying to maintain the status quo can only end with an unhappy ending or an anti-climactic one – neither of which have any currency in Hollywood. Republicans fit. Loyalists don’t.

Mitchell’s plays often end on a note of anti-climax. The status quo is maintained, for now, but his characters trail debris, violence and uncertainty in their wake. He is hugely effective at giving voice to the siege mentality that exists in the minds of Protestants, the constant griping paranoia and the impotent fury laid against nationalists and the neglectful British government alike that reveals itself in waves of seemingly irrational frenzy. What is particularly admirable is his refusal to idealise his subjects who he portrays in all of their ugliness. His characters are often half-witted, viciously sectarian, sexist and violent with it. Perhaps it was this lack of sugar coating that led to him being forced from his home by the UDA. Mitchell believes that they hadn’t even seen his plays, but that they’d heard that they were popular in Dublin which must mean that they had nothing nice to say about Protestants.

His work is not denigrating to Protestants, apart from those in our number who deserve it. Outside his own community, Mitchell has been critically acclaimed and hailed as “finally providing a voice for working class Protestants.” I respect Mitchell, but disagree totally. His experience is not universal of working class Protestants. Declaring his voice to be the only representation we need is to claim feast from a famine.

In his beautiful poem ‘Spring in Belfast’ Derek Mahon speaks of the ‘sullen silence’ of the Protestants. Years of outrages, derisions, insults and casual humiliations have led to a deep suspicion of any outsider seeking to penetrate this strange, bitter and forlorn community. This sullen silence contributes to the lack of Protestant representation in popular culture. We do not speak for ourselves and we let no one else close enough to speak for us. If it continues, the portrayal of the recent past as dominated by IRA tales put through a mawkish Hollywood sieve will be the only cinematic representation of the Troubles available, and this narrative will be given free rein to dominate portrayals of the country in the present and the future.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 103 – Tales of Earthsea

April 20, 2015 by  
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Tales from Earthsea 1

Again we look at an anime film made by the most famous of anime producers Studio Ghibli, and a film that is slightly topical. BBC Radio is currently adapting the work of sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin. An adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness has just been broadcast on Radio 4, and later in the month Radio 4 Extra will be adapting her Earthsea series.

However, this is not the first adaptation of Earthsea. There was an anime film adaptation called Tales of Earthsea released by Studio Ghibli in 2006. It is notable partly for being the debut feature from director Goro Miyazaki, son of company Oscar-winning co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. However, more infamously it is remembered because it is widely regarded as being the worst Studio Ghibli movie.

The film adapts elements from the first four novels in the series, although the title comes from a collection of short stories. The movie begins with the world of Earthsea in turmoil. Dragons are seen fighting, seemingly an impossible act; and then the King of Enlad is killed by his own son Prince Arren, who steals his father’s sword. The sword itself however seemingly cannot be unsheathed.

Arren wonders the desert, but is saved from a pack of wolves by Sparrowhawk, a wizard known as the “Archmage”. Arren accompanies him to the troublesome Hort Town, home to dodgy vendors and slave traders, where Arren helps to rescue a young scarred girl from some slavers, but the girl flees from Arren in anger. Arren however, ends up being captured by the same slavers, only to be rescued by Sparrowhawk again. The two travel to an old friend of Sparrowhawk’s called Tenar who looks after them, but then Arren discovers that Tenar is also looking after the scarred girl he rescued earlier, who is named Therru. As Arren tries to make friends with Therru and become both wiser and stronger, the evil Lord Cob, a man who is trying to seek eternal life and who is master of the slavers, tries to come up with a plan to control Arren and to eliminate Sparrowhawk.

Tales of Earthsea is primarily noted for being the biggest blot on an otherwise great record of films from Studio Ghibli, even though the film still reached No. 1 on the Japanese box office. The main problem raised is that is not a faithful adaptation. This is a 110 minute film that tries to cram into it four different novels. It was never going to go off smoothly. In fact, it deviated from the original novels greatly, and we have no great source for this than Ursula K. Le Guin herself.

Le Guin said the film differed so much from her own work that it was like, “watching an entirely different story, confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story.” She summed the film up by saying to Goro Miyazaki: “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.” Thus reaction to the movie is often described as “mixed”, but given how widely lauded the rest of Studio Ghibli films are, “mixed” is about as damming as anyone is willing to say. The only real positives given to the film tend to be about the visual aspect of the movie.

One other factor Tales of Earthsea had was on the reputation of Goro Miyazaki. The original plan was for his father Hayao to work on the film, but Hayao was working on another movie. Hayao actually disapproved of the move to make his son the director saying he lacked experience, and the two did not talk to each other during Earthsea’s production. Because the movie got the reaction it did, his later works have been treated with some scepticism. His next film was From Up on Poppy Hill (No. 53), which was considered to be a much better effort, but some critics did say that this was not surprising as there was no way Goro could do any worse.

This film will therefore mainly appear to Ghibli completists, who are interested in collecting all of the films made by the studio. It demonstrates that no company has a perfect record, and that you have to accept that even the best things often experience things that go wrong.

Tales from Earthsea is released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Studio Canal.

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