The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 169 – Kuroko’s Basketball

July 25, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

Kuroko's Basketball 1

Continuing to look at sports anime, this week’s series is arguably the first that started the trend in which fans of yaoi – male homoerotica aimed at women – embraced such shows and turned them into something else. However, there is more to it than this. There is both the actual sport itself, but also the much more disturbing story about how the series author and fans where the victims of crime.

Kuroko’s Basketball, also known as The Basketball Which Kuroko Plays, began as a manga that was released in the biggest manga comic book, Weekly Shonen Jump. It was created by Tadatoshi Fujimaki and ran between 2008 and 2014. The series was adapted into three anime series between 2012 and 2015, running across 75 episodes, which itself has been adapted into a series of compilation films. The series features exciting sporting thrills – plus what is supposedly the most unnoticeable person in the world.

Prior to the story, there was the Teiko Middle School basketball team. They were so good they were dubbed the “Generation of Miracles” because no-one could stop them. These players were the captain Seijuro Akashi, who is seemingly capable of making opposing players crumble before him just by looking at them; the team ace Daiki Aomine, known for his fluid “streetball” style of playing; junk food-eating giant Atsushi Murasakibara, who is so big he makes the perfect defensive player without needing to put in the effort; superstitious Shintaro Midorima, who can score threes from just about anywhere with incredible accuracy; and handsome Ryota Kise, who can copy the moves of just about any player. They then all split up and are now playing for different high schools. However, there was also rumours of a supposed sixth member of the generation who never scored once, but was still a great player. This was Tetsuya Kuroko, and this is his story.

Kuroko joins Seirin High School and their basketball team, where he meets another new member of the team, Taiga Kagami. Taiga had previously being living in the USA and was disappointed by the level of Japanese basketball compared to that in America, but now he wants to take on and beat the Generation of Miracles. However, Kuroko does have some problems when it comes to interacting with people, the main one being that somehow no-one notices him. To everyone around him, it is as if Kuroko doesn’t exist, so he has to try hard to make himself known to his teammates. He seems to be completely deadpan in all situations. Also, Kuroko is short, slow, and hopeless at shooting the ball into the hoop.

However, Kuroko does have one big advantage. Because no-one notices him on the court, Kuroko is able to intercept the ball and make astonishing passes that baffle the other teams. He is  master of misdirection, tricking the opposition into looking the wrong way at the critical moment. He decides to use his skills to help Kagami: to be the shadow to Kagami’s light. Thus the duo work together with the rest of the team in order to take on the Generation of Miracles and prove they can beat even the strongest players by working as a team rather than apart.

Kuroko’s Basketball works as a sports anime because it does what all the great sports series do, which is it makes you get behind the team at the heart of the story. You might not even be a fan of the sport, but you want to cheer them on. It is safe to say that it is a series that fits into the “plucky underdog” mould. There are several times in which Kuroko and his friends have to battle stronger teams, including all five other members of the Generation of Miracles, and you can probably figure out how it will end most of the time. However, despite knowing this, when you watch it you still want to back them and you are worried about how the characters will get on.

If the plot of the show has one obvious flaw it would be this: how come a player like Kuroko is totally unnoticeable to everyone, despite the fact he has blue hair? You can’t help but feel that this would make him stick out the most on court. Another problem is the use of some of the language. Aomine, who has dark skin, at one point called “ganguro” by another of the main characters, Satsuki Momoi, a girl who was manager of the Generation of Miracles team and of Aomine’s team now, as well as being in love with Kuroko. “Ganguro” means “black face”, so this could be seen as racist. It should also be mentioned that in Japan, “ganguro” is also the name of a form of fashion which involves girls getting big fake tans and white make-up around the eyes and mouth (think of an Oompa Loompa minstrel).

When the series was on, one of things that came out of it was a large amount of fan-works, or “dojinshi” in Japan, much of it being gay yaoi fiction. While many anime are turned into such works, Kuroko’s Basketball was one of the first sports anime to be subject to this in a big way, and thus came from it all the other similar works and the fans that followed them.

However, the series was also the victim of bizarre attacks. After the anime version of the series began airing, several events where Kuroko’s Basketball dojinshi were being sold, or were in some way connected to author Tadatoshi Fujimaki, were targeted by a poisoner. Fujimaki received death threats, including some containing powdered and liquid substances. The university where Fujimaki studied was targeted. Several dojinshi events, including the largest of them all, Comiket, barred Kuroko’s Basketball dojinshi for fear of being targeted. Several shops stopped stocking Kuroko’s Basketball merchandise, worrying the too would be attacked. In December 2013 the perpetrator, 36-year-old man Hirofumi Watanabe, was arrested. He admitted to the crime, saying he did it out of jealously, and was given four-and-a-half years in prison. Now series stock is being sold again, and even a special Kuroko’s Basketball dojinshi event was organised.

Kuroko’s Basketball might be remembered for harassment surrounded it, but it should be remembered for being a fun entertaining series whose fan base withstood all kinds of pressure.

Kuroko’s Basketball is streamed on Crunchyroll.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 168 – Ping Pong

July 18, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

Ping Pong 1

In 2020 Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics. As we are coming up close to the 2016 Rio Olympics and sport has been pretty much something that has been causing excitement over the course of summer, for the next few columns I’m look at some sports anime.

Now, I’ve already covered some sports anime in past, such as the swimming series Free! (No. 17) and the volleyball series Haikyu!! (No. 116), and every time I’ve covered these shows, which are usually always follow some high school team, there has always been one thing of peculiar interest, which is the fan base. The people who watch sports anime are not really interested in sport. They are people, mostly women, who are into gay fiction and think all the characters are gay.

This is becoming such a phenomenon now that anime studios seem to be deliberately targeting this audience. For example, some of the sports being covered are not the manliest of activities, such as figure skating and cheerleading. A series does not even have to air before people start thinking of homoerotic undertones. For example, a series about rugby called All Out!! is due to start in the autumn, and when they released this promotional poster people were getting excited, mainly by the arse of the No. 8 player – and given that the player in that position is the guy at the back of the scrum, you are going to be seeing a lot of that backside.

However, this phenomenon is fairly recent, so what about older sports series? Are there any other series that break from this norm? One series worth examining concerning this is the table tennis anime Ping Pong. While the anime was made in 2014, the original manga comic by Taiyo Matsumoto was created in 1996, way before any of this homoerotic fan stuff took place, and whereas shows like Free! and Haikyu!! feature delicate art and attractive characters, the art in Ping Pong is a lot harsher, rougher, and likely to put a lot of people off.

Ping Pong follows two students who are members of the same school table tennis club. One boy is Makoto Tsukimoto, ironically nicknamed “Smile” because he is so expressionless. He used to be bullied when he was younger but started to make friends when he was introduced to the table tennis by Yutaka Hoshino, nicknamed “Peco”, who is a lot brighter and open that he is.

While practicing they learn that a rival school has brought in a Chinese exchange student named Kong Wenge into their team. Kong is currently in Japan because he was kicked out of the Chinese national team and now he really wants to get back home. Smile and Peco go to meet and play him. Kong plays Peco, and thrashes Peco to love, knocking his confidence. Later on, the man in charge of the club Smile and Peco are in, Jo Koizumi, spots that Smile has the talent to become a great player, but lacks the drive to do so. He thus makes it his mission to train Smile up personally.

The duo then takes part in a big tournament. Smile loses to Wong, but Koizumi sees that behind Smile expressionless face lays the drive and force of an unstoppable, ping pong winning machine, and thus Smile’s personal training continues. Peco however loses to a childhood rival and goes into such a decline that he stops playing for a while. It is only after he decline takes him close to death that he starts training. We then follow both Peco and Smile’s progress to the final major tournament of the year.

The stand-out feature of Ping Pong is the artwork. The very rough work will put off many viewers, but I would argue that it highlights the passion that made this series. It is a show that doesn’t look pretty, but the story and the drive to make it work are all there. It is a harsher, rougher, manlier depiction of sport in comparison to others sports anime covered before in this column. They are no pretty, sexy guys here. The balls are not even drawn as normal circles: either that are drawn bit-by-bit, or are perfectly spherical using computer animation.

However, while the series was never made with gay fantasies in mind, there are still one or two details that give a bit hope to such fans. For starters, there are hardly any women in the show. The main female character is an old woman who runs a ping pong dojo who later trains up Peco. There is only one of the young players who has a girlfriend, and that relationship is on the rocks. There is also the slightly dodgy scene set on Valentine’s Day where, as a joke, Koizumi suggests that he should be Smile’s date for the day.

In terms of sports anime, Ping Pong is the one anime adaptation made in recent years that stands out from the crowd in terms of style. It is that rarest of things, a sports anime that mainly appeals to people interested in sport.

Ping Pong is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by All the Anime. On another note, this weekend at I was at Hyper Japan (see Extra II for my piece on last year’s Hyper Japan summer) and came into contact with an organisation called the International Otaku Expo Association, dedicated to helping spread the joy of anime around the world, and seem interesting people to follow. You can find out more about them at ioea.info

My Mastermind Experience

July 13, 2016 by  
Filed under - Home, Features

Mastermind 2

Picture Credit: BBC

The first episode of the latest series of Mastermind featured a very foolish person taking part on it: me.

Taking part under my real name of Ian Dunn, I was answering questions on the specialist subject of the BBC Radio 4 Dickensian sitcom Bleak Expectations. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it on the iPlayer first. If you have already seen it, you will know that while I was leading after my specialist subject, but I somewhat fell in the general knowledge round and came joint third. There are various reasons I could give for not winning: I might have revised the wrong things, or I could blame the pressure of sitting in the Black Chair, but personally I prefer to blame the fact that among my fellow contenders two of them had appeared on Mastermind before. Fortunately, the other contender did not appear on Mastermind – unfortunately, he had won the last series of Only Connect.

The experience of applying and taking part on Mastermind has been a fun one. There was one strange thing that came up during the application process. As you may know, much of the Mastermind was inspired by the inventor Bill Wright’s experiences of being interrogated by the Gestapo, who always asked POWs their name, rank and number – hence why contenders are asked their name, occupation and specialist subject. This Nazi legacy seems to have accidentally continued, because when you are accepted as a contender you have to fill in a form detailing the sources of your specialist subjects. However, in the computer file name they abbreviated the form’s name, so unfortunately the file name reads: “Mastermind SS Form”. You really think someone would have spotted that.

The recording itself took place in MediaCityUK in Salford, which as places go, is perhaps a bit too big. There were countless studios dotted around the place, and various networks share the studios. For example, the studios where BBC Two’s Mastermind are recorded are also used by CBBC and ITV. As a result the same building also records Newsround, Blue Peter and, oddly, The Jeremy Kyle Show. One other pleasant thing about the recording that I didn’t know before hand is that Mastermind has its own warm-up man: the comedian Ted Robbins (Phoenix Nights), who was great at entertaining the audience.

While sitting in the Black Chair, I had a very clear strategy for what I was going to do: not to look at anything. That is why I had my eyes shut while I was being quizzed: to help concentrate purely on the questions that were being asked. The other aspect I am particularly fond of is that what with Bleak Expectations being a rather surreal comedy, about 19th century industrialist Sir Philip Bin, the inventor of the bin, foiling the schemes of his ironically named twice undead evil ex-guardian Mr. Gently Benevolent, there was that pleasing satisfaction of hearing host John Humphrys reading out some strange questions. It is safe to say that no-one else will be tackling questions on dogs called Countdown that can only understand anagrams, or civil wars in Russia about the spelling of the word Tsar/Czar.

The one other thought I have been able to take away is this: I didn’t know it at the time, but having talking to the producers of the shows I’ve since discovered that the term “highest scoring runners-up” is slightly euphemistic. It doesn’t just go to people who came second. People who came third have also gone through to the semi-finals, and indeed this happened to someone last year. Thus, I could still go through to the next round, as I happen to know that they are recording the final heats this week. I know at least two people who failed to win scored 26 points or more, because they were on the same show as me. If only three people or fewer score more than this I could get through, as could the other person I tied with. In fact, my heat could be the first time that all four contenders from one episode manage to qualify. That heat has a small chance of becoming TV history, depending on the other results.

One last thing – I have no idea who decided to put that slight music sting at the end of player’s turn. We didn’t have this sound on during the recording and I have no idea whose bright idea it was to add it.

Mastermind is on the BBC iPlayer. New episodes currently go out on Wednesdays at 20.00, until going back to their normal Friday transmissions as of 5th August.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 167 – Tsukihime

July 11, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

Tsukihime 1

Last week’s column covered the film series The Garden of Sinners (No. 166), a supernatural story whose central character is able to see the lines that indicate death in all things. However, this series actually has an earlier incarnation, which The Garden of Sinners was later set into. This week we look at the original work.

Tsukihime originally began as a video game only released in Japan back in 2000 by a company called Type-Moon on 3½ floppy disks, which is a sentence that is guaranteed to make anyone feel old. The game became very popular, and in 2003 it was adapted as a 12-part anime series, under the full name of Lunar Legend Tsukihime.

The story follows a boy named Shiki Tohno, who when he was younger suffered a trauma which resulted in him gaining the ability known as the “Mystic Eyes of Death Perception”, the ability to see the normally invisible lines of mortality in all objects, living and non-living, and the same ability also used by the similarly named Shiki Ryogi in The Garden of Sinners. The only way he is able to stop seeing these lines is by using a special pair of glasses.

Eight years later, Shiki is now living with his sister Akiha following the death of their father, living a relatively normal life with his new school friends. However, one day walking back from school he meets a woman, and upon doing so Shiki enters a strange dreamlike sequence. When he comes to, he discovers that he has in fact killed the woman. The next day though, on his way to school, he finds the same woman alive and well. Shiki tries to flee the woman but fails and the two are then attacked by a group of demonic hounds that the woman is able to kill herself.

The woman then reveals her secret: her name is Arcueid Brunestud, and she is a vampire, although she herself does not consume blood. She is one of the True Ancestors, whose job is it to kill “Dead Apostles”, who are humans that have had their blood sucked by True Ancestors and are thus rogue vampires. As Arcueid is still recovering after her attack from Shiki, Shiki ends up helping her. Arcueid reveals that her main mission is to kill a vampire named Boa, whose soul takes over other people and acts as a host for him.

However, as the story progresses, Shiki begins to learn more about himself and those around him. Some of his close friends seem to have vested interests, Akiha is not all she seems to be, and even he comes to realise there are bits of his own past he has previously forgotten that he might want to forget again. It all eventually comes down to the final conflict with Boa, and whether he and Arcueid can defeat him.

If you watch both Tsukihime and The Garden of Sinners you can clearly see the similarities. For exampke, Shiki Tohno’s appearance is used as the basis for that of Mikiya Kokuto. Also, the person who gives Shiki his special glasses is the sister of Toko Aozaki. There are plenty of differences of course, chief among which is that there are no vampires in The Garden of Sinners.

The character of Arcueid is one of interest though, mainly because in terms of appearance she looks like the least vampire-like of any vampire I can think of. The look of vampires in fiction tends to fall into two groups: you have your traditional, period costume, gothic look; and then you have this trendier appearance. It is normally either the Dracula look or the Twilight look. Arcueid though appears to have no look. The only outfit you see her wearing is a white jumper, a long red skirt and black shoes. Whereas most vampires seem to get their outfits from the 18th century or Topshop, Arcueid seems to be the only vampire to get her clothes from Marks & Spencer.

There are some issues with Tsukihime, the main one being the length of the adaptation. While 12 episodes might seem fine on the surface, the original video game takes a long time to play. It contains over 5,000 pages of text, and thus the anime does not cover the whole story.

Tsukihime is released on DVD by MVM Films.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 166 – The Garden of Sinners

July 4, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

The Garden of Sinners 1

This week we look at an anime film series, and a series which deals with many disturbing themes. Beware: you may want to avoid these films if you don’t wish to see murder, violence, blood, vomiting, rape, drug abuse, or people’s legs being twisted like a corkscrew.

The Garden of Sinners, a supernatural thriller, began as a series of novels by Kinoko Nasu written between 1998 and 1999. The series has been adapted eight separate films, ranging from less than an hour to nearly two hours in length, most of which were released between 2007 and 2009, with the final film coming out in 2013. Other shorter works have also been released as part of the series. The story is not written chronological order, although you can easily watch the films to be in this order if you prefer to see it over the commercial release order.

The films take place between 1995 and 1999. The story follows Shiki Ryogi, who is a peculiar girl for several reasons, and not just for the fact that she normally dresses up in a red leather jacket over a kimono. Shiki was trained as a demon hunter, and like all the demon hunters in her family, she was brought up to have two distinctive personalities: her normal, unsociable female one named “Shiki” and a friendlier male one named “SHIKI”.

A fellow student at her school, Mikiya Kokuto, becomes friends with both sides of Shiki. However, this leads to conflict between Shiki’s split personalities. This is partly responsible for resulting in Shiki getting involved in an accident that results in her being put into a coma for two years. When Shiki awakes she discovers she has undergone several changes. These include the SHIKI part of her personality disappearing, and gaining an ability called the “Mystic Eyes of Death Perception”, that allows her to see the normally invisible lines of mortality in all things, both living and non-living.

Mikiya had hoped to attend college with Shiki, but the coma put a stop to his plan so instead he took up a job with a firm of paranormal investigators lead by a woman named Toko Aozaki, a sorceress who also makes dolls. Also working for the investigators is Mikiya’s over-protective sister Azaka, who is annoyed that Mikiya is so close to Shiki. Shiki meanwhile also joins Toko’s firm after awaking from her coma to investigate paranormal activities, use her hunting skills to take down demons which are responsible for death and destruction, and also trying to come to terms with her new identity.

At times it does feel that watching The Garden of Sinners is a bit of slog – not surprising when this is an eight-part film series. Also, the adult nature of the content of these films will be off-putting to many viewers. A lot of blood is spilt, and the supernatural nature of some of the attacks is quite literally twisted. No, it really is literally twisted: one of the characters in the film is a rape victim who then tracks down her attackers and kills them by using an ability to twist their bodies around like human screws. Some of the attacks are less bloody but are a lot more creepy. One antagonist holds Shiki captive and tortures her by among other things drooling all over her body. However, there is also plenty to like, chief among which is the artwork, in particular the backgrounds and sceneries, as well as the soundtrack.

For many people though the most shocking thing about The Garden of Sinners was not the violence, but the cost. When the film box set was released in the USA it retailed at nearly $600. Fortunately for us in the UK, the box set is lot cheaper, but annoyingly does not contain the final film in the series.

The Garden of Sinners box set, containing the first seven films, is released on DVD by MVM Films.

Dave’s cricket coverage is welcome – but it would be better if it was all live

July 1, 2016 by  
Filed under - Home, Features

CPL

While the TV channel Dave is best known for showing repeats of BBC programmes and occasionally making its own output such as Taskmaster, it has been recently been moving more into sports coverage.

In the past they have covered motorsport, they have shown live boxing featuring David Haye, and this week they started broadcasting the Hero Caribbean Premier League, the West Indian Twenty20 cricket tournament. It is great to see Dave expanding, not just for covering something that isn’t a repeat of Top Gear, but also because for too long cricket has been in control of Sky.

Currently in this country, England are playing Sri Lanka, and you can only watch it live on Sky Sports 2. Outside this, your only other options in the UK are to listen to the radio coverage on either BBC Radio 4 longwave or BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, or wait until the day is over and watch edited highlights on Channel 5.

However, you can now see entire T20 matches from the Caribbean on a Freeview channel. It is great to be able to watch this sport again for free (bar your licence fee of course). There is still one problem. Most of the matches are not shown live, presumably partly due to the time zones. Out of the 33 matches they are showing, only five will be televised live, with their programme starting times at 23.30. On the plus side, one of those live matches is the grand final on 7th August. All the other matches are shown later the following day at 13.00. If you are interested in seeing any of the live matches, you are going to have to stay up for the night.

It will be great if they could show more live matches, but the big problem is breaking Sky’s grip on the cricket coverage. They already have total coverage of the English, the Australian and the South African T20 leagues, plus the biggest T20 competition around, the Indian Premier League. But anything that can allow those who choose to use just Freeview services to watch more live sport is great to see.

In term of the coverage itself it is pretty decent. The presenters and commentators Ian Bishop, H. D. Ackerman, Damien Martyn and Mark Butcher seem capable enough. The one odd thing worth mentioning is that Dave are promoting themselves at the cricket grounds, which means there are advertising stands around the ground that say “Dave” and nothing else. Now, we in the UK understand what they advertising, but if they don’t have the Dave channel in the West Indies, then the locals must be rather confused that someone called Dave has purchased some advertising in their local cricket grounds. Plus, some of the matches are being played in Florida for the benefit of ex-pats. God knows what the Americans would think of foreign teams playing a strange sport, complete with advertising devoted to some strange man known only by their first name.

Dave’s coverage of the Hero Caribbean Premier League continues until 7th August.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 165 – Bubblegum Crisis

June 27, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

Bubblegum Crisis 1

Back in the 1980s with the rise of home entertainment, demand for anime increased. This lead to “Original Video Anime”, or OVA, series that was made specifically for the consumption in the home, and not to be shown on TV or cinemas.

While the unusually named Bubblegum Crisis was not the first OVA, it is one of the most fondly remembered from the early days of the format. Beginning in 1987, the series was intended to be a 13-part but sadly it ended up with just eight after the companies that made the series fell out. There have been several attempts to continue it. In 1990 there was three-part prequel A.D. Police Files; in 1991 there was a three-part sequel called Bubblegum Crash; in 1998 there was a 26-part TV retelling entitled Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 (a second series was put into production, but never made); and in 2003 there was another three-art OVA spin-off called Parasite Dolls. Bubblegum Crisis was a cyberpunk series and arguably part of the mecha genre as it seem the lead characters fighting in heavily armoured suits. It was popular when it originally debuted, but seems to have fallen out of favour with some.

The original anime is set in the year 2032. Seven years earlier an earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo. It is now replaced with the city of Megatokyo, and there is a clear split between the rich and the poor. Much of the menial labour has been taken over by Boomers; a form of robot designed by the shadowy Genom corporation, which is often exploited by criminals. While there is a separate branch of the police force called the A.D. Police devoted to tackling Boomer-related crimes, for most of the time the problems caused by Boomers are dealt with by a mysterious group of four heavily-armoured women called the “Knight Sabers” (that is the correct spelling).

The Knight Sabers are led by Sylia Stingray, who on the surface is a successful businesswoman primarily running a lingerie business, but who also the daughter of the man who invented the Boomers, who was killed by Genom executives. Sylia’s penthouse is the base of the group operations, which she helps run with her brother Mackie. Aside from Sylia the other Knight Sabers are Priss Asagiri, a biker and wannabe rock singer in a love/hate relationship with A.D. Police officer Leon McNichol; Linna Yamazaki, an aerobics instructor with a love of money which results in her taking a job as a stockbroker in Bubblegum Crash; and Nene Romanova, who also works for the A.D. Police, plus is the team’s technical expert and hacker. Together the four women wear specially designed armoured suits to combat enemy Boomers and those humans who use them for illegal means.

In terms of looking back at this series, we need to look back to when it came out. In the 1980s Japan’s economy was booming and there was a demand for more anime titles, which they got. Meanwhile in the West, there was demand from anime fans for more shows, especially if that anime was something different from the animation they normally got. This sci-fi story stood out among all the kids shows at the time. As a result, it was snapped up by the fans, and thus the fan base for the show has remained loyal to this day. The most clear sign of was in 2013 when an American company launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring out the original show on Blu-Ray. The target was $75,000 – in the end they got more than double that, with over $154,000 being paid.

There are other positives concerning the series too. It is arguably rather forward looking, and not just because it is set in the future, or because you happen to have four women as the lead characters, but also in terms of attitudes to minorities. For example, Leon’s assistant in the A.D. Police, Daley Wong, is openly gay; and their boss Chief Todo, is an African-American from Chicago. It was rare at the time for such minorities to be covered in anime.

Bubblegum Crisis was clearly a product of its time, and was heavily influenced by the American sci-fi movies of the day. For example, Priss’s band is named Priss and the Replicants, a clear reference to Blade Runner, and there is a clear relationship between humanity and robots played through both works; meanwhile many of the Boomers also look like the robots in The Terminator. However, many see the fact that Bubblegum Crisis as a product of the 1980s as being its downside. It is a 1980s idea of what the 2030s would look like. In much the same way that the crew of Red Dwarf use analogue video tapes three million years from now, in Bubblegum Crisis people talk on large mobile phones and use rather bulky computers to work on.

Then you have the soundtrack, which was one of the big appeals of the series. At the time the music was considered to be great, but by the time the 1990s came by it had fallen out of fashion. But now, perhaps it is time to look at it again. Maybe people judged it too harshly.

OK, Bubblegum Crisis is not perfect: it ended too early, its idea of the future was wrong in certain ways, and some technical aspects of the show are an acquired taste. However, you can’t help but watch it again with rose tinted spectacles. It is a bit of a nostalgia fest, not just for anime fans, but for people who into the sci-fi scene at the time. If you grew up like films like Blade Runner, RoboCop, The Terminator and so on, this is a series that fits into that mould.

By the way, in case you are wondering, according to the show’s writer Toshimichi Suzuki, the title of Bubblegum Crisis comes the idea that it seems like everything is about to blow up, like a chewing gum bubble.

Bubblegum Crisis is available on a region free Blu-Ray from US company AnimEigo. In the UK, Bubblegum Crisis was released on DVD by MVM Films; Bubblegum Crash and A.D. Police Files was released by Manga Entertainment; and Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 and Parasyte Dolls by the now shut down ADV Films label.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 164 – Momotaro’s Sea Eagles

June 20, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

Momotaro's Sea Eagles 1

Over the weekend I was at Sunnycon, the Sunderland based anime convention that became so popular it had to move to Newcastle (something that as a Teessider I find very amusing). Among the many things there was a screening of one of the earliest anime ever made. Indeed, this is the earliest anime I have ever covered since this column started, and it is one of the most controversial, given that it was premiered in 1943. Yes, we are looking at some wartime propaganda.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles was written and directed by Mitsuyo Seo, although what is more interesting is the organisation that funded the anime’s production: the Japanese Imperial Navy. Running at 37 minutes long, it is not quite feature length. The first feature length anime is the sequel to Sea Eagles, Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, released in 1945 and soon to be released in the UK. However, what people will probably find most disturbing is the fact that both of these works were aimed at children, with Sea Eagles based on the real-life attack on Pearl Harbor.

The anime also uses a much older children’s story as a backdrop. The original story of Momotaro is about a boy who is born from inside a peach, who then travels to fight the demons on Demon Island, taking with him some millet dumplings (kibi dango). Along the way he meets some talking animals: a dog, a monkey and a pheasant, who agree to help fight the demons in exchange for some of the dumplings, and together they defeat the demons.

In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, Momotaro and his animal friends are all navy sailors, with Momotaro the commander, and he orders the soldiers on his ship to attack Demon Island, which is actually Oahu, where the US Navy was based at Pearl Harbor. We follow the crew, in particular the pilots of bomber plane three, flown by a pheasant, a dog and a monkey. On their journey they help a sea eagle chick who is crying by playing with him, and they successfully bomb Demon Island and vanquish all the evil demons (i.e. the Americans), but their plane is badly damaged. Whether they can reach the ship in time is something that is up in the air (quite literally as they are on a plane).

It is hard to know where to start when examining this anime. This is a piece of propaganda, which features among other things propaganda songs popular at the time, codes sent in semaphore and on Morse code signal lamps, and the rising of a Z semaphore flag as the Pearl Harbor attack was known in planning as “Operation Z”; when the operation is a success the animals send the message “Tora! Tora! Tora!” back to the ship. As a piece of propaganda, it was arguably more successful than the more well-known Divine Sea Warriors because children were forced to watch it during school trips. By the time the Divine Sea Warriors came out, the Japanese were losing the war and thus such mass screenings were harder to arrange. Concerning the technical aspects of the film, The Anime Encyclopedia writes that much of the anime’s budget was blown on get the plane landings and take-offs animated correctly, not leaving much the way of plotting the actual plot.

However, equally as interesting as the propaganda and the imperialist war message is that fact that this anime was specifically aimed at children. Yes, it is a disturbing animation looking back, but it also features all kinds of comic antics to keep children entertained. For example, the semaphore signals are sent by rabbits moving their ears around; not only do the animals bomb the island, but they manage to land on it by monkeys climbing out of the planes one at a time, and then climbing down each other’s tails like the runs on a ladder; they plant bombs in plane (something which the Japanese navy didn’t actually do), and when one monkey gets his tail trapped the solution is to shoot the monkeys tail off.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the movie is the depictions of the Americans as demons. In common with Japanese folklore, the demons are depicted with a single horn coming out of the head, but the rest of their bodies look like anything else you would see in an American cartoon at the time. Some of the demons however, are more familiar than others. You might be familiar with the fact that in the USA, many cartoon characters during the war appeared in shorts that attacked the Japanese and the Germans, even attacking Hitler. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles one of the demons attacked is Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, who is depicted as a drunk.

It safe to say that Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is not for everyone. The people who are mostly interested are people those wanting to know more about the history of animation, propaganda, and World War II in general. However, with the future release of Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors later in the year, it might be worth looking at it to get an idea of its context.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is released as part of the Region 1 anime collection “The Roots of Japanese Anime until the End of WWII” from Zakka Films.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 163 – Ocean Waves

June 13, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

Ocean Waves 1

While Studio Ghibli is most famous for their feature films, even winning an Oscar in the process, not everything they made went to the cinema. This week we look at a film they made that went to television.

Ocean Waves was released in 1993, directed by Tomomi Mochizuki and an adaptation of a novel by Saeko Himuro. The project was never intended to be released in the cinema. The purpose of the project was to allow the younger staff at Studio Ghibli to make a film relatively cheaply – something which it completely failed to do. It was over budget, it was over schedule, and Mochizuki was so over stressed making it and other projects at the time that he had to go to hospital.

The film is mostly told in flashback, like the subject of last week’s column Only Yesterday (No. 162) which was made two years earlier. The story is narrated by Taki Morisaki, who is on his way to a school reunion, and who tells the story about his relationship with his best friend and a girl they both had feelings for. Two years earlier, when Taki was still in school, his best friend Yukata Matsuno acted as a guide to a new transfer student, a girl named Rikako Muto who comes from Tokoyo. Yukata has feelings for Rikako, a talented but arrogant girl.

Taki learns that Rikako’s parents are divorced and that she is living away from her parents. At the end of the school year, with the students on a school trip to Hawaii, Rikako tells Taki that she has lost all of her money and asks Taki for a loan, which he gives her. Then Taki learns that Yukata has also given her a loan. The reason for taking this money is to spend money on returning to Tokyo to see her parents. Taki decides to go with her, and thus the relationship between the three ends up becoming more complex as the characters begin to express their true feelings for each other.

The interesting thing about Ocean Waves is the reason why it was made: to encourage new talent. In the case of Mochizuki, who has already been working on TV projects such as directing Ranma ½ (No. 93), he went onto work in many other projects, including working on the storyboards on programmes like Code Geass (No. 22). However, these days he works under the pseudonym of Go Sakamoto.

It is not the greatest Studio Ghibli film, but it was never meant to be. It is a made-for-TV project to be aired during the holidays, not a cinematic masterpiece. However, despite this there are some aspects of Ocean Waves that make it stand out, the most notable of which is the use of aspect ratios. Throughout the film the story will cut to a narrower ration, boxing the footage in. Aside from the full screen version there are two different ratios used: a medium-sized one, and an even smaller one boxing the footage so it takes up about one-ninth of the screen. It automatically grabs the viewer, dragging you deeper into the story and into the past where the story is set.

While it is not the greatest piece of work, it still has its moments, and it is also the shortest Ghibli film at 72 minutes long, so it is not as if you are going to waste a lot of time watching it.

Ocean Waves is released on DVD by Studio Canal.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 162 – Only Yesterday

June 6, 2016 by  
Filed under Features

Only Yesterday 1

A season of films by Studio Ghibli is being screened across the country in certain cinemas, known as “Studio Ghibli Forever”. Among the events that have been taken place is the screening of one of the studio’s greatest films, but with an English dub for the first time.

The film in question is the drama Only Yesterday, and the new dub features in the lead roles Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: Episode VII) and Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). Originally released in 1991, directed by Isao Takahata, and based on a 1987 manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, this movie is notable for many other things: it is famous for the way it was animated; for the plot of the film; and is one of two Studio Ghibli films to have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Beginning in 1982, the story concerns a woman named Taeko Okajima, who is in her mid-20s and works in an office in Tokyo. For her ten-day long holiday she decides to visit some of her family who live in the countryside, where she plans to help in the local safflower harvest, where the flowers are organically grown and mainly used for dying clothes. As she takes a sleeper train from Tokyo to Yamagata, she begins to recall her own countryside childhood experiences dating back to 1966. Taeko recalls her family, consisting of her parents, her grandmother, and her two older sisters; as well as her time at school, making friends with the other girls and later finding out that one boy in the school secretly likes her.

When she finally arrives at her stop, Taeko finds out that the person picking her up from the station is a man named Toshio, someone she hardly knows. As she gets to work at the harvest and enjoys her holiday, she tells Toshio more about her childhood – both the good times, and the bad times. We come across Taeko troubles at school, learning about periods which results in schoolboys causing mischief, crying as she is slapped across the face by her father when the she leaves the hours without wearing shoes, and her failed desire to move into acting. As the story cuts between Taeko’s childhood and adulthood, she begins to contemplate staying in the country, a proposition made more complicated when it is suggested that she should marry Toshio. She therefore has to decide whether to keep her old job, or marry and have a new life.

As stated in the central anime reference book, The Anime Encyclopedia by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy, some people might be put off by the ending premise. In Japan at the time, the idea of a woman might want to have both a career and a family life was not really considered. It was either one or the other. Despite this, this hasn’t stopped people from liking the film. Along with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (No. 153) it has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is also famous for the way it was animated. The voice actors were recorded first, and thus the animators were able to animate the facial movements of the characters more accurately. It was one of the first anime films to use this technique.

But perhaps the most notable feature of Only Yesterday is the plot. When you think about of most anime, the plots are very flashy. Many of the plots deal with fantastical situations that would never happen in real life. Only Yesterday’s story is very much set in the real world. You can believe that the events that have happened over the course of Taeko’s life would happen to any woman, and why she would come to the decisions she has made. Only Yesterday is an adult film, aimed at women, but the film appeals to just about everyone.

Only Yesterday is not showy. It does not try to be spectacular. It tells a story that anyone can relate to, and that is what gives it its appeal.

Only Yesterday is available on DVD from Studio Canal. The new dub version will be released on Blu-Ray on 15th August.

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