Category Archives: Japan

Anime 101: five must-see anime for the uninitiated

A friend who particularly enjoys watching films and television shows recently mentioned he hadn’t seen any anime. Obviously it fell to me to rectify this terrible oversight, so within seconds, I promised him a list of where to start. I had planned just to write down a list of titles; twenty-four hours and a thousand words later, I think I’m finally satisfied. Read on if you are an anime newbie (or an anime veteran who wants to pick my choices apart).

The key point for someone approaching anime (ah-nee-meh) from an English-speaking tradition, especially one so heavily influenced by family friendly Disney fare, is that animation (anime) and comics (manga) are woven into pretty much every part of Japan’s popular artistic tradition. Some anime works are aimed at children, sure, but most are not, at least not specifically. Anime is simply another medium, like TV or literature, and it’s populated with everything from broad comedy to serious drama to high-concept sci-fi action.

Consequently, there’s a lot of it. So where does the anime newcomer start? Chances are you actually have seen some anime, given the popularity of POKEMON and DRAGONBALL Z (and, earlier, SAILOR MOON) around the world. These shows are cultural phenomena with a deep and wide-ranging influence, which makes them noteworthy and worth checking out at least once, but the high-volume, churn-‘em-out production style makes them limited artistically. There’s more to anime than one-on-one battles and big hair.

The five anime works I’ve listed below (four films, one TV episode) are each outstanding examples of writing and visual craft. They also showcase the broad potential of the medium. Listmaking isn’t definitive, obviously – my taste is my taste, and there are countless anime I haven’t seen, especially in the TV realm – but I’d be surprised if nothing in this sample impressed you. If they don’t impress you, it’s probably safe to say anime isn’t for you.

Oh, and one final thing: please watch in Japanese with English subtitles. Anime and the Japanese language are inseparable from one another.

cowboy bebop, spike spiegel, whatever happens, anime quote, classic anime

1. The family classic: MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988) – d. Hayao Miyazaki

totoro, my neighbour totoro, rain scene, bus stop

Studio Ghibli, and particularly Hayao Miyazaki, is the obvious entry point for newcomers to anime, and among Ghibli’s many great releases, TOTORO is the greatest. It quickly and seamlessly evokes a mostly recognisable world – a Japanese countryside teeming with humming insects, human-powered industry, and swaying grass – alongside a fantastical one peopled by benign otherworldly creatures. The bridge between these worlds takes the form of two closely bonded sisters facing the spectre of their mother’s life-threatening illness. It’s impossible not to be charmed and moved by their story. Also, the animation is lovely, and a classic Joe Hisaishi score rounds out a perfect introduction to the form.

If you like this, try PRINCESS MONONOKE

2. The mindblowing epic: AKIRA (1988) – d. Katsuhiro Otomo

akira, anime classic, tetsuo, cyborg, chair

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO is small, quiet, and sweet. At the other end of the scale, we have AKIRA. I first saw it when I was about 13, and the experience was similar to watching 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for the first time: a jaw-dropping handful of indelible images orbiting a general sense of confusion. Like, what did I just see? Otomo’s adaptation of his own even more epic manga is big, brash, and overblown, beginning with dickish biker kids and ending in an extended orgy of city-sized destruction. For all its excess, Otomo’s palpable affection for his characters means AKIRA does not live or die by its admittedly extraordinary visuals; you grow to care about these brats, caught up as they are in a mysterious conspiracy that threatens them and everyone they know. It also has one of the great film soundtracks.

If you like this, try METROPOLIS

3. The arthouse masterpiece: MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001) – d. Satoshi Kon

millennium actress, photograph, flashback, anime

A film for lovers of film. On the surface, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS tells the story of a veteran film star’s life and career, constructing it through flashbacks and snippets of her work. Kon’s genius, though, is in mixing the modern-day frame story and the actress’ work, constructing a kind of collective consciousness between the performer, her work, and her fans – and you, the viewer. Periods of Japanese history also play a critical role in the narrative and the visual style. It’s a rich, multi-layered work that only gets better the more you think about it. And hey, guess what? The soundtrack, by genre-defying prog rock legend Susumu Hirasawa, is brilliant.

If you like this, try TOKYO GODFATHERS

4. The slice of ultra-stylish TV perfection: COWBOY BEBOP Session 20: Pierrot Le Fou (1999) – d. Shinichiro Watanabe

cowboy bebop, anime tv series, session 20, pierrot le fou, amusement park, cane gun, crazy clown

A 22-minute TV episode is a bit of an outlier on this list, but there are so many great anime TV serials, I had to include one. And why not this perfectly executed story? Style is Watanabe’s calling card; his work is defined by a cool aesthetic and nimble editing inspired by the likes of Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Tarantino. ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ comes late in COWBOY BEBOP’s 26-episode run, but its monster-of-the-week plot – about an insane clown driven mad by shady government experimentation (a few obvious influences there!) and our anti-hero Spike’s efforts to stop him – stands alone, making it an ideal introduction to the series. Would it be ridiculous of me to comment on its amazing soundtrack? It would? Okay, I’ll shut up.

If you like this, try the rest of COWBOY BEBOP (and then NEON GENESIS EVANGELION)

5. The full-hearted blockbuster: YOUR NAME (2015) – d. Makoto Shinkai

your name, kimi no na wa, anime blockbuster, meteorite scene, beautiful sky

Let’s bring it all together. YOUR NAME is a fantastically entertaining film in its own right, worthy of inclusion here purely on its own merit. It’s also the highest grossing anime of all time. But it also brings with it the added bonus of calling back to each of the four other titles listed above. The countryside charm and childlike wonder of TOTORO, the apocalyptic scenario of AKIRA, the nostalgia of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS, and the flair of COWBOY BEBOP are all present; certain moments are almost carbon copies of scenes in those other films. The element it brings that the others don’t really have is a sense of the new emerging Japan, particularly the experience of urban high schoolers and graduates. Anime has always taken young people seriously; YOUR NAME’s representation of new men and women trying to make their way in a changing world rings very true. The soundtrack? It’s not the work of genius each of the other four titles offers, but it’s very catchy.

If you like this, try VOICES OF A DISTANT STAR

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 'Best Of' Lists, Film, Japan

Kickstand

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of After Dark by Haruki Murakami in a library book sale. Five for a dollar! I peeled the duraseal off, scrubbed away the patches of glue it left behind, and put it away for later. (See: tsundoku.)

Flash forward four years, and I finally got around to reading it last week as part of my 2017 Only Reading Books From Years Ending in Seven project (the English translation was published in 2007). The book is slight, a diversion, although – in typical Murakami style – it does hint at an opaque world of unsolvable, half-drawn mysteries.

One such mystery particularly caught my imagination, and it comes not from the mind of Murakami but from a previous reader. Library books are supposed to have many readers, after all; you can usually only guess at how many, and who they were, and what impression the book left on them. This reader, however, made three notes over the course of After Dark’s 200-odd pages. Each is in the same black ballpoint pen.

Here’s the first, from page 47:

After Dark: a strong kick, why?

There’s plenty of overwriting in After Dark. Murakami quite indulges himself by giving his omniscient, disembodied narrator full licence to describe the least consequential aspects of a scene and wax rhapsodical about these tiny moments of city life and what it all means. This technique is effective in building a small world of rich detail, but it can make for dull reading.

This previous reader, though, got hung up on Murakami’s (and translator Jay Rubin’s) decision to modify the motorcyclist’s ‘kick’ with the adjective ‘strong’. Now, I’m no line-by-line editor, but this choice seems quite reasonable to me; it draws attention to the motorcyclist’s physical presence, and to the machine’s weight. I feel like underlining their ‘Why?’ and writing the same thing alongside it.

Later, on page 79:

After Dark: a big kick

Now the kick is ‘big’, and that’s caught the reader’s eye. There’s no annotation in the margin this time. I can appreciate that ‘big’ is not as descriptive as ‘strong’, but is its inferiority as an adjective the reason for its underlining? Perhaps the reader thought ‘strong’ was too much, where ‘big’ is just right. Perhaps the reader is a motorcyclist and takes issue with Murakami’s representation of ignition. We can only speculate, because the reader isn’t giving us any more.

Finally, on page 172:

After Dark by Haruki Murakami, with accumulated saliva on the floor

Now there’s an image worth underlining, an image with real feeling. (!)

(See also: Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library, a great piece in The Awl by Maria Bustillos. Now there’s a person who could write a good annotation.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Japan, Uncategorized

A study in disappointment: Tokyo Story (1953)

2379355012_5867d95fe6_b.jpg

Sake. Photo by cleber (Flickr)

It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.

***

So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.

***

The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.

I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.

I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.

And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.

***

I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.

This is a great film in every way.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film, Japan, Uncategorized

THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA: My little princess

Kaguya-hime to sakura

(c) Hatake Jimusho – GNDHDDTK

THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
Kaguya-hime no Monogatari
directed by Isao Takahata
Review: The Japan Times

A group of children, each aged somewhere between five and ten, call in unison to a toddler. They have just bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Takenoko’ (Li’l Bamboo) because of her freakishly rapid growth. “Takenoko! Takenoko!” they shout, and she starts wandering away from the front porch of the house where she lives and over to them, a grin on their face.

Her father notices her straying from home, so he calls after her with his own nickname: “Hime!” (Princess!)

She pauses halfway between the children and her father. The children shout louder. “Takenoko! Takenoko!”

“Himeee!”

“Takenokooo!”

It’s cute. There’s no danger; the kids, bred with the collectivist values of countryside life, pose no real threat to Kaguya. She is clearly not in any distress, just caught between two human forces eager for her attention.

The grin drops from her face as she looks from one group to the other in confusion. The calls grow and grow until they drown out the chatter of birds and rustle of nearby trees. The children point their heads to the sky and yell as loud as they can. Her father cranes his neck towards her and screams, his eyes closed and his cheeks red with effort. Finally, the smile returns and she starts toddling back to her father. The children give up and stop their bellowing.

You’d expect the father’s protective tension to dissipate, having won the vocal battle for his daughter’s affections. But it doesn’t. He yells even louder. He starts to cry. He can’t bear even to wait a few more seconds for his little princess to come to him, so he gets up from the porch and runs to her, taking her in his arms as tears stream down his face. It takes several seconds before the embrace starts to calm him down. His love consumes and overwhelms him to the point of delusion and toxicity, leading him — and her — into a mirage of happiness. It blinds him from the truth of his life.

This is just one scene from THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA, which is sad, contemplative, surprising, and indescribably beautiful. It’s also a bit longer than its thin story deserves, but that feels unfair in the face of such visual brilliance, which was a joy to behold from first minute to last. The animation resembles watercolours and charcoal drawings, and if ever there was a film from which you could print any frame and stick it on your wall, this is it.

I expected all that — just watch the trailer, for goodness’ sake — but I didn’t expect the story, and scenes like the one described above, to stay with me for so long afterwards. It touches on ecology, family relationships, parenting, and the folly of blindly following tradition. It reminds you to be true to yourself. A simple message, but one worth repeating — especially with such inspiration and beauty.

1 Comment

Filed under Film, Japan

PATEMA INVERTED: Bloody kids

Patema InvertedPATEMA INVERTED
directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
The Guardian: 3/5

What an idea! Two groups of people, one with their gravity inverted so they walk on the ceiling and have to construct their lives around not falling into the sky. The two groups live in adjacent cities with little awareness of one another, primarily because their respective leaders do everything they can to keep them separate. PATEMA INVERTED brings them into contact through Patema, a teen girl heroine from the underground city with a penchant for unauthorised exploration, and Eiji, a fish-out-of-water in the 1984-esque Earthbound society.

So much potential. So many possible paths to tread, and so many facets of a compelling idea to explore. But while he sustained my interest through the premise, Yoshiura lost me with his characters. Often, just as the world began to draw me in and get my mind turning over, he’d hone back in on Eiji and Patema, stereotypical anime teenagers, alternately sullen and earnest. Their connection begins unconvincingly with youthful stargazing and, once cemented, blinds them to almost anything else. At one point, they reach an incomprehensibly vast city that appears to be deserted, but their focus remains squarely on each other. I wouldn’t mind, but if you’re going to make your film about the characters, then they need to be more captivating than this pair.

The ending is one of PATEMA INVERTED’s more satisfying elements, as it fits the scenario into a wider context and inverts our previous understanding of the characters. But I still left feeling cheated. Why couldn’t they have applied that level of inspiration to the rest of it?

The film I really wanted to see from this scenario would’ve had Eiji and Patema have sex as soon as possible, then focus on their offspring. Would they be able to fly? Would they use their understanding of both societies to bring about peace? Would they be unloved outcasts wherever they went? That would have been really interesting.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film, Japan

Do Not Leave Your Homes, Everything Is Fine

A reminder that Wellington is a small city, and New Zealand is a small country.

I normally walk to work along Willis St, the busiest road in Wellington’s CBD, and today was no different. This morning, however, this street – usually full of courteous cars and pedestrians holding takeaway coffee mugs – was almost deserted. The following photo was taken at 8:15am:

There hasn’t been a massive earthquake, nor has there been a zombie apocalypse. (Zombies are fake and boring and stupid and no reason to clear the streets anyhow.) It’s just a public holiday – Labour Day, in fact.

Because my job involves multiple time zones and countries, I’ve got work to do. Meanwhile, @mishviews on Twitter (and presumably a lot more of Wellington’s population, given that the semester also wrapped at Victoria University on Friday) is still in bed.

Being one of those pompous asses who cannot help but compare everything at home to my Big OE, I look at these near-empty streets with some curiosity. In Tokyo, no matter how important and respectfully observed the public holiday might have been, streets would definitely be full of people by now. Job comes before anything else, a hangover from the post-war years of working double to try and return a shattered nation to its pre-war glory. And if for some reason you have a whole day away from work, you’d better make the most of it. A day trip to Hakone, a jaunt to Tokyo Disneyland, some crepes in Harajuku. Don’t waste any chance to work or play.

Maybe that isn’t a fair comparison. Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, after all, and Wellington is the Coolest Little Capital In The World. But Varkala in the south Indian state of Kerala, a tourist town of about 40,000 people, was also a good deal busier than this at any time. So many people were in the midst of trying to be upwardly mobile that no matter the occasion, they needed to be out in the streets or opening the shop, seven days a week. Everything is in a constant state of development and transition and if you miss even one day, you might get left behind.

Here in socialist paradise New Zealand, as one US-based friend puts it, we are pretty comfortable and the city streets aren’t changing much. There’s no real worry of falling behind if you take a day off with everyone else, which isn’t that many people anyway. Things will be okay.

I think it’s really easy to forget this, because Wellington offers quite a lot to do and can seem like a bustling metropolis at times. When we decide to stop bustling, though, we generally can. And we’re very lucky for that.

Leave a comment

Filed under India, Japan, New Zealand

An email from my Japanese former student

I had a lot of crazy classes during my time working as an English conversation teacher in Japan, but without doubt the most rewarding and enjoyable was the one with steelworkers at a Toho Corporation office. Every Wednesday eight burly Japanese men would join me, resplendent in hard hats and overalls, in a nondescript company classroom for an hour of (possibly dreaded) English tuition.

One of these men, Kazu, has kept in touch with me by email in the time since, which is – gosh, more than three years now. In class he was the boisterous one, quick with jokes (in English as well as Japanese) and boasting an impressive vocabulary. On the page, he is decidedly less effusive. He continually expresses a lack of confidence in his English, no matter how much I tell him how good he is, and his short messages often include an apology for his poor grammar.

We have been in touch a little more frequently since the Tohoku earthquake of February. He lives in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo, so is not directly affected by the earthquake or nuclear fallout – at least, not yet. Yesterday, I received an email from Kazu that moved me deeply for various reasons. I asked him if I could reproduce it here, and – admittedly after some gentle coaxing – he agreed.

This may be meaningless to the rest of the world, but it is so meaningful to me. I am putting it here to give a sense of a regular Japanese guy’s outlook in the wake of the earthquake, and to just see if it resonates with anyone else.

Thanks, Kazu.

*

Dear Banz

Thank you for the mail and thinking of me.

About 7 months have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coastal area in Japan.
There have been several facts reported about it. I was surprised to find out that the tsunami was estimated to have reached 38 meters in height.
This was the second biggest tsunami in history. The biggest one hit the same area in 1896.

Prime Minister of Japan announced his determination to reconstruct the devastated area into one of the most desirable places to live in the world.
I am very much interested in his plan, so I will follow it closely.

We still have many aftershocks every day. However, the life is getting back to normal in many ways,
although we worry about the effects of radioactive leaks in Fukushima Nuke Plants.

I wish everyone a safe and peaceful life.
Kazu

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan