Matt Kamen looks at Halo’s troubled path from game to film
27th May sees the release of Halo: Forward Unto Dawn, courtesy of our friends at Anchor Bay. While the video games that inspired it have proven hugely popular – and, along with Mass Effect, become arguably the finest examples of long-form science fiction storytelling of the last decade – Microsoft’s Halo franchise has struggled to make it to the big screen.
Halo: Combat Evolved, the first game in the series, launched to considerable acclaim on the original Xbox in November 2001. Originally developed by Bungie, it introduced players to the now-iconic elite soldier Master Chief and the far-flung war between humans and the Covenant, an alliance of alien races. While the gameplay stood out by offering an engaging first-person shooter experience on console – a rarity at the time, bar outliers such as Goldeneye 007 – it was the surprisingly rich universe the games presented that demanded attention. The unfolding war wasn’t a strict good-vs-evil affair, and the human military forces were of questionable morality. Children were secretly kidnapped, then genetically and cybernetically enhanced to provide a fighting force capable of withstanding the vastly superior enemy onslaught. The series’ core conflict isn’t so much ‘Earth vs Aliens’ as it is the value of an individual’s humanity versus Humanity as a whole.
With both depth and flashy sci-fi visuals to offer, movie studios became interested almost immediately. It took until 2005 for Hollywood’s lumbering wheels to begin turning on the project though. A script penned by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) was pitched around, and for a time 20th Century Fox and Universal were planning to co-operate on production. Plans progressed to the point where Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) was attached as executive producer, and a pre-District 9 Neill Blomkamp was set to direct – a position earned from the strength of his trilogy of short films set in the Halo Universe, used to promote the third Halo game. However, after numerous re-writes and budget concerns, the movie stalled and eventually died.
Instead of Hollywood, Microsoft next looked east. With the success of anime anthology projects such as The Animatrix and Batman: Gotham Knights no doubt an influence, the game maker collaborated with a cadre of top-tier animation studios (including Evangelion’s Production IG and Tekkonkinkreet’s Studio 4C) and directors to create Halo Legends. Consisting of seven shorts, each offered a different insight into the mythology set up in the video games. Vignettes such as Toshiyuki Kanno’s ‘The Babysitter’ channelled the frantic shooter action of the source, while the poignant ‘Homecoming’, directed by Koji Sawai, focused on the stolen lives of the powerful SPARTAN soldiers. Dragon Ball director Daisuke Nishio even created a spoof for the collection, parodying the otherwise sombre franchise. Halo Legends succeeded largely on the basis of showcasing lesser-known aspects of the franchise, rather than trying to directly adapt any of the games.
Not content to let their live-action dreams die, Microsoft and new Halo developer 343 Industries next shifted focus to this latest outing, Forward Unto Dawn. Originally broadcast as a five-part webseries preceding the release of Halo 4, it combines the raw energy of Blomkamp’s Halo 3 shorts with Halo Legends’ efforts to show other sides of the interplanetary war. Set on the remote colony planet Cirnicus-IV, the movie follows a group of military cadets. Initially training to engage in a civil war between the core worlds of the expanded human empire and more remote insurrectionists, the cadets’ natural fears and doubts over combat and duty are magnified as they uncover hints of a greater threat lurking at the edges of uncharted space.
Directed by Stewart Hendler, Forward Unto Dawn may not be the big budget blockbuster some are hoping for but it does set the stage for greater things to come. The film serves as both an origin for supporting characters recognisable to fans of the games – notably Captain Thomas Lasky – and an introduction for newcomers to the earliest days of the Covenant hostilities. While rumours of another cinematic attempt continue, this prequel captures the emotional weight of war and proves there’s far more to Halo than mere visual spectacle.
Halo: Forward Unto Dawn is out on 27th May from Anchor Bay.
This month, nearly thirty cinemas around Britain and Eire will screen Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata. It’s been 25 years since they were first shown together in Japanese cinemas in 1988, contemporaries of Akira and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s long struck anime fans as the strangest double-bill imaginable: joy next to tragedy, childhood games beside infant funerals, smiling nature spirits versus the horrors of World War II. And yet many would rate them Ghibli’s greatest films of all.
The decision to release Totoro and Fireflies together was strictly business. Contrary to what you might think, Totoro depended on Fireflies, not vice versa. When Totoro was originally pitched, none of the Japanese investors thought it could sell – what, two kids and some furry monster in rural Japan in the 1950s?
It was Fireflies which clinched the deal. Partly it was because Shinchosha, which had published the original Grave of the Fireflies story, wanted to get into film-making, even at a loss. It was also because Grave, unusually for a cartoon, had a clear educational value. Maybe Japanese kids wouldn’t particularly want to see it, but schools might well show it to them to give them a sense of life during the war years, much as generations of British schoolkids watched TV’s How We Used to Live.
And maybe some kids, especially older one, would be drawn to wartime tragedies that featured children like them. Long before Grave was made, Hayao Miyazaki wrote that Japanese teenagers read The Diary of Anne Frank out of a perverse envy for Anne’s situation. “They may wish that they, too, could live life to the fullest amidst such tension, in such an extreme environment.” Grave is full of intense experiences. The boy Seita sluices his face with water from a burst pipe; the girl Setsuko capers in a cloud of fireflies; the children shrink terrified from a rain of incendiaries.
But then, Totoro has very much the same appeal, the idea of living to the fullest in a world without mod-cons, telly or the internet. It’s one of many ways in which Totoro and Fireflies mirror each other, apparently without any plan to do so. It reflects that they were made by two colleagues who had worked together for more than a decade, on projects such as an epic TV version of Heidi – yet another anime about living life to the fullest, this time in the Alps.
Both Totoro and Grave feature child siblings, one an infant very dependent on the other. The youngsters face the devastation of losing one or both parents, and must fall on the kindness of other adults, with very different results in each film. If there’s one ‘connecting’ moment between the films, it’s when each little girl picks up an insect or bug and accidentally squishes it. Both times, it’s a cute, humorous moment – but with a melancholy hint, that the world is a place of fragile, breakable things, like little children.
Both films are intensely personal. The autobiographical side of Totoro is well-known, rooted in Miyazaki’s childhood when his mother was confined to hospital for years. (There will be a drama some day – whether in cinemas or on television, live-action or animated – about Miyazaki’s early life, though perhaps it will only be made when he’s no longer with us.)
The reality behind Fireflies is more complex. Takahata based it on a semi-autobiographical story by another person, Akiyuki Nosaka; you can find the details here. Yet it’s also grounded in Takahata’s own experience of running through a burning city, aged nine, together with his older sister. Remember that when you watch the intense early scene of Setsuko and Seita caught in an air-raid – this is from Takahata’s own memory. It brings the film into relief, much like whenyou realise that Godzilla’s Eiji Tsubuyara, who destroyed Tokyo in the 1954 film, had survived the Great Tokyo Air Raid just nine years earlier.
Regarding the oft-asked question about whether the Japanese cinemas showed the upbeat Totoro first, or the heartbreaking Fireflies, it seems to have been entirely up to the cinemas in question. However, it would surely have made sense, Greek theatre-style, to show the sad film first, and then cheer everyone up. Takahata himself admitted that when Totoro was shown first, the audiences who’d been laughing at furry nature spirits weren’t inclined to see his story of starving children to its end.
In fact, not many Japanese people did see the original double-bill. Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki acknowledged it didn’t draw great audiences; its importance was to give Ghibli critical cachet, with both films winning great acclaim. We’ve discussed Totoro’s long-term legacy on this blog, but the legacy of Fireflies is also worth mentioning. In anime, it has no obvious descendants. However, it’s a precursor – and maybe an inspiration? – to two much later animated films, both autobiographical, about modern war: Persepolis from France and Waltz with Bashir from Israel.
In live-action, one might compare the Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – another film with an obvious educational component for children – and two Japanese remakes of Fireflies, made for television (2005) and cinema (2008). Both versions are obviously reliant on viewers’ memories of the anime to “sell” the story in live-action, and practically clone Takahata’s most memorable images. More interesting was the announcement last December that Britain’s Dresden Pictures has acquired the rights to the film. Perhaps it will transfer the tragedy to another part of the war-blighted world?
2013 was originally meant to see another Miyazaki/Takahata double-bill. Ghibli announced the joint release of Miyazaki’s Kaze Tachinu (The Wind is Rising) and Takahata’s Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya). The mixed double, though, was not to be. As of writing, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari has moved back in the schedule and is due for a separate release in Autumn, though trailers for both films can be seen together in Japanese cinemas. (This writer caught them in front of Les Miserables!)
The films seem well-suited to the respective directors. Kaze Tachinu returns to Miyazaki’s well-known love of vintage aircraft (see Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso and reams of his manga). The film tells the life of the historical aviation designer Jiro Horikoshi. There’s an obvious family connection – Miyazaki was born when his name adorned the wartime family business Miyazaki Airplane, which serviced the Zero fighter planes Horikoshi designed.
Takahata’s Kaguya-Hime is based on a Japanese folklore staple, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” a tenth-century story of a baby found in a bamboo stalk. Anyone who’s seen Takahata’s Pom Poko knows the director’s interest in Japanese folklore -there was even a “Bamboo Cutter” gag in Takahata’s My Neighbours the Yamadas, where the baby Nonoko is found the same way. Judging by the Kaguya-Hime trailer, the film will be in a very “drawn,” graphic style, reflecting Takahata’s love of foreign animators such as Russia’s Yuri Norstein and France’s Michel Ocelot.
And yet, it’s doubtful that Kaze Tachinu or Kaguya-hime no Monogatari will have the intensely personal qualities of My Neighbour Totoro or Grave of theFireflies. Anniversaries seldom live up to the original event, though far more people will flock to see them than they did in 1988, when “Miyazaki” and “Takahata” were known only to a few cartoon fans. So do yourself a favour, get down to a Totoro/Fireflies screening in Blighty,and see two of the greatest artworks that anime and Japanese cinema have ever made.
Available to download now, Jeremy Graves is joined by Manga Entertainment’s Head of Acquisitions Jerome Mazandarani, and Schoolgirl Milky Crisis author Jonathan Clements to discuss the dramatic potential of a Pamela Andersen zombie, the perils of PAL, and the likely cost benefits of restarting the Manga Club.
00:00 Jeremy Graves intro regarding MCM Comicon and the coming live podcast panels: Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th May, both at 1130, on the main stage.
04:00 And so we begin Jeremy’s “fairly fast-paced, quick, packed show.” Trying saying that fast, it’s harder than saying Princess Jellyfist. Slight delay for the Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood collection blu-ray. Bakuman now back to 17th June. Naruto Shippuden Box Set 13 also delayed till 24th June.
12:00 London Comicon coming up, where there will be a live podcast recording with special guests, plus details of the convention-specific One Piece goodies that will be on sale.
19:00 Drifters of the Dead and its various incarnations described as a “fan service perve-o-rama.” Jerome’s pitch for Baywatch Zombiewatch, unlikely to be coming to a TV near you.
23:00 Corrections from the last podcast, in the interests of editorial integrity, as if we ever had any, before moving on to your questions in Ask Manga UK.
27:30 Are there any plans to re-release old shows on Blu-ray? 1500 units as a notional break-even point for a Blu-ray release.
31:00 Any chance of Gosick? Are the boxes depicted on Amazon indicative of the final artwork? The problems of getting the artwork for all anime.
37:00 How are combo packs performing?
40:30 What are your thoughts on the upcoming site Daisuki? And a link here, as promised, to the blog review of Ramon Lobato’s book on informal media economies.
52:00 Is reverse importing a Blu-ray-only problem? And there goes the can of worms, wriggling all over the podcast like an earthquake in a noodle factory.
59:00 The issue of grey importing, and the pitfalls of countering it through a loophole for grey exporting. What are the chances of a discount for foreign licensors on Macross Plus or Ghost in the Shell: Arise?
71:00 When you release a series in parts, is that your decision or a request from the licensor themselves?
73:30 What are the chances of shojo or josei shows coming to the UK?
76:00 Whatever happened to the Manga Club, and will it ever come back? Tweeters to tweet #bringbackclubmanga
84:30 We’re out, and the bamboo was great.
The Podcast is available to download now HERE, or find it and an archive of previous shows at our iTunes page. For a detailed contents listing of previous podcasts, check out our Podcasts page.
Yui Hirasawa and her band mates of Hokago Tea-Time return in K-On!! this week. The second season of the music-driven comedy sees the girls progressing to their final year at high school and facing tough decisions over life, their music careers and (possibly) which cake to eat next.
However, given the band peddles the kind of energetic, inoffensive pop material that otaku lap up, Japan’s home-grown music industry may not be the best direction for any credible musician to take. Although manufactured bands are a decades-old global phenomenon – from The Monkees to One Direction, the Supremes to Girls Aloud – few countries approach the format in so commercial and exploitative a manner as Japan.
The phenomenon of ‘Idol Singers’ should be nothing new to anime fans – 1982’s Super Dimension Fortress Macross had aspiring songstress Lynn Minmay fend off an alien invasion with her peppy warbling, after all – but in the real world, the obsession and fetishisation of many young women often has disturbing elements.
Take AKB48, for instance. A veritable legion of fame-hungry young women gathered by producer Yasushi Akimoto, the ‘group’ is based primarily in the neon-lit streets Akihabara where the girls perform daily in a dedicated theatre. AKB48 currently boasts over 80 members, who are ranked both internally and by fans, with the most popular getting pushed into the spotlight. Ages range from 12 up to mid-20s, and promotion through the ranks is seen as a path to national success.
The songs themselves are both blandly formulaic and coyly sexualised – lyrics often contain coquettish allusions to cumbersome clothes and nascent teen desires – and naming any particular member of AKB48 is tricky for all but the most dedicated fans. The girls are deliberately chosen based on their ‘average’ looks in an effort to make them seem attainable to the primarily male fanbase, and everything about their lives is carefully marketed to the public. Essentially, the girls’ childhoods are commercialised to make them an aspirational product to older men.
The problem was brought into sharp focus in February this year, when member Minami Minegishi became internationally recognisable for all the wrong reasons. A streaming video, later made available on YouTube, showed the 21-year old singer weeping in contrite apology, begging fans for their forgiveness and her head shaven in repentance. Minegishi’s crime? Having a boyfriend.
Having been snapped by paparazzi leaving the apartment of Alan Shirahama, a member of boyband GENERATIONS, Minegishi was trotted out to the public as a shame-faced harlot, a betrayer of “the fans” and a poor influence on the younger members of AKB48. A founding member, Minegishi had been singing and dancing with Akimoto’s troupe since she was 12-years old. Now aged 20, she has grown up in the public eye, pushed as a sex symbol but never allowed anything close to an actual relationship or a real life.
The video makes for awkward viewing. Minegishi claims the decision to shave her head was her own, as was the video, but the orchestration of the move reeks of a planned publicity stunt. It’s also cruelly dehumanising, punishing the singer for wanting some small amount of privacy and personal time, while reinforcing to her followers that she is nothing more than merchandise for them. Tragically, Minegishi isn’t alone in her treatment – other AKB48 members such as Miki Saotome, Rino Sashihara and Yuka Masuda have previously been ‘demoted’ to lower tiers, hidden away in regional spin-off groups or fired entirely for similar boyfriend-based infractions. Alan Shirahama, it bears mentioning, has suffered no fallout from the incident – at the very least a double-standard of Japan’s music industry, at worst a reminder of the nation’s lingering sexism and misogyny.
Minegishi has faded from public view since that February video, no doubt waiting for it all to blow over and her hair to grow back. Having suffered demotion to trainee status, she will have to work her way back up the AKB48 ranks, at least if she wants to maintain her popstar lifestyle and have any hope of a career beyond the group. In the meantime, fans of J-pop in general and AKB48 in particular could well do with evaluating the monstrous mechanism they’re supporting with their ‘fandom’, and how shows like K-On!! give a sadly unrealistic portrayal of musical aspirations in Japan.
K-On, season two, part one, is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment. Nobody has had to shave their head.
Helen McCarthy on the hidden connections between Hellsing and… well, everything else.
Since its first appearance in 1997 Kota Hirano’s Hellsing manga and its anime spin-offs have used the Dracula story to examine Japanese issues through a re-imagined Britain. They also draw on world popular culture to embed Hellsing in a shared global mythology. The premise: that the vampire Dracula was not destroyed by Professor Van Helsing, but survived to serve the Prof’s descendants in England.
The head of the Hellsing family, Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, has inherited the family name, the vampire-fighting tradition and, and the service of the vampire. Alucard is the chief weapon in her vampire-fighting secret organization, which is also called Hellsing. Van Helsing’s descendant is not the bride of Dracula – she’s his mistress, his feudal overlord, a virgin queen with a vampire in her service.
Feudal heredity is a key concept in Hellsing. Hellsing’s Britain is ruled by a female monarch, as the real country is – and as Japan might have been, but for the birth of a son to Prince Akishino in 2006. Ties of blood loyalty are as vital in the real world as in Hellsing.
The other central institution of English life in Hellsing is the Church of England. The war between Catholics and Protestants echoes Japan’s ancient struggles between incoming Buddhists and native Shinto priests. The great schism of Christianity was dragged back to prominence in the 20th century when the IRA bombed mainland Britain, and followers of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult released poison gas on the Tokyo subway. In Hellsing both sides of the debate are presented as equally bloodthirsty and chaotic.
Hellsing also nods to the history of Britain’s politico-religious conflict through the Wild Geese, an elite mercenary fighting unit. Their name refers back to an Irish Catholic army that left its homeland for France following defeat by the Protestant King of England, though it is also the title of a 1970s film about honourable mercenaries betrayed by their masters. They are hired by the Hellsing organisation to replace soldiers slaughtered in a fight with two vampire crime-lord wannabes, the Valentine Brothers.
Disaffected youth are a common motif of the developed world. With options limited by rigid social or educational structures, or lack of money, the young have turned to violence to get status and purpose, sometimes disguising their behaviour as loyalty to an ideal. The Valentine boys could be any buddy movie pairing gone bad – the young, freaky, hyper guy and the more thoughtful, laid-back, reserved type. They want all the good things they see the rich enjoying. They’re willing to do anything to get them but somehow they don’t think that hard work and good behaviour is going to do it, so they get themselves artificially augmented.
Jonathan Clements reviews a new book on the prolific Takashi Miike
Tom Mes climbed aboard the Takashi Miike bandwagon early, arguing in his 2003 book Agitator that the poster-boy of straight-to-video schlock and shockers was much more than a journeyman director. Agitator itself was part of the message, a beautifully designed, heavily illustrated and weighty tome that still has pride of place on my shelves.
As Mes notes in his introduction to his latest book, the just-published Re-Agitator, even as his first Miikeathon was being published, the supposed maverick was getting selected for the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, and while Miike has remained happily busy in the intervening years, his work has been increasingly highly regarded, even by those who once wrote him off. Audition already had a respectful following of chin-stroking cineaste apologists, and certain pundits (well, me) were pointing to Fudoh: The Next Generation as a triumph of manga adaptation, still rarely matched by other live-action attempts. The Bird People in China was a charming film that showed true versatility, and while Miike’s output remained somewhat scattergun, he really did seem to have done something for everyone, in a dizzying array of genres. And if you don’t like his latest movie… just wait a minute.
Miike’s sheer prolificity, and the relative ease with which his early bargain-bin output made it to foreign distributors, has created a momentum of its own, generating an archive of films ripe for academic dissection, many with elements that foreshadow his later, better-known works. Mes alludes to a growing number of student dissertations on Miike, for which this glossy collection of 35 essays will be a citational godsend.
As the subtitle “A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike” makes clear, Re-Agitator collates whatever Mes has done Miike-wise in the last ten years, rather than whatever Miike has done himself. As a result, there are accounts of films already covered in the previous book, and a few regrettable omissions – I had really been looking forward to reading what Mes had to say about the bonkers Ace Attorney: The Movie, but with no DVD release abroad, nobody has yet paid Mes to put his thoughts down on paper. I confess to being a little crestfallen that Re-Agitator is not a sequel to the first book, going into similar depth about the thirty-odd films that Miike has made since 2002’s Deadly Outlaw: Rekka. My hopes, then, for close textual analyses of such recent oddities as the juvenile Ninja Kids, or the baffling K-tai Detective 7, have been dashed. But as Mes swiftly points out in his introduction, Agitator was a book of its time, written by an author who did not dare believe that anyone would ever get to see most of these films, and assuming that his account of them might be the only place their artistic heritage would be preserved in the English language.
A decade later, Miike’s works are not only well-represented on subtitled DVD in the West, but often with liner notes by Mes himself, many of which are collected in Re-Agitator. If you are interested in learning more about the guy who made Hara Kiri, then Re-Agitator is as good a place to start as you can hope for. The essays are often rather short, rarely taking up more than two pages, and eschew Agitator’s wordy plot synopses in favour of punchy, pithy assessments of each film within the context of Miike’s work as a whole. They jostle for space with witty accounts of adrenaline-fuelled film festival appearances and longer excursions into Miike’s use of sex, gore or violence.
The book is also lavishly illustrated on quality paper, with superb stills and production photographs, including a whole gallery of beautiful images from the set of Sukiyaki Western Django, donated by Miike’s long-time collaborator Christian Storms. Like Mes’s earlier book on Miike, it is shamefully gorgeous. I speak from bitter experience – the Japanese can be their own worst enemies when it comes to picture rights, and many a book on Japanese pop culture has been dragged, screaming, into text-only tedium by rights-holders who do not see the value in handing over decent images to plug their product. As with his other notable book on Shinya Tsukamoto, Mes goes the extra mile to put images on the pages, imparting a palpable classiness to Miike’s output.
Mes’s essays often assert that Miike has been misunderstood or misrepresented abroad, by both his supporters and detractors. It is interesting to read, for example, of the extended Japanese cut of his wonderful 13 Assassins, which Mes nobly argues is less high-brow, more scatological and humorous, and to my ears at least, somewhat less good than the acclaimed international version. There is an interview with the director himself about the ghostly Great Yokai War, and intriguing pieces on several Miike movies that I have never even heard of – it’s tough keeping up with them all.
The end result is a thing that borders on coffee-table beauty, although you might like to skip the foreword by the aforementioned Storms, which is by turns aggressive, defensive and condescending, and strikes an unnecessarily negative note at the beginning of an otherwise joyous book.
Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike, by Tom Mes, is out now in hardback from FAB Press.
The seventh instalment in our character guide for Dragon Ball Z, filling you in on the heroes and villains to keep an eye on in the latest super-charged volume of the famous action epic!
Great Saiyaman. Soaring through the skies, righting wrongs and fighting crime – it’s the Great Saiyaman! Who is this masked hero though? None other than Goku’s first-born son, Gohan! In the years since his father’s sacrifice during the Cell Games, Gohan has done some growing up. Now in his teen years, he faces his greatest challenge yet: high school. With Earth in a rare period of peace, one mercifully lacking alien warlords or demonic martial artists set on conquest, the young warrior tries to build a normal life. Gohan’s good nature and incredible Saiyan powers mean he can’t ignore people in need though, so he crafts the Great Saiyaman identity to keep his secrets from his new friends.
Videl. Gohan’s attempts at secrecy don’t quite work out though – classmate Videl is immediately suspicious of his frequent absences and bruises matching the new superhero after his public battles. The daughter of Hercule Satan, Videl proves to actually be a competent fighter, unlike her father, and intelligent enough to quickly deduce Gohan’s identity. Although the relationship between the teenagers is initially frosty, they soon grow close. With Gohan’s help and some Saiyan-brand training, Videl’s own combat ability rapidly improves, granting her the abilities of chi-powered flight and incredible speed. Her name is an anagram of ‘devil’, playing on her father’s name.
Son Goten. Goten is Goku’s youngest son, born after the hero’s most recent death. The boy is the spitting image of his father at the same age, with identical hair and even a similar wardrobe – his gi lacks the ‘turtle’ kanji of Goku’s. His mother, Chi-Chi, is slightly less protective of him than she was of Gohan, possibly because Goten proves to be even stronger than his father or brother at the same age. His potential power level is so great that he achieves the Super Saiyan transformation at a mere seven years old! Mischievous but kind-hearted, Goten is also far more outgoing than Gohan was.
Young Trunks. Proof that children can often overlook their parents’ squabbles, Trunks is Vegeta and Bulma’s son and Goten’s best friend. Whereas the adult Trunks that first appeared in the Android Saga came from an apocalyptic future, the presently seven-year old Trunks was born into the ‘safe’ timeline where Dr. Gero’s mad plan was thwarted. As such, he gets to enjoy a normal childhood – at least, as normal as it gets for a human/Saiyan hybrid with fantastic strength. Although Vegeta is emotionally distant from his son to start with, Trunks’ prowess in battle soon wins him over. His friendship with Goten usually sees the pair caught up in trouble – but anything’s better than fighting off murderous androids!
Grand Kai. There’s one in every family – the older member that tries way too hard to stay ‘hip’ and ‘cool’. While you may be able to take your own relatives aside and give them a touch of fashion advice, it’s a bit harder to tell a guy who’s essentially a god to rein it in. Grand Kai oversees the four other Kais – including Goku’s mentor King Kai – who govern the quadrants of the Universe. Decked out in jeans, a ripped-sleeve denim jacket and a cool pair of shades, Grand Kai’s dress sense can be overlooked given his friendly demeanour. He eschews formality and treats the combatants of the Other World Tournament (what else do you expect Goku to be doing while he’s dead again?) as his own grandchildren.
Dragon Ball Z box set 7 is out on 13th May from Manga Entertainment.
“Oh no!” we hear you cry, “not another anime fight saga involving otherworldly warriors, ensouled weapons and cursed human souls, like Bleach.”But manga creator Atsushi Okubo and the Bones anime studio (Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood) are wise to that complaint. Soul Eater may certainly encroach on similar territory to Ichigo and co, but it puts its own witty, stylish spin on the material – especially when it comes to the style.
Soul Eater’s terrific graphic design has been justly praised, especially the ominously leering sun and moon that dominate Soul Eater’s world, making it cartoony on a cosmic level. Interviewed on this blog, Masahiko Minami of Bones explained it was always a priority to translate Okubo’s art to anime. “The first thing we thought about was how we could transfer the charm of the original manga onto the screen. Led by the director Takuya Igarashi, all the main staff brought together the things they pictured from the comics and we built them up one by one. It was more time-consuming than difficult.” The anime’s conceptual design is credited to Shinji Aramaki; which is quite a contrast to his better-known director’s credits on the CGI mecha films, Appleseed and Appleseed Ex Machina.
From its early episodes, Soul Eater is an ensemble show. Unlike Bleach or a comparable series such as Blue Exorcist, there’s no central male hero. Instead, the early episodes introduce us to three warriors. There’s the inevitable feisty schoolgirl, Maka, voiced in Japanese by debuting actress Chiaki Omigawa (you may recognise her voice from the recent Bodacious Space Pirates, in which she voices the heroine’s friend Mami). There’s an amusingly mouthy boy, Black Star, a ninja who feels suspiciously like a send-up of a certain other boy ninja in the anime universe. And then there’s Death the Kid, son of, well, Death, who has awesome powers but an unfortunate case of OCD – in one early battle, he rushes off in order to straighten a painting.
The trio attend the Death Weapon Meister Academy. It’s a mad giant wedding-cake of a magic kingdom-cum-fortress, overseen by the deceptively goofy-seeming Death. All of which makes Soul Eater a plausible missing link between Bleach and the later Blue Exorcist, which is also set in a supernatural school with a flamboyantly supernatural Headmaster. Each warrior, naturally, has his own weapon-cum-soulmate; they can adopt human form and are important characters in their own right.
For male viewers, the most, ahem, intriguing weapons may be Liz and Patty Thompson, two attractive sisters who double as Death Kid’s pistols (a notion that would be taken to extremes in the 2012 series Upotte!!). Another weapon who turns up down the line is Excalibur – yes, that Excalibur. He turns up in humanoid form with a top hat and walking stick, looking like an especially oddball Moomin or Rupert the Bear character – one whom many of Soul Eater’s cast would dearly love to thump.
Like a lot of anime, the show begins in excessively comedic style, acclimatising you to the eccentricities of its world before its plotlines start unrolling and you realise you’ve been lured in. As when Bones made its first adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, the anime “diverges” from the manga plot so it could wrap up in 51 episodes, all on Manga Entertainment’s Complete Series set. Okubo’s manga is still running, with 23 volumes to date and a spinoff strip, Soul Eater Not! starting in 2011.
Bones, of course, followed Fullmetal Alchemist with Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, mopping up the manga plot it missed the first time round. Surely it’s occurred to the studio that Soul Eater is ripe for the same treatment? We may not have seen the last of Death Weapon Meister Academy…
Soul Eater is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Black Rock Shooter, like many anime, weaves fantasy round real life. In anime, schoolkids may pilot giant Evangelion units, or kill crooks with Death Notes, or leap heroically through time, but they still must fit all that between classes, exams and homework. Black Rock Shooter is a bold hybrid; part school drama about fraught female relationships, and part otherworld apocalypse thud’n’blunder starring supergirls with very big weapons.
In the “real” world, young Mato Kuori is just starting high school, together with her exuberant girl friend-since-the-sandbox Yuu. Quickly, they make new acquaintances, such as the domineering sports captain Arata, the kindly (well, kindly-seeming) school councillor Saya, and Yomi, a quiet, bookish girl who catches Mato’s attention. Even in reality, there’s plenty of intrigue. For example, Mato discovers that Yomi has a sinister wheelchair-bound companion called Kagari, who takes girlish nastiness to horrible extremes, and who seems to have a Baby Jane hold over Yomi…
However, Mato is also having dreams – of a world of cliffs and chasms and eyeballs in the sky, and female warriors with very familiar faces. Mato (voiced by the ever-busy Japanese actress Kana Hanazawa) seems to have an alter ego in this place, an agile fighter with an abbreviated outfit and serious firepower, who’s the Black Rock Shooter of the title.
Perhaps Mato’s dreams come from her reading too much. (Both she and Yomi adore a storybook in which a little bird flies through a universe of radiant emotions, though the tale takes a Grimm turn at the end.) Or maybe Mato has a troubled psyche… or, maybe, the warrior world is more real than that.
The eight-part TV series is part of a multimedia franchise, all stemming from a single picture of Black Rock Shooter by the artist Ryohei “Huke” Fuke. This also spawned figurines, video games, manga series (including a “chibi” four-panel strip called Black Rock-Chan!) and an anime OAV telling an alternative story. For its part, the TV series focuses on the real world rather than the fantasy – an emphasis that might have encouraged by its positioning in the famed “Noitanima” anime slot on Fuji TV (also home to shows like Eden of the East and Bunny Drop), which aspires to be female friendly.
The framing device of a young girl with strange dreams inevitably echoes Alice but also the Freudian horror film Company of Wolves, the classic 1950s British book Marianne Dreams (filmed as Paperhouse) and even Zack Snyder’s critically-maligned movie Sucker Punch. As an anime, Black Rock Shooter presents its fantasy sequences in a wild, freewheeling graphic style, which contrasts sharply with the show’s version of the “real” world; it’s somewhat similar to the approach taken by the time-travel anime Noein.
The real-world drama, meanwhile, concentrates on girls’ possessive friendships and insane jealousies – things anime has sometimes played for laughs (in Project A-ko, for example), but played for suspense and melodrama here, as if to undercut the fashionable moe image of idyllic girly friendships. It’s ironic, though, that Black Rock Shooter’s title song is sung by the ultimate in artificial female stars. No, your ears are not deceiving you – the singer is Hatsune Miku, performing a number by Supercell!
Black Rock Shooter, the Complete Series Collection is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment on 13th May.
Magical girls occupy an odd space in the anime world. Originally aimed at young girls, the colourful superheroes managed to find traction with viewers of all ages over the decades since Sally the Witch cast her first spell on viewers in 1966. However, one of the pleasant side-effects of attracting an older audience is the freedom it gives creators to experiment with the form. The result has been fan-favourite series such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which subvert the surface veneer of delicate girls in frilly dresses by exploring much darker themes. Penguin Drum is the latest show to toy with fans’ expectations, delivering a madcap fusion of life, death and mystic flightless birds, hatched from the mind of veteran magical girl director Kunihiko Ikuhara.
Ikuhara is a creator well-known for his experimental proclivities, and has been creating mature, challenging and thought-provoking ‘magical girl’ series for years. Of course, like most things relating to the modern magical girl, the Tokushima native’s career is inextricably linked to Sailor Moon. Having worked under original director Junichi Sato on Toei’s adaptation of Naoko Takeuchi’s genre-redefining manga, Ikuhara took over directorial duties from the second season, Sailor Moon R. He would helm the series for three years, covering the S and SuperS seasons, before stepping off the show, frustrated with the lack of creative control he was afforded.
Founding the creative agency Be-Papas in the wake of his departure from Toei, Ikuhara partnered with manga artist Chiho Saito to bring Revolutionary Girl Utena to both page and screen. An apocalyptic tale of destiny and reincarnation set in a decidedly unconventional boarding school, Utena touched on themes of obligation, freedom, lesbianism and transgenderism as the eponymous heroine – determined to become a prince, rather than a princess – fought to protect the ‘Rose Bride’ Anthy in a succession of bizarre sword duels. The series became extremely metaphysical, replete with allegories to mythology, while its visuals drew on shadow puppetry and traditional Japanese theatre as much as it did on Saito’s distinctive art style. Despite the 1997 vintage, Utena remains one of the most unusual magical girl series in terms of tone and style. Although its narrative is deliberately dense and potentially confusing, with events wholly open to interpretation, it’s clear the series provided Ikuhara with an avenue to explore his more challenging ideas.
Following Utena, Ikuhara took a step back from animation for a number of years. Literary and musical collaborations – including the manga The World Exists for Me with Saito and the novel/concept album Schell:Bullet with mecha designer and artist Mamoru Nagano – filled his creative slate, with only storyboard and guest director roles on series such as Aoi Hana and Soul Eater bringing him back to anime in brief bursts. It would take his creation of Penguin Drum, first aired in Japan in 2011, to bring him back into the fold.
The series follows the terminally ill Himari Takakura and her brothers Kanba and Shouma. When Himari finally passes after a visit to an aquarium, she is revived by a strange penguin hat. Empowered by the ‘Princess of the Crystal’, her life is extended, but only if the trio can find the mystic Penguindrum, though just what that is remains a mystery. Aided only by three invisible magic penguins – yes, really – the search forces the close-knit family to engage in stalking and burglary amongst other crimes, all while Kanba and Shouma face the possibility of losing their sister for good if they fail.
Penguindrum once again sees Ikuhara re-writing the rules of magical girl anime. Himari’s transformations are more akin to a spiritual possession than a super-powered metamorphosis, with the Princess forcing her host body into a penguin-themed idol with the fashion sense and personality of a dominatrix. There’s a level of darkness and desperation too, with the heroes forced to undertake some distinctly unheroic actions. Even the designs are intended to test viewers’ acceptance, with the assorted penguin paraphernalia bordering on the deliberately farcical. At its core though, Penguindrum is a fable of family and fraternity but the themes explored will make you see just how different a magical girl can be in the telling.
The first collection of Penguin Drum, containing episodes 1-12, is on sale now.