Andrew Osmond interviews the star of the Mononoke stage play
Back in February, we interviewed the creators of the British stage version of Hayao Miyazaki’s epic anime Princess Mononoke, shortly before the play debuted at London’s New Diorama Theatre. Since then, rather a lot has happened. Not only have the divine boars and wolves trod the boards in Blighty, but they’ve also played to audiences on the other side of the planet.
In a unique case of ‘taking coals to Newcastle’, the Whole Hog theatre company was invited to Tokyo this April. A primeval Japanese forest, originally envisioned in a blockbuster Ghibli anime, was recreated by a theatre company from Leamington Spa in a Tokyo theatre – and all just minutes away from the bustle of Shibuya’s ‘scramble junction’ (think Piccadilly Circus with ten times the neon).
As the play comes back to London for another sell-out run, MangaUK interviewed Princess Mononoke herself. Actress Mei Mac, who interprets the wolf girl San on stage, took time out from fighting for the gods to answer our questions.
How old were you when you first saw the Studio Ghibli films, and do you have any favourite Ghibli films or characters?
Oh, I was far too young to remember! I think I must've been 5 or 6 when I saw my first Ghibli film. I watched a lot of them in Cantonese actually so that's how I remember them. Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are probably the films that made most impact on me. Nago specifically, which plagued my nightmares after watching it! [Nago is the monster which attacks the hero’s village at the beginning of Princess Mononoke.]
How do you interpret San’s character, and the way she reacts to Ashitaka?
Like most characters (and people), the more I have explored San, the more complex I have found her personality. You realise new things each time you watch the film (even on the 40th time), but it was also so important to develop San in rehearsals as her relationships with other characters evolve and deepen.
I find her to be constantly conflicted, though always concise and direct. When developing the character, we quickly came to the understanding that in order to translate San onto the stage, we had to explore what she'd be like if she were a real person having grown up in the wild without human contact. I think the way I interpret San is physically more wild and unrestrained (she is a wolf, after all!) than the San presented in the film. Abandoned as a baby and adopted by the Wolf-God Moro, she is fighting an inner dialogue of hating all humans and entirely rejecting her human form.
Her rawness allows the more tender moments with Ashitaka to read more clearly to a live audience - their relationship being so important to portray truthfully. There is so little time to convey the depth of their relationship amidst all the action. She battles this overwhelming gravity towards Ashitaka, the first human to have this effect on her, and her absolute hatred towards his kind. It's the journey from this to the acceptance of their kinship that I have found absolutely fascinating and an honour to portray.
The play, much more than the film, stresses the physical intimacy between San and Ashitaka, often through stylised, dancelike moves involving both characters. How was this choreography created?
We devise a lot of our work through improvisation. The impetus for the movement sequences came from contact improvisation exercises in character, finding moments that would help the narrative and refining it into choreography.
How tricky is it to 'interact' with imaginary puppet characters, as opposed to the humans who operate them?
It was much harder at the beginning when the puppets were still being developed. But once the cast started to settle into the puppets and I had become used to it, I found it completely natural!
Can you give us an ‘average’ day’s timetable during the period you worked on Princess Mononoke?
Haha! Most days we are called from 10am till 10pm, but that is almost nothing compared to the sleep deprivation Alex, Charlie and Polly and the rest of their team worked through - don't ask me how they do it! [Alexandra Rutter, Charlie Hoare and Polly Clare Boon are the company directors of Whole Hog Theatre, interviewed in our February feature on the play.]
Was the experience of performing on the stage in Tokyo very different from when you performed the play in London, or did it feel similar?
Tokyo was a completely different experience to London. Each venue comes with its own challenges. Transferring the show from a 6m stage [in London] to an 18m stage [in Tokyo], we had the freedom of space to expand it, and add many more elements. Though of course, certain moments are much more powerful in an intimate venue like the New Diorama Theatre [in London].
We also learnt very quickly the differences in response between a Japanese theatre audience and a British theatre audience - in the knowledge that some of the storytelling aspects have to be explained differently for a British audience, who may not have knowledge of Japanese folklore and culture. Though the Japanese are known to be less vocal in the theatre, we were honoured to be bringing Mononoke Hime home, where the story is so precious, and also to receive standing ovations from our toughest critics!
Can you describe what the experience of the ‘Niconico’ event was like? [Niconico Chokiagi 2 was a massive live event that took place near Tokyo just before the play’s Japanese run began. It is based on Niconico, the Japanese video website; you can get a flavour of the live event from the video here. The Mononoke cast presented a sample of the play at the event’s after-party.]
WOW. Niconico is not an experience I will ever forget. Having learnt that 33 million people signed up to watch is absolutely… mind-blowing! It was so great to see the audience so engaged in our performance, and hear 5000 people gasp in surprise at Nago's entrance or as Ashitaka jumped on Yakul. This was our first public showing in Japan, and it felt so great to have inspired an audience who love the story as much as we do!
Finally, can you describe what it was like to visit Studio Ghibli and meet Miyazaki?
There are no words… Most of us were in tears at multiple points during the visit. It was truly one of the most incredible moments in my life. Miyazaki-san and Suzuki-san are simply inspiring, and it was such an honour and delight to be in the company of the men who inspire millions around the world! It is certainly something I will never forget. They are fearless.
Bakuman is a slice of life series focusing on the highs and lows of making it as a manga creator in Japan. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve at least considered making your own comic. Succeeding in that cut-throat field is no easy path though, as this week’s new release makes clear.
The eagerly anticipated show is adapted from the latest manga series by writer Tsugumi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata – the creators of the wildly popular gothic thriller Death Note. Clearly, there’s a HUGE weight of expectation on Bakuman given its pedigree. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint but those expecting anything even remotely similar to the twisting, psychological battle between Kira and L will be very surprised by what’s on hand here.
Bakuman focuses on Moritaka Mashiro – Taka for short – a 14-year old art prodigy who’s winning awards even at his young age. He’s a big fan of manga himself (anyone who’s familiar with Japanese manga releases will get a kick out of Taka’s book shelf, with full runs of Dragon Ball and One Piece shown with correct cover art!) and looks up to his Uncle Nobuhiro, a one-hit wonder manga creator who never regained the success of his inaugural work. Sadly, Nobuhiro died while Taka was still young, purportedly from overwork but Taka suspects that the desperate man committed suicide, driven to it by a string of uncaring editors and a lack of work. Discouraged from following in his footsteps, Taka’s resigned himself to getting an average office job and leading an unspectacular life. His sense of ambition is nevertheless kickstarted when raging teenage hormones, a girl he fancies, and a healthy dollop of blackmail conspire to change his direction in life!
Much to Taka’s dismay, his classmate Akito Takagi finds Taka’s sketchbook, full of drawings of his crush, aspiring voice actress Miho Azuki. Rather than teasing him, the seemingly aloof Akito reveals himself to be a huge manga fan and, impressed by Taka’s talents, suggests they make a series together. Although Taka initially declines, Akito gets him to team up by telling Miho that they’re working on a series together. Swept up in the suddenness and his own feelings, Taka agrees, telling Miho they’ll save the heroine’s voice for her when their series is animated. Taka also blurts out a marriage proposal for when they’re a success – which Miho surprisingly accepts, with the strange proviso that they not see each other again until then. From here, the series charts Taka and Akito’s quest to become the best manga creators they can be, though Taka retains traits of bleak realism and despair at the viciousness of the industry.
Besides being an opportunity to engage in some hilarious reference gags at the expense of popular manga series – yes, including Death Note! – Bakuman is also delivers some healthy social commentary. The characters are all in the last year of Middle School, making the hard decision over which High School to go to. It’s an important choice in Japan, and many teens find the social pressure to get good grades, and progress from prestigious school to University to notable company to be overpowering. Increasing numbers simply shut down, as Taka is in danger of doing at the start of the series, all contributing to Japan’s hikikomori (social shut-ins) phenomenon. The show also covers how truly hard it is to make it as a megastar manga-ka – the popularity rankings in the weekly anthology comics, the pressure from editors, the demands of success. It’s a bleak career path that offers undeniable rewards if you make it, but the chances of making it are scarily slim.
Bakuman, the anime, is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Hugh David goes gonzo for Mahiro Maeda’s sci-fi classic
Today’s anime fans may not place as much store by the name GONZO, given their lack of a major hit series in the last five years, but ten years ago they were the company to beat. A decade after their inception, their list of successes then reads like many an older fan’s DVD shelf: Blue Submarine No.6, Gatekeepers, Vandread, Hellsing, Final Fantasy: Unlimited, Full Metal Panic!, Kiddy Grade, Yukikaze, Kaleido Star, Peace Maker Kurogane, and Chrono Crusade. Every new series announced was hugely anticipated, every trailer released a major event, the soundtrack CDs in hot demand at convention dealer stands.
In celebration of their first decade in business, GONZO put together a first-class team to create a science-fiction epic unlike anything they had done up to that point. Reuniting the creative team from their ground-breaking debut release Blue Submarine No.6 of Koichi Chigira, anime legend Mahiro Maeda (who drew on his background at Gainax and Studio Ghibli for his role as production designer here), and fashion designer Range Murata (back to conceptualise character designs), the 26-episode TV series had ambition and class written all over it, especially in promotional and series trailers. The result, however, divided fans and critics, and remains to this day the preserve of a select group, as opposed to the massive enduring successes that are the Hellsing and Full Metal Panic! franchises.
Why was this? For a start, with visual roots in 1900s Europe and 1920s Germany in particular, the extravagant visuals were only ever going to appeal to an audience still discovering steampunk. The show does not pander to the fan concerns of the time; it lacks mecha, serious fan-service, or juvenile humour. The blending of 2D and 3D CG work met with vocal disapproval from international audiences, as such combinations still do to this day. Finally, the actual storytelling itself is more mature, creating an epic tale which initially acts as a background to the personal journey of the lead characters, but then becomes the main story.
As is often the case with some of the best creative work, those elements seen as negative at the time by a wider audience are not only what endeared the show to a cult few, but which have allowed the series to age with grace. Playing almost like a sequel to Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky set in a later era, the characters are drawn with greater attention to human concerns than plot machinations, while the sheer volume of detail serves to make the world feel so real that the characters can focus on those concerns. The arcs they find themselves on make the 26 episodes feel like chapters of a good novel rather than weekly TV episodes. Spectacular action sequences nod to such past fan favourites as George Lucas’ pod race in The Phantom Menace or the epic space battles of Leiji Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock, while watched as a season box set the intrigues maintain their grip far better than divided up across a year. The soundtracks still stun as much as the frequently breath-taking visuals. In short, it is ripe for re-discovery by a new set of fans, especially with a sequel about to become available.
As a footnote for anime historians and those who love Last Exile, the series was enough of a success that the same creative team was brought together once more to develop Tow Ubukata’s Mardock Scramble five years later. Initial designs released looked simply stunning once again, but economic woes meant it was not to be. A huge shame; while the same project has finally been completed in a more traditional style, the what-if remains forever tantalising.
Last Exile is out now on UK DVD on Monday from Manga Entertainment.
Paul Jacques rounds up the best ladies from the MCM Comic Con
Winner of the ladies' cosplay was Julie Morrisroe's note-perfect Hellboy, or should that be Hellgirl? Absolutely amazing. We have to salute the amount of effort, care and attention to detail that has gone into this costume. Great pose and extra points for the cigar -- as the winner, Julie receives a canvas print of her hellish costume.
Among the runners up was Lauryn Lockyear's Gaara from Naruto -- great costume and great pose.
Meanwhile, our judges found this get-up to be sexy, sassy and deadly. Another great pose and a fantastic effort from Laura Benson on the wig, chainsaws and dress as Tekken's Alisa .
And last but not least, and we say this with love, Kimberly Rust's undead girl was terrifying, disgusting, and 100% zombie. Now, please give back Jerome's intestine.
There are no end of anime and manga stores in Tokyo, but there’s only place to go for Evangelion devotees – the “Evangelion Store Tokyo 01.” The shop was established in 2011 in the bustling district of Harajuku, a stone’s throw from Takeshita Avenue, Tokyo’s fashion mecca -- there’s a map on the store’s website here. According to staff member Masataka Hirai, the most popular items aren’t the crazier goods (yes, there are really Evangelion Hello Kitties!), but rather the simpler gifts: food, postcards, and Eva mugs.
Hirai attributes the popularity of Evangelion goods to the fact that the franchise now encompasses generations of fans. Remember, it’s been 18 years since the original Neon Genesis Evangelion aired on Japanese TV. That’s time enough for that generation’s Shinjis and Asukas, who watched the TV series, to have finally conquered their neuroses, got together and produced kids who met Eva through the new rebooted movies. Let’s not forget that Evangelion 3.0 – You Can (Not) Redo took more than $50 million at Japanese cinemas… and that’s before its fans turn to the Eva goodies in Harajuku.
And around the back of the shop there's something to tease every foreign fan -- a character line-up from Evangelion 3.0 including a bunch of characters that have not previously appeared in any incarnation of the show.
Just imagine the DLR on the way to Excel, as Paul Jacques snaps more Comic Con cosplay...
After our run-through of the top group cosplays at London's recent MCM Comic Con, we move on to the Best Male category, won this time by Jason Edwards this fantastic detail for WoW's King Varian Wrynn, particularly on the shoulder armour, arms and boots. Great make-up and hair styling too. What’s not to love about this costume? As the winner, he gets a well-deserved canvas print to hang in his castle.
Runners-up include Ben Duzniak as Claus Haine from Scissors Crown:
Another runner-up, here's Sean Bonnar as Ice King from Adventure Time.
And the oddly popular Allen Walker from D.Gray-Man continues to get plenty of cosplay support from Daniel Hughes:
Want to get involved in the cosplay world? Check out our feature on the Dos and Don'ts.
Blood-C brings together heavyweight names in anime and manga. There’s the Blood franchise, in which a teen girl (well, she looks like one) regularly carves up monsters with her sword; there’s the female manga group CLAMP, creators of everything from Cardcaptor Sakura to xxxHOLIC; and then there’s the Production I.G. studio, home to Ghost in the Shell. The result is a controversial mix of extreme cuteness and extreme splat. (The BBFC rates the show ‘15’ but notes it “contains strong bloody fantasy violence and gore.”) Perhaps the best way to enjoy it is to approach Blood-C purely on its own terms, without all the big-name baggage.
In the series, the heroine Saya lives in an idyllic country town backwater. She’s very cute (itself a shock to viewers who know the grim, hardcore warrior of the other Blood anime). She wears glasses and falls over so often she could have “MOE” tattooed on her face. She sports oversized pigtails like great black wings, and sings her way to school, where she excels at sports, is teased by her classmates and blushes at boys. Her home is a shrine, where she’s devoted to her priest dad (“My father is honest, kind and tough!”). Oh, and at night she fights monsters.
Very funky monsters they are too, often verging on brilliant, and showing the creative spirit of the sorely missed Ray Harryhausen. In the first three parts alone, we get a statue turning into a giant stone mantis, an ambulatory flower monster with a vagina detanta maw, and a train carriage which eats people. Saya battles them all with fearless aplomb, unfazed by her injuries, before reverting to a cutesy schoolgirl the next morning. But slowly the odds rise, as first townsfolk, then Saya’s own friends, start falling victim to the carnage. And then things get much, much worse…
Blood-C is a series which provokes strong reactions (and there are fans who loudly hate the series). It’s been accused of trolling and suckering viewers, of ramming vacuous extremes of cute and splatter together in the manner of the web cartoon Happy Tree Friends. It’s certainly an exercise in playing with form (but then so were Angel Beats, Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Higurashi When They Cry). While the action always stays in Saya’s small town, the series ends up in a radically different place from where it starts.
But to say the show doesn’t play fair is, well, unfair. The hypercharged opening titles (deftly parodying magic girl shows, with blood flaking like blossom off Saya’s nude body) make clear the series won’t stay in its happy starting place. The early episodes demand patience, but the repetitive, inconsequential action, peppered with clues and punctuated by superlative fantasy battles, has a Groundhog Day magnetism that’s highly enjoyable if you’re willing to play the game.
Just what is going on with Saya’s happy town? Some fans see the series as a long build to a sick punchline (and certainly some of the gleefully gory excesses invite that reading). But it can also be seen as a purposefully contrived, extreme study of the nature of horror; the way blue skies and songbirds tip inevitably towards screams, hysteria (in all senses of the word) and blood, blood, blood.
Production I.G. reps have said Blood-C is not a sequel to either of the previous versions of Blood; the original 2000 cinema film Blood The Last Vampire, or the 2005 television series Blood+. Each anime is regarded by the studio as a new version with a new Saya, though an “essence” of the character remains from one incarnation to the next.
Blood-C was conceived when Production I.G. had just adapted xxxHOLIC, the popular manga by the CLAMP group, with which the studio had an excellent relationship. Production I.G.s president Mitsuhisa Ishikawa told this blog that the CLAMP Blood was made for female viewers. “Production I.G’s fanbase is overwhelmingly male… CLAMP has a mainly female fanbase, so obviously by combining their work with what I.G does, perhaps we would make something that would appeal more to female fans.”
Blood-C’s original design concepts were provided by CLAMP artist Mokona, while the story concept and composition were by fellow CLAMP member Nanase Ohkawa. She worked in collaboration with Junichi Fujisaku of Production I.G, a driving force behind the Blood franchise since it began. Blood-C was directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, who’d also helmed the film and TV xxxHOLIC.Without giving too much away, there may be other story links between the titles; consider the characters Saya meets in the story.
The TV show is full of harmonically-composed colour schemes and elongated girls-comic character designs. The backgrounds aren’t hyper-detailed, yet the compositions convey a strong place and mood (going back to an old Disney dictum that backgrounds a viewer doesn’t particularly notice are good backgrounds). The weight is on character animation, particularly in the battles. For all Saya’s superhuman prowess, the fights convey her desperate humanity; her last sword duel is stunningly brutal.
The series has a clear, terrible emotional arc that’s finished in the final episode. It’s not the end of the story, though, which continues in the feature film Blood-C: The Last Dark, to be released by Manga at a later date. Once again, Production I.G. wrongfoots viewers. The sequel is visually and tonally very different, with new staff and designs; yet it complements the series, and completes Saya’s journey, in ways that only register if you see the TV show first.
Blood-C the TV series, is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Paul Jacques snaps the top tableaux from the MCM Comic Con
It was tough picking a winner from among the group entries, but eventually we had to plump for this gorgeous not-quite-monochrome couple from Paperman, portrayed by Helen Wilkinson and Chris Bridgett. As the winners, they get a canvas print of their victorious pairing. But there were some stunning runners-up, too, such as these Katy Glagus and Andy Lyne as two memorable avatars from the OZ virtual world in Summer Wars (below)
There was some serious body painting going on, or maybe Kasey and Natasha just used Bleach to portray Grimmjow and Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck (below).
And finally in the groups category, we also loved Marisa, Charlotte and Emma as Umineko's Siesta Sisters.
That's it for the cosplay groups. We'll be back soon with the Best Male and Best Female shortlists.
Matt Kamen finds out who’s who in the One Piece anime
Monkey D. Luffy: The founder and captain of the Straw Hats, Luffy is a carefree soul who wants to become king of the pirates. After eating the Gum-Gum Devil Fruit, he gained an elastic body, making him near-invulnerable and able to stretch but paradoxically making him unable to swim.
Roronoa Zoro (left): Zoro is one of the world’s foremost swordsmen, so deadly with a blade that he’s developed his own triple-wield style – the third sword held in his mouth! A bounty hunter to begin with, he joins the crew after Luffy saves his life. With a confident and honourable battle-hardened personality, he’s the sternest crewmember but also perhaps the most loyal.
Nami: A cat-burglar with a tragic past, Nami serves as navigator and cartographer for the team. Her ambition is to create the world’s first complete map of the legendary Grand Line, and travelling with Luffy allows her that opportunity.
Usopp: Usopp is an elite sniper, able to hit any target – though you’ll mostly see him using a slingshot rather than a rifle. With a penchant for lying that borders on a theatrical talent, the fallout from his untruths force him into a comedic role. Usopp is also a gifted inventor, creating weapons for his crewmates.
Sanji: Besides being the crew’s cook, this dapper chap is a chivalrous ladies’ man and a dab hand in a fight. Well, a dab foot – Sanji is so devoted to his food-craft that he never risks his hands. Instead, his kick-based style is unstoppable. He aims to find a legendary trove of the world’s most delicious fish – then cook them!
One Piece is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Of Uniqlo’s anime T-shirt lines, the Fist of the North Star line has one of the longest histories behind it, and one of the oddest too. In Blighty, we know the anime as X-rated violence. In Japan, it was a kids’ cartoon. Hidenori Oyama of Toei Animation, which made it, claims that the show’s domestic audience went all the way from primary schoolers to working adults. Measured against today’s anime, North Star is a manly, muscly show, a Neanderthal predecessor to Ninja Scroll. The original Weekly Shonen Jump strip was written by a chap (Sho Fumimura) who went under the pen name of Buronson. Old-school action film fans should guess why. [*]
If you want a flavour of Fist of the North Star, here’s a choice bit from the original series:
Family viewing? Well, it aired in Japan at 7p.m. prime time, and had a long life – the original show ran 109 episodes from 1984-7, with a 43-part sequel from 1987-8. It had rather more trouble in France, where it was screened as Ken le survivant on Club Dorothée, a children’s magazine programme broadcast on TF1. Reportedly, the French channel’s buyers weren’t very meticulous about vetting the content of their purchases.
From a British viewpoint, it’s quite a surreal notion – imagine Philip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher on Children’s BBC, announcing, “And after Scooby-Doo, Fist of the North Star!” Sadly the plucky French didn’t get away with it. There was a French media backlash, led by an anime-phobic French politician called Ségolène Royal, against Ken le survivant and anime action generally, including Dragon Ball. It was a challenge that Ken couldn’t just blow up in a shower of body parts, and the poor brute was censored to an inch of his life.
The British experience was rather different. We were introduced to Ken, not through the TV show, but rather the 1986 cinema anime remake, in which exploding heads and bodies were a great deal bloodier. In Britain, the film scored two firsts. Released in the wake of Akira, it was the first 18-rated Japanese animation, and the first to be sold by a new video label called Manga Entertainment [Never heard of it – Ed]. A point of trivia is that the film’s final battle was reportedly re-shot for home release to make Ken look more heroic – a common enough practice in live-action, but quite an undertaking in animation.
Ken also introduced us, inadvertently, to Japan’s taste for demented meta-humour. In the film Project A-Ko, released by Manga only months after North Star, Ken turns up in drag in the supporting role of Mari, the ugliest schoolgirl in the universe. Out of skirts, Ken’s anime career still carries on, with a video series in 2003 and a movie/OVA remake series in 2006-8. But let’s play out with the 1995 Amerian live-action version, featuring the British (!) Guy Daniels as Ken, and a cast including Malcolm McDowell, no less! (If you want to know more about it, see here.
[*] Yes, in tribute to Death Wish thespian Charles Bronson.