Jonathan Clements digs beneath the surface of Mizuho Nishikubo’s Musashi.
Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai is an anime like no other – a mixture of animated combat, live-action footage of ancient battle sites, and computer-graphic hypertexts telling the history of mounted knights across Eurasia. Beyond that, it zooms in on the life and legend of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), author of the military manual The Book of Five Rings, who took part in the last battles of Japan’s civil war era and lived out his days as a duellist and hermit.
Director Mizuho Nishikubo throws in graphic demonstrations of sword techniques and notes on the history of the samurai, from the brawlers of the middle ages to the military ideals of the 20th century. The script is by Mamoru Oshii, the director of Sky Crawlers, a sometime martial artist himself, now also revealed as an exceptionally well-read armchair historian. The film’s narrator looks suspiciously like a cartoon version of its celebrity screenwriter – aided at times by his hapless doll-like assistant and, for reasons that defy explanation, an incontinent robot pig. His story comes accompanied by a whirl of musical styles, including old-school Japanese songs that relate the deeds of Musashi in a clash of samisen and electric guitar.
For Oshii, it’s all about the money, which makes all noblemen worth more alive for the ransom, and the geography, which makes Chinese weapons and tactics practically useless in mountainous Japan. These factors combine to create the unique appearance of Japan’s own mounted warriors: a class to which, according to Oshii, Musashi aspired in vain.
Oshii’s vision is deeply personal – a class-based, left-wing approach to samurai history that glares unswervingly at issues of wealth and power in medieval Japan. For Oshii, Musashi was haunted all his life by a thwarted desire to become one of the horsemen he so admired. Born as Japan’s violent centuries of civil war came to a close, but still too early to take advantage of the peaceful samurai life of the Tokugawa period, Oshii’s Musashi is caught between the careers of a thug and artist. According to Oshii, Musashi developed his famous two-sword technique in imitation of the way he would fight if he ever had a horse, discovering in the process that it worked well against unmounted opponents.
Oshii delves impressively deep into matters of historiography – the history of history itself. The two-sword technique never really caught on (although there is a story that one of the last pupils of Musashi’s school was the “pirate king” Coxinga) despite Musashi’s own attempts to highlight its value. Oshii puzzles over why Musashi himself never bragged about the battle that made him most famous, and offers a scathing analysis of the uses of samurai legends for state propaganda in the 20th century.
Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai is released by Manga Entertainment on UK Blu-ray and DVD on 4th July.
Andrew Osmond talks to Masahiko Minami at anime powerhouse Studio Bones about pain, suffering and alchemy.
How did Studio Bones begin?
When I was a producer at Sunrise, I set it up in 1998 with Hiroshi Osaka and Toshihiro Kawamoto, animators who shared the same ambition to broaden animation production into a new field.
What kind of projects are most attractive to Bones?
People think that we specialise in SF, robot stuff or action. But in fact, we believe that Bones should be a company with the planning and sales ability to produce whatever the staff seek to express, regardless of the genre. We actually relish the changes brought by every project.
The complex fight sequences, especially, must be very labour intensive. How many hours do the studio's main animators typically spend drawing one big fight scene, or a single space battle scene?
Action scenes are produced separately from other scenes in the schedule and process. For example, in the Cowboy Bebop movieand Sword of the Stranger, [Yutaka] Nakamura, the action director, reworked the storyboard, made action plans for all the scenes and then started producing the artwork, based on the continuity instruction from the director of the film.
How did Bones come to animate Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa?
It started when the animator Yoshiyuki Ito encountered the original comics. Ito fell in love with the manga, which I read with his recommendation. I thought Bones should make the animation, and contacted the publisher at once, and that’s how we got to produce the work.
The later episodes of the original FMA series had to tell a different story from the manga. Did Bones always hope that it could make a second version, closer to the FMA manga?
When we started the first series, the manga was still the early stages and the pacing was not yet determined. So we made the animation with the premise that original elements would be included from the beginning. The reason why we threw in the original story in the first half was so we could depict the story in the latter half.
Jonathan Clements on the creator and star of Haruhi Suzumiya.
Born in 1970, Nagaru Tanigawa graduated in Law from Kwansei Gakuin university, and first published SF with Shock! Aegis 5 (2003), a light-hearted pastiche of the kind of TV shows in which rubber monsters are kept at bay by superpowered teenagers. Like his later school-for-psychics series Escape from the School, it foreshadowed his later works, effectively by repackaging magical realism for a young adult audience.
Tanigawa’s most lauded creation is the Haruhi Suzumiya series, whose title character sets up a genre-influenced school club, hoping to attract creatures from other times, planets or dimensions. The club is later revealed to comprise, almost exclusively, the aforesaid creatures, who have converged undercover on our world in order to police the actions of Suzumiya herself, who has somehow gained godlike powers that make her imagination real, and hence poses a risk to the fabric of the universe unless her expectations are carefully managed.
A postmodern allegory of both authorial ambition and youthful aspiration, Haruhi is the pinnacle of the fan-centred otaku culture of the early 21st century, and its heroine an idealized sf fan, but also an unattainable love object and a quasi-divine Muse. In positing an environment where science fiction fans can and do change the world, it sits firmly within the “by fans, for fans” tradition first established by Gainax’s Otaku no Video in the 1990s, but also serves as a bold statement of where science fiction finds itself in the fragmentary 2010s.
In its TV incarnation, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, it was shown out of chronological sequence, viewable either as a linear story or a cut-up character study. Such genre-bending exercises reached a controversial breaking point with the second season’s “Endless Eight” sequence, which repeated some, but mercifully not all of the 15,532 iterations of a time loop. Clinging to a summery paradise in the manner of similar scenes in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the Endless Eight sequence trapped viewers in a repetitive cycle for two months, with discreet alterations in setting, costume and dialogue presented as clues to the resolution of the mystery. For some, it was a twist too far, for others, a daring experiment unprecedented in science fiction storytelling… Now you can decide…
Tom Smith on the band rocking Naruto Shippuden for the 2nd time; Ikimono-gakari
Naruto Shippuden’s fifth opening theme ‘Hotaru no Hikari’ (The Glow of the Fireflies) made Japan’s Ikimono-gakari one of the biggest selling bands of 2010.
Much like the Naruto franchise, central to Ikimono-gakari is the idea of friendship. Two of its three members have been chums since meeting in the first grade of elementary school at the age of six. In Japan, each pint-sized student is assigned a classroom responsibility and the group’s future guitarists Yoshiki Mizuno and Hotaka Yamashira were randomly paired to look after the plants and animals, a role known as ‘ikimono gakari’. They haven’t been apart since.
A decade later, they decided to form a band for fun, naming it after their first partnership, and soon drafting in lead vocalist Kiyoe Yoshioka, to complete their current line-up. Friendship isn’t the only similarity with Naruto, there’s also two very clear stages in the trio’s charts adventures. First came their younger, indie years where they played in a number of dingy venues across Japan, releasing several albums along the way; and then there’s their ‘shippuden’ years, where the band became a little older, wiser and this time fully-fledged musicians, signed to a major label.
It’s in these later years that the threesome’s brand of pop-infused rock reached a global audience via anime. Their second single ‘Hanabi’, was the first to find its way to these shores as the second ending theme the fourth season of Bleach,and showcased the band’s love for incorporating the harmonica, an oft-neglected instrument in the world of pop. It charted in the top five, though its upbeat nature still couldn’t push sales figures past their debut single, which sold a few thousand more copies but barely made the top 20. Their next outing in anime, ‘Blue Bird’, changed all that. Featuring as the opening to the third series Naruto Shippuden, it became their biggest selling single up to that point, as well as their highest chart ranker, peaking in at third place.
Surprisingly, Ikimono-gakari has yet to claim that coveted number one slot in the singles chart. It’s surprising because their first compilation album, Ikimono-bakari ~Members Best Selection – which collates two CDs worth of the band’s greatest hits along with three new tracks – was the second biggest selling record of 2010 in Japan. Upon release it was so popular that it was the biggest selling album released that week – in the world. And with their latest singles racking up six-digit sales figures, it really is only a matter of time until they get the number one single that they rightfully deserve.
Naruto Shippudenseries six is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Andrew Osmond on the high points of Studio Bones' anime Xam'd.
We’re guessing that if you’re visiting this site, then you’re probably used to exotic, unpronounceable anime titles like Xam’d: Lost Memories. In this case, though, it seems a little unfortunate that the Xam’d bit of the name wasn’t left off the Western release. After all, it could scare some of the newbie buyers who came to anime with the re-released Akira. And its name aside, Xam’d is a great crossover anime, with things to draw both beginners and old-timers.
Like Akira, the plot involves a teenage boy who turns into a monstrous-looking alien creature. This lad, though, is no delinquent biker, but an average high-schooler, not too old to be a bit of a brat. He's transformed not by government experiments but by a Mysterious Anime Girl . In part one, the boy, Akiyuki, sees the white-haired stranger queuing for the school bus; she doesn't seem to have her ID. He casually lends her his, they ride the bus to school, and... she blows herself up. Akiyuki survives the blast, but gets an alien spore lodged in his arm, which turns him into a bulbous, faceless humanoid creature. It's good timing; just at that moment, his home island comes under attack from an enemy power, which commands its own human-monster menagerie.
Xam'd is by the Bones studio, the folks who made Fullmetal Alchemist, plus RahXephon, Soul Eater, Wolf's Rain, Ouran High School and the samurai film Sword of the Stranger. The most pertinent title, though, is Bones's science-fiction epic Eureka 7. Xam'd isn't set in the same world as Eureka, but it still feels almost like a follow-up. After the initial battle, the human-again hero joins a quasi-family crew in their skyship. This flying community is very reminiscent of the Gekkostate crew in Eureka, down to the hardass captain (a woman this time). Also like Eureka, many of the keys to the story are held by an oppressed, exotically religious minority, to whom the white-haired girl bomber belonged.
Hiroyuki's schoolfriend Haru, who's separated from him for much of the story, should sound familiar to fans. She's voiced in Japanese by the veteran Fumiko Orikasa, whose other roles range from Rukia in Bleach to Hawkeye in FMA Brotherhood. The idea of a symbiotic entity that turns a human into an alien warrior should also be familiar; it goes back to the original live-action TV Ultraman in 1966. As in Bones serials generally, there's a lot of emphasis on the often troubled relationships between the show’s characters, lifting them above anime stereotypes. For example, two of Xam’d’s most sympatheticcharacters are Hiroyuki's estranged mum and dad, left behind by their son; they recall another estranged couple in Wolf's Rain.
Xam'd, then, is nested in layers of anime tradition. At the same time, Xam’d’s presentation makes it more accessible than many other anime. Its world is rich, its animation lively; as a “cinematic” anime serial, it rivals the likes of Paranoia Agent or Eden of the East. Xam'd even has the cheek to mimic Studio Ghibli imagery, with a girl zooming through the clouds on a customised glider. Xam'd keeps away from many of the anime devices that might frighten newbies: fanservice, saucer eyes, spiked hair and superdeformed slapstick. Like many Bones shows, Xam’d’s plot uncoils slowly – even at the end of the first box-set, there’s a lot left unanswered – but you don't doubt there is a plot to reveal. On the basis of the first 13 episodes (of 26), Xam’d: Lost Memories is a solidly thought-out, novelistic telefantasy; the fact it has cool battles between anime monsters is a bonus. Try it out!
Xam’d: Lost Memories part one is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Andrew Osmond on some forgotten forerunners of Neo-Tokyo
In Akira’s opening moments, a sphere of white light appears from nowhere in the centre of Tokyo, and swells to obliterate the city. Many Western critics saw the image as a symbol of the Bomb, like the earlier Japanese pop-culture icon, Godzilla. But the designer apocalypse could be taken as Akira’s own mission statement – to be a new kind of entertainment, blowing away its peers and reshaping the cinema landscape.
Akira wasn’t the first SF/action animated film, nor the first Japanese cartoon to reach Britain. Marine Boy was the first anime TV show shown here, followed by the fondly remembered Battle of the Planets, an edited and reworked US version of the 1972 saga, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Even in crude 1970s TV animation, the images of battling titans seemed greater, more epic, than the screen could hold. But few kids knew that Battle of the Planets began in Japan, any more than they knew that cartoons such as Dogtanian and Ulysses 31 were Japanese-European team-ups.
Western animation was dominated by Disney and Hanna-Barbera – the latter also the home of Scooby-Doo, the famous cartoon character designed by Iwao Takamoto. Adult animated features in the US, however, started with the independent animator Ralph Bakshi directing the X-rated Fritz the Cat (1972). Despite their differences, Fritz has basic parallels with Akira. Fritz was based on a cult comic, by the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The film presents a New York of brutal police and student “rebels.” Both Bakshi and Otomo share the joke that their protagonists Fritz and Kaneda are really horny hedonists, using revolutionary rhetoric to pick up girls. Later Bakshi films, such as Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, developed the idea of an “urban” animation, as opposed to the pastoral pictures of Disney.
In Britain, Bakshi was best known for his 1978 version of The Lord of the Rings, which opened the same year as a British cartoon, Watership Down. Whatever their shortcomings, both films extended British people’s ideas of what animation could do; Watership Down, for one, was shockingly gory for a cartoon about rabbits. They were followed by Canada’s Heavy Metal (1981). Directed by Gerald Potterton, it was based on the SF comic magazine of that name, itself based on France’s Métal Hurlant. The film’s selling points were its lurid sci-fi/fantasy imagery, and also its violence and nudity, with a sword-and-sorcery dominatrix heroine.
Matt Kamen takes a look back at the history of Yu-Gi-oh. Are you ready to duel?
Would you believe Yu-Gi-Oh has been around for almost 15 years? Kazuki Takahashi’s original manga first appeared in the pages of Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump anthology way back in 1996, and having gone through several different iterations since, is still running today. Its original hero was Yugi Mutou, a young boy possessing an ancient artifact known as the Millennium Puzzle. Early chapters saw a darker personality possessing Yugi, inflicting punishments on wrong-doers in the form of various cruelly ironic games. This idea was soon dropped, and the far better known Duel Monsters card game soon dominated the series, with Yugi and friends battling holographic creatures for over-the-top odds. Though the original concept received an anime adaptation courtesy of Toei, most western viewers are familiar with the later 224-episode presentation of Duel Monsters, which ended in 2004.
The next series, 2006’s Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, was set 10 years later, switching focus to newcomer Judai Yuki (Jaden Yuki in the dub). A low-ability student at the Duel Academy – a school for card duellists set up by Seto Kaiba, Yugi’s rival in the original series – Judai was given a powerful card by a grown-up Yugi at the start of the series, before delving into the secrets of the academy and facing down a number of organisations out to conquer or destroy the world using Duel Monsters. Though not as popular as its predecessor, the series still racked up a respectable 180 episodes.
The next update, Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s, was a firm departure from the established lore, with no returning characters. Set in a futuristic city, 5D’s opted for a slightly more mature take, with 18-year old protagonist Yusei Fudo participating in high-speed Turbo Duels, fought from top spec motorcycles called Duel Runners. One of five ‘Signers’ – Duelists descended from an ancient civilisation, each marked with the sign of a dragon they can summon – Yusei and friends defended New Domino City from a variety of invaders. While the backstory explored darker themes such as class segregation – yes, really! – the emphasis was still very much on the pitting ancient, powerful monsters against each other through the medium of cardboard. Much like the revised real world game cards released alongside it, 5D’s took the new setting and characters as an opportunity to revise the rules of the duel, introducing all-new monsters and battle techniques, alongside noticeably improved animation quality.
It’s during 5D’s that the events of the new movie Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time takes place, an anniversary movie teaming up Yugi, Judai and Yusei in a cross-time caper against new villain Paradox, who steals Yusei’s powerful dragon monster before travelling into the past with it, using it to change history. While fans will need to see the movie to find out if the trio of young heroes can save the day, they’ll be pleased to know it’s not the end of the saga....
Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal, the newest series, premiered in Japan on 11 April 2011. Introducing new lead Duellist Yuma Tsukumo, Zexal so far seems completely removed from its forebears. Helping a spirit named Astral reclaim his missing 99 memories – which have, of course, been converted into playing cards – Yuma’s quest is set to take him around the world, battling those possessed by Astral’s errant thoughts. Keep an eye out for a western release soon!
Yu-Gi-oh! 3D Bonds Beyond Time is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.
Matt Kamen stalks the voice cast of Casshern Sins to see where their wanderings took them next.
Casshern – Tohru Furuya. Furuya is a voice acting legend, bringing Gundam’s Amuro Ray, Dragonball’s Yamcha and Sailor Moon’s Tuxedo Mask all to life. He has returned to the role of Amuro several times, as well as serving as the narrator of Gundam 00. In the same series, he portrayed Ribbons Almark, though he did so under the pseudonym Noboru Sogetsu. Most recently, Furuya has been voicing the ‘legendary hero’ AkaRed in the live action steampunk superhero series Pirate Task Force Gokaiger – a crimson warrior who embodies the combined powers of the 35-year Super Sentai series: the ultimate Power Ranger!
Lyuze – Nami Miyahara. The badass female cyborg Lyuze was a departure for Miyahara, whose earlier career saw her in light-hearted adventure comedies such as Magic User’s Club and Magical Doremi. Following the end of Casshern Sins, you can find her in mermaid fantasy Sea Story, military musical girls drama Sounds of the Sky (aka So Ra No Wo To) and, most recently, the lead character’s sister, Akari Tsukumo, in Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal. Playing an endless card game is probably relaxing after Casshern’s apocalypse....
Ringo – Yuko Minaguchi. Fans of Dragonball Z probably know Minaguchi as the voice of Gohan’s paramour Videl (and later their daughter, Pan), though many of her roles see her playing characters similar to Ringo – cute, innocent and just a bit.... squeaky. Besides Pan, other well-known characters Minaguchi has lent her vocal chords to Sailor Saturn in Sailor Moon, Yaone in Saiyuki: Reload and Akiko in both versions of heartwrenching romance series Kanon. Recently, she broke this pattern for cute and kind characters by voicing Queen Mercelida, the promiscuous ruler of the netherworld in the questionably sexualised Astarotte’s Toy, and most recently had a guest spot on last season’s Is This a Zombie?
Ohji – Yuichi Nagashima. Veteran actor Nagashima really gets into character – so much so, he now insists on being credited as ‘Ch?’, after his role in live-action educational show Tanken Boku no Machi! In Casshern Sins, he’s the voice of Ringo’s guardian Ohji and followed his young charge’s actress Minaguchi into roles in Astarotte’s Toy and another guest spot on Is This a Zombie? “Cho” is also one of the biggest dub actors in Japan, where native viewers will hear him on western series such as Teen Titans, Transformers and Looney Tunes!
Luna – Akiko Yajima. Although not in every episode of Sins, Luna is a pivotal character and her voice actress Yajima has the credentials to match that importance. Following on from major roles in Inu Yasha, Gundam Wing and The Big O, and a supporting role in Naruto as Ranmaru, you’ll next be able to hear Yajima as Angela, one half of a hermaphroditic angel with a split personality in the upcoming Black Butler! That’s certainly something creative to look forward to, wouldn’t you say…?
The second and final volume of Casshern: Sins is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
As Birdy the Mighty: Decode hatches an all-new series in the UK, Matt Kamen looks back at the whole nest.
The brand-new sci-fi comedy you’ll be enjoying this week has more of a heritage to it than you might think. The original manga first saw print way back in 1985, the creation of creator Masami Yuukiwho also drew the fantastic police series Mobile Police Patlabor. The original manga introduced alien police officer Birdy Cephon Altera and naive Japanese student Tsutomu Senkawa, though it was no normal boy-meets-girl story. Instead, they are forced to awkwardly share a body when Tsutomu is accidentally killed during Birdy’s first mission. While Birdy’s alien bosses are busy growing Tsutomu a replacement, the studious youth is stuck having to balance his everyday existence with Birdy’s intergalactic law-enforcement responsibilities, fighting off aliens that he didn’t even know existed just days before!
The manga was published intermittently in the pages of Shogakukan’s bimonthly Shonen Sunday Zokan, clocking up only one collected volume over three years. Even so, it inspired a four-episode video series in 1995 from animation studio Madhouse, directed by the critically acclaimed Yoshiaki Kawajiri of Ninja Scroll fame. The short series actually expanded somewhat on the manga, playing up the comedic hijinks of Tsutomu’s family life and plenty of jokes about puberty and “sneaking girls in” – particularly when his father walks in on Birdy, naked in the bathroom.
Yuuki would return to his manga in 2003, this time in the pages of Weekly Young Sunday, greatly extending the story. Running until 2008, the new Birdy the Mighty manga now stands at a respectable 20 collected volumes, painting a rich tapestry of both characters’ distinct worlds. With Yuuki having brought the series to a long-awaited conclusion, director Kazuki Akane had the luxury of knowing the original creator’s intended ending for the new series, and the difference between this new TV series and the older video show is striking.
The "old" Birdy
For one, Birdy’s role on Earth is fleshed out before she even crosses paths with Tsutomu. While both versions see her initially land on our blue planet in pursuit of reptilian criminal Geega, the video has her catch up to him almost immediately, while the TV series has her hunting him down for a considerable period. She’s also developed a secondary identity of her own, that of rising idol singer ‘Shion Arita’, which further complicates everyone’s lives when she ends up fused together with Tsutomu.
The "new" Birdy
Tsutomu has perhaps the biggest change between versions. In his earlier appearance, he was a stressed out student desperate to pass his high school entrance exams while dealing with his stern sister and slightly detached parents. Now, Tsutomu is more outgoing and upbeat. Though both parents are largely absent, his social circle at school is expanded to compensate, and his personality allows him to emotionally bond with Birdy more easily than before.
Of course, viewers who’ve seen both will immediately notice the difference brought about by the 14 years of advances in animation. Akane’s vision is a smoother, more kinetic one, and while some modern digital animation can lack the ‘warmth’ of older, hand-drawn anime, Yuuki’s 1980s designs haven’t been hugely altered here, giving the best of both worlds.
Meanwhile, Yuuki is hard at work on an ongoing sequel manga, Birdy the Mighty: Evolution. At five volumes and counting, there’s plenty for fans to look forward to.
Birdy the Mighty: Decode is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Amazon UK is now taking pre-orders for our forthcoming Blu-ray of 2001 Nights, directed by Fumihiko Sori, based on the hit manga series by Yukinobu Hoshino.
And if that's not enough for you, we've got more clips coming up: here, and here. For further information about the master of SF manga, Yukinobu Hoshino, check out this massive article in Salon Futura.
Internet phenomenon Vampybitme, a.k.a. Linda Le, volunteered to be our voice acting boot camp guinea pig. So we flew her off to Bang! Zoom Entertainment to try her skills on the Evangelion video blog. If you thought it was as easy as standing in front of a microphone, then prepare to be amazed. Where should you stand, for starters...? How does the depth of your voice affect the sound quality? How do you feel right now, and how does that affect your performance...?
And check out the result -- Vampy's own version of the Evangelion 2.22 video blog from our own Manga website.