Katsuhiro Harada: Well, back maybe thirteen years ago when we were doing Tekken 3, the game was well received by the fans for the CG character endings. They really enjoyed that, and asked for more, more! They asked for longer versions but we couldn’t do anything longer at the time because the cost at the time was intensive, and there was no place to outsource. We’d really wanted to make a movie for quite a while now, but we just weren’t able to. Then Tekken 5 came around and we worked with Digital Frontier on the endings and it was at that time we felt that it might be possible to create a full length movie.
You’ve asked viewers to “please forget the Hollywood movie”. Why do you think American adaptations of video games, especially beat ‘em up video games, are so universally terrible?
When you look at games and movies in general, first games were influenced by film, and also comics. But after games became more mainstream and game characters became popular, the games in turn influenced movies and comic books. They have this cycle where they both influence each other. When you have the game characters they’re CG so they’re each unique within the game but then when you try to return them to live-action, such as a movie setting, they don’t translate very well and that can be said of a lot of fighting games.
There is of course the example of the X-Men or Marvel characters who have been adapted to film well, but that is because they were comic book characters to begin with. The focus in comics is more on the story and the characters, their conversations and actions are more similar to a movie than game might be. Whereas for us it’s all about the gameplay, how they control and move. Even the visual effects are symbols to the player about what’s going on. All this stuff is focused on making the game enjoyable and to improve the controls of the characters. Taking that into a movie just doesn’t lend itself very well. Since everything we do as far as the voicing or how the character looks is geared towards the fighting game aspect of the game, when you take that and put it into a movie you have to have them speak certain lines or portray the character’s depth that you wouldn’t do in a game. When you try to do that and it’s something that isn’t done in the source material, fans feel it’s a little off when you do it. However this time, it’s all in CG computer graphics like it is with the game opening and character endings so hopefully the fans won’t feel it’s a little off like they do.
Do you see Blood Vengeance as a one-off, or are you hoping for further stand-alone movies?
Other games come to mind that might make good CG movies, such as Soul Calibur. With Tekken there is a setting, but it is a lower priority than the actual gameplay itself. Soul Calibur as source material would lend itself to that. Another game we’d like see as a CG movie is Ace Combat. As for games that are not our IP’s, maybe Kojima-san and his Metal Gear series, if he had a chance to do something similar he could produce something really high quality.
Do you think there’s more of a drive for games developers to take control and make their own movies?
I’m not really sure. As a game director I’m more interested in focusing on the gameplay mechanics rather than the story, setting, characters and such. But for other developers maybe it’s because they want better control over their characters, setting and story, or there’s creators out there who can’t fully portray what they want to in their games and a movie may be a more adequate route for them.
Has the development of Blood Vengeance had any impact on the games? Will there be any crossover effect?
The movie itself is set between Tekken 5 and Tekken 6. We consider it a side continuity – it has its own story with the characters that Tekken fans know but people who have not played the games can enjoy the movie too. However, we really loved the character models and designs for the movie, so we took them and entered them in the Tekken Tag Tournament 2: Prologue. This was an update for Blood Vengeance; we have the animation and the movie character models in the game now.
You’re also working on the Tekken X Street Fighter game, crossing over with Capcom’s franchise. Has Blood Vengeance eaten into development time on that at all?
No, not at all. Obviously there’s Tekken Tag 2, there’s a movie, there’s other things up our sleeves we haven’t announced yet in our franchise, but it isn’t that resources are being taken up by the movie. The art director on the Tekken series is the same on the movie but it’s not like the artists are involved in rendering the film; our programmers working on it. Our resources are mainly going towards finishing the arcade version of Tekken Tag 2 at the moment but rather than resources being taken up by a particular project, the influence of the earthquakes in Japan has been a big effect.
It sounds like there are a lot of other Tekken projects coming up – do you ever worry you might be spreading yourself too thin?
You’re right, we have a lot of things Tekken going on at the moment and maybe there might be some concerns by the fans that this might occur. We are taking on extra staff to cover that, but that being said we’re not where we want to be so we are spread a little thin. If someone were out there that would help us out on that, that would be great!
You can take the boy out of Japan, but you can’t take Japan out of the boy. Unfortunately for Joe Inoue’s parents, it took them over 20 years to realise that. Long before their son was recording songs for anime, or rapping alongside rock royalty, the pair had migrated to Los Angeles for work. There, little-Joe would later be born and raised. Ironically, a couple of decades later and it’s their son’s career that’s brought the Inoues full circle, back to Japan.
His parents were always big followers of music. So much, in fact, that on the day little Joe popped into the world, his father baptized the new born in the way of British pop-rock via the wails of Sting. The former Police frontman had recently released his debut solo album at the time, and it was riding high in the American charts. Mr Inoue wanted it to be the first sound that his son heard. Fortunately, it didn’t result in any Sting-based trauma in Joe’s later life. Instead, the bombardment of British pop-rock, combined with America’s own diverse music scene and influences from his parents’ Japanese CDs – and his own anime collection – meant that Joe grew up in an environment which enabled him to appreciate all kinds of music.
It wasn’t until middle school that Joe started to take his music appreciation to the next level by learning an instrument. And then another. And another. By the time he graduated from the American education system, he had become a lean, mean, one-man music producing machine.
After some experimentation, Joe recorded a demo from the comfort of his room on a multi-track mixing desk. All instruments were performed by him, and the sound was a combination of his eclectic upbringing. He sent the self-produced demo to a few sources before the idea hit him to target Japan. Thankfully for him, an upbringing of anime, manga and having native parents to practice with meant that his Japanese language skills weren’t too rusty. So, with not having much luck in America, he changed the lyrics to Japanese and tried to get some attention in Japan. And Sony’s Ki/oon label took the bait!
His first single ‘HELLO!’ barely scraped the top 200 of the Oricon chart, despite its use in a Pocky advert. His second single was much more successful. Called ‘Closer’, the song peaked just outside of the top 20 after appearing as the fourth opening theme to Naruto Shippuden, and it made people start to sit up and listen.
One of those people whose attention it caught was none other than L’Arc en Ciel’s leader tetsuya (with a little t… don’t get me started – Ed.), who was fascinated by Joe’s perfect English pronunciation. So impressed he was, he asked the youngster to appear on his 2011 solo album Come On!, alongside J-pop legend Takanori Nishikawa (T.M.Revolution), J-urban songstress May J, and even Nana author Ai Yazawa!
Joe’s contribution to Come On! can be found on the tracks ‘Eden’ and ‘Mahou no Kotoba’. Sadly the album, as well as Joe’s own releases, are currently unavailable in the UK. So if you want to hear the song that started his career, legally, you’ll need to track down the latest boxset of Naruto Shippuden that’s scheduled for the UK.
Naruto Shippuden Box Set 8, featuring Joe Inoue’s ‘Closer’, is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment from 27 February.
God-like schoolgirl Haruhi Suzumiya may well have a near-religious following, but she’s got just as many atheists denying her merits. Matt Kamen embraces his bipolar disorder to examine the vices and virtues of one of the anime world’s most divisive series!
Pro: an innovative storytelling structure! The first season of Haruhi Suzumiya was lauded by fans for playing around with how it told its story. Following the broadcast order of the episodes on Japanese television meant the first episode shown was actually the eleventh in story order; the second was the first; the fourth the seventh, on and on. The show challenged viewers to pay attention and piece the series’ arc together for themselves, never pandering to them by spelling anything out. How many shows can claim to have that much confidence in their audiences’ intelligence?
Con: An “innovative” storytelling structure.... Ever seen the movie Memento? It tells the story of a man suffering amnesia through two plot threads – one in chronological order, the other reversed – that only combine at the end. This anachronological tactic is largely what the first season of Haruhi was lauded for. The problem is, it’s not all that laudable, and far from a unique narrative device. Memento itself premiered in 2000, and examples of such jumbled chronologies go back decades; 1927’s “The Three Sided Mirror” being possibly the earliest onscreen example! So, strip away the ‘innovative’ order and what are we left with? A pretty generic high school comedy with sci-fi elements. In other words, nothing special.
Pro: It takes chances! It’s not cheap to air anime in Japan – a lot of the time, studios pay networks for airtime. So when Kyoto Animation chose to screen eight episodes that were essentially the same, it was a bold move. The so-called ‘Endless Eight’ saw Kyon and the other members of the SOS Brigade trapped in a time loop, each episode seeing only the subtlest of changes. While it could have driven viewers away, it instead became a hallmark of the series’ brilliance.
Con: Those “chances” are a waste of time! The Endless Eight was a waste of not just viewers’ time but a waste of the animators’ time. Time loops are nothing new in sci-fi, and while stretching it out over more than one episode is slightly original, eight was overkill. At best, it was an exercise in laziness – digitally change some clothes here and there, add in some slightly changed scenes and bam, done. The arc of Kyon and co. trapped in time could, and should, have been told in one episode.
Pro: The characters are genuinely interesting! Where else can you find a cast that includes a time traveller, an android, aliens, and a girl with ultimate power who doesn’t even realise it? The cast mix of Haruhi is one of the richest in all of anime!
Con: The characters are an annoying mess of clichés! Sure, the character concepts are interesting but the character personalities are all picked from the “Generic Anime Character” guidebook. Aloof quiet girl? Check. Overly friendly secondary male? Check. Cute and ditzy girl? Check. Wake me when someone who’s actually original shows up.
Pro: It’s gorgeously animated! Kyoto Animation did an outstanding job on bringing the cast and their zany world to life! It’s rich and fluid, and is simply a pleasure to watch.
Con: It’s.... gorgeously animated? OK, it does look good; on that we can agree. And KyoAni are amazing – their Full Metal Panic series are gorgeous too. It’s fair to say that Haruhi’s not the most dynamic show for most of its run though.
Pro: The Hare Hare Yukai Dance. ‘Nuff said. What other series has had its iconic ending animation used for a rehabilitation exercise in a Thai prison dance performance? I think that says it all...!
Con: ...I got nothing. Fine, on the Hare Hare Yukai alone, Haruhi gets a pass!
The band DEV PARADE, supplying the ending theme to Naruto Shippuden’s eighth box set, are Heavy. Their name sounds innocent enough in English, but when written in Japanese the DEV becomes ‘debu’, a pejorative slang term used to mean chubby, fatty and all other childish synonyms for the overweight – so directly translated into English, the band’s name can be read as the Fatty Parade. Charming.
The name is also an oyaji gag (literally ‘dad joke’, a pun packing high cheese content) of Def Leppard, the classic British rock group. Unfortunately their name is spelt Defu Repaado in Japan; DEV PARADE has exactly the same katakana, just arranged in a slightly different order and with an all-important couple of dots. Hilarious, apparently.
Back in 2007, bulky guitarist Ugazin had spotted a rather large gap in the market. In a world where candy-coated pop and beautiful visual kei boys ruled the charts, there was a lack of artists that didn’t fit into the pop idol stereotype of slim, toned bodies. So, he took to the internet in hope of recruiting members for a new type of band, one that defied the apparent conventions of pop, and one that had only one rule: no member can weigh less than a hefty 100kg (This is only fat if you are short! - slightly hurt, 104 kg Ed.)
Ugazin was serious, too. The not-quite-debu-enough bass-player Taka found the advert and applied despite his meagre 95kg in weight, and was forced to bulk up before the group would even consider him. This isn’t a unit that proclaims to consist of Yokozuna-class musicians, the term used for Sumo highest rank, for no good reason. Collectively, they’re nearly 90 stone! In others words, the five members of DEV PARADE weigh as much as Morning Musume’s 12-girl line-up.
The debu theme continues in nearly every aspect of DEV PARADE’s activities. Their blog is as equally about food as it is music. Their meetings have been dubbed ‘meatings’ from the sheer amount of meat consumed during them. And fans weighing over 100kg qualify for the special debu discount for their live shows.
It also explains the mysteriously ‘large’ figures that join the Naruto cast in dancing during the eighth box set’s ending theme. It not only features the group’s single ‘BACCHIKOI!!!’ (meaning “Come On!!!”) but also feature the band themselves boogying alongside Naruto and chums ! And there aren’t many artists who can say that.
Naruto Shippuden Box Set 8, featuring the Dev Parade single ‘BACCHIKOI!!!’, is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment from 27 February.
Gantz: Perfect Answer picks up from where the first Gantz film left off, with the survivors still working as a team to gain enough points for Kei (Kazunari Ninomiya) to resurrect Masaru (Kenichi Matsuyama). Both the investigator looking into related incidents (Takayuki Yamada) and the audience have witnessed Masaru back already, which serves as the main clue that not all is as is it seems with either the aliens they hunt or Gantz itself. New players join the team, new aliens gather and clash with them, and all while Gantz itself seems to be glitching badly....
Perfect Answer builds on the tonal shift of the last five minutes of the first movie to create an original sequel that echoes the manga without adapting it directly. The positive team spirit revealed in those five minutes of the Gantz players who survived the giant Buddha fight carries them through enough off-screen battles for Kei to be verging on 100 points fairly soon into the film, but the on-screen narrative prefers instead to provide emotional depth and character development that was considered by some reviewers to be somewhat lacking in the first film. This proves very useful in upping the stakes for the ensuing carnage, with the influx of new characters provided with thumbnail backgrounds that imply much more once their connections to Gantz are revealed.
Where Perfect Answer is however a “perfect partner” for the first film is in the action stakes. Once the character development is out of the way, the film kicks into high gear with a blistering subway sequence. Not only are the new aliens human in form, but they have absolutely no compunction when it comes to collateral damage. Guns, swords, fists and feet are all used while the subway train careers out of control. This is where the film begins to not only match its predecessor tonally, but also revives the mood of the manga. That upbeat mood of co-operation that the first film ended on is torn asunder by the machinations of Gantz and the escalating battles with the aliens, while the question of individual character survival is completely up for grabs. The film darkens and stays that way to the end, and that is as fans of the manga would expect.
This century has been very much the era of comic books done justice in cinematic adaptations around the world - Marvel Studios’ releases in the US, the Asterix series and the two Largo Winch releases in France, Spielberg and Jackson’s Tintin. For all those commentators who regard the Death Note films as the height of the Japanese competition, the textual fidelity of Gantz and the thematic consistency of Gantz: Perfect Answer suggest that, when taken together, these just may be actually the most successful theatrical live-action adaptations of manga yet.
Sakamochi clapped his hands. “Some of you might be thinking that murdering your classmates is impossible. But don’t forget there are others willing to do it.” Everybody remained silent, but something had suddenly changed, and Shuya knew it. Everyone was looking around, glancing at the others’ pale faces. It only happened within a matter of seconds, but their expressions were exactly the same; they were tense and suspicious, wondering who was already ready to take part.
Like Ringu, Battle Royale is a triumph of high-concept horror. Forty-two teenage Japanese schoolkids are gassed unconscious on a school trip, awaking on a small island to be told they’ve been selected for the government’s feared “Program.” Over the next couple of days, they must fight each other on the beaches, in the mountains and woods, with randomly-assigned weapons from sickles to machine guns. There can only be one survivor. Hey you, kid! Yes, you, the snotty one reading this. What do you do? – no hesitation! Protect that pretty pigtailed girl sitting at the desk behind you? Take your gun and blast her brains out? SORRY, WRONG ANSWER! Thank you for playing.
Battle Royale is, so far, the only novel by Koushun Takami, an ex-journalist who submitted the story to a Japanese competition. It was rejected, according to Takami’s bio, “due to the critical controversy it provoked among jury members.” However, the 600-page novel was published in 1999, and came to world attention through the 2000 film version, directed by Kinji Fukasaku. The Battle Royale franchise has since spawned an epic 3000-page manga and a sequel film, each taking the concept very different ways.
In the book, dozens of players try out different strategies while the reader lays bets about which characters will still be around in five or fifty pages. There’s also the ghastly fascination of a classroom being exploded into a warzone (previously done as a gruesome joke in “The Lesson,” by Liverpool poet Roger McGough). Some of the kids in the story are everykids, others are extreme cartoons. There’s a guerrilla-type player, for example, who’s blessed with the improvisational skills of McGuyver, racing to bring down the system with balloons and a ball of string. There’s a thuggish “queer boy” maintaining his pompadour; there’s a toad-faced aristo type; and then there’s a teen psychopath, slaying his way through stragglers and refusing to let bullets or bombs take him down in the best slasher tradition.
A dominant theme of the novel is trust: how it’s used and abused, how it saves or kills. The classmates make life-or-death decisions based on trivial incidents or sweeping fears; tellingly, several girls adopt a “No boys in our team” policy. We’re sometimes privy to the thoughts of the killers worming their way into their schoolmates’ confidence, but more often, we’re left to guess who’s who.
Two of the everykids, boy Shuya and girl Noriko, end up in the protection of the stubbled, scarred Shogo, one of the book’s few truly vivid characters, who turns out to have played thisgame before. But is he really their saviour, or just using the kids as cynical insurance? Like Orwell’s 1984, the book presents trust as a measure of humanity that shrinks under totalitarianism. Takami even opens his story with a quote from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, describing the paranoia in Civil War Spain.
Battle Royale itself takes place in a Japan that is renamed or part of the Republic of Greater East Asia, a “successful fascist” entity led by a series of dictators (as with Big Brother, there’s some doubt if the dictators really exist). Shogo suggests bitterly that dictatorship is tailor-made for the Japanese, with their “dependence on others and group mentality,” though he’s contradicted by the optimist Noriko: “I think we’re just as capable as any other people on the planet of thinking responsibly.” Cannily, though, the book doesn’t take the dystopian angle too far; if its version of Japan felt too alien, it might impede the reader’s sympathy with the situation. The book rationalises that the Republic survives by “leaving bits of freedom intact,” letting teen would-be rebels smuggle Springsteen songs and Blues Brothers videos.
The film omits the book’s alternate history. In the film scenario, Japan’s delinquent young have simply pissed off their elders, personified in the hardbitten, student-murdering ex-teacher played by Takeshi Kitano. (The equivalent character in the book, Sakamochi, is a simpler monster, with no personal link to the students.) Nonetheless, the film respects the book, selecting several of its main set-pieces, including the notorious lighthouse scene. One of the book’s striking bit-players is Takako Chigusa, who’s described as a beautiful, fierce girl (and a dab hand at ball-breaking). Takami would surely have approved the actress chosen to play her, the stunning Chiaki Kuriyama, who’s far more credibly lethal as Chigusa than she is as a hitgirl in Kill Bill.
Screen violence has more impact than prose violence, though Takami has a flair for gory descriptions. (Describing a corpse: “There was a gaping hole in the stomach of the school coat, and the contents inside looked like a trash bin in a sausage factory.”) In contrast, the book’s sexual content is mostly mild, apart from a horrendous why-one-girl-turned-psycho revelation, and a scene where the same girl uses her wiles and breasts to disarm a player.
Such things are deliriously exaggerated in the lurid manga version, written and drawn by Masayuki Taguchi, and published by Tokyopop in fifteen volumes. It’s the later books which go really berserk, with girl-on-boy rapes and Crouching Tiger duels. Like the film, though, the manga is fundamentally respectful of the novel, for all the fanservice, plot divergences, embellishings and Naruto-scaled battles. Talking with Taguchi when the manga ended in 2006, Takami was gracious about the adaptation, even suggesting some characters “changed and grew” more in the strip than in his own book. But if you want to understand Battle Royale’s primal vision, its seductive play of hopes and nightmares, then there’s no substitute for Takami’s source novel.
Daniel Robson sucks it up at the Cupnoodles Museum
In the eternal pantheon of creators whose eye for simplicity touched consumers around the world, Steve Jobs probably features prominently. But you can’t eat an iPod, and when Japan faced poverty and hunger in the wake of defeat in World War II, one man carved his name into the national psyche with an indelible edible product that would eventually go global: Nissin Cup Noodle.
When Momofuku Ando invented the world’s first instant noodles in his garden shed, it was amid times of turmoil for Japan. Food was scarce and money was scarcer, and that led failed businessman Ando to his eureka moment – if only he could invent a kind of food that was cheap and easy to make and could be stored for a long time, he could make a fortune.
Chikin Ramen was the fruit of many years’ trial and error for Ando. Eventually released in 1958, it consisted of ramen noodles in chicken sauce that were deep-fried to dry them out while sealing in the flavour, an idea Ando got from watching his wife making deep-fried prawns in his kitchen. By simply adding boiling water, the dried noodles would expand to become a hot meal – just like that. It sounds obvious now, but in the 1950s it was a stroke of genius. As for the name Chikin Ramen, well, who says geniuses need to be good at spelling?
Ando noted that his hosts would place the noodles into a bowl to cook them (presumably they were designed to be made on a stove) and would eat them with a fork, not chopsticks. This gave him the idea to sell his successful instant ramen in a foam cup, perfect for storage and for eating out of – with any utensil.
Cup Noodle made its debut in 1971 and became a worldwide smash, generating a multitude of flavours, scores of copycat brands and sales of over 25 billion packs. Nissin became a household name in Japan.
Ando’s gift for lateral thinking takes centre stage at the Cupnoodles Museum, a bright building whose white walls and clean lines resemble a modern airport. In a plush red theatre, Ando’s struggles and successes are crunched into an engaging 14-minute CG movie, while various displays, timelines and statues promote the benefits of thinking outside the cup.
But perhaps the most fun attractions for the hundreds of families who visit every day are the ones that let you get your hands dirty. At the Chikin Ramen Factory, visitors get to make their own instant noodles from scratch – and I went along to have a go. Over the course of 90 minutes, the staff talked us through each step in a huge kitchen that smelled faintly of soy sauce and cooking oil: mix the various natural ingredients (including chicken extract, sesame oil and kansui, the alkaline mineral water that makes ramen yellow) and knead them into a sort of dough, flatten this with a pin, squish it several times through a rotating press which later doubles as a noodle cutter, and eventually you have 100 grams of fresh noodles.
After they’ve dried, a pungent chicken stock is added and mixed in by hand, before the noodles are placed in a round metal receptacle ready to be deep-fried by the staff. In the meantime, visitors get to illustrate their own noodle package and the whole thing is sealed up ready to take home and eat. The Chikin Ramen Factory is so popular, it’s booked solid three months in advance.
When inventing Cup Noodle, Ando had to figure out a way for his automated factory machinery to place the noodles into the tapered cylinder cups – simply dropping them in from above didn’t work, since the dried noodles, which were pre-moulded in the shape of the cup, rarely landed the right way up. Lying in bed one night, Ando suddenly realised that instead of placing the noodles into the cup, he should place an upside-down cup on top of the noodles and then turn it upright, allowing the noodles to drop flush into position.
At the My Cup Noodle Factory, punters get to do just that. First you decorate your cup (now made from an eco-friendly material, not plastic) with a bundle of felt pens; then choose a soup flavour (original, Curry, Chilli Tomato or Seafood) and four freeze-dried toppings (including egg, meat, kimchi, corn and a naruto illustrated with Chikin Ramen’s chick mascot). Once the staff balance your upside-down cup over a bundle of noodles on a special machine, you get to turn the handle yourself and watch as everything falls into place. The package is finally shrink-wrapped, just as they are in the shops.
Anyone who’s ever compared a Cup Noodle with a British Pot Noodle can tell you which is superior. Indeed, supermarket shelves in Japan heave with hundreds of different types of instant ramen, the crappiest of which still put our humble Pot Noodle to shame. Some come loaded with a slice of chashu (roast pork) and a sachet of fresh miso paste, while others are designed by chefs at gourmet ramen restaurants around the country.
You can’t actually eat any instant ramen at the Cupnoodles Museum, but a food court serves fresh noodles from eight different countries, including not only the obvious soup-based dishes from China, Vietnam and Korea, but also (and perhaps controversially) Italian spaghetti. Each is sold as a half-size serving for 300 yen (£2.50), so you can slurp two or three different types on a single visit.
But while noodles carry worldwide appeal, Ando had set his sights even further. In 2005, at the age of 95 and two years before his death, Ando unveiled Space Ram, a new type of instant noodles designed to be eaten in zero-gravity aboard a NASA space shuttle by astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The noodles, sealed in a special pouch, are moulded into bite-size pieces and can be cooked with lukewarm water, to be eaten safely where no noodle had been slurped before.
That might explain why in 2006, Nissin sponsored the anime series Freedom, designed by Akira and Steamboy godfather Katsuhiro Otomo and directed by Shuhei Morita. Set on the Moon and exploring themes of blossoming adulthood in a post-Earth society, the characters in the seven-part series are often seen chowing down on a steaming hot Cup Noodle.
But while Ando’s imaginative products may have reached far beyond the boundaries of our planet, they are grounded in real life. Part of his instant noodles’ success was due to their usefulness in times of disaster and destitution. A replica of Ando’s inventing shed at the museum drives this home: While today’s Cup Noodle and Chikin Ramen (plus Nissin’s dozens of other lines) are made by robots in huge factories, they were born of humble conditions by a man who saw something bigger – and who knew that the key to success is simplicity.
The Cupnoodles Museum is an eight-minute walk from Minato-Mirai Station in the city of Yokohama, about half an hour by train from Shibuya in Tokyo. Adult admission is 500 yen (£4.20); the Chikin Ramen Factory is an additional 500 yen and requires a reservation; the My Cup Noodle Factory is 300 yen per cup. While signs and information within the museum are available in English, the website is Japanese-only. www.cupnoodles-museum.jp
The series Xam’d Lost Memories, now out as a Complete Collection, was pithily described by the cofounder of its studio as being about “a man who transforms.” Specifically, Xam’d shows a teenage boy turning into a terrifying, deadly, out-of-control alien fighter. It recalls one of anime’s finest moments, when a boy became a lump of writhing, suety flesh and spilled over an Olympic stadium in the finale of Akira.
Before they hit puberty, most kids aren’t scared of transformation in itself. Rather, it seems cool and magic. The horror writer Stephen King commented on how his seven year-old son loved the ‘70s Incredible Hulk TV show. Every time Bill Bixby’s eyes turned green and his shirt sleeves ripped round Lou Ferrigno’s painted muscles, King Jr said cheerfully, “Old greenskin is back!” Japanese kids, of course, had their own transforming heroes: Ultramen, Rangers, Kamen Riders, Sailor Scouts…
But teenage transformation… that’s something else. It’s not just the hair and acne, it’s all the inner changes as well, as if some Cronenberg invader is taking residence in your mind and body. It’s well put in the fifth Harry Potter film (Order of the Phoenix),when Harry admits his growing pains to his were-dog godfather, Gary Oldman. “I just feel so angry, all the time. What if after everything that I’ve been through, something’s gone wrong inside me? What if I’m becoming bad?”
In America and Britain, there are few full-on screen portraits of adolescent body-horror. An exception is The Exorcist, a film that’s nearly forty years old, where a sweet young girl turns into a foul-mouthed, slime-spewing demon. (Parents can insert their own joke here.) Today’s blockbuster transformer is the reassuring Spider-Man, whose body makeover is wholly benign. You get boosted pecs and 20/20 vision, without, say, the poison fangs or extra legs.
As we’ve argued before on this blog, one of the ways in which anime appeals to Westerners is that it takes notions we know from our own comics mainstream… and pushes them further. Both Akira and Xam’d share the primary-coloured palette of American superhero strips. Take a look at Xam’d part 14, which features a spectacular battle involving two crazily mutating boys. One of them is a bloated, physiognomy-shifting critter, who looks like a cross between Akira’s boy-bloband the No-face monster from Spirited Away.
Both Akira and Xam’d show male monsters, huge boys’ heads growing from swelling sacks of flesh. Tetsuo, the antihero in Akira, seemed warped by his impotence (the ultimate male teen nightmare), while the Xam’d creatures fight over – what else? – a girl. But female transformations figure strongly in recent anime. In Claymore, for example, the heroine Clare wilfully becomes an outcast demon-slayer by eating the flesh and blood of her beloved... well, that’d be telling. The snag: as she grows in strength, she risks losing control of her power and becoming a demonic Awakened Being.
The recent Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor is just as ominous. As fans point out, it seems to parody “magic girl” anime shows (Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura). Only in this traumatic coming-of-age saga, the heroine uses her magic to summon a gun from her body. Meanwhile, her life is being cut away slice by slice: her family, her friends, and finally her self. That old greenskin Hulk lied to the kids. Transformation isn’t magic or cool; it’s inevitable, inexorable and bloody terrifying.
Matt Kamen is counting mystery numbers in Shikabane: Corpse Princess
In the complete collection of gothic action series Corpse Princess, undead teenage girls fight off rampaging monsters known as ‘shikabane’ – anguished spirits of the restless dead. Reluctant hero Makina Hoshino is one such warrior, resurrected in the wake of the slaughter of her family as a ‘Shikabane Hime’, unable to move on to her reward until she has vanquished 108 shikabane. The mystery of what exactly that ‘reward’ is forms a major subplot of the series – a promise of heaven, or is that too good to be true? But the oddly specific figure for Makina’s killcount is just as important.
If you’ve been a fan of Asian media for any length of time, you’ll probably have come across the number before. Water Margin, a classic of Chinese literature, features 108 outlaw heroes, while the game spin-off Suikoden sees you recruiting 108 ‘Stars of Destiny’ for your party. Even the most recent Digimon anime series, Xros Wars, includes reference to the number, with 108 digital zones for the latest batch of kids and pet monsters to battle through. It pops up in western entertainment, too – in Lost, the sequence 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 must be entered into a console every 108 minutes, or the island’s plane crash survivors face dire consequences. And the total of those numbers, added together? 108.
So what’s the relevance? For one thing, the number occurs with almost eerie frequency in ancient cultures and languages, appearing around the world and throughout human history. In the Sanskrit alphabet, which dates back over 4000 years, there are masculine and feminine forms of each of the 54 letters – 108 total. Sanskrit also considers it a ‘harshad’ or ‘great joy’ number, because it is perfectly divisible by the sum of its digits.
In several eastern faiths 108 is a sacred number, and many of those faiths have, in turn, had profound social and cultural effects on various Asian countries. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, prayer garlands called Japa Mala should properly consist of 108 beads, with a daily mantra repeated on each one. Hinduism also has 108 deities, which some branches believe have 108 names each. Sikhs use a similar mala, though traditionally comprised of 108 knots rather than beads. In Hinduism, it’s believed that there were 108 hand maidens to Krishna himself.
For our purposes though, it’s the number’s prominence in Buddhism that’s most relevant. Shinto and Buddhist practises influence modern Japanese life on a cultural level, which penetrates the country’s art and media. One of the core principles of Mahayana Buddhism in particular is that there are 108 virtues and 108 vices that followers must aspire to or resist, and Buddhist temples typically have 108 steps for visitors to climb on their approach. At New Year, a temple bell is chimed 108 times, again symbolizing the temptations people must overcome.
It’s here that we find the closest link or reasoning to Corpse Princess, with the shikabane representing the temptations and vices of life. And, just as there’s no way of knowing if there’s a path to Nirvana by overcoming them in real life, Makina has no way of knowing if she’s really earning her afterlife or something far more terrifying.
Jonathan Clements on the Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema
“Nobody knows anything.” William Goldman’s famous summation of Hollywood goes double for Japanese film, where, it seems, nobody needs to know anything. When journals of record can’t spell the names of Oscar-winners, when distributors can’t even pronounce the names of the films they sell, and where authors are praised (and bafflingly published) for trumpeting their own ignorance, Japanese film often seems left in the hands of poseurs and inadequates, muttering half-remembered orientalist clichés and pretentious bits of foreign-language decoration.
If this sounds like an over-reaction, I draw your attention to a shocking article by Julian Stringer in last year’s Film Festivals and East Asia, in which he charted the history of British writing on Japanese film. Stringer identifies a daft piece from the early 1950s, written by a reviewer in Venice who could neither speak Japanese nor read the Italian subtitles for Kurosawa’s Rashomon, who spun this lack of comprehension into a whole set of assumptions, stylistic theories and ideas about the nature of Japanese film. This was then dragged up again and again over the next twenty years, as subsequent writers in a major British film magazine leaned on the original, hand-waving wittering, assuming that the author must have known what she was talking about.
Life would have been very different with a copy of Jasper Sharp’s new Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema to hand. A chunky hardback on long-lasting paper, and with a spine that stands up to heavy punishment, this robust tome from Scarecrow Press has contents to match, designed to ensure that absolutely nobody has any excuse. Japanese film doesn’t have to be mysterious, and all the firm grounding you need is right here.
A potential working title was presumably Jasper Sharp's Bumper Compendium ofThings You Really Need to Know If You Want to Write About Japanese Film for a Living. There’s a timeline of Japanese film history, a glossary, and bilingual lists of both individual names and film titles – I dread to imagine the headache that must have been. A hundred pages at the back is taken up with an idiosyncratic but wide-ranging bibliography outlining starting points for deeper inquiry into many angles of Japanese entertainment, including television, the WW2 era, and lovely to see, 11 pages of nothing but works on anime.
Anime is made to play with the big boys in the main text, with a discreet and reasonable handful of entries on the important names, including Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka. Treatment of individual animators is in keeping with the book’s treatment of live-action film directors – highlighting the most lauded or garlanded, but also those whom Sharp regards as worthy of identification as “auteurs”. The product of an industrialised labour process that often crushes personality with the demands of piece-work system, anime does not have many truly individual voices, although there are arguments to be made for Sky Crawlers’ Mamoru Oshii, Perfect Blue’s Satoshi Kon, and the usual suspects at Studio Ghibli, all of whom get entries, alongside the immensely important, but often overlooked, likes of Tadahito Mochinaga and Kihachiro Kawamoto.
But it’s not just about the anime people. In fact, while it’s salutary to see them there, the anime people are not what makes this book valuable to the anime scholar. It’s everything else – the clear, concise histories of major film studios; the run-downs of important film legislation; the blunt statements of censorship facts; the bios of major actors and producers, all of which build up a picture of the Japanese film world as a whole. Sharp has previously written scathingly about the number of authors on anime who seem to live in an anime-only vacuum. And the entries in the Historical Dictionary make his point for him again and again – you can't speak cogently and knowledgeably about Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira until you appreciate the story of the Anpo riots, and if you've never heard of Setsuko Hara then you'll lose great swathes of meaning in Millennium Actress.
If you expect to earn some kind of capital from writing about Japanese film – be it hard cash or a tutor’s praises, then you should pester your library to put this book on their film shelves, alongside Mark Schilling’s Contemporary Japanese Film and Isolde Standish’s New History of Japanese Cinema.