Photographer Paul Jacques snaps two favourites from Bleach
Cosplayers Lauren Clark and Sarah Matthews take on the task of recreating Rangiku Matsumoto and Toshio Hitsugaya from the long-running fan favourite anime series Bleach. Original manga creator Tite Kubo says that Rangiku is one of his favourite ladies, while Toshiro is a fave with everyone else, actually beating series star Ichigo in a readers' poll for Shonen Jump magazine.
Bleach 8.1 is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
There was magic in the air at last year's MCM Expo, with special appearances at our Cosplay Zone from two Studio Ghibli favourites, snapped here by our master photographer Paul Jacques. There wasn't much call for Kiki's Delivery Service, as we sold almost everything we had at the dealer's table. But we could have done with a piggy pilot like Marco from Porco Rosso to beat the traffic out of Docklands. Are you ready the first Expo of 2012... get sewing...!
Jonathan Clements on the Japanese John Carter novels
Disney’s new John Carter film isn’t the only modern spin to be found on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There’s a whole world of as-yet untranslated Japanese novels that delve into the worlds of Victorian science fiction and adventure, from the prolific author Hitoshi Yoshioka, best known in English as the creator of Irresponsible Captain Tylor and Idol Defence Band Hummingbirds.
Yoshioka also seems to have been the first man to use the term “steampunk” in a Japanese context with his novel Steam Punk! (1995), set on a world in which maverick engineers duel with sci-fi steam locomotives. But his serious, ongoing obsession with the Gilded Age began in 1995 with Going with the Wind, an epic spin-off from Gone with the Wind that asked the searching question of exactly how the original’s Rhett Butler made money as a blockade runner. Yoshioka homed in on the simple fact that if Butler were a rich cad in the 1870s, he had probably made a lot of his money running guns to one of the world’s military hotspots in the previous decade – revolutionary Japan. Yoshioka’s novel was populated with fictional characters from Gone with the Wind and real names from Japanese history, retelling the story of the Meiji Restoration with an adventurous twist.
Yoshioka’s researches also led him back to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose character John Carter was another veteran of the American Civil War. This in turn inspired him to write another pastiche in which a young soldier is transported to another world instead of dying on Earth. Toshizo Hijikata of Mars (2004) is inspired by the tragic figure of one of the ‘last samurai’, who died fighting restorationist forces in a battle he knew he could never win. Yoshioka’s version has Hijikata transported to Mars by astral projection at the moment of his apparent death. There, he enjoys a new career as a samurai mercenary, fighting in the realm of John Carter, Prince of Helium.
But that was not enough for Yoshioka. He soon followed up with Z-Signal on Venus (2004), which transported the Japanese naval hero Saneyuki Akiyama to the oceans of Earth’s sister planet, and his tour-de-force, Southern Cavalry Captain John Carter (2005), which imagines what kind of man Burroughs’ hero would have been before he made his fateful journey to the Red Planet. In this latter book, Yoshioka imagines Civil War America itself as a fantasy realm, where scantily clad first-nation girls take the place of Martian slaves, and Victorian technology is regarded with awe and fear on the great and largely unexplored plains of the ‘new world’. As with Going with the Wind, he drags in both factual and fictional characters, including the future US president William McKinley, and a Reverend March who appears to be the future paterfamilias of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women!
Disney's John Carter is released in the US and UK on 9th March. Here's hoping that an enterprising publisher gives these novels a go, too.
Andrew Osmond talks to animation legend Jimmy Murakami
For anyone interested in animation, the name of Jimmy Murakami crops up here, there and everywhere. He supervised one of the most famous British cartoons ever made, The Snowman, then nuked Blighty in When the Wind Blows. He witnessed the first days of modern anime in the 1960s, and the artistic frontier of US cartoons at the UPA studio. In live-action, he directed the fondly-remembered space opera Battle Beyond the Stars, working with an effects tyke called James Cameron.
But this is not just a life lived in movies. When Murakami was seven years old, he and his family – American citizens living in California – were among thousands of Japanese imprisoned at an internment camp after Pearl Harbor. Murakami’s older sister died there. One of America’s most disgraceful episodes, the internment is the focus of a new feature documentary, Jimmy Murakami Non-Alien, in which the animator reflects on what happened and how it changed him.
On a historic level, the story can never be told too often. In the film, Murakami remembers how the camp experience convinced him, as a child not yet ten, that he should blow himself up for Japan if it invaded America; the same beliefs, he notes, are being “embedded” in oppressed peoples across the world today. For readers interested in that time, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles records the history in vivid depth. “It’s frightening, it’s so real,” Murakami says. “They pulled out the whole history of my family, it was all there. There was a period when J. Edgar Hoover made sure that he had a record of every so-called non-alien. That’s why we were in prison. We were put in a category where we were not American citizens (so they didn’t have to try us), but non-aliens.” The experience recurs in some of his paintings (below).
On a personal level, though, Murakami points out that the documentary “emphasises the negative” in his long life. Now 78, when he has time between his other projects he’s working on an autobiography to redress the balance (“a ton of work”), taking in the different phases of his career. For anime fans, one of the most intriguing is Murakami’s brief time at the Toei studio in the 1960s. This was a seminal moment for Japanese animation, transforming from a pre-war cottage industry into the mass-medium we know now. Toei set up a department to make animated feature films, starting with Legend of the White Serpent in 1958.
“It was very big and very new,” Murakami remembers of Toei’s cartoon studio. “They had hundreds of people there. There were no computers, everything was done by hand, on cels and paper. I’d probably call it a factory, about as big as the Disney studio. They were working on two or three feature films a year, a huge volume of work.” When asked if the animators looked fatigued, Murakami laughs. “Listen, if you were tired in Japan in those days, you wouldn’t be working! Sheer hard work, get your head down… They’re not sitting there joking around like [the American studio] UPA did! They’re very intensive, very serious. In Japan they worked that way, no matter what business they were in. No-one looked up, they were just working intensely.”
Murakami had already worked at animation studios in America, but came to Japan to find his roots in the early 1960s. Toei hired him as a consultant; after all, Murakami was one of the first animation professionals to come over to Japan from the West. “I was just a Western snotnosed kid,” says Murakami. “The reason why I was there was to give a general impression about animation and storytelling, to be an American, Western background influence. Every morning, we used to have serious production meetings with all the executives. As a consultant, I went through storyboards, through rushes, and gave my critique to the director.”
But, Murakami found, the director would do it his way. “There was no way I would influence him by telling him how to do something, where a mistake was, how it could be improved. I made a few suggestions, about the timing and all that, and he took it on board… He’d never say ‘no,’ but you know, that’s the Japanese tradition! To be honest, I wasn’t sure why I was there, which was very frustrating because there were other things that I wanted to do.”
One particularly infuriating case concerned “registration.” In traditional, paper-based animation, registration means putting two pieces of paper together for tracing or ink-and-painting. Murakami found that Toei used paper-clips for registration, rather than pegs; in consequence, the animation could be jittery. “I told them about it; that was my job. They took it on board and said they’d think about it, but they never did anything while I was there. They didn’t want to be influenced by anybody outside.”
Murakami had better experiences at the UPA studio in America, where he worked before and after Toei, on titles such as the TV Gerald McBoing Boing series and the film 1001 Arabian Nights starring Mr Magoo. “UPA was making really good films, with a lot of experimenting in backgrounds, like The Tell-Tale Heart (a 1953 film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s hysterical scare tale). Most of the people there had broken away from Disney, and were determined to do things differently. I was very fortunate to come there, because I didn’t want to do stuff like Disney.”
“We were working with deadlines – they weren’t difficult deadlines, but we knew exactly was needed of us,” says Murakami of UPA’s work ethic. “We could play ping-pong all afternoon, but then we would work in the evening to get the film done. It was a really interesting studio because you would learn a different kind of commitment to creating a project. It wasn’t punching a clock every day, it was a more relaxed atmosphere.”
Murakami’s own short films were made later, on his own time. They range from Good Friends, a reflection on human relationships, to the Oscar-nominated Magic Pear Tree, based on a “sexy tale” from the Italian story collection The Decameron. “They were made for my enjoyment – working on projects at home, at weekends,” says Murakami. It was a way for me to retain the creativity in my head; I wanted to make films that I believed in. That’s why I enjoyed working with TVC on When the Wind Blows, because that was the kind of film I wanted to make.”
TVC was a British studio set up by Canadian animator George Dunning, best-known for the Beatles cartoon fantasia The Yellow Submarine. TVC adapted The Snowman and When the Wind Blows, both based on picture-book strips by the curmudgeonly artist Raymond Briggs. Murakami was supervising director on Dianne Jackson’s The Snowman(he admitted that the project wasn’t quite his taste). He was far more excited by When the Wind Blows, which he directed, in which two sweet pensioners in a South Downs cottage face a nuclear attack on Britain.
Asked about the difference between a supervising director and a director, Murakami says, “A good supervising director has an influence on creating the script, the look, something that’s uniquely different. He can’t sit down and tell the artists what to animate, but he can put in intelligence, a hook, and storytelling that works. A film needs something to take it over the top, to make it magical. It has to have something more than competent direction; there are a lot of competent directors, but not a lot of competent good directors. I wouldn’t put myself up among them, but I can look at the difference between a film that Darren Aronofsky makes and a film that an ordinary Hollywood director makes. There’s something that makes a film beyond an ordinary film.”
When the Wind Blows took Murakami back to Japan, where the bleak subject had obvious resonances. Murakami himself had lost a relative to the Nagasaki A-Bomb. “I was in Japan during the publicity tour, on television and newspapers. The distributor, Herald Ace, gave it a big publicity push. It was very sad because some of the reporters there, in their 30s, had the aftereffects of the bomb in their genes – not having an eye, for example – because their parents were exposed to the bomb. People are still suffering from the radiation today.”
The Japanese dub of When the Wind Blows was directed by no less a personage than Nagisa Oshima, the world-famous director of In the Realm of the Sense. “The voice-actors were top names in Japan,” Murakami remembers: veterans Hisaya Morishige, voicing Jim, and Haruko Kato as Hilda, replacing John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft in the English version.“The hype was incredible. Herald Ace put me up in the Imperial Palace hotel!”
Since When the Wind Blows, Murakami has worked on a wide range of projects, several with a Japanese connection. However, he says that what he found at Toei five decades ago still holds; Japan can be maddeningly hard to work with. On one occasion, he was working on a proposed Japanese animated feature film. “We did an incredible presentation, the studio loved it, and then they told me they were trying to get the rights, after investing all this money… The whole thing collapsed because they didn’t have the rights to it!”
Another time, Murakami was flown out to the grand opening of Huis Ten Bosch, a reconstructed Dutch village on reclaimed land near Nagasaki, which included an animation pavilion. “I was asked me to become the Western animation ‘expert’ and Miyazaki was to be the Japanese one. There was a plan for a specific co-production with a European studio, dreamed up by one man. But the animation pavilion is gone now. There was no follow through, no really serious commitment. It was just a dream, too big to handle at that time.”
A project that Murakami himself proposed was an animated film based on the Haruki Murakami novel, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. “Because we have the same name!” Murakami jokes. “It would have been a mindblowing animation – a feature film, very adult. At that time, though, the author didn’t want another film made of his books. Now he’s changed his mind…” says Murakami, referring to the recent live-action film of Norwegian Wood. More recently, Murakami has been supervising Bob Shirahata's computer-animated children’s anime, Birdy, in which the characters are talking aeroplanes who live on an island.
But Murakami’s main interest is still grown-up animation. His current project is a feature film co-production between Japan and Ireland, where Murakami now lives. He describes the film as a ‘love story/drama’ set in Hiroshima before and after the A-bomb. Called The Girl in the Green Kimono, its script development is supported by the Irish Film Board, while there is interest from the feature film arm of the Japanese studio WOWOW.An animation opus to bridge decades, catastrophes and continents; it sounds like exactly the job for Jimmy Murakami.
Matt Kamen is your guide to the world of Fairy Tail!
Welcome to Earthland, where magic runs rampant and professional wizards sell their talents to the highest bidder! Populated by all kinds of mystical creatures, it’s a place of wonder but also one filled with peril.
FAIRY TAIL is the name of the most famous wizard’s guild in all the land. Located in the town of Fiore, the guild members are the rock stars of the magical world. Like all guilds, Fairy Tail members take on paying jobs from the public, though collectively they have a reputation for being a touch over-zealous in completing their objectives. Nevertheless, they get explosive results and none more so than the guild’s powerful Dragon Slayer....
NATSU DRAGNEEL, also known by the nickname ‘Salamander’. While he’s a powerful fire mage, “Dragon Slayer” is an odd title for Natsu as he was raised by the dragon Igneel, who vanished seven years ago. His foster parent taught him more than a few tricks, including channelling his body heat into intense flames, sprouting tough skin and claws for use in combat and exhaling powerful plumes of white-hot fire. He even has the ability to feast on any other form of burning material – from a matchstick to raw lava, it’s all a snack to Natsu! If he has a real weakness, it’s that he’s a terrible traveller, with even a gentle train ride causing him to become nauseously ill. It’s even worse when he’s flown around by...
HAPPY, his talking, transforming blue pet cat. He’s no ordinary familiar though, as Natsu found him as an egg (!) six years ago and raised him from the day he hatched! A friendly and fiercely loyal character, Happy’s magic allows him to grow angel wings and fly at tremendous speed, and he also has an innate knowledge of the arcane world. Though he’s almost always cheery and positive, ending his sentences with a catchphrase “Aye!”, he’s not above teasing....
LUCY HEARTFILIA, a 17-year old would-be member of the Fairy Tail guild. Having left her aristocratic family behind, she sets out to put her summoning skills to the test by joining the famous group. Crossing paths with Natsu and Happy, she proves herself by helping them deal with a fraud pretending to be Natsu to kidnap fangirls, earning her place in the guild. Using silver and gold keys to call upon ‘Celestial Spirits’ to fight alongside her, Lucy can more than hold her own in battle. Even so, she’s still a bit perturbed by some of her new teammates, such as....
GRAY FULLBUSTER, a laid back ice mage, with the unfortunate habit of subconsciously stripping! The orphan of a demon’s attack on a northern village, Gray was taken in by Ur, who taught him the ‘Ice Make’ brand of magic. As a member of Fairy Tail, he’s a regular on missions with Natsu, Lucy and Happy, his frosty powers contributing to a devastating elemental team combo.
Team Natsu is rounded out with....
ERZA SCARLET, who uses a material form of magic known as ‘Requiping’. Able to equip and switch between phantom armour and weaponry with but a thought, Erza is a phenomenally powerful melee fighter. Having been able to employ telekinesis since childhood, she’s grown into one of the top-ranked wizards in the world. Her prowess makes her come across as strict, haughty and impatient but she has a much warmer side too, and is devoted to her guildmates.
Team Natsu will cross paths with many other friends and foes over the course of the series – keep an eye out for more of Japan’s top fantasy saga very soon!
Fairy Tailis out on 5th March on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Matt Kamen on the love that dares not speak its name.
Set in the midst of London in the late 1800s, Black Butler follows young Ciel Phantomhive, the sole inheritor of his parents’ estate following their brutal murders. At his lowest point, he makes a Faustian pact, gaining the services of the demonic Sebastian Michaelis as his personal butler and aide. Sebastian, a master of all manner of skills – from cooking and cleaning to dancing and fisticuffs – assists Ciel in his tasks until the day his master has claimed vengeance on those responsible for his family’s suffering. Then, Ciel will surrender both his life and his immortal soul to the underworld, and Sebastian will be the one to slay him.
However, revenge will not come fast, as Ciel must also fulfil his familial obligation to the Crown, investigating all manner of unusual goings on in England and its principalities. One of the earliest cases for Master Phantomhive is investigating the murders of Jack the Ripper, precisely dating the series to exactly 1888.
First and foremost, Black Butler juxtaposes horror against polite decorum. As the series progresses, viewers are given an insight into the complex relationships and expectations of polite society in London at the time. While Ciel is promised to marry his own cousin Elizabeth (not uncommon amongst the aristocracy – marriage to a ‘commoner’ would be social suicide), the show devotes more time to male-male pairings. Sometimes this is played for laughs – a scene of Ciel being squeezed into a corset to go undercover is deliberately shot to imply Sebastian is giving him an entirely different kind of ‘service’ from behind, and a Grim Reaper is exposed as an exaggerated, camp stereotype who loudly and violently lusts after Sebastian.
There’s often a quieter, subtler examination of male closeness though. Though Ciel keeps all of his subjects at an appropriate professional distance, he clearly cares for them all, and his bond with Sebastian in particular grows from master/servant to companionship and perhaps feelings of more – even if, given the butler’s demonic nature, those feelings could never escalate. But if they could, would the rigid Victorian moral scale even allow it?
At the time of the series’ setting, male homosexuality was still a crime in the United Kingdom, and would be until almost a hundred years later until the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Female homosexuality has never been formally recognised by the law. However, upper class Victorians were a contrary bunch, their public personae a far cry from what they got up to behind closed doors.
In the 1880s, Oscar Wilde was high society’s darling, an advocate of the aesthetic movement and a noted speaker, poet, novelist and playwright. Despite being married with two sons, and adoring his family, the bisexual Wilde also had a penchant for men younger than himself, notably Lord Alfred Douglas and Canadian journalist Robbie Ross.
A scapegoat for the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour – the maximum sentence – on 25 May 1895, having been arrested just a month earlier following a libel case surrounding his proclivities. As a public figure, Wilde was fed to the sharks, though his behaviour was not unusual amongst men of all classes – only his openness over his many loves was. Wilde would move to France following his release, where he later died in 1900, his friend Reginald Turner at his side.
With such a vicious response to open male sexuality, it’s certainly unlikely that Ciel, Sebastian or anyone else in Black Butler could indulge their repressed feelings, at least not without extensive acts of subterfuge. For anyone who’d care to read between the lines of their relationship though, the complete series of Black Butler is on sale now!
Karma – it’s a funny old thing. One dastardly deed and somewhere down the line the repercussions will bite you on the backside. Likewise, karma can also bring great rewards. The concept is one with which Japanese songstress KOKIA is all too familiar – not least because it’s the title of her single from the opening of Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom.
It also defines her career as a musician. She had been involved in music from the tender age of two-and-a-bit, when her instruments of choice were the violin and piano. Later in life she had stints at music school in America and Japan before being snapped up by a major label while still at university. She provided the theme to a PlayStation game, and her first few singles had been penned by the same team behind one of the biggest hits from the previous year. If that wasn’t enough, the singles had also found their way into dramas and anime. Yet, even with such a large amount of backing, exposure and her own extensive musical background, her releases barely made the top 100 of the Oricon chart.
Yet, karma wasn’t going to let all the hard work go unwarranted. As if by divine intervention her fourth single ‘Arigatou...’ made her a star. Though, not immediately. And not in Japan. In fact, KOKIA’s debut album failed to chart in her home country at all. Fortunately for her, its release in the rest of Asia was an entirely different story and can be credited to Hong Kong’s super star diva Sammi Cheng. She released a cover of ‘Arigatou...’ the same week that KOKIA made her Asian debut, catapulting the Japanese singer to the stardom she was unable to achieve back home. KOKIA’s original version was eventually awarded third best song in Hong Kong’s Best International Song Awards. Suddenly, her career was back on track.
And thank goodness. Without Sammi Cheng’s success, a second major KOKIA album would have been highly unlikely. And without a second album, her continued career in the world of the anime-song would have probably died as well. The opening to Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino would not exist as we know it, the ethereal and haunting vocals that set off the beginning of Origin: Spirits of the Pastwould simply not be, and a whole line of yet-to-be- anime would have very different theme songs.
Her relative success outside of Japan, particularly Europe, has come from the exposure anime has given her voice. In 2010 she conducted her first world tour (and by ‘world’, she clearly meant Europe and Japan) which included dates in London and Ireland, the country which inspired the creation of her seventh studio album Fairy Dance – it also includes three covers of traditional Celtic songs. The album, along with seven others are available digitally from the iTunes UK store courtesy of Wasabi Records, yet both singles taken from Phantom (‘Karma’, as well as closing theme ‘Transparent’) remain unreleased in this region.
KOKIA’s ‘Karma’ and ‘Transparent’ feature in Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom. Part 2 of the series is out on 12th March on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Hugh David pits Hunger Games against Battle Royale... FIGHT!
Suzanne Collins, author of the fiction phenomenon The Hunger Games, has come under fire from fans of manga and Asian cinema, who have taken to dismissing her work and the looming Hollywood film as merely derivative of the late, great Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku’s final film Battle Royale (2000). But rarely is TakamiKoshun’s source novel mentioned, nor the manga which he co-wrote, while few of these complainers seem even to have read Collin’s novels.
Both stories are SF, both popular with younger readers, but only the US trilogy was written expressly with that readership in mind; the Japanese novel’s high levels of gore and political content show it was clearly intended for a much older one. Takami’s work postulates a parallel universe where Japan’s history has diverged some 80 years in the past and is instead a larger fascist state. A military programme takes 50 third-year high school student classes from across the Republic of Greater East Asia once a year, places them in a district cleared to act as an arena, and commits them to a fight to the death, with only a single winner permitted, resulting in 1,950 students wiped out every year. The author follows one class to focus in on the political, cultural and moral issues he sees as significant in 1990s Japan, and makes up for generic, underwritten characters with splatter detail coupled to vivid action-movie stylings.
Fukasaku, a life-long rebel with an eye for coruscating on-screen violence and trenchant criticism of Japan’s society, made the film before cancer took him. His own experience of being drafted at 15 to work on munitions at the end of World War 2, underscores a reality for the film that production limitations could not. Also, the casting of legendary comedian, actor and writer-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano in the much-expanded role of the Programme Supervisor shifts the entire dramatic weight of the film, with one of the three clear villains of the book made sympathetic and as much a victim as the children. It does, however, add an effective touch of moral grey to a written work that is more black-and-white.
Collins’ trilogy looks at a future post-apocalyptic US in which nuclear conflict has left the remaining habitable areas divided into 13 districts, with the titular games an annual event that helps prevent rebellion and further civil unrest – one district attempted it and was wiped out. Looking very seriously at modern US issues such as resource scarcity, the 1% vs. 99%, reality TV, celebrity culture and other, more subtle cultural elements, Collins shows she is an experienced writer capable of placing teenage emotions in that mix, underpinned by her own experiences growing up with a father suffering post-traumatic stress from military service. She also draws from the same well of potential influences as Takami, including George Orwell’s writings and the dystopian SF sports cinematic subgenre that includes Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man, but is most clearly inspired by the horrific daily reality in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In this sense her work is much closer to the superb DC Vertigo comic series DMZ from Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli than it is to Battle Royale, transplanting the effects of US military occupation back home. Most importantly, she has an entire trilogy to develop her story, and the characters breathe and grow across the books. Her grim final volume is both horrific and compassionate in sufficient measures as to demand her readers grow up with the series, rendering any petty arguments about the Hunger Games being Battle Royale with cheese utterly debased. Whether the upcoming film manages to do the book justice, however, remains to be seen.
The Hunger Games movie is out now on international release. Battle Royale is now available as in a new Blu-ray edition in the US from Anchor Bay, and in the UK from Arrow Films.
Rayna Denison visits a Kingdom of Characters in Norwich
We’ve all grown up with favourite characters from film and television. For many of the readers of this blog, those characters may even be Japanese. Which is why you might want to pop along to the Kingdom of Characters exhibition being held in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.
This pre-packaged exhibition is a Japanese perspective on the range of meanings characters have in Japan. From local mascots to internet Flash animation sensations, the Kingdom of Characters exhibition tries to introduce the “big picture” of characters in Japan. Their history, from Ultraman, who greets you at the entrance to Hikonyan, the 2006 Hikone castle samurai-cat mascot (above), is told through life-sized statues, explanation boards, and, if you book in groups in advance, helpful tour guides.
The real highlight is the statuary. A 5-foot Gundam, Pikachu in a glass case, and a petite, but probably life-sized, Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion all group together as you walk through exhibition’s explanations of Japanese pop culture history. Then come some weirder and slightly wonderful things…
For example, you can peer through windows into a bedroom branded entirely by Hello Kitty goods. And this is juxtaposed with a collection of more adult-oriented (though not hentai) miniature resin statues designed by Bome. Bome’s work is both high art and popular; he’s done a lot of statues for Gainax, but has also worked for Takashi Murakami, who is the leading figure in Japanese “superflat” artwork. Then there are videos, including one of Japanese Flash anime sensation Eagle Talon by Ryo Ono. But that is not the oddest moment…
As you round the final corner of the exhibition, you are met by a group of local mascot characters. These seem to tend to take on local characteristics, such as the Daibutsu (Giant Buddha statue)-meets-deer mascot that was produced to commemorate Nara city’s 1300th anniversary. 2006 seems to have been a big year for mascots in Japan, with the featured Suginami “fairy” and Hikone cat, Hikonyan, both being created in this year.
This is informative, odd and pretty wonderful to have in the UK. So it’s hard to be too critical, particularly when the Sainsbury Centre is doing so much to augment this relatively small exhibition with events, from an academic study day on kawaii culture, to manga drawing workshops , introduced film screenings of anime and tour groups for schools. They’ve also carefully put Japanese twists on other parts of their temporary exhibitions. So, the Anderson and Low photographs downstairs are "manga inspired" and the Early Modernisms exhibition contains woodblock art prints. Even though it is small, and missing a couple of heavy hitters like Astro Boy and Studio Ghibli, overall the exhibition is well worth a look. Particularly if you have children with you, and especially if you can time it so that you drop in when there are events going on. Come on, Norwich isn’t REALLY that far away….
The anime director who steered Space Cruiser Yamato to the screen
Noburo Ishiguro, who died yesterday, will be remembered for several contrasting achievements in the anime world. He developed an interest in comics at school, but drifted into amateur animation at Nihon University, where he did undergraduate research on the wartime animator Hajime Maeda. As a starry-eyed student, he visited the studio where some of the greats of Japan’s propaganda era still worked behind the scenes on 1960s TV shows, and listened, breathless, as the “father of Japanese animation” Kenzo Masaoka recalled the struggling days of post-war animation.
Ishiguro took a technician’s delight in the behind-the-scenes gossip of anime production. “In Wanwan Chushingura,” he once wrote, “the ‘pink’ dogs were actually drawn one frame red and one frame white. And lightning effects were one frame of white, preceded by one frame of black to strengthen the effect. My delight in discovering such things made me anime crazy!”
Ishiguro avoided the grind of work on Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy by finding a job with a smaller, leaner company that specialised in adverts, only to discover that the studio had taken on subcontracted work to help Tezuka’s hard-pressed show. This turned Ishiguro into an Astro Boy animator by default, although he still left to go freelance, hoping thereby to have better control over his workload. In the heady days of anime’s first TV boom, he instead found himself struggling all day to keep up, only to go home to moonlight drawing new animation frames in his tiny bedsit – he spent much of the late 1960s on what he called his “animator arbeit”.
“Freelance might sound good,” he observed, “but it was anything but. It meant a system where ‘part-time work’ took up 24 hours a day.” Ishiguro sought inspiration by literally spying on Art Fresh, a small studio whose output was legendarily superior to that of Astro Boy’s parent company Mushi Pro. Determined to learn what worked at the highest level, Ishiguro would go through the trash at Art Fresh in order to see what cels were rejected as unsuitable.
He founded Japan Art Bureau, a small studio “with a name we could hang onto if we got big”. It was a steep learning curve for him, forcing him to face many harsh realities about the anime business. “It is so easy to create a subcontracted TV anime production company,” he later wrote. “It is because 90% of the cost is labour and hardly any investment is required. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy desks for animators, all you need is people. You can start an animation production company tomorrow. But they also go bust quickly, too – just like bars. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors never make a big profit. You are lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”