Daniel Robson solves Japan’s population problem, slowly…
In June, my wife and I did something that very few Japanese people are bothering to do these days: We had a baby.
Japan’s birth rate is in freefall. There are now more pets in Japan than children under 15; the nation is steadily greying, and it’s threatening to throw the whole economy off balance. Perhaps part of the reason is that having kids in Japan is unbelievably expensive. Oh sure, you’d have to worry about school fees and food bills and piano lessons and replacing vomit-stained upholstery in most countries in the world. But the actual having of a child, the bit where it is plucked shrieking from the womb – that bit is proper pricey in Japan.
There’s no NHS here, and with the exception of an emergency caesarean delivery (which counts as an operation), you can’t use your company health insurance to cover it. The government gives you around 420,000 yen (£3,400), but that only covers about two-thirds or half of it (prices vary by hospital).
The rest comes out of your wallet. Mine still hurts. The cost is probably also part of the reason why epidurals are so rare in Japan. Natural birth is the norm here – and when I say natural, I don’t mean just gas and air, which is the very least you’d get in Britain. No, natural means natural. No pain relief whatsoever. Drugs, after all, are expensive.
The Japanese believe that the process of natural labour is important as it helps form a bond between mother and baby – a bond forged in extreme agony. In fact, very few hospitals even offer an epidural at all, and the ones that do will tack an extra 100,000 yen (£800) onto your bill.
Still, excruciating though labour may be, the most painful part of creating a little life in Japan is deciding on a name – including how to spell it. The same string of syllables can be written in any number of different kanji combinations, each with their own meanings, requiring some serious pondering.
As if that weren’t enough to contend with, superstition dictates that you also count the number of strokes used to write the family name and proposed given name, tally them up and research the fortune that corresponds with the total number. If the kanji you’d been considering turns out to add up to the wrong number of strokes, damning your baby to a life of misfortune, it’s back to the drawing board.
We had the added hurdles of wanting our daughter to have a name that could be pronounced in both English and Japanese accents (there aren’t many), and wanting to give her middle names, a concept that doesn't exist in Japan. “What are middle names for?” my in-laws asked, to which I replied that you use them to sound stern when telling your child off.
Anyway, in Japan the only legal way to register middle names is to have them run on from the given name, with no spaces, so you end up with one mega-long name. Suffice to say, we didn’t bother.
Once the baby is born, you'll be given a small section of the umbilical cord in an unassuming wooden presentation box - which you can hand unopened to family members as an excellent practical joke.
After giving birth, tradition says that the mother is not allowed to even touch any water for the first few weeks (which is largely ignored these days) and that the baby should not be allowed outside for the first month or two (which my wife takes as gospel and which I cheerfully ignore).
After 31 days for a boy and 32 days for a girl, it is customary to take the child to a local Shinto shrine for omiyamairi, a rite of passage vaguely similar to a baptism.
And then at 100 days comes okuizome, or the “first meal”: A feast of fish, beans, boiled vegetables, soup, rice and, uh, a stone are presented to the baby to ensure he or she will never go hungry. The baby doesn’t actually eat any of this stuff, mind you; at 100 days old, it’s still very much a milk-only diet.
So far, having a baby around is a wondrous, magical and utterly hilarious experience. My daughter is a constant source of surprise. And so to my Japanese neighbours, I say: don’t fear the diaper. Start getting jiggy again – it’s certainly more rewarding than keeping a pet...
Matt Kamen on the real-world inspiration for the FMA villains
The central villains of Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa, the Thule Society, may seem a bit over the top and outlandish but, like the Beer Hall Putsch, are based on a real group and set of events. The society was noted for its belief in various aspects of the occult, specifically any elements that could be attributed to the supposed superiority of the Aryan race. A popular misconception is that the Thule Society acted as a group of advisors to Hitler on all things paranormal. In reality, the group had disbanded circa 1925, long before Hitler's rise to power. However, all key members of the German Worker's Party (DAP) originally were Thuleist and were instrumental in creating the charismatic public speaker that Hitler became. Having only been founded in 1918, itself an offshoot of another cult-like organisation known as the Germanic Order, the Thule Society was positively short lived. In addition, although his second in command Heinrich Himmler had a documented interest in the occult, Hitler himself had little time for it, so any attempts to connect the two beyond cross-promotional purposes is more likely to be a result of media corruption over the years. While claims of mysticism cannot be proven, one lasting impact Thule had on history was the perversion of the swastika symbol. Originally a positive symbol in many Eastern-originated faiths such as Hinduism, Thule appropriated it as their logo, in turn inspiring Hitler's usage of it.
However briefly it may have existed in history, the Thule Society has made a lasting imprint on pop culture as a notorious order of manipulative and secretive dark magicians of sorts, willing to use the foulest sorcery or science to achieve their ends. Thule appears notably in the Hellboy universe of comics as a still-operational cult and in the Everquest video games as the name of an evil god. In short, they're now used as stock in trade villains as plots demand. Serves them right, really.
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa is out this month in a UK DVD double-pack from Manga Entertainment.
Daniel Robson tries a theme restaurant with no strings attached
Well, it only took 47 years, but finally Tracy Island has come to life in Tokyo in the form of the charming Thunderbirds Cafe. A collaboration with Pasela, the karaoke operator behind the Dragon Quest-themed Luida’s Bar in Roppongi, Thunderbirds Cafe is located in Tokyo’s old downtown area, close to Ochanomizu and Jinbocho stations – a world away from the hustle and bustle of the more central Shibuya or Shinjuku areas.
It nails the vibe of the 1960s TV show perfectly. Clambering down the stairs among dense faux-foliage to the restaurant’s basement entrance – a lavish red leather door – visitors are greeted by a spacious hall decked out in thrall to International Rescue, those pioneering puppets who saved the world week in, week out. All the music is taken from the show, a mix of tropical tiki pop and dramatic adventure scores, and mute TV screens show episodes on loop.
Thunderbirds used to have a strong following in Japan, leading to the spinoff anime series Scientific Rescue Team TechnoVoyager on Fuji TV in 1982; music from the show has been covered by countless rock, metal and jazz bands. But in 2012 it’s not such a hot property. I ask a young waitress whether she had heard of the show before starting work at the Thunderbirds Cafe and she replies, “I knew of Thunderbirds a bit because my mum and dad were big fans, but working here has been... an education.”
The cafe was put together at the behest of publisher DeAgostini, whose Thunderbirds DVD-and-booklet partwork series shifts some 25,000 copies a month in Japan; the cafe thus exists to help boost sales, and opened in June for “at least” one year.
So that explains why. But even as a promotional exercise, DeAgostini and Pasela have really designed this place with care. Adorning one wall is a series of five video frames, just like in Jeff Tracy’s lounge, containing portraits of his sons Scott, Virgil, John, Gordon and Alan Tracy that occasionally sputter to life in glorious Supermarionation. Models of Thunderbirds 1 to 5 and various sets are everywhere – in recesses on the walls, hidden in the ceiling, resting on the cocktail bar – while the tropical resort theme extends to the staff wearing flowers in their hair.
The drinks menu features cocktails adorned with cute palm-tree-shaped muddlers, ice cream floats, a Brains special cola laced with popping candy and, befitting of International Rescue, a selection of beers from all around the world.
But the food is the fun part: The star attraction is the Tracy Island Loco Moco (980 yen (£7.85), a Hawaiian-style hamburger dish sculpted as International Rescue’s secret Pacific Ocean base, with a smoky barbecue sausage and some sort of deep-fried fish-paste stick poking up ready for launch.
The Thunderbird 1 Nama Haru Maki (680 yen (£5.50)), meanwhile, is a portion of Thai fresh spring rolls arranged into the shape of the iconic rocket, with a prawn head as its nose cone and served with a tangy piquant dipping sauce.
On leaving, I’m handed a stamp card – visit five times to receive a surprise gift. The numbers on the stamp card run “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” – another little detail that almost tempts me to buy a couple of issues of the DeAgostini partwork, which is of course on sale at the cafe. It’s nice to see International Rescue so well represented here, bringing Supermarionation to the Super Mario nation.
A Japanese teenager visiting America witnesses an assassination and is kidnapped. The secret organisation Inferno erases his memory and brainwashes him through a combination of drugs and hypnotherapy, exploiting his natural survival instinct to make him into a deadly weapon. He is the second experimental assassin created by Scythe Master, so he is given the name codename Zwei.
Scythe Master's first subject, Ein, is Zwei's trainer and Inferno's top assassin – the Phantom. Outside her work, she is completely apathetic, but she and Zwei slowly form a relationship that awakens her forgotten past and sends her on the run. Zwei finds his own protégé, Drei, and continues his murderous rise until tragedy turns him rogue. Inferno sets out to reclaim its two lost sheep or slaughter them, setting the stage for a bloody resolution.
Phantom: Requiem for the Phantomis a TV series by Bee Train, based on the visual novel game Phantom of Inferno from Nitroplus and Kadokawa. The 26-episode series aired in Japan in 2009 after a manga adaptation with art by Masaki Hiragi. It made its English language debut from Funimation in 2010 and has already appeared in two DVD sets, but this is the first time the whole series has been collected in one box. It was preceded by a three-episode video series from Earth Create and KSS in 2004, which does not form part of the box set.
Older fans will doubtless hear the distant echo of Crying Freeman, while acknowledging the influence of Evangelion on the apathetic, manipulated Ein. More recent echoes come from Bee Train's own Noir.But director Koichi Mashimo has been making unexpectedly clever shows since 1986’s Ai City. He's foxy enough to allow the echoes to amplify his work rather than detracting from it. The real-world, near-present scenario and the subtle aura of sexual tension between the protagonists tip the show further towards the adult spectrum, despite their age. Comparisons with The Bourne Identity are not too extravagant: this is a dark, serious drama and doesn't flinch from its own seriousness.
One very striking feature of the series is its pacing. Bee Train's shows are often subtle and multi-layered, but they also inflict rapid, almost choppy cuts on the slow, minimalist evolution of story and character. Their use of flashbacks and recaps can also jar. Although Bee Train started life as a subsidiary of the renowned Production IG, some of the art and animation in their work lacks polish. Madlax and Wild Arms are examples.
That can't be said of Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom, which looks lovely, but the recaps and flashbacks are still annoying. They don't break the mood, but they do force a change of pace and focus at inappropriate moments. The music of Hikaru Nanase comes to the rescue and helps to bridge those unfortunate gaps. It all makes a slightly uneven package, but one with enough goodies inside to be worth exploring to the end.
Helen McCarthy checks out an old school, with new shorter uniforms
Imagine the old-school genetic-supremacist whimsy of Mamoru Nagano's Five Star Stories and the alien threat of Evangelion, crashed into the violent fan-service ethic of Ikki Tousen. That's Freezing.
Once again, only high school girls can save the world from alien invasion. This time, the girls are genetically engineered beings called Pandoras. Their power is enormous, but they must still be assisted and controlled by an outside force. Enter the all-male Limiters. To be a Limiter one must have an inborn ability called "freezing". This limits the enemy's movement when a Pandora is fighting. Limiter Kazuya Aoi, whose late sister was a Pandora, decides to become the partner of a powerful but cold-hearted Pandora with a horror of being touched.
The arcanely named techniques, ranks and titles rework Nagano's concepts for a new generation. The less pleasant aspects are reworked too: exploitation under the guise of seeking "soulmates", slavery, disposable lower orders and genetic experimentation on children. The neo-Victorian costume elements are symbolic as well as decorative: in this version of the world, the true power of women can only be exercised through men. But it's the slam-bang action and the absurdly overdeveloped bosoms that give Freezing its unique appeal. Nagano draws his girls slim to the point of etiolation. Kim Kwang-Hyun, the artist on Freezing, doesn't.
Author Lim Dall-Young has had success both as a comics artist in his ancestral land, with Unbalance Unbalance, Zero, Aflame Inferno, Black God (animated in 2008 by Sunrise as Kurokami The Animation)and Freezing. Artist Kim worked with him on Aflame Inferno before signing up for Freezing. The Freezing manga was launched in Comic Valkyrie in 2006, and had clocked up seven collected volumes by the time anime production house Media Factory announced that the anime would make its Japanese TV debut in 2011. Funimation signed an online simulcast deal for the show, making it available to fans across America on a schedule that made piracy, if not unprofitable, much less excusable.
South Korea has become increasingly important in the animation world over the past two decades, both in its own right as a creative force, and as a major contributor to the making of anime. There is a sizeable ethnic Korean population within Japan; talent-hungry Japanese publishers and production houses have begun to hire artists of Korean descent as well as outsourcing work to Korea.
The crew is a solid one: Takashi Boogiepop Phantom Watanabe directs, Masanao Akahoshi (The Big O, Demon King Daimao, Ikki Tousen) and Takao Yoshioka, who worked with Akahoshi on Demon King Daimao and Ikki Tousen, provide the scripts. Masaru Yokoyama's music is driving and dynamic. It all adds up to content that does exactly what the box art promises. Girls kick alien ass, let off steam with the odd cat-fight for rank and supremacy, and are, ultimately, just looking for love in a harsh universe: same old ideas dressed in new and skimpier outfits.
Freezing is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.
Helen McCarthy on the story that’s more than just a game
Game-based anime succeed or fail depending on how successfully they move from the kill-opponent-acquire-item matrix towards powerful, engaging characters and plotline. The Tales of Vesperia game, released in Japan and the USA in 2008, made enough impact to get a theatrical movie released in October 2009. Funimation believed in its potential strongly enough to acquire the full spectrum of rights – home entertainment, broadcast, theatrical, digital and merchandising – in Spring 2011. So how does their purchase stack up?
Director Kanta Kamei was a visual supervisor on the Kill Bill anime segment The Origin of O-Ren Ishii before helming the Digimon movie Diaboromon Strikes Back. Screenwriter Reiko Yoshida has written for many anime shows, and Akira Senju has made a name for sweeping, heroic music to support tales of high adventure. Production IG's name alone is a guarantee of top-notch animation.
The movie itself is a prequel to the Namco Bandai XBox 360 game Tales of Vesperia, itself the tenth in the “Tales series” of games. Ten years after a great war, the people of the planet Terca Lumieris use a powerful and mysterious substance called aer to help them fight off monsters and maintain human life. Yuri and Flynn, childhood acquaintances who have just joined up as knights, are taken under the wing of their corps leader Niren. Under his guidance their rookie enthusiasm is tempered and their friendship matures.
The plot is basic enough that any experienced gamer of fantasy reader will be able to predict it, but engaging and energetic enough to keep most entertained. Those who have played the Tales of Vesperia game will meet a number of new characters in the anime, though most, it must be said, are not extensively developed.
Production IG have done their usual excellent job. Their excellence would be almost monotonous if the results were not so utterly bewitching every time. The images are crisp, fluid and gorgeous. The character and background design carries echoes of Studio Ghibli, enhanced by the European feel of many of the buildings and settings, although here the influence is Spanish, rather than the North European cities loved by Hayao Miyazaki.
The pacing, too, carries echoes of some Ghibli movies – it's leisurely, letting its scenarios evolve. Action sequences are well handled, but the overall feeling is one of evolving the storyline rather than rushing from one set piece fight to another. Fans of the game will find plenty to enjoy, but so will those who aren't.
The chupacabra, a goat sucking cryptoid said to inhabit the Americas. CHU-BURA, a Japanese rock song from the band KELUN. Thanks to Manga Entertainment, there is proof that one of these now exists within the UK – and best yet, it poses no known risks to goat-kind. Yes, series nine of Bleach is here and it brings with it a single opening theme, and it would become Kelun’s most popular track to date.
Back in 2006 the band was known by a very different name. UTARI. The line-up was almost identical to today, with Ryousuke Kojima supplying the vocals, guitar and piano work, Satou Shuusake dropping bass-lines and Masahiro Kajitani keeping everything together on drums. Under that name the trio released a debut EP and were soon rocking up the Oricon indie chart.
By the following year the band made the transition to a major label, signing with Sony Music Entertainment. They emerged with a new name, continuing their activities, this time under the banner of KELUN. Within months their first major CD hit the shelves, entitled Astral Lamp. It featured six tracks, two of which became theme songs. First, opening track ‘SIGNAL’ was used as the sixth ending to the anime series Gintama. Then, album track ‘HEART BEAT’ as the opening theme to the live action vamp-boy drama RH Plus.
The CD peaked at 78 in the charts, and was followed up with their debut single ‘SIXTEEN GIRL’ – which may or may not be an Engrish prophecy as to how many people would buy it. Either way, it failed to enter the top 100 despite heavy tie-ins with various television shows.
Thankfully KELUN were third time lucky with their follow up single. It was CHU-BURA, and for Bleach fans, the CD came with two songs from their favourite franchise; the title track, from series nine, and the grammar defying B-side ‘Boy’s Don’t Cry’, which featured as the opening to the PSP action RPG Bleach: Soul Carnival. The single rocketed the band into the charts, landing them a respectable position at 20 in its opening week on sale – still KELUN’s highest ever ranking. Unfortunately, bassist Satou left the band just before the single hit, being quickly replaced by new boy Yukito, completing the group’s current line-up.
CHU-BURA’s success couldn’t have been better timed. Two months after its release KELUN dropped their first full length album, fresh off the success of the track. The whopping 17-track self-titled beast of an album included the single, plus alternative versions of ‘SIXTEEN GIRL’ and ‘SIGNAL’ from their first major EP. It seemed like they were set, they’d finally made it. And then the sales figures came in; KELUN (the album) got as high as 140 in the chart. From there, besides one collaboration single in 2009, the band disappeared from the limelight without a trace (their homepage has also been deleted). A shame, but at the least the legacy that is CHU-BURA lives on in Bleach.
Helen McCarthy tries to avoid getting sucked into the screen
There's nothing new under the sun. The idea of people caught inside a TV screen isn't new, even in anime: Video Girl Ai did the same thing back in the days of cassette tape. The idea that in another reality, you have special powers and a vital purpose, has been exploited by shows from Sailor Moon to Vision of Escaflowne. The displaced teen hero is found in myriad places, from Princess Mononoke's early Japan to Fullmetal Alchemist's Nazi Europe.The sentai concept, the teen-led team with its mix of strengths and mutual respect goes all the way back to the 60s, with Osamu Tezuka's puppet adventure Galaxy Boy Troop predating 1966 anime Rainbow Sentai Robin.
Where Persona 4: The Animation scores is in spinning this handful of old tropes into an interesting pattern. A 26 episode TV series aired in Japan from October 2011, and released in the USA and UK from September 2012, it's based on a game from Atlus. Japanese teenager Yu moves from Tokyo to a quiet country town to stay with his police detective uncle, and becomes entangled in a weird world of murders, changing weather patterns and a TV show that's trying to pull him into its universe. Yu and his new friends must find their Personas – their "other halves" inside the TV screen – and prevent more destruction in their own world.
Game-based anime have some complex constraints. They have to stay faithful enough to their origin to please game fans, but be coherent as standalone stories to win new, non-gamer audiences. They also have to compress many hours of gameplay into much shorter screentime. Happily, senior writer Yuuko Kakihara has plenty of experience as a story-planner, including a key role in Disney's Japanese Stitch!, while director Seiji Kishi's rap sheet includes tense human drama in Yugo The Negotiator, strange powers in Magikano and game-based stories in Ragnarok The Animation. All the key elements of the game are present and correct, although much compressed, and there are only a few moments where newcomers to the concept will be momentarily baffled.
The stylish, striking designs and colour palette wielded by art director Kazuki Higashiji are a major plus. The opening credits play up one of the show's key features, the difference between the TV world and the real. The mix of 2D and 3D is a tricky one to pull off in anime, but lead 2D house D-Station was supported by some of the top names in the TV anime business, including AIC, GAINAX and Sunrise. Shoji Meguro adapts his music from the game to good effect for TV. There are a few problems with the animation, an occasional over-reliance on still frames, but not enough to spoil your enjoyment of an otherwise entertaining show.
Christmas Eve sees the release of the first of a spectacular new film trilogy based on Berserk, the brutal fantasy manga epic by Kentarou Miura. The films, starting with Berserk Movie 1: The Egg of the King, retell the story from the beginning. It’s primarily the saga of a warrior, Guts – and one might add, of guts, usually sliding off Guts’ mighty sword. To say that Guts kills things – human, animal, monster – is like saying that people breathe air. It’s Guts’s job; it’s what he’s good at; and he’s in a world where there’s no shortage of things to slay.
Timing being what it is, the Berserk films arrive as bloody, harsh fantasy is in the ascent, thanks to the live-action TV version of A Game of Thrones. But Berserk got there first with Miura’s manga beginning its run in 1989, seven years before the first volume of George RR Martin’s fantasy saga. Older fantasy fans will have their own yardsticks; for example, the books of British author David Gemmell (try 1987’s Wolf in Shadow.)
Miura himself has cited such 1980s western films as John Boorman’s Excalibur, Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh+Blood and John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (not last year’s travesty!). He also acknowledges his debt to a Japanese fantasy saga that’s even longer than Berserk; the prose Guin Saga by the late Sumiyo Imaoka, writing as Kaoru Kurimoto, which ran for three decades and well over a hundred volumes. Like all good fantasy writers, though, Miura was influenced by more than just fantasy. For example, he says his thinking was shaped by seeing news reports of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Berserk is set in a medieval world where there are magic and monsters, yet they’re marginalised for long stretches. This is a “fantasy” that remembers humans do terrible things to each other without any supernatural aid, inspired by high heroism or the base urges.
The three new Berserk films adapt an early storyline called “The Golden Age,” which spanned ten volumes of the manga. Don’t be fooled by the name. Berserk’s Golden Age is dark and gruesome, but it’s a pivotal time in Guts’s youth when the lone swordsman met new people and found a compelling cause to fight for. We meet Guts as a mercenary, sacking cities for hire. In the first minutes, he shows his mettle by splitting a man’s helmet – and head – down the middle. (Fans of the manga know that’s nothing compared to what he does when he gets going.) Then he’s waylaid by strangers, led by a strange white-haired man – and, impossibly, loses a fight to him.
Rather than kill him, the leader takes Guts back to his camp, and asks him to join the band. This leader is, well, striking – an impossibly beautiful, charismatic man called Griffith, who offers Guts a better life. Guts is seduced, and joins Griffith’s Band of the Hawk. His closeness to Griffith sparks the jealousy of Casca, a woman and Griffith’s second in command. Griffith in turn sparks jealousy, as his band rises in fame and favour, attaching itself to the royal family. Guts will do anything to support Griffith and his cause, leading to consequences more terrible than even Guts can imagine…
Whereas Game of Thrones deals with warring families and a huge ensemble cast, “The Golden Age” arc is focused on a trio of individuals: Guts, Griffith and Casca. Naturally the relationships – and the balance of power - shifts as the story develops. Griffiths’ feminine beauty adds a layer of gender-bending, in the tradition of manga classics such as Rose of Versailles, with its cross-dressing swordswoman Lady Oscar.
All three Berserk characters, despite appearances, are painfully vulnerable, Guts perhaps the most. He starts the “Golden Age” story as a lone wolf, only to suddenly gain companions, comrades… and could it be more? But there’s a snag. For all his monstrous strength, Guts has a chronic fear of physical, human contact. We won’t go into his backstory here, but it’s bad. Miura does things to his hero that most authors wouldn’t dare, a ruthlessness extending to his other characters as well. If you’re a cute kid or a wide-eyed girl in the Berserk world… Well, don’t worry about old age.
The Berserk manga runs for thousands of pages – it’s still going in strip form, 36 books and counting – but the “Golden Age” arc is best known to manga fans. In 1997, this part of the story was made into a TV anime, running for 25 episodes. A year later, it had a much weirder anime incarnation, parodied in an episode of The Adventures of Mini-Goddess, the super-deformed version of the Oh My Goddess anime. Fans complaining about the same material being made twice might reflect on the 14-year gap between the series and films, a good deal longer than the gaps between the old and new versions of Evangelion or Fullmetal Alchemist.
The new Berserk filmsare made by Studio 4 Degrees C, which has a colourful CV. It’s certainly not afraid of remaking familiar material; last year, it animated a remake of America’s ThunderCats (though the original ThunderCats was also drawn for hire in Japan). It’s made stylistically maverick anime movies such as Tekkon Kinkreet and the brilliant Mind Game, and contributed to action spectacles such as Spriggan and Steamboy. Interviewed by the Anime News Network website in August, the studio’s president/CEO Eiko Tanaka confessed she had not heard of Berserk before she was invited to adapt it. However, when she opened the manga, she was “overwhelmed with its density.”
According to Tanaka, the biggest animation challenges were depicting the armour and the fighting itself. The solution is a blend of hand-drawn animation and CGI; to get an idea of what it looks like, watch the trailer below. Sharp-eared fans will notice the beginning of the trailer has the distinctive music of Susumu Hirasawa, who contributed to the original series of Berserk, as well as music for Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, Paranoia Agent and Paprika.
The third and final Berserk film is scheduled for January 2013 – only will it be the last? Ever since the original series, Berserk fans have been clamouring for more of the story to be adapted, and Tanaka herself says she would like to follow the manga to its (as yet unwritten) end. Berserk is the kind of franchise whose fate may well turn on sales outside Japan, so if you want more of it on screen, you know what to do…
New Year's Day 1963: Japanese families observed ancient holiday traditions before settling down together to a new one – watching TV.
In the Tokyo suburb of Nerima, the Tezuka family watched the first episode of Father's first animated TV series. Father was "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka; the series was Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy,) made in his purpose-built studio next door. Everyone on the crew was hoping for success, but not even Tezuka could have foreseen what was to come.
Astro Boy wasn't the first domestic animation, or animated series, on Japanese TV. But it was the game-changer, kick-starting the TV anime boom and setting up the paradigms and problems that would dominate the industry for half a century.
Throughout the 1950s, Japan struggled with the after-effects of defeat and occupation. High-value items like TV sets were out of most people's reach. In 1959, though, every Japanese family that could scrape the money together bought a TV to watch the Royal wedding of Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito. Rising audience figures meant more demand for programming. Tezuka, who had always wanted to make animation, saw his opportunity.
Most cartoons on Japanese TV were bought from American networks. Analysing the limited animation of shows like The Flintstones, Tezuka knew he could make cartoons locally, based on his own comics. He also knew there was an emerging foreign market for Japanese animation. Toei Studios set out to sell animated features overseas, starting with Hakujaden. Their film of his manga Saiyuki appeared in the US as Alakazam The Great in 1961.
American shows were offered to Japanese TV at low prices because they had already earned back their production costs at home. Tezuka decided to undercut them. Successful character merchandising based on his comics, plus the prospect of foreign sales, convinced him that he could make enough profit on spinoffs to cover his losses on production costs. He adapted the standardised systems he used to boost output on his comics to animation, cutting costs back to the bone.
The success of Astro Boy sent established and new studios scrambling to follow Tezuka's example. It was a massive gamble, and it didn't really work. Tezuka spent most of his income from manga subsidising anime, but his first company still went bust. The anime industry has never broken the pattern he set. Networks expect to pay low prices and studios have to hustle to bridge the gap with sponsorship and merchandising. Quality and originality come behind riding the current trend to profit, or at least financial viability.
But watching Astro Boy, none of that matters. What Japanese audiences saw on New Year's Day 1963 is still magical. Halfway round the world and half a century on, the sheer power of Tezuka's story of discrimination, cruelty, love, innocence and courage makes his child robot a hero fit for the scientific age to come, as well as the one we're living through.
Helen McCarthy asks anatomically impossible questions about live-action CLAMP
In September 2012 Japanese broadcaster WOWOW announced a live-action TV series based on CLAMP's supernatural manga xxxHOLIC. The show, directed by Keisuke Toyoshima, is scheduled to premiere in 2013.
This is, obviously, to allow time for the plastic surgery.
I hasten to add that there is absolutely nothing amiss with the good looks of the leading actors. Actress and model Anne Watanabe, who is to play 'dimensional witch' Yuuko Ichihara, and Shota Sometani, her ghost-plagued employee Watanuki Kimihiro, are both extremely attractive. Neither of them, however, actually looks like a CLAMP character. Nor does almost anything human.
Look at their skulls, for a start. The proportions of the typical manga skull, used extensively in CLAMP's work, involve jawlines too sharp and shallow to accommodate adult human teeth, let alone cope with the strain of chewing anything more solid than a ripe berry. The nose is almost non-existent, devoid of anything as crude as nostrils, and positioned lower down the face than a normal nose – partly because of that tiny jaw. The huge orbits of the eyes mean the cheekbones are lower and wider, giving the face its characteristic childlike proportions.
One also has to speculate that, given the size of eyeball needed to occupy the space, the skull must be running out of room for some of its contents: the brain, for example. Luckily, the small jaw and short nose shift all the proportions of the face downwards, which both adds to the childlike aura of innocence and leaves a place for the brain above the wider, deeper forehead.
It's when it comes to the limbs that all relationship with reality breaks down. Not even a model is as long-legged and skinny as an anime character. In fact, as any collector of figurines can attest, once characters are turned into 3D creations, even in miniature, only carefully designed support prevents their ankles bending or breaking, unable to support their own bodyweight.
Western fans have suggested editing the actors to fit CLAMP proportions. One trusts they mean digitally rather than surgically. But, as earlier live action anime remakes prove, Japanese fans at least are more than willing to suspend disbelief in order to see their favourite characters played by human avatars. Tokyo Babylon 1999, the 1993 live-action movie 'sequel' to the Tokyo Babylon manga, stars Toshihide Tonesaku and Wataru Shihoudou, neither greatly resembling the manga characters.
It isn't just CLAMP who have trouble finding live actors to match manga characters. The problem is widespread on Japanese screens. The live-action Sailor Moon TV series from 2003 and the 2004 live-action Devilman movie also fall short. Nobody in the four (yes, four) live-action Kekko Kamen movies released in 2004 resembles the manga characters, although a cunningly choreographed version of the heroine's costume provides distraction. And it isn't restricted to fantasy: romantic comedies like Boys Over Flowers have the same problems. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean versions all had to deal with the fact that nobody really looks like a manga character.