Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Anime On the Big Screen: “In This Corner of the World”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Sunday 15 October 2017
Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment (presented by the Japan Foundation as part of the Japanese Film Festival)
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 128 minutes
Production Date: 2016
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): Yes, Edko Films Ltd (Hong Kong), English subtitled DVD

The second film in my 2017 Japanese Film Festival jaunt was after a 15 minute break after the screening of “Napping Princess”. I had a quick toilet stop and had to wait a few minutes before being let in. I was given another film evaluation form by volunteer and went in. Like the previous film, around 50 or so people showed up. Again ages were mixed but I noticed a few more Japanese patrons this time. As you can tell, there wasn’t a great deal that was different to the previous film’s audience. Even the pre film trailers were identical. So on with the screening;

The film introduces us to a 9 year old Suzu Urano who lives in a small coastal town called Eba, near Hiroshima in 1933. Though her family is rather poor, she seems to lead a happy life. Her favourite pastime is drawing and painting. One day she comes across her friend, Tetsu Mizuhara, whom she finds sitting on the shoreline. Tetsu’s older brother has recent died in a ferry accident. He doesn’t want to go home as his parents have taken up drinking and no longer go to work. Suzu decides to paint a picture for him based on upon his description of the white peaks on the waves looking like white rabbits. He takes the picture and thanks him and tells her that he plans to join the navy. As the years progress Suzu works for her grandmother’s business of cultivating seaweed to be used as Nori sheets.

In 1944 at the age of 19, her parents receive a visit from the family of a young man her age asking for her hand in marriage. As a boy he took an interest in her when he saw her during one of the family visits to the area. Apparently the pair played together as children, though Suzu cannot remember. Suzu is anxious about meeting even though her family tells her she can say no, and goes to the sea shore instead of meeting them. She accidently meets them anyway as they ask her for directions back to the station, though they don’t realise it’s her. Initially thinking the man asking for her hand in marriage is Tetsu, Suzu is disappointed to find out the truth, however decides to marry the man, Shusaku Hojo, and move to the family’s home on a hillside above Kure, some 25km away. As the war is well under way, and Kure being a port for the military, most of population is employed with the military. Shusaku is judicial civilian officer at the military court.

Suzu finds herself doing most of the housework for the family as Shusaku’s mother, San Hojo, is injured and spend a lot of the time in bed. Suzu’s sister in law, Keiko Kuromura, who has returned home after the death of her husband and forced closure of her business, constantly criticises and nit-picks her. Though Suzu is a little bit clumsy and forgetful, she still manages to be loved by the family. As the war progresses, Suzu is forced to help out with handing out rations to citizens and even finds herself being rather creative in providing meals for the family using local herbs and recipes from eras ago, and creating new clothes from her old kimonos. Despite the hardships her family life is still filled with joy and happiness, especially with Keiko’s children around.

Suzu’s love of drawing gets her in trouble as the military police discover her drawing the harbour side including the various war ships stationed there. She is accused of being a spy but luckily she is let off. Later her childhood friend Tetsu arrives as his ship has docked for shore leave in Kure. Shusaku lets them be together during the night knowing that this might be the last time Tetsu sees Suzu. In the end despite Tetsu telling her he still has feelings for her; Suzu tells him she is faithfully married to her husband. Later Shusaku is drafted by the Navy to a base at Otake city, some 60km away. 1945 brings regular US air raids not only during night, but increasingly during the day as well. By mid-summer US aircraft commence firebombing of Kure with the Mizuhara house also almost burnt to the ground. However thanks to Suzu’s actions, the house is spared any major damage. After yet another US bombing run of the harbour, a major tragedy strikes Suzu and the rest of the household.

This film is based upon Fumiyo Kono’s seinen manga which was published in Weekly Manga Action back in 2007 to 2009. Considering how gentle the film was, I found that fact pretty hard to wrap my head around. The manga was published in English as “To All the Corners of the World” back in 2011.Prior to this adaptation, the manga did receive a live action TV adaption back in 2011 which I have not seen. This anime adaptation was directed by Sunao Katabuchi who I have previously talked (or more accurately raved) about. He directed the much underappreciated “Mai Mai Miracle” and the mostly unseen in the west “Princess Arete”, which will finally get a bare bones release from All the Anime in the UK in December. However Katabuchi is known to most western anime fans as the director of “Black Lagoon”, which seems really out of place when you compare his rather family orientated theatrical fare.

I really think this is Katabuchi’s best work to date. The film charts the adolescence to adulthood of a young woman living the Hiroshima area during World War II. Of course the audience already knows what the outcome of the film is as such due to the setting. But the film really isn’t about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It’s about Suzu’s life and family. More broadly it’s about family and working to survive when outside forces threaten to tear your family apart. Naturally war is portrayed as some thig destructive to society and the individual, shown in the way Suzu’s hobby of art is curtailed by the military. In no way is war glorified. Like other Japanese films about the war, Japan to a degree is portrayed as victim, or more accurately its citizens are. Personally I have no problem with that. It’s undeniable that Japan did some bloody awful things, however the citizens where divorced from that aspect of the war, especially on the home front where this story takes place.

While the second half of the film takes a much darker turn, there are more than enough touches of humour to offset the grim sections of the film. There are some really cute moments in the film where Suzu mother coyly discusses what will happen on the wedding night likening consent to the groom asking if his wife will let him open her “umbrella”. Hilarity later ensues as Shusaku literally asks for her umbrella. Even a very serious moment such as Suzu being accused as a spy by the military police is later laughed away by her family who can’t believe anyone would be stupid enough to think she was. There are some really nice ideas explored in the film such as Suzu getting lost in Kure and ending up in the red light district. There she meets a young woman whom she previously met back in her grandmother’s house in Eba as child. Suzu was told by her older brother that she was a zashiki-warashi (a child spirit), when in fact she was a homeless child living the grandparent’s ceiling, hiding from them only to come out and steal a bit of food. There are couple of these moments in the film where a backstory of a seemingly inconsequential character is told. I felt it really added a lot to the film.

If anything I probably think the film is a little bit too long. I though the film would come to a conclusion once the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but it keeps going, telling the story of the aftermath and what happened to Suzu’s family. Surprisingly not a great deal of the bombing is really shown nor the full impact of its aftermath, with the exception of one young girl and her mother, who become vital to post climax part of the film. And despite the horror that threatens to break the family apart in the second half of the film, it doesn’t really wallow in sentimentality or becomes schmaltzy, which easily could have been the path it took. The animation, produced by MAPPA (of “Yuri!!! on Ice” and “Terror in Resonance” fame) is excellent. It captures the feel of the original manga and depicts World War II Hiroshima Prefecture with incredible detail and accuracy. From what I understand Katabuchi went to great lengths to make the film as accurate as possible. The film certainly moved the audience, they loved a lot of the light touches and humour in the film. The Japanese woman in her thirties sitting next to me was very emotional in the second half and cried a bit.

From the opening production idents, I discovered the film is being distributed in Australia by Umbrella Entertainment. As far as I’m aware they don’t do theatrical releases which a crying shame. This film should have had a limited theatrical release in this country, mostly as an antidote the many poor “Your Name” clones and faux Ghibli films Madman has and will foist upon cinema goers. Instead it will wallow in relative obscurity here (it's still not solicited for home video release in Australia). Overall I really liked this film. Perhaps it is a bit too long. Maybe some of the material chronicling Suzu’s early life should have been shorted or cut all together. However I did like some of the explorations of secondary characters which some might see as the director being indulgent. Regardless I really enjoyed this film 8 out of 10.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Anime On the Big Screen: “Ancien and the Magic Tablet (Napping Princess)”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Sunday 15 October 2017
Distributor: Warner Brothers Japan (presented by the Japan Foundation as part of the Japanese Film Festival)
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 110 minutes
Production Date: 2017
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

Less than a week after “Fireworks”, the 2017 Japanese Film Festival has arrived in town. From what I understand it’s the 20th year of the festival and unlike the previous couple years the line-up was pretty good. There’s even a couple of decent anime films playing. Unfortunately both the films are playing on the same day, one after the other! First up was “Napping Princess”, which for some reason was being screening under the clunkier title of “Ancien and the Magic Tablet”. Everywhere else in the western word it has screened under the former title which is a far more literal translation of the Japanese title, so why they are doing this is beyond me.

I had got my cheap early bird tickets for both films online almost a month ago, so I just headed straight into the cinema. I was given a response form to fill in on my way in by a volunteer. Around 50 people showed up for the screening, with a wide variety of age groups, mostly of European extraction (i.e. most likely white Australians), but a sizable number of Japanese people. They guy next to me was a chatty bloke in his 40’s with high function autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Of note were a number of adverts before the film from the festivals’ main sponsors; Tokyo DisneySea, Japan National Tourism Organization (using footage from MasterChef’s episode based in Japan), Japan Airlines and a local Japanese restaurant in civic. With that out of the way, time to talk about the film;

It is the year 2020. Kokone Morikawa. who is in her final year of high school, lives with her father, Momotaro Morikawa, a slightly eccentric car mechanic, in the town of Kurashiki on the edge of the Seto inland sea. She constantly naps and has dreams in which a princess named Ancien lives in a country called Heartland. This country revolves around automobiles and most the population works in a car factory. However the population has to deal with almost non-stop traffic jams, and the factory workers are worked to buy new cars the factory makes, or have their pay docked. Ancien owns a tablet computer which she can use to make magical things happen. She turns a gift of a stuffed bear into a living, breathing creature. She also turns some of the factory’s machines into sentient robots and a motorbike and sidecar into a transforming robot which she names Heart. However the king is disturbed by her powers. He takes Ancien’s tablet and locks it away in a vault. He also isolates her in a tower connected to the castle.

In spite of this, seemingly Ancien’s powers attract molten metal creatures called Colossus who regularly attack the country. In response the kingdom has created giant robots named Engineheads which are mostly effective in dealing with the creatures. Despite being advised to banish Ancien, the king cannot find it in his heart to do so. Later as another Colossus attacks the city, Ancien steals the tablet from the vault along with Heart and escapes with Joy. Outside she comes across disgruntled factory worker Peach (a dead ringer for Momotaro), who she mistakenly assumes is a pirate. Together they hatch a plan to fight the Colossus by using the tablet’s magic on the Engineheads. However the king’s chief adviser, Bewan, does his utmost to thwart their plans.

Meanwhile in reality, Kokone receives a text message from her father that he is going to her mother’s grave that evening and to meet up with him there. Kokone’s mother had died several years earlier in an accident. At school Kokone is told by her teacher that her father has been arrested and transferred to Tokyo for the apparent thief of a company’s secrets. Obviously shocked and confused by this, she makes her way home but stops at her mother’s grave. There she finds her teddy bear (which looks exactly the same as Joy) with her father’s tablet inside (also like the one in Kokone’s dreams). Her father uses it to diagnose problems in cars and to also help make autonomous vehicles for his customers. At home she receives a knock at the door from a man who looks a lot like Bewan and two others. However she pretends not to be home. The men enter the house and she discovers from their conversions they are after the tablet and her. She receives a text message from her father with a picture of the man who looks like Bewan attached whom he tells her not to trust.

Hiding the linen cupboard, she is almost discovered, but her friend and son of a local police officer, Morio, arrives to relay information about her father. However the men mange to steal teddy bear with the table inside and flee to the local airport. Kokone ropes in Morio to help her and pair take off in the family’s side car (which looks exactly like Heart) and manage to steal back the bear and tablet and the in the process Bewan’s suitcase. They the paperwork in the suitcase reveals that Bewan is actually called Ichiro Watanabe and is a pretty high up in Shijima Motors. Kokone’s mother is the Shijima Motors chairman’s daughter. Kokone is confused as to why the company would want this tablet. Not knowing what to do and having no other communication devices, they decide to use the tablet to post messages on the message board Kokone’s father frequents in the hope he’ll see them. The two fall asleep and Morio finds himself dreaming in Kokone’s world riding with Ancien and Joy on Heart as they fly though the sky. When they wake up, they discover they are in Dotonbori, Osaka, some 200km away from where they were last night. Morio puts this down to the fact the sidecar is an autonomous motorbike and probably took them their based on a pre-programmed course. However seemingly other miraculous things happen as they make their way to Tokyo to meet the chairman of Shijima Motors in order to talk to him and free Kokone’s father.

When I was in Japan in late March and early April this year, I went to Production I.G’s store in the Marui department store in Shibuya. Even though this film had just finished its cinema run there, they were still promoting the hell out of it. However this film isn’t a Production I.G per se. The studio is Signal.MD, a subsidiary of Production I.G which has a focus on family films. They’ve mostly done a series of “Pokémon” OVAs and also produced the “Atom The Beginning” TV series. This is the studio’s first feature as far as I’m aware. This creator and director of this film is Kenji Kamiyama, and it’s his first feature after his dreadful cel shaded CG movie “009 Re:Cyborg” back in 2012. Kamiyama is better known as the director of “Ghost in the Sheel: Stand Alone Complex”, “Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit”, “Eden of the East” and “Minipato (Patlabor shorts from 2002)”. He has had a pretty amazing run as a director, but I think that run of top notch anime from him has finished.

For most of its length I admit it’s a pretty good film. Both Kokone’s world and her dream world inhabited by Ancien are fairly well thought out and interesting. I also thought the main plot involving Kokone’s parents and the original but untimely abandoned development of autonomous vehicles by them was intriguing. So was the exploration of how families can break down due to tragedies, and ultimately how this behaviour is really not at all beneficial to anyone, especially the children in those families. There’s also a lot of humour in the film as well which timed perfectly and well written. The audience I saw the film with roared with laughter at many of the comedic moments in the film. Towards the end, the film makes comment on Japanese corporate culture, in particular how myopic and outdated it is, which is something you really don’t see in films like this. For the vast majority of the film, despite some heavy undertones, it’s rather light and fun, and I enjoyed that atmosphere it created.

But the major problem with this film is the merging of reality and the dream world of Heartland. Both are fully realised worlds, but it really felt like there was constant tug of war by Kamiyama who spends way too much time in the dream world without explain why we are there or how this relates to rest of the story. Towards the middles of the film, the two worlds do literally collide. This intensifies for the finale where it is pretty much impossible for the audience to decipher what is real and what isn’t, which members of the cast are experiencing what Kokone is experiencing and most importantly how and why this is happening. The final section of the film really makes little sense. I found it reminiscent of Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika”, however in that film the surreal chaos is caused by a device called a DC Mini which can allow people to entre people’s dreams. Here no such device exists. I found it virtually impossible to make the leap of logic that Kamiyama is asking the audience to make.

Like “Your Name” and last week’s “Fireworks”, this film also falls into a similar pattern with core elements of school kids in a rural town with paranormal happenings. The film also adds a number of recent Japanese buzz terms and topics such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which plays a big part in the climax of the film). As a result it does feel quite derivative and not something worthy of a director such as Kamiyama. Putting aside the major problem I have with the merging of the two worlds of the film, there are few other parts of the film which frustrated me. First was Shijima Motors roping in the police to arrest Kokone’s father on what is some pretty flimsy evidence. Second is reasoning behind why Shijima Motors need the tablet as they already apparently have a copy of the software inside it.

For the most part I can overlook some of the flaws of this film. I lot of it was escapist fantasy which really liked. Heartland was a particularly well realised world. I even enjoyed the melodrama and didn’t find it schmaltzy at all, which is highly unusual for me. But the lack of explanation as to why reality and Heartland merge (and if the merge for everyone or only some) in the climax is the big downfall for this film. However for the most part, the story and characters really did charm me. The animation was pretty good too for the most part. I really should give this film .5 less, but I’m going to be nice and give it 6.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Anime Music Video Compilations: “Urusei Yatsura: Love Me More”

Publisher: Kitty Video
Format: VHS, Beta and Laserdisc, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue
Length: 60 minutes
Original Release Date: 25 July 1983
Animation Exclusive to this Release: No
Other Sources (Japanese unless noted): Urusei Yatsura: Love Me More (VHS, Beta and Laserdisc Re-issue 1986), Urusei Yatsura: Love Me More (VHS and Laserdisc Re-issue 1991)
Currently Availability (as of writing): Out of Print

Note: Originally published on "The Anime Archivist" blog March 2014.

A huge hit in Japan during the 1980’s, “Urusei Yatsura” (usually translated as Those Obnoxious Aliens), the anime series, based off Rumiko Takahashi’s manga, seems to go on forever. Certainly as I watched the entire series over the course of a couple of months, it certainly did feel as it would never end. I was surprised that the series was popular enough for AnimEigo to persevere with releasing the entire series, which took them from the first VHS volume in 1992 to the final DVD set in 2006 (the licence eventually expiring in late 2011). Like a lot of Rumiko Takahashi’s longer works, a great chunk of it is highly entertaining, though once the (large) regular cast make their appearances, it can get somewhat stale. The characters become caricatures, especially when there’s no real plot to the series, just randomly concocted comedy. However in small doses, “Urusei Yatsura” is a fun show. It’s kind of unsurprising that the show spawned many merchandising spin offs including this music video compilation (the first of at least three such videos). What’s more surprising is that this video seems to be the first ever anime music video compilation produced for the home video market and the first “Urusei Yatsura” home video release of any kind.

For those who don’t know the story of “Urusei Yatsura”, here’s a brief run down; an alien race called the Oni invades Earth. They mercifully give the humans a fighting chance by taking part in a game of tag. I the humans win, they'll leave the Earth. Their computer randomly selects oversexed high school boy Ataru Moroboshi of Tomobiki, Japan as the human contestant. The game involves Ataru trying to touch the horns of the Oni representative Princess Lum. Unfortunately the Oni didn’t tell Ataru that Lum can fly. Ataru spends the next few days trying and failing to grab on to Lum. The people of Earth are incensed and some are planning to lynch the Moroboshi family. In an attempt to encourage him, Ataru’s long suffering girlfriend, Shinobu Miyake, promises to marry him if he wins. On the final day of competition Ataru manages to distract Lum by whipping off her bikini top and manages to grab on to her horns. Ataru is over the moon and states now he’ll be able to get married. Of course Lum misinterprets this and thinks he means he wants to marry her. She moves into the Moroboshi household. Lum tries hard to get Ataru interested in her, but seems to lust after every other girl in sight, which usually causes fits of jealousy and electric shocks from Lum. Later Lum’s charms cause a small group of boys to form a fanatical fan club based on her. As the show progresses, a number of Lum’s alien acquaintances and relations begin visiting her and in the process cause problems and chaos for Ataru and the people of Tomobiki.

With that quick synopsis out of the way, let’s look at the compilation;

“Lum no Love Song (Lum’s Love Song)” performed by Matsutani Yuuko
Almost all of the videos have an opening narration by Lum who often explains which episode the animation is from. This first song is immediately recognisable to most anime fans (over a certain age…), even those who haven’t even seen the show! It was used as the first opening animation theme and was originally released as a single on 21 October 1981. The animation comes from the first story of episode 12, “Love Battle Royale”. This episode saw the first appearance of Tsubame, who is engaged to sultry school nurse Sakura. Sakura invites Ataru, Lum and company to a disco. Naturally Ataru tries to seduce Sakura. This enrages Tsubame, who is a warlock of sorts and has studied western magic, so he conjures up various creatures in response, including Lum’s ex-fiancé Rei, who morphs from a handsome Oni to his large tiger-cow form. The episode sort of degenerates from there.

“Kokorobosoi Na (Forlorn, Aren’t You)” performed by Helen Sasano
This song is the second ending to the series and was released as a single in April 1982. The animation is culled from the first part of episode 6, “Love Triangle Black Hole” which was broadcast on 25 November 1981. In that episode Ataru phones Shinobu in an attempt to set up a date with her, but of course Lum overhears. And naturally both Shinobu and Lum are mad at him. Ataru doesn’t give up and despite Lum trying to throw multiple spanners in the works and he eventually manages to organise a date with Shinobu. However Lum isn’t having any of this and shoots lightning bolts from her UFO in an attempt to stop the date. The end result is that the town transforms into a war zone.

“Lum no Ballad (Lum’s Ballad)” performed by Fumi Hirano
“Lum’s Ballad” is taken from the “Only You” movie soundtrack which was released in February 1983. This music video’s animation is edited from the episode “Ten-chan’s Love” which was originally broadcast on 5 May 1982. Somewhere in the show, Ten (Lum’s baby cousin) falls for Sakura. To appease his moodiness, both of them double date with Lum and Ataru. Things get romantic (as they can with an alien baby and a sultry high school nurse) towards the end of the clip. Of course Ataru has to spoil the mood.

“I, I, You & Ai  (I, I, You & Love)” performed by Kobayashi Izumi
This song was the fourth ending song and was released as a single on 1 December 1982. The animation for this video comes from episode 38, “Steal Darling! The Copy Operation!” which debuted on Japanese TV on 8 April 1982. This video features Lum’s childhood friend, Ren, who arrives unexpectantly on Earth in the first series of the show, and ends up love rival with Lum for Ataru’s affections. Ren is up to her old tricks and plans to steal a kiss from Ataru. But Lum discovers her plans and uses a gun to duplicate Ataru to thwart her. But of course you know this will lead to trouble and escalate completely out of control. Ren retaliates and uses a similar gun to also copy Ataru. By the end of the episode there are hundreds of Ataru’s roaming the city, with hoards running after Ren, a couple with a very confused Shinobu and more being created by Lum and Ren in an attempt to thwart each other’s plans.

“Ucchu wa Taihen da! (The Universe is Very Strange!)” performed by Yuko Matsutani
The song used for this episode is one of the more recognisable from the series. It was the first end theme for the show and was originally released as the B-side to “Lum no Love Song” on 21 October 1981. I think the title of the song suits “Urusei Yatsura” to a “T”. It’s a damn weird series at times. “All Quiet at the Library!”, which was originally broadcast on 16 June 1982, provides the source material for this video. In it Ataru meets a girl called Wendy in the school library and decides to help her out (with ulterior motives of course). For whatever reason the characters of the library’s books escape and start roaming the library and of course chaos ensues. The usual gang help out Wendy putting the books back on the shelves in order to return the characters to their rightful places. A lot of the animation featured in this episode is in the easily recognisably style of Yoshinori Kanada, who you might know from the “Birth” OVA (previously released in English as “Planet Busters” and “The World of the Talisman”) and “Leda the Fantastic Adventure of Yohko”. There are also a number of pop culture references thrown into the animation such as “Tiger Mask”, “Godzilla” and “Ultra 7”.

“Symphony Part 1” performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra
The compilation takes a break from pop music and uses a symphonic piece. I am not exactly sure where the music originates from, but I suspect it is sourced from one of the movies. The animation used for this video is taken from the second story in episode 16, “Terrible Inspection Day”, originally broadcast 10 February 1982. In this episode the student’s mothers come to school, including the son of the wealthy Mendo family. Mendo and Lum’s mothers get into a fight which sees the Mendo family’s prize bull reduced to beef bowls by Lum’s mother and a full on battle in the skies above the school with Mendo family fighter jets and UFOs. Ataru’s mother decides that the dispute should be resolved by a game of roulette with her as the dealer. However when both Mendo and Lum’s mothers place bets, the house wins. The Moroboshi family are now rich beyond their wildest dreams. However the losers aren’t exactly happy with the outcome and decide to wreak revenge on the Moroboshi household.

“Dancing Star” performed by Kobayashi Izumi
Back to Japanese pop music for the seventh video. The track used here is the second opening theme song which was released as a single in July 1983. “Demonic Jogging”, the second story of episode 17, which was first broadcast on 24 February 1982, provides the visuals. After Ataru inadvertently foils a suicide attempt of a young woman, he and Mendo get into an argument over who is nobler and somehow agree that a tennis match would be best to figure out who that is. All of the visuals used are from the tennis match portion of the episode. To be honest it doesn’t make for a great music video…

“Margarita” performed by Helen Sasano
This music video is based upon episode 42 “Drunken Boogie” which first appeared on Japanese TV on 1 April 1982 (how appropriate). In this episode Ataru gives Ten and Lum a pickled plum. While harmless to humans, it has a curious effect on the two aliens, with both of them becoming intoxicated. This causes Lum to harass other students for more pickled plums, in the process zapping them. Their dim witted teacher, Onsen-Mark, doesn’t believe the students that Lum is drunk because of the pickled plum and is convinced a student has brought alcohol to school. There lot of trippy and surreal imagery in the episode as seen through Lum’s eyes. This video uses the B-side to “Kokorobosoi Na (Forlorn, Aren’t You)” to accompany the visuals. The single was released in April 1982.

“Kage fumi no Waltz (Shadow Tag Waltz)” performed by Shiori
The next video’s audio was originally released on the “Only You” soundtrack in February 1983 and was the film’s insert song. The animation comes from episode 41, “Panic in the Typhoon!”, and was originally broadcast on 1 September 1982. The Moroboshi house isn’t weathering the typhoon too well and is leaking like a sieve. Lum uses a device to levitate the water drops leaking from the roof. But the mood gets quite romantic when a blackout occurs, but what do know, Ataru spoils things as usual.

“Hoshizora Cycling (Cycling in the Starry Sky)” performed by Virgin VS
I sort of remember this episode (“Appearance of the Red Phantom”, episode 37 broadcast on 28 July 1982), but I cannot fathom why the all of the guys in the show are dressed as women. A school formal is taking place and the gang are inexplicably dressed in drag. A mysterious masked man in black called the phantom appears at the dance. The last time he was there was when Onsen-Mark was student. and the phantom stole his girlfriend. However the phantom is now a lot porkier and the girls have no desire to be near him. Lum decides to cheer him up by asking him to dance, but the mood is spoilt by the arrival of his wife. The episode again features the distinct handiwork of Yoshinori Kanada and includes cameos by Kamen Rider, Tiger Mask and a pitcher from the Hanshin Tigers baseball team. The song used in the video, “Hoshizora Cycling” was the third ending theme for the series and was originally released as a single in October 1982.

“Yume wa Love Me More (My Dream is Love Me More)” performed by Kobayashi Izumi
The song used in this video was the sixth ending theme and was first released as a B-side to “Dancing Star” which was released in July 1983. The visuals are culled from episode 59, “St. Valentine’s Day Horror” which first hit Japanese TV on 16 February 1983. In this episode a young girl called Mako takes a liking to Ten, but of course the feelings are mutual. Lum and Ataru try to help things along (which Ten doesn’t like). However Ataru spies Mako’s mother and tries to seduce her. As per how things usually happen in this show, Lum finds out and you can pretty much guess how the episode ends.

“Moonlight Coaster” performed by Virgin VS
The video uses mostly the roller skating sequence from episode 39, “Pitter Patter, Summer Date” which was first broadcast 11 August 1982. Lum pretty much blackmails Ataru into taking her on a date by stealing his little black book of girl’s numbers. She decides to hide her horns and act like a normal girl and roller skates with Ataru in the park. Later Lum returns Ataku’s book, but strangely decides not to use it to go out with other girls that day. The song used in this video, “Moonlight Coaster” was the B-side to “Hoshizora Cycling” which was first released as a single in October 1982.

“Symphony Part 2” performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra
The final video uses another symphonic track. Unfortunately, like the other piece previously used, I’m not exactly sure where  it originates from. The animation is taken from the first part of episode 16, “Oh Lonely Teacher! First Appearance of Kuribayashi Sensei” (and seemingly the last appearance of Kuribayashi Sensei in the show), which first aired on 10 February 1982. As you might have guessed by the episode title, a new teacher comes to school and manages to upset the proverbial apple cart. However when he sets eyes on Lum, he’s smitten. Lum decides to go out on a date with him and the two of them head to the amusement park and other clichéd date spots you typically find in anime. As the video ends, Lum (in voice over) bids the viewers farewell and credits scroll on screen.

So is this one hour long compilation worth your time? Like the other anime music video compilations I’ve written about, it all comes to down to whether you enjoy the music and if you’re a fan of the franchise. As I said in the beginning of this post, “Urusei Yatsura” is a lot of fun, but perhaps it is better seen in small portions, say an episode at a week like the original broadcast. It does become pretty repetitive as the series progresses. Your tolerance to “Urusei Yatsura” and early 1980’s J-Pop may be higher than mine. The videos themselves are pretty bog standard in terms of editing with dialogue from the episodes sometimes edited in. If you’re a diehard fan, then you’ll probably want this for your collection.

As for availability, well for a franchise this popular the options are surprisingly few. Amazingly this compilation (to my knowledge) has never made it to DVD or Blu-ray.  There were the original VHS, Beta and Laserdisc releases in 1983, as well as a re-release in February 1986 and another re-release in June 1991. There seems to be very few copies for sale in the second hand market. I saw one LD being sold for around ¥500 and a handful of VHS tapes being sold from ¥800 up to ¥2,000. I also managed to find a Beta tape being sold for ¥9,000. Rather slim pickings there. So if you’re a fan of the series as well as the music, by all means hunt it down (as long as you own dead media players). The hassle of finding an original copy probably isn’t worth the time for casual fans of “Urusei Yatsura”. This wasn’t the only music video compilation made for the franchise. I’ll be looking at a couple more at a later date.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Anime On the Big Screen: “Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 7 October 2017
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 90 minutes
Production Date: 2017
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

Another month and another new anime film is being screened in cinemas. Admittedly it’s still not a regular occurrence; however there have been more new anime films and reissues (such as the recent Ghibli film festival) in cinemas this year than in the last two combined. And it seems the next six months should bring even more anime with several features being distributed by Madman and a couple on the film festival circuit later this month. Apparently screenings for “A Silent Voice” made over $600,000 for Madman, which seems a bit nuts. No wonder they’re continuing to release anime into cinemas. Having said that, I was little surprised Dendy was screening this film, which must have a limited audience, three times a day for a week commencing Thursday.

Though we are well into the second month of spring, it was a surprisingly cold morning. I got a ticket to the earliest screening I could, 10am. I got up a bit late, so I grabbed a quick bit to eat in the mall and went and got my ticket. However I was told by the staff member that as I ordered on line, they didn’t issue a physical ticket at the box office. Amusingly no one checked my printout as I went inside the cinema. I wasn’t expecting a huge turnout for this film, but the lack of cinemagoers truly shocked me; a grand total of five including me; two women in their twenties, one young Asian woman who sat right at the back and an older man down the front, who left 30 minutes into the film and never returned. Other than that, there was nothing else to report in regard to the screening. Might as well talk about the film itself;

In a small coastal town called Moshimo, it is the end of school term. On his way to school with his buddies, seventh grader Norimichi Shimada notices Nazuna Oikawa, whom he has an interest in, as she stands by the rocks on the shore and picks up a marble like ball the size of a golf ball out of the water. After a PE class, both Norimichi and his friend, Yusuke Azumi, are assigned pool cleaning duties. Yusuke tells Norimichi he has to go to the toilet before they start. Inside the pool Norimichi discovers Nazuna sunbathing on the side of the pool. Wanting to get closer to her, he sheepishly strikes up a conversation, which leads to a discussion about the marble like ball she found in the sea that morning. As Yusuke arrives back, Norimichi makes a hasty exit, as he doesn’t want him to find out Nazuna is there, as he also has a crush on her.

As they finish cleaning, they hatch a plan to race each other in the pool. They determine what they could use as a prize. Eventually Yusuke says that if he wins he will ask out Nazuna. Before Norimichi can answer, Nazuna rushes in and asks if she can join in on their races. She says if she wins they both have to do what she says, though is coy on what that might be. During the race, Norimichi stubs his heel badly on the side of pool (as he gawks at Nazuna as she passes him underwater) as he does a flip turn on the return lap. This causes Nazuna’s marble to fall into the water which Yusuke catches. Nazuna wins and as Yusuke came second, asks him to come to the festival and firework display at the local shrine that night. She retrieves her marble and leaves. Later in class, Norimichi and Yusuke’s friends, Kazuhiro, Minoru and Junichi are having a heated discussion about fireworks. Half the group think fireworks are flat if you see them from the side; the others think they’re round all over. To solve this for once and all, they decide to go to the lighthouse on the shore and view the fireworks from there. The losers will have to do the victor’s summer homework. As they are discussing this, Nazuna enters the classroom. Yusuke looks at her out the corner of his eye knowing he has already committed to going the lighthouse with his friends.

In the evening after school, Norimichi discovers Yusuke inside his bedroom playing video games. Apparently his parents don’t lock the back door to their house. Yusuke admits that he had planned to go to the festival with Nazuna, but is going to ditch her to go with his friends to the lighthouse. Naturally Norimichi is a little be narked over this, but doesn’t let on too much. Yusuke notices Norimichi’s heel is still bleeding and recommends going to see his father, the local doctor. This is in part a ruse into getting Norimichi to tell Nazuma he won’t be going to the festival with her. When he arrives at the surgery he notices Nazuna patiently waiting for Yusuke in her yukata and strangely has a suitcase with her. After seeing the doctor, Norimichi sheepishly tells her the bad news. Outside the two of them talk for a while. He asks why she has a suitcase with her. She initially says she is running away from home, but then deflects the subject.

Afterwards Nazuna bids Norimichi farewell and sets off, but soon returns panicked and running. She is fleeing from her mother who roughly grabs her and is hell bent on taking Nazuna back home. Her suitcase falls to the ground spilling its contents everywhere. Apparently Nazuna is was meant to leave town with her mother and her new partner and naturally she doesn’t want a bar of it. In desperation Nazuna asks Norimichi if he would have taken her to the festival if he came second in the swimming race. As she is being hauled away, Yusuke, Kazuhiro, Minoru and Junichi arrive and see what’s happening. Realising what has happened and wanting to save Nazuna, Norimichi attempts to take after her and her mother, but is apparently blinded by the setting sun. Upon seeing Yusuke he becomes enraged and beats him up for not taking her to the festival. Initially shocked and confused, the others eventually intervene in the fight. Frustrated, Norimichi picks up the marble from the contents of Nazuna’s suitcase and hurls it towards a community noticeboard displaying a poster of the festival. Oddly it doesn’t make contact and Norimichi finds himself transported back in time to that morning before the swimming race. He now has a chance to set things right.

This film is based upon a short 1993 live action telemovie written and directed by Shunji Iwai as part of a series of short films called "If: Moshimo". Iwai is a bit of a darling of the Japanese cinema scene with critically acclaimed films such as “Swallowtail Butterfly”, a segment in the omnibus film “New York, I Love You” and probably his most famous work “All About Lily Chou-Chou”. Iwai also released “Hana and Alice” in 2004 and made an anime sequel called “The Case of Hana & Alice” in 2015 which I quite enjoyed. Oddly I don’t think any of his films have had a theatrical release over here. I attempted to watch the original 49 minute telemovie before watching this film, but at the time could not find an English language version anywhere. Long after the screening I discovered it did receive a Japanese DVD release which amazingly does include optional English subtitles.

From what I understand, this anime version of Iwai’s telemovie keeps all of the core elements of the original, makes the kids slightly older and nearly doubles the length of the story. The film was produced by Shaft, who are best known for “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”, “Hidamari Sketch” and of course the anime adaptions of Nisio Isin’s “Monogatari” light novel series. I have to admit I’m not an overly big fan of their work. Their titles tend to have distinct look to them which is uniquely “Shaft”, which by all means is not a bad thing. For a major theatrical film, oddly most of the key staff have little or no experience; screenwriter Hitoshi Ohne has done very little of note and director Nobuyuki Takeuchi has made he career in the anime industry as a key animator. Unsurprisingly Akiyuki Shinbo (director of the studio's most popular titles; “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”, “Hidamari Sketch” and “Bakemonogatari”) is listed as chief director and mostly likely supervised and guided the two novices.

The film overall is a bit strange, but I really liked it for a great deal of its run time. It isn’t overly original by any means; a romance set in a high school. However for a good deal of it's length it did win me over. It’s really hard to get swept up in the adolescent romance, Nazuma’s sense of isolation and wanting to be free of her mother and wanted to escape small town life for Osaka or Tokyo. There’s also Norimichi’s desire to want to live his life with her and set things right after his friend stood her up. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, but certainly doesn’t have that “Shaft look” as seen in their most popular titles. Instead it opts for as much more realistic look. Some of the backgrounds are very photorealistic, so much so that I initially thought I was looking as live action shots edited into the film.

Many mainstream reviewers have made the unavoidable comparison of this movie to Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name”. I think that’s a more than fair call. Both are high school romances, set in small towns, with supernatural elements and time travel plots. You could suggest that “Fireworks” is playing off the success of Shinkai’s film and is the only reason you’d resurrect a forgotten telemovie from 1993 and format it into a full length anime film. Another point that's more than fair I think. The film itself transforms from what is a very likable “Run Lola Run” like romance with a teen couple trying to elope, to a bizarre dimension hopping film with a very weird and misplaced musical/fantasy sequence which I suppose shows Nazuna hasn't really thought out her actions, but comes off as odd and cheesy. However I must admit the marble device that Nazuna found is quite interesting if a little unoriginal. I also quite liked the lighthouse motifs used the film, though maybe towards the end of the film they were a little bit too strange for my liking. There's also the "If" (or more correctly "what if?") motif which intertwines with the lighthouse motif and ties in with the original theme of the original live action series. While some reviewers have noted that some of the animation wasn’t all that great, I only had problems with a couple of scenes; a mid distance shot done with CG of the boys going to school which looked dreadful, and a couple of really off model animation shots. Other than that the animation was pretty darn good.

In the end I’m not too sure what to make of this film. The core plot of two teens trying over and over again to elope and escape their little town and their lives is really interesting and fun. I also liked how it showed how teen boys adore women and how awkward they are in expressing their feelings. However it is overlaid with a somewhat odd dimension jumping plot, with each dimension subtly different (mostly to do with how fireworks explode) from the next. Assuming it was a straight time travel film, I was sort of confused by it all, and I had a feeling others in the cinema were too. I think screenwriter Hitoshi Ohne tried to be too clever by half adding in the dimension concept to the original story and in the end has made of hash of things. The end scene could also not make a whole lot of sense, depending on how you interpret it. For the most part, it’s quite an intriguing film. The dimension hopping silliness which raises its head half way through the film really did let it down though. 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Western Connection – The Anomaly in the UK Anime Market

Note: Originally published on the "Anime Archivist" blog February 2014, based on previous versions published on the "Lost World of Anime" website and blog in 2004 and 2009.

And now for something a little different. This is the first part of a nine part series about long defunct anime company that has always fascinated me; Western Connection. They were a very small video company based in the UK and put out a small but rather odd catalogue of anime in the mid 1990’s . Back in the mid to late 1990’s, especially living in a place like Australia, it was rather difficult obtain anime. US videos were extremely difficult to acquire and expensive when you found them. When you finally acquired the tapes, you had to deal with the video compatibility issues (Australia is PAL, the US is NTSC). There were very few places in my town which even stocked anime, however the largest local independent record/video/comic store was a real haven for anime. They stocked a few rather expensive US releases (mostly tapes that were put on the shelves because they weren’t picked up by customers who ordered them), but the far more common imports were UK tapes, mostly due to the lack of compatibility issues (UK and Europe were PAL video format like Australia). This is where I found and purchased my first Western Connection tape; “Hummingbirds”. I would later go on to collect just about every anime tape they released.

But before I review some of the true oddities in their catalogue, this first part in the series will look at the company itself. In 1992, this one man video company, run by Yugoslavian immigrant Sasha Cipkalo, was releasing a quite eclectic range of mostly foreign language films on VHS. Really odd titles like Russian films from the 1950’s (“Idiot”), films about astrologers collaborating with the Nazis (“Hanussen”), Hong Kong action films (“Finalgate” aka Fatal Mission), cult French cinema (“Je t’aime moi non plus”) and adding to this bizarre mix, a series of theatrical shorts aimed at the gay market (“North of Vortex” and the “Caught Looking”/”The Attendant” double feature tape).

In June 1993 everything changed for the company when they released their first anime title; “The Sensualist (aka The Life of an Amorous Man)”, a highly obscure OVA from 1990 based upon the Japanese classic 1682 novel by Ihara Saikaku. Considering the lack of advertising in the two mainstream anime magazines of the time (Anime UK and Manga Mania), it’s almost a certainty that Cipkalo was completely oblivious to the rising popularity of “Manga Videos” (i.e. anime) in the UK. Manga Entertainment had shipped tens of thousands of units of “Akira”, “Fist of the North Star” and “Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend” in the previous year or so. It was probably more a case of luck than deliberately trying to tap into the market. Despite the lack of advertising, the two main anime magazines took note of Western Connection’s release and publicised it’s release. It sold enough copies for Cipkalo to realise he had stumbled onto a winner.

Western Connection then belatedly began advertising the tape and in mid 1994 the company released its second anime title; Go Nagai’s “Kamasutra”. Several other titles followed that year such as an obscure dub of “The Enemy Is the Pirate” (released as “Galactic Pirates”) the movie “Grey: Digital Target” and the even more obscure “Samurai Gold” OVA. However by January 1995 the company was releasing far more commercial fare such as “Devil Hunter Yokho”, “Ushio And Tora” as well as a couple of “Lupin III” films. Oddly most of the company’s titles all came from the same studio, Toho. I can only assume that Cipkalo did a massive deal with them and got a lot of their more obscure titles dirt cheap. The other curiosity is that many of the tapes sleeves for Western Connection’s releases bore the logo of French company Ucore. One can only assume he made some deal with the company. Perhaps they were acquiring titles for him. I do know that Ucore were the company that created the English dub for “Galactic Pirates” (which was originally commissioned by the Japanese licensor, Kitty Films).

Going against the grain of just about what everyone else was doing the UK anime market at the time, Western Connection almost exclusively released subtitles tapes. Only two of its anime releases were English dubbed versions. The reasoning behind this was definitely a financial one on Cipkalo’s part. Sure dubbing costs can be expensive, but it’s obvious that he wanted to get the product out there as cheap as possible. The obvious lack of quality control of the products provides more than enough evidence for this assertion. While the subtitle translations on the tapes were mostly pretty good, (all done by UK anime guru, now professional published author Jonathan Clements) unfortunately there was problems with the timing of them. They were off by a couple of seconds on most tapes and sometimes subtitles failed to appear for up to tens of seconds. Because of this it’s sometimes hard to decipher who was saying what, especially any time there’s dialogue between two or more characters. Adding to the poor workmanship was the fact Cipkalo (the subtitles would always be credited to “Sasha”) would add in bizarre and cryptic messages in the end credits about associates or friends As a result the tapes almost resembled poorly done fansubs and at times didn’t feel like commercial products.

Years ago I read comments on a website from British anime fans that Sasha Cipkalo was only in it for a quick buck, and hence the company’s products were pretty spotty in terms of quality. It’s really hard to dispute that view. Cost cutting seemed to be a high priority for Cipkalo. Apart from the lax quality control on the subtitles, the tapes used for duplication seemed to be the cheapest low grade stock that was available. Brand new unplayed copies of their tapes would look like ex-rentals. Most of the synopses on the back of their latter releases were actually taken from reviews from Anime UK magazine. Yep, Cipkalo couldn’t even be bothered to write his own synopses (or even get Clements to do it). The sleeves where also printed on quite thin low grade paper. Another thing Cipkalo liked to do is edit out openings and endings if there was more than one episode on the tape. Why you ask? Well apparently the British Board of Film Classification would charge more to classify a title if there were two or more episodes on the tape, so to cut costs Cipkalo would edit those parts out so it appeared there was one episode on the tape.

With the really odd selection of titles, the sometimes oddly worded advertising and the low quality of their releases, consumers must have really wondered what the hell was going on inside this company. Jonathan Clements let the public peek into the internal workings of Western Connection with his December 2003 column, “The Far West”, published in Newtype USA (later republished in his book “Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade”). Clements recounts a story about him working as a translator for a fictionalised video distributor, but it’s obviously a thinly veiled account of his dealings with Cipkalo and his company. He paints Cipkalo as a slightly sleazy European entrepreneur who thinks of himself as a producer of films when in reality he just distributes cheaply bought anime. In the column Clements recalls the time he accompanied him to a courier company at the airport to pick up master tapes flown in from Japan. After hitting on the receptionist he instructs Clements to go back to the office and type up his translated script without using the using the letter “Y”. This was because the “Y” key no longer worked on the keyboard.

During 1995 the company continued to release some extremely obscure titles, including the only Adachi Mitsuru anime ever to be released in the English language home video market, “Slow Step”. Two rather obscure OVAs, “Ladius” and “Salamander”, along with the “God Bless Dancougar” OVA (the preceding TV series and OVA had never been released in English anywhere before this release) were released in mid 1995 along with the final volume of “Ushio And Tora” and the film “Love City”. After that, the releases stopped completely. In late 1995 in the news section of Anime UK magazine stated that the company had acquired “Darkside Blues” and also the remaining unreleased OVAs for “Hummingbirds” and “Devil Hunter Yohko” and were planning to release them in 1996. However the months went by and not a peep was heard from Western Connection. Despite reassurances in later issues that company were still planning to release these titles, the tapes never did come. The UK anime market cooled down substantially with many of the smaller outfits disappearing from the market. A company releasing obscure OVAs and movies only in a subtitled format was doomed to die. It seemed Cipkalo decided he’d had enough and left the industry for good (it looks like he now runs an IT consultancy in London). I read that (now defunct) UK anime video label Anime Projects apparently bought the company out sometime in 1996 and kept some of their titles in print. I’m not sure if that is correct, but I do recall UK distributor/online shop MVM as the only company still having Western Connection tapes in stock, still unsold on their website as late as 2004. I can only assume they bought up all the unsold stock.

Even though they were pretty crappy, Western Connection brought some weird and great stuff to the English speaking world, including one of my guilty pleasures, “Hummingbirds”. It’s quite easy to dismiss such a company, but in my mind they brought out some really interesting stuff, a lot of which never made it into any other video market in English. I think it’s real shame that this company and its catalogue have pretty much been forgotten by anime fans. To remedy that situation, over the coming months I will be reviewing the more obscure titles in their catalogue.

Western Connection Anime Releases

Title Format Other Sources 
Dancougar (“God Bless Dancougar” OVA) PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Not released by any other company in English.
Devil Hunter Yoko Volumes 1 – 2 PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Released by ADV Films in the US on NTSC DVD, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles. Currently out of print.
Galactic Pirates Volumes 1 – 3 PAL VHS, Dubbed in English Not released by any other company in English
Grey: Digital Target PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Released by Viz Video in the US on NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles and English Dubbed versions. Currently out of print.
Hummingbirds PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Not released by any other company in English.
Kamasutra PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Released by Kitty Films in the US on NTSC DVD, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles. Currently out of print.
Ladius PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Not released by any other company in English.
Love City PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Released by the Right Stuf (as “Ai City”) in the US on NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles. Currently out of print.
Lupin III – The Fuma Conspiracy PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Released by Discotek in the US on NTSC DVD, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles. Currently out of print.
Lupin III – The Gold Of Babylon PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Released by AnimEigo in the US on NTSC VHS and Laserdisc, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles. Currently out of print.
Salamander Volumes 1 – 3 PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Not released by any other company in English.
Samurai Gold PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Not released by any other company in English.
The Sensualist PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Not released by any other company in English.
Slow Step Volumes 1 – 3 PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Not released by any other company in English.
Space Firebird PAL VHS, Dubbed in English Released by Madman Entertainment in Australia and New Zealand as “Space Firebird 2772” on PAL DVD, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles. Currently out of print.
Ushio And Tora Volumes 1 – 6 PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles Released by ADV Films in the US on NTSC DVD, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles.

Western Connection Print Advertisements (click for larger versions)

“Kamasutra” advertisement, 1994
Autumn 1994 Releases
March 1995 releases
April 1995 releases

Friday, September 29, 2017

Video Backlog: “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Publisher: StudioCanal (UK)
Format: Region 2 DVD, PAL, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Length: 86 minutes
Production Date: 2013
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

About a month or so ago, Madman Entertainment rereleased the entire back catalogue of Studio Ghibli films to cinemas. There was a lot of interesting stuff, all of which I had on DVD or blu-ray and I really couldn’t be arsed watching any of them again for $20 a pop in the cinema. I mean, essentially it’s just a digital projection of a blu-ray. Why would I bother? One title caught my eye however; “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya”, a documentary on his 2013 film, most likely his last. I looked around to see if it was available on home video. Luckily it had been released as a standalone DVD in the UK, sourced from the US release where it was only available as an extra to the film. This documentary serves as companion piece to Mami Sunada’s “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”, which was made at the same time and documented the making of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”.

Isao Takahata is essentially the other half of Studio Ghibli. Often ignored, even by fans of the studio, over the last 50 years he has directed some truly interesting works, the TV series “3000 Leagues in Search of Mother” and his brilliant theatrical debut “Horus: Prince of the Sun” being my two favourites in his filmography. He’s been no slouch at Ghibli either directing “Grave of the Fireflies”, “Only Yesterday”, “Pom Poko” and “My Neighbours the Yamadas”. Unfortunately many have just broke even or were box office bombs, most notably “Yamadas”. He’s almost the antithesis of Hayao Miyazaki in regards to his films. Takahata’s films are generally more down to earth and realistic, while Miyazaki’s are flights of fancy.

The film strangely begins mid production with an off camera interviewer asking an exhausted Takahata what his film is about. He responds that no director knows what their film is about and seems despondent. We then back track to 2011 where Takahata and his long suffering producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, are at a table read for the film with voice actors Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Nobuko Miyamoto and Takeo Chii. Unusual for a Japanese animated film, the voice acting will be recorded first, then the animators will animate to the performances, much like western animation. However Takeo Chii is having trouble getting into character and does his lines numerous times before Takahata is satisfied. It must be noted that production on the film takes so long that Chii tragically dies nearly a year and half before the film is released to theatres.

In an interview with Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, he confirms Miyazaki’s claim in “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” that due to the production of ‎“My Neighbours the Yamadas” in 1999, the studio was in utter chaos, mainly because that film wasn’t a traditional cel animated film and a large chunk of the staff didn’t have any work to do. A new studio, Ghibli 7 Studio, was created in order to create Takahata’s movie. Takahata explains he no longer wanted to cel based animation and “Yamadas”, done in a water colour style using computer and drawn animation, was in response to that. Later the film crew follow Yoshiaki Nishimura who tells the documentary makers he took almost seven years to convince Takahata to make another film. From his description it sounded like seven years of non-stop polite badgering.

But things are going quite badly on the production front. The animations are finding rather difficult to envision Takahata’s world for the film as it requires a light touch with sketchy, almost undefined lines. Takahata himself is extremely fastidious literally adjusting the colour setting on every single cut in the film, over 1,400 of them. We also learn that amusingly Takahata can’t draw. He gets his ideas through to people by writing and explaining them in detail. While both his film and Miyazaki’s are due for a simultaneous release in summer 2013, it becomes obvious to all that Takahata is not going to make it. In late 2012 in press conference, Toshio Suzuki announces the delay. Before the end of the year with not much progress made and more worryingly the storyboards remaining unfinished, Nishimura decides the production can no longer go on. He dismisses the staff over the Christmas and New Year’s period and practically forces Takahata and his storyboard artist to finish up. If he doesn’t, the animators cannot finish their work.

The third year of production begins and there is still a quarter of the film which hasn’t even been animated yet. Regardless Takahata begins to think about music and hires long time Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi to work on the score. Things go mostly smoothly until the climax of the film. With only a couple of months before the release date, Takahata decides to completely reanimate a flying sequence, causing just about everyone to tear their out, if they haven’t done so already.

This documentary was originally a two part special called “Isao Takahata and His Tale of The Princess Kaguya ~Ghibli 7 Studio, Legend of 933 Days~”, which aired on the pay satellite TV station WOWOW in late 2013. It was later released on home video by Walt Disney Japan, however in a reedited and expanded format of just over 200 minutes, which honestly seems like overkill. The two directors, Akira Miki and Hidekazu Satou, haven’t done much of note in their careers as far as I can tell. However for the most part it’s a reasonably well done documentary, though not up to the standard of Mami Sunada’s “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”.

While Takahata is conspicuous in his absence in that film, in this documentary one scene actually shows him going to Miyazaki’s studio where he asks him how production on “The Wind Rises” is going. Miyazaki then casually asks him for advice on a cut showing a record player. A second scene has himself, Miyazaki and Suzuki in Miyazaki’s office casually chatting. It’s hilarious to think there are more shots of Miyazaki in this documentary than there is of Takahata in “Kingdom”. I think Mami Sunada really downplayed Takahata’s presence in the production of “The Wind Rises”, and portrayed him as problem by the studio. Watching this doco, it seems that perhaps that depiction of him was overblown. Later in the film as Miyazaki announces his retirement at a press conference, Takahata quips that directors shouldn’t announce their retirement. He seems truly perplexed why Miyazaki would do such a thing and even refused to attend the press conference, even though he was invited.

While I think the documentary does a pretty decent job of chronicling the ups and downs of the production of the film, there are some really frustrating parts to it. For example there are two sequences where director Akira Miki interviews Takahata while he is riding a bike and the camera is placed in strange angles, including in the bike’s basket. A third interview is conducted while walking in the rain with the camera almost held upward to the sky. I understand that this doco was probably done on the cheap, however I thought that these scenes could have been intercut with other footage to make it look more professional not amateurish. About mid-way through the second part of the documentary, things start to get a bit dull, which is a shame. The one thing which stands out loud and clear is Takahata is absolute perfectionist, but possibly at the detriment of his own films.

StudioCanal’s DVD is really bare bones. All the English subtitles and titles are matted onto the video; there’s no “soft subs” at all. I suspect this doco sourced from whatever materials GKIDS in the US released. It seems to be a clean copy (i.e. free of Japanese text and titles) with all the translation laid over top. They could have been clever here and edited it so it was one program rather than two. For some bizarre reason they have chosen not to and credits appear half way through the DVD as part one ends. The video itself has a number of glaring NTSC to PAL conversion issues, which you’d think would be non-existent in modern video production. The menu is pretty bare bones with only a "play feature" function and scene selection. There are no extras whatsoever.

Overall this is a pretty good documentary and a really nice companion piece to “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”. However it’s certainly not as well produced or as well made as that film. It's also not worthy of a theatrical release in my opinion (as Madman did). Regardless it’s an interesting look into the other director at Studio Ghibli whom many fans unfairly overlook. 6.5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Eight TV series, four OVAs and three movies. In addition I am also waiting for additional parts of four TV series and two movies to be released before viewing them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Roaming Around Japan: Robot Restaurant

English language pamphlet
I’ve previously talked about Shinjuku, one of my favourite places to stay when I go to Tokyo because the fact it’s so central and also due to the amount electrical, music and department chain stores. The other unavoidable part of Shinjuku is the area’s notorious red light district; Kabukicho. While English speaking Youtubers seem to paint the area as the dodgiest place on the planet, in truth it is probably the most benign red light district in the world. I suspect the red light districts in the countries of origin of those Youtubers are from are far, far more dangerous than Kabukicho at its worst. I still find it bizarre that touts will immediately leave you alone if you tell them “No thank you” to their Engrishy “Japanese girl? Sex?”. They don’t put up any fight at all. I mean, you probably should proceed with caution if venturing to any of the bars in the area (you’ll have a more satisfying experience at Golden Gai, only short walk down the road if you’re interested in a decent bar) but generally it’s a safe area.

In recent years there has been a push to make the area safe and even family friendly. The Hotel Gracery and Toho Cinema which features a life sized Godzilla head and claw sticking out of the building began operation in 2015, which brought in crowds not necessarily there for the adult entertainment. Prior to that, the infamous Robot Restaurant began trading in July 2012. While some of the reviews on holiday sites from some western patrons bizarrely focus on the restaurant aspect of the establishment, it’s patiently obvious the main (and only) drawcard is the utterly absurd and over the top cabaret show with robots, showgirls and a neon cover tank.

A lot of the early western commentary on the Robot Restaurant speculated that was run by local Yakuza or it was set up as money laundering outfit due to the alleged exorbitant start-up cost of ¥10 billion yen (about $100 million). Even now there is scant information written in English about the origins and owner of the place. But a cursory search brings up the real owner of the Robot Restaurant; Keiichi Morishita, who owns the relatively unknown company (in the west at least), Shinjuku Soft. Morishita made his fortune from two very Japanese sex industry niches; first, Telephone Clubs where customers would come in to a private room in the club where they would receive a call from a woman and proceed to have phone sex or arrange a liaison at a local love motel, and secondly Koshitsu Video stores. Meaning “private room video”, these are places where you can rent a porn video, go into a private room and, ahem, do your business. They can be found everywhere in urban Japan and are easy to spot (in fact one of Shinjuku Soft’s Koshitsu Video stores is right next to the Robot Restaurant).

Things have changed a lot with the Robot Restaurant over the last five years, including the show itself, but I’ll be giving you my experience of the show when I went to it in March 2013. Back then you either had to get a ticket from the box office in Kabukicho or ring up and book. I stupidly rang up. I knew little in the way of Japanese and winged it. Somehow I managed to book a session in the early evening which cost me ¥4,000 (currently ¥8,000 plus an additional ¥1,000 for a meal). They ring you about an hour before the show starts to make sure you’re coming and lay down the ground rules; no sunglasses, no tattoos, no wigs and no cosplay (essentially they didn’t want people to hide their identity for some reason).

Once you arrive, a dinosaur and two robots great you at the front as well as a chatty English speaking spruiker who’s used to tourists. The doorman looks like a freaking yakuza, but seemed friendly enough. You are ushered to the payment area and pay up where they also have lockers for your belongings.

As you can see, the waiting room is really tastefully done and understated with an overabundance of chrome, LEDs, neon and video screens covering all the walls, the floor and ceiling assaulting your senses. You are given a choice of menu set A or B convenience store-like bento boxes and a bottle of green tea. Alcohol is extra. After about half an hour wait you are guided down a set of stairs crammed with LEDs and into the performance area.

In the performance area, seating is either side with LEDs, neon and large banks of TV screens behind the audience’s seats.  On either side of the stage is a large lantern with dragons, peacoks and snake characters, similar to ones you’d see at a tanabata festival, as well as a couple of the “fembots”. These large rideable robots with controllable facial expressions and breasts (yes, the breasts move) are controlled by two of the dancers. They’ll make a prominent appearance later. They’re also used as promotional items and can often been seen on a flatbed truck roaming around Shinjuku advertising the Robot Restaurant. Though it is currently considered as a gaudy entertainment for foreign tourists, when I went the audience was mostly Japanese; a few salary men, some who looked quite bored, a group of elderly men who sat in front of me and loved every minute of it, and numerous couples or small groups of people. Including myself, three western tourists were there; some guy who came with a Japanese friend and a woman in her twenties who came by herself.

The entertainment opens with the Josen Drum and Dance segment. From what I understand Josen are a dance group specially formed for the restaurant. I think Josen means “woman warrior” or words to that effect, and that theme is pretty prevalent throughout the night. Compared with the following segments, this section is pretty tame with lots of dancing and banging on wadaiko (traditional Japanese drums). At one point there’s a flag waved about with “Woman Warrior” written on it. That flag makes several appearances and the concept is a prominent feature during the evening. Who knew women warriors wore such skimpy clothing?

Next was a brass band routine with the dancers wearing skimpy clothing (bit of a theme during the evening) with the entire routine an obvious nod to Alex Gaudino’s 2007 music video “Destination Calabria”;

Of note is the Robot Restaurant’s use of Kuroko during routine changes. These are stagehands which are normally seen in in traditional Japanese theatre, who dress all in black with a face covering. They really amused a couple sitting next to me Unfortunately as the stage was really dark I could not get a really good photo of any of the Kuroko. During set ups for following routines, video will occasionally play on the video screens. One video segment included some of the dancers out on an expensive looking cruiser soaking up the sun out on Tokyo bay. Next was the insanity laden robot battle, which began with a dinosaur breaking through a wooden gate. This instantly evolved (or devolved) into a fight with a robot;

Then a Kung Fu Panda-esqe guy in a panda suit came to do battle with the robots;

Next up, why not a sort of female Captain America (apparently called Cutey Honey according the accompanying graphic on the video screens) with a shield, hammer and flail?;

And another robot joins in and finally two cave girls on a dinosaur enter;

The cave girls are finally declared winners by the emcee. Unfortunately the robot dinosaur conked out as it left the arena and was unceremoniously pushed and dragged offstage much to the amusement of the audience. That segment was probably the most insane thing I have ever witnessed. Next up are the fembots, operated by a dancer, with a second dancer on top revving the audience up;

In total four roamed the performance space. Mid way through, audience members were invited to climb aboard and control the fembots. The following sequence saw scientists bring on large chrome robots which begin to dance. Later smaller robots come on and a few female dancers. Eventually they preform to Psy’s “Gangnam Style”;

Then it was time for the finale with a written pre-warning for the three westerners in the audience;

This utterly insane finale had scantily clad girls riding around on a circuit above the audience's heads (whom you could high five as they went past), a neon covered bomber and tank, bikes, lasers, smoke and bubble machines. With all of this insanity set to the sounds of the 1990's video game franchise “Sakura Wars” theme song "Attack! Imperial Floral Assault Team";

Admittedly I thought a lot of the women were pretty cute, and they even smiled and waived while I was filming on my camera. Yes, I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. After the performance, we were ushered upstairs and outside. Personally I think it was really worth the ¥4,000 I paid. It’s utterly nuts and really fun and kitschy. It has been suggested that it was intentionally made for foreigners in mind and deliberately plays up the orientalism aspect. In other words it’s deliberately weird in a way that plays up the misconceptions westerners have about Japan; it’s strange, full of technological marvels etc. To a degree this is true and most likely what they were aiming for. There’s also the unavoidable theme of nationalism, specifically militaristic nationalism, which was especially prevalent throughout finale, which could turn people off. However you just can’t deny that it’s over an hour of well-done entertainment, even if it is utterly over the top and doesn’t make an iota of sense.

Over the years the segments have evolved or changed completely, with a de-emphasis on the scantily clad showgirls. Parents can even bring their children along which seems utterly bizarre. I just imagine parents saying; "Hey kids, let’s go to the red light district and see some scantily clad women dancers and robots!". When this establishment first opened, there was little in the way of English speaking staff. Now they seem to cater almost exclusively to the western tourist market with discount tickets being sold at major hotels and even a shuttle bus from those same hotels to the venue. I’m not too sure if changes over the years or the new segments have improved the Robot Restaurant or if it has sanitised it. I know having ladies in skimpy outfits may put off some western tourists who find it sexist, but it's in Kabukicho for god's sake. Despite the efforts over the years to make Kabukicho family friendly, it's still rather seedy. It also now costs an astronomical ¥8,000 (plus ¥1,000 for the meal, which admittedly looks a bit better than the old bento boxes they previously had). Whether or not it’s now worth it, I’m not too sure. I really don’t think I could justify spending that amount to see it again.

Next time I’ll be heading off to Asakusa and Kappabashi Street.