Saturday, October 15, 2016

Tokusatsu On the Big Screen: “Shin Godzilla”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 15 October 2016
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese with some English and German dialogue with English Subtitles
Length: 120 minutes
Production Date: 2016
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

It’s an utterly rare event that a Japanese live action special effects (tokusatsu) film is screened in cinemas. But you could say it’s becoming a more regular occurrence with a number of manga to live action adaptions having one off special screenings in the last year or so such as “Paraysite” and the two part “Attack on Titan” films. Interestingly Madman has decided to have a limited theatrical release for this film over a week or two. It’s quite significant as I don’t think there has been a proper theatrical release of any Japanese film (Studio Ghibli and Mamoru Hosoda films being the only exceptions) for nearly five years. It’s a pretty sad statement on modern Japanese cinema.

When I do write ups of cinema screenings, I usually talk about the overall experience. This time there really isn’t much to talk about. I had some difficulty trying to get a ticket online (Dendy somehow cocked up the online ticketing for the film which meant I couldn't order a ticket for any session and had to ask them to fix it), but it was a lovely clear sunny Canberra October Saturday. About 20 people showed up to watch the film. No otakuish types at all. There was nothing of real note to report. So it’s time to talk about the film.

Local police investigate an abandoned cruiser out in Tokyo Bay. Belonging to disgraced zoology professor Goro Maki, a number of curious personal items are left on board, but no clues to his whereabouts. Suddenly the boat rocks violently as a large explosion not far away send jets of water hundreds of meters into the air. A strange blood-like substance pools around the area. Part of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line roadway collapses and floods apparently due to the explosion. The government begins emergence action and decides how to deal with the crisis. All flights are halted to and from Haneda airport and people are evacuated from the collapsed tunnel and the surrounding area. The high ups declare that the phenomena in the bay is due to undersea volcanic activity, however Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (played by Hiroki Hasegawa) alerts everyone to amateur footage found on social media sites which seems to show a giant tail flicking out of the ocean. He concludes that a large creature is the cause. However the older bureaucrats mock his theory and announce publicly that the cause is underwater volcanic activity. Their reasoning being that no creature could withstand the boiling water seeping to the surface.

But the government press conference is halted when TV stations start broadcasting live footage of a large creature making its way through Tokyo’s canal system, which eventually causes significant destruction and havoc once it makes landfall. The strange creature seemingly lumbers through Tokyo without rhyme or reason demolishing residential blocks, causing fires in its wake and killing more than a hundred people. Meanwhile government bureaucrats bicker over who should take control of the situation and under what part of legislation could they deploy the self-defence force. Strangely the creature soon returns to the bay. As if it was never there, life in Tokyo soon returns to normal. Inspecting the damage with government officials, Yaguchi laments that in the two hours the creature caused this damage, the government could not figure out a course of action to stop it.

After dealing with a small band of professors and experts that provide no real help in determining what the creature is or how to stop it, Yaguchi is tasked with building a research and countermeasures group. His choices are unconventional with mostly young staff with little experience; however the group soon collectively discover that the creature is emitting radiation. One junior staffer from the Environmental Department, Hiromi Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa), theorises that the creature could be powered by a natural nuclear fission reactor in its body. Though initially dismissed, the theory later seems more plausible when further information arrives. This is in the form of material brought in by US special envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara). She reveals that Goro Maki had prophesied that such a creature would appear after hundreds of barrels of radioactive waste had been secretly dumped into the bay many decades ago. Maki had left a very strange document which apparently shows the DNA structure of the creature. However none of the staff can make head or tale of it. Patterson does a deal with the Japanese government to provide Maki’s research in exchange for samples the creature left behind. Maki’s documents also give a name to the creature; Godzilla.

Yaguchi’s team theorise that Godzilla went back to the ocean in order to cool down as it is in its next stage of growth. They discover it uses its blood and fins as a cooling system for its internal fission reactor. They suspect that they could freeze Godzilla using a coagulating agent and kill it or at least stop it in its tracks. But before they can come with a workable plan, Godzilla returns in its next stage. Twice as large as before, it lays waste to three of Tokyo’s wards. The self-defence force proves ineffectual. And though the US military via its use of stealth bombers seems to making headway, Godzilla soon wipes them out and causes a major disaster within Tokyo. With the government and the capital in taters, the UN, with a push from the US, decides to use nuclear weapons on Godzilla. However Yaguchi is determined that his team can stop the monster before they strike.

Only two years after’s Gareth Edward’s rather good Hollywood version, surprisingly Toho decided to yet again resurrect the Godzilla franchise. Of all dates to do so, on 1 April 2015 they announced Evangelion director Hideaki Anno would be helming the project with Shinji Higuchi (“Attack on Titan”) who would co-directing and be special effects director. While some fans were concerned, Anno and Higuchi are certainly no strangers to tokusatsu. Daicon Film, while mostly known for their two short animated pieces for the Daicon conventions in the early 1980’s, made mostly tokusatsu shorts. Higuchi would later work on the 1984 “Godzilla” and was the special effects director for the 1990’s “Gamera” trilogy, considered by many as the pinnacle of daikaiju tokusatsu film making. We all know Anno is a tokusatsu tragic, but also directed the short film “Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo”, a 9 minute short which was screened with “Evangelion 3.0” in 2012. A lot of the shots in that film do feel similar to those in “Shin Godzilla”. Perhaps that film was a demonstration for Toho as some have theorised.

While a lot of reviews bizarrely consider this film to be deeply nationalistic, anti-American and pro-military, I think those comments are almost totally off the mark and totally misunderstand the film makers. First up, Anno is an otaku, through and through. He’s not really pro war, but he certainly does love military machinery. You can see that quite clearly in the film's battle sequences. They lovingly show off the machines in question (complete with on screen text giving the full names of the battle machines in question), especially the tanks. But in the end the military are completely ineffective against Godzilla (perhaps more of an abysmal failure), pretty much the same as most other Japanese giant monster films. The nationalism claim doesn’t hold much water either, especially when you compare this film to mainstream Hollywood features. There is some anti-American sentiment, however it isn’t really pronounced except for a couple of sequences.

There are some really interesting themes in the film. The major theme is the battle of the old guard and the young who feel they aren’t being listened to. This is most apparent in the way the older government staff treat their younger counterparts. The Japanese government bureaucracy is really given a belting and is portrayed as bunch of public servants who can’t take decisive action in times of crisis. This of course is an obvious criticism to the government response to the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake and the scenes of the initial destruction are an allusion to the disaster itself. Some reviewers have claimed that this film is a satire on the bureaucracy; however in the end Yaguchi’s team wins the battle, so I think its false claim. The most interesting part of the film though is that while the old guard and the military fail in defeating Godzilla, Yaguchi’s rag tag group of otaku, misfits and other assorted people society reject, actually triumphs in the end.

While it is very dialogue heavy and is mostly shot of groups of people around tables and in conference rooms, it really held my attention for the two hour run time. It is literally about the government trying to deal with a situation beyond their comprehension and trying to solve that problem. Somehow it just works as a film. There are three major sequences that involve Godzilla and all three are quite spectacular. It would seem that Godzilla was purely CG in the film. I don’t think there are any suits or models in the film at all. I think it was pretty ballsy for Anno and Higuchi to show a juvenile Godzilla. It does look a little weird (like a salamander), but I seems to work well. The reveal in the second major Godzilla sequence was quite stunning. The actual physical look of Godzilla here is reminiscent of “Godzilla Vs Destroyah”. The new powers may be a little over the top, but I enjoyed it immensely. The climax was a little too much considering the rather realistic portrayal of what had come before.

The acting is pretty good and cast don’t ham it up (thank god). Satomi Ishihara's English is decent, but poor for an American born woman, which she was portraying. A couple of her English lines really need subtitles and were almost unintelligible. At time the film does really feel like an Evangelion film with Anno’s use of onscreen text and even variations of the music track "Decisive Battle" from Evangelion being used in the film (during sequences involving Yaguchi’s team, adding to weight of the theory Anno is championing otaku in the film). A couple of Akira Ifukube’s pieces from the original Godzilla films also make an appearance. Anno also adds in a few other references such as the old Toho titles and having the opening title reference the original 1954 Godzilla film title. This film can certainly stand on its own two feet and I didn’t think this blatant nostalgia was needed. You could also probably say that the film feels very much like an Evangelion film or TV episode to a degree with Godzilla in place of an Angel (and with no actual Evangelion to fight the creature either). Apart from the use of "Decisive Battle", note that Mikako Ichikawa's uniform bear some resemblance the colour scheme of the NERV members uniforms. I also felt this film at times had the same feeling dread as the Evangelion films had.

The cinematography is quite good (some really interesting POV shots keeping in with our social media saturated world), however there were some rather strange shots and far too many close ups. I also thought that some sequences could have been trimmed (Ishihara’s English quips were grating after a while). The other major problem I had was that final battle. Parts of it were a little too absurd to take seriously. It’s a bit of shame as the film is relatively believable and realistic (or suspension of disbelief was easy) for the most part. It's also interesting to point out that this film was made for less than a tenth of the cost of Gareth Edward's 2014 film. In my opinion it's a far more engaging and interesting film than Edward's. I also think this film easily outshines all of the millennium series Godzilla films. Finally I must say Funimation’s trailer (I’m assuming Madman used that one) for the film is utter shit. The Japanese trailers are far better. Overall, it’s pretty good film. I’m going to give it a solid 8 out of 10.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Updates (Or Lack Thereof)

Lots of things going on in my life at the moment. I've been quite sick on and off for more than a month and work has been relentless. Many days have been 12 hours or more which is absurd. I also have a couple of continuing projects I want to work on over the the next few months. So as you may have guessed, I'm taking another break from doing this blog.

Next year I plan on going to the Kansai and Kanto regions in Japan, so I want to finish off planing for that as well. Apart from a couple of events I want to see (plus hanami if I time it right), I want to do the rounds of record stores in Shibuya and Shinjuku before they disappear for good.

So in short, I will attempt to do some writing when I can. Just don't expect much activity until maybe December.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Video Backlog: “We Are Perfume – World Tour 3rd Document”

Publisher: Wrasse Records (UK)
Format: Region Free Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles
Length: 120 minutes
Production Date: 2015
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

I am not exactly a fan of Japanese pop music. Most of it isn’t great, especially the idol stuff. If I listen to Japanese music it’ll be most likely eX-Girl or the Pillows. But a couple of years ago on a Sunday morning, I got sick of “Insiders” and started flicking around until I came across SBS’ “Pop Asia” program. Though the show had a very heavy emphasis on Korean pop, there were a few Japanese music videos. On came Perfume’s “Spring of Life” video. While it certainly wasn’t an instant love affair with the group, I saw enough of the trio’s fun and inventive video clips over the next few months to become a little bit obsessed with them. I eventually bought all of their albums and most of their singles on my last trip to Japan.

Why on earth would I love this little group consisting of three young women; Ayano Omoto (nicknamed “Nocchi”), Yuka Kashino (“Kashiyuka”) and Ayaka Nishiwaki (“A-chan”)? I suppose the key thing which got me was their music, written, performed and produced by Yasutaka Nakata of the Japanese dance music duo Capsule and also the writer and producer of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s records. Unlike the majority of idol music, Perfume is far more like dance music, albeit with a pop sheen. It really sounds nothing like other J-Pop I’ve heard. The complexity and intricacy of songs such “Spice” really impressed me and tracks like “Edge” weren't usually something you'd associate with a pop group. The positive outlook of most of the lyrics got me as well (for example from their highest selling single “Love the World”; “Have a nice day/Be in a good mood yeh/In all the world/Love the World”). I was also intrigued by their sophisticated and mature image, which isn’t really seen in idol groups. They are marketed at far more general audience rather than the bog standard male idol otaku; they wear modified designer dresses as their stage outfits, put on increasingly elaborate live shows involving projected computer graphics and don’t do photobooks filled with bikini shots unlike their peers.

This documentary film revolves around Perfume’s third world tour in October and November 2014 taking in Taipei, Singapore, Los Angeles, London and New York. This tour is special as it’s the first time they will perform in the United States. However the film begins four months after the tour where the group put on a stunning and technically complex performance at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin Texas which wows the media, which is pretty hard considering the hundreds of bands who jostle for attention on the 24 hour a day schedule during the duration of the festival. The documentary curiously downplays what they have just achieved. We then rewind back to rehearsals for the tour in October 2014. There they discuss the set list and costume changes with Mikiko, their dance choreographer and artistic guide. She has worked with group since 2005 and since than taken on a much larger role within the group of advising what artistic directions Perfume should take.

Before they start their world tour in Taipei, the documentary takes an all too brief look (less than 30 seconds really) at the beginnings of the group in Hiroshima in 2000. It’s the biggest misstep of the documentary. The film is meant to show the world that Perfume have made it to the world stage but oddly omits their massive struggle to even become popular within their home country. Unusually they formed at Actors School Hiroshima as 9 year olds, released a local single a few years later in 2002 and then had the good fortune to get the young and upcoming Yasutaka Nakata as their producer from their second single in 2003 which certainly made them stand out sonically. They moved to Tokyo soon after and struggled to get any attention or sales of their records, even resorting to handing out flyers on the streets of Akihabara themselves. Somehow they got the attention of major Japanese label Tokuma Communications who signed them in 2005. After three mediocre selling singles for the label, they were ready to drop them. However they decided to give them one more shot with the single “Polyrhythm”. It became the theme song of a recycling campaign by government broadcaster NHK and due to the exposure became a top ten hit. Every subsequent single for the group went top five on the charts and all five of their studio albums have gone to number one on the charts. They have sold more than three million singles and albums in Japan. Not only that, they have gained a large following outside Asia purely by word of mouth and with no promotion by their management or label or with their music being available outside of Asia. Sure Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal may be (almost) household names in the west unlike Perfume, but both those artists had backing by major western labels. Perfume did not and continues to have little to no promotion form their current record label, Universal, in the west. And you could suggest that both Pamyu and Babymetal are novelty acts, which Perfume definitely isn’t.

The documentary follows the group from Taipei to Singapore. But this section flies past very quickly and is all over by the 40th minute mark of the film. The most interesting thing about this section of the film is the mature aged Australian couple A-chan singles out at the group’s Singapore show. While a lot of the early material sort of makes the documentary seem like a glorified home video (mostly on small HD cameras), it does come to life once they hit Los Angeles. Certainly it does follow the same pattern as the earlier material with backstage and onstage footage, Perfume interacting with fans and acting like complete tourists at every city they visit. However the last three shows up the emotional content with some very genuine affectionate and emotional interviews with local fans and A-chan getting extremely nervy before her first US show. It all becomes a bit too much when a LED display malfunctions temporarily and Mikiko tearfully expresses her frustration post performance which makes A-chan and Nocchi’s eyes well up.

While Perfume’s journey and performances to the US are a key part of the film, the fans are also an equally important part. The interaction between the three girls and their fans, be it on the street, in concert or at fan club “meet and greets” before shows seem genuinely honest and heartfelt. That and the vox pops with fans can be really beautiful and touching at times. It’s also amazing to note the diversity of the fanbase with wide range of ages a fair number of women in the audience and perhaps unsurprisingly a sizable number of gay men. There’s also a bit of humour as the trio and Mikiko are in hysterics as they do a post mortem on their London show where in one song Nocchi forgets her choreography and manages to put the other’s performances out of whack culminating in Nocchi freezing on stage momentarily. The climax of the film is New York where the trio are stunned by Times Square and perform an emotionally charged final show.

Apart from not mentioning their rise to fame in the documentary, there are a couple problems I have with the film. The interviews with the members seem really divorced from the rest of the content. It seems they were done sometime after the tour. I would have preferred those interviews to be done on the tour than after or perhaps over archival footage. There is also some narration which I felt wasn’t really needed, but luckily it is used sparingly. Let’s face it though; this film is for fans, not for the general public. However I still believe that it would have even found a wider audience had even more emotional punch if their full backstory was told. I also thought that the film makers were being a bit coy or modest about what Perfume had achieved. Not many Japanese artists have done what they have.

For fans of the group, the film won’t probably tell them anything new about Perfume. As expected A-chan (the unofficial leader of the group) is the most dominant member but also easily the most cheerful and emotional. However the other two always manage to speak their mind. Certainly their onstage personas seem to match their offstage ones. While this may stink of them putting on a performance for the documentary makers, you have to remember that the three of them have been together in the group since they were 9 years old. In one of the interviews A-chan states that the only thing she knows is Perfume and could never see them breaking up. I sort of felt a pang of sadness when I heard that.

This set is the only version available in English. I know their management company, Amuse, held one off screenings with English subtitles in the US and UK, however only UK indie record company Wrasse Records has released a physical copy of the film. No one in the US seems to be interested in releasing the film, not even Perfume’s parent US label, Universal. However I doubt a major label like Universal would have taken the care to issue a two blu-ray, one CD set like this. The set comes in a really nice tri-fold digipak with the film disc, a bonus disc with additional behind the scenes footage from Perfume’s SXSW performance, additional interviews with Perfume and the theatrical trailer. The CD is a four track soundtrack with new pieces performed and written by Yasutaka Nakata. The set mimics the special edition released in Japan sans the movie commentary track by Perfume’s staff.

This is a film that is difficult to recommend to people who aren’t fans. I find it really baffling that they didn’t tell Perfume’s amazing backstory, however I guess they assumed Japanese fans would be overly familiar with it. I think it could have done with some tighter editing and less repetition regarding Perfume’s pre-show rituals (showing it once is enough). While a film that was shot on a smallish budget, I do think some of the filming could have been better, especially the stuff shot in low light where the limitations of the cameras are rather apparent. The SXSW performance makes for a great opening, but literally has nothing to do with the tour. But the film really kicks into high gear at that start of the American tour. It’s a fun emotional journey and really not hard to feel Perfume’s joy at what they’ve achieved. The lack of proper distribution and the content probably isn’t going to win them any new fans in the west, but I doubt that was the intention. Regardless it's a fairly well made film that fans will probably adore. 7 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Four movies, one OVA, eight TV series. In addition I am also waiting for second parts of for three TV series and one OVA to be released before viewing them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Video Backlog: “Gundam ZZ”

Publisher: Sunrise/Right Stuf (USA)
Format: Region A Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles
Length: 47 episodes x 24 minutes
Production Date: 1986 - 1987
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Following directly on from the events of the final episode of “Zeta Gundam”, this series begins with the aftermath of the final battle against the Titans and Axis. The Argama and its crew are rather beat up and head to the nearest colony, Shangri-La at Side 1, in an effort to repair the ship and heal the crew. The colony is rather run down and poor and has large junk heaps down one end. Local teen Judau Ashta is forced to salvage scrap metal in order to pay large utility bills forced upon him and his younger sister. Often he works with a group of other teens into order to collect debris from battlefields outside the colony for money. However today he is only working with one of member of the group, Iino Abbav, in order to cut down on sharing money for the scrap metal he sells. The pair have just found an escape pod in excellent condition. However as they retrieve it and haul it inside the colony, the head of their salvage group, Beecha Oleg, spots it and wants in on the share of spoils. Judau relents and the group decide to check inside the pod. To their astonishment they discover that a Titan mobile suit pilot, Yazan Gable, is inside and still alive, having survived the final battle in the climatic last episode of “Zeta Gundam”.

At this point Yazan has nothing to lose and manages to convince the group of teens to steal the Zeta Gundam and attack AEUG members in the Argama battleship. However Judau argues that they should steal the Gundam in order to sell it. Kamile is still in a catatonic state and an ambulance is called to take him to hospital for treatment. As Fa Yuiry places Kamile in the back of the ambulance, Judau and Yazan take her hostage. The two children living on the battleship, Shinta and Qum, realise what is happening and attempt to alert the Argama's captain, Bright Noa, who ignores them. In the back of the ambulance, Judau touches Kamile’s hand by accident hand the pair share a Newtype experience awaking Judau’s powers. Using a stolen delivery truck filled with vegetables, the group infiltrate the port and in a ham-fisted manner try to steal the Zeta Gundam. After scuffles between the AEUG members and the ragtag bunch of teen scrap-dealers, Judau manages to somehow mauver the Zeta Gundam into the colony near it's junk-lots where Yazan fights him in a construction mobile suit. Eventually Judan manages to beat Yazan, mostly due the overwhelming power of the Zeta Gundam. Bright then manages to force the Zeta Gundam to the ground. However Judau manages to escape before Bright and his crew capture them.

Meanwhile Neo Zeon commander Mashymre Cello sends a suitcase full of gold bullion to the colony in order to bribe the government of Shangri-La to let his ship, the Endra, dock. Totally smitten with his commander in chief, Haman Karn, Mashymre plans to steal the Zeta Gundam and present it as a gift to her, much to the bemusement of his crew. Luckily one the colony’s executive warns Bright about Mashymre's plans and tells him that he can guide the Argama through the colony to escape. In the midst of this Judau and his group including Judau’s sister, Leina, make another attempt to steal the Zeta Gundam. Eventually caught, Judau somehow manages to convince Bright that he can be of use to him and later manages to defeat Mashymre’s mobile suit using the Zeta Gundam. After a number of battles inside the colony and due to the fact he has a depleted crew, eventually Bright decides to take on Judau and his friends as mobile suit pilots and fellow crewmen. The Argama leaves Shangri-La in order to rendezvous with the La Vie en Rose in order to take on a new AEUG weapon, Gundam ZZ (Double Zeta).

To be utterly honest, outside of the original TV series, its compilation movies and the concluding “Char’s Counterattack” film, I find it really hard to get into the core part of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Universal Century Gundam series. I found “Zeta Gundam” to be utterly pretentious. I do not understand the cult like status afforded to it by fans. Even in western fandom going back to the late 1980’s, it had this sense of being the ultimate robot show attached to it. The major problem I had with it was the lack of any real explanation of the events between the final episode of the original “Gundam” TV series and first episode of “Zeta Gundam”. Even the booklet which came with Bandai Entertainment’s 2004 DVD box set (which also came with bonus pencil sharpeners for some reason) didn’t really help all that much to fill in the gaps. I admit that the ideas and concepts in the show are quite interesting, but as with a lot of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s work, it’s done in really ham-fisted way with frustrating dialogue, bizarre character names and no attempt to explain anything to the audience.

Having heard that “Gundam ZZ” was much lighter in tone, I thought that this might be a better series. I was wrong. The tonal shift is quite bizarre. “Zeta Gundam” is quite grim in the end and bleak. Then all of a sudden we go into “Gundam ZZ” and it’s quite goofy. Bright Noa seems to have given up totally in terms of disciplining his crew apart from the rare instances he throws someone in the brig. Later he almost has an affair with La Vie en Rose officer Emary Ounce who is smitten with him. The Neo Zeons come off worse with various nutcases like the hilariously ostentatious Mashymre Cello and the bizarre breasty mobile suit pilot Chara Soon who seems to be sexuality excited by piloting mobile suits. We also have Glemy Toto, a commander who is smitten with AEUG recruit and pilot Roux Louka, but soon turns attentions towards Judau’s sister, Leina, after mistaking her for Roux and saving her in the midst of battle. For a good part of the series he seem hell bent on debuting her in Neo Zeon society goes about turning her into a “lady”.

Worse is the fact that mid-way through the series “Gundam ZZ” takes another turn, back to the heavy drama of it's preceding series. However by now we’ve had some really odd plot lines, the disappearance and re-emergence of several key characters and general confusion all-round. I really found it hard to take any of it seriously anymore. Add in the fact that a key character seems really unperturbed (even apathetic) about the death of two characters really close to him. At least when that happened in the two previous series, people got depressed. Actually the flippant nature of people’s death, especially in the first half of the TV series, is really odd after the way deaths were presented in the original “Gundam” series and “Zeta Gundam”.

However there is a lot to like in this show. A fair wack of the humour in the show is hits it's mark. In particular I liked Mashymre Cello’s antics. Most of the mobile suit battles are very well choreographed and mecha designs are excellent too. I also thought for the most part the teenagers in the show were better written and far more realistically portrayed than the previous two Gundam series. They certainly act like dickheads a lot of the time (just like real teens). But I did get frustrated by how many times one the teen pilots would just run off with one of the Gundams (without consequence). And the recycling of ideas such as the lead character coming into contact and befriending the enemy’s enhanced Newtype pilot who alternates between childlike behaviour (usually wanting to be the lead's sibling) and homicidal bloodlust.

I think what won me over in the end was the flashes of great story telling (especially the last dozen or so episodes), some of the characters and the battles. Quite a fair chunk of it annoyed me. There are too many dead ends, story fragments which up and vanish without trace, the disappearance of characters for no real reason and the deaths of characters for no real advancement of the plot. And of course the baffling character motivations. Anime fans can defend it all they like, but it’s just poor writing in the end. Then you have Tomino getting rid of characters from “Zeta Gundam” just so he can install newer and (in my opinion) far less interesting and less developed ones. OK I’ve been really negative about this series. The flashes of brilliance were enough for me to give this show a 6 out of 10. I should really give it half a point less, but I’m feeling generous.

Remaining Backlog: Four movies, one OVA, eight TV series. In addition I am also waiting for second parts of for three TV series and one OVA to be released before viewing them.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Items in My Collection #3: Gals Paradise Magazine

In the last decade or so, there’s been a real push against public expressions of female sexuality, i.e. swimsuit models, lingerie adverts, booth girls, cheerleaders, cheesecake photos (stuff like FHM etc.) or anything or any image that people might think that heterosexual men might find appealing.

Go back two decades ago and these people would have rightly been called wowsers and unfavourably compared to right wing Christian moral rights campaigners like Fred Nile and Mary Whitehouse (they don’t call those moralists the Christian Taliban for nothing). In 2016 it’s more than likely that you’d hear left wing feminists sprouting the same nonsensical crap Fred and Mary were saying 20 to 30 years ago, usually with the same peer reviewed scientific evidence which shows this material is “harmful” to women (i.e. none) or that it causes “rape culture” (which also inhabits a scientific evidence free zone). One wonders if there also a “murder culture” or a “robbery culture” in society.

The tastelessness and stupidity of using one of worst crimes you can inflict on another human being as a weapon to censor imagery you don’t like is quite offensive to me personally. I was reading a news item a few months ago which described a now cancelled South American beauty pageant as part of “rape culture”, a description which I thought was bizarrely hyperbolic. While beauty pageants are undeniably old fashioned events unsuited to modern times, it’s quite distasteful to conflate the two. It’s even more bizarre when consider the majority of those events aren’t even geared towards men.

In Japan things are quite different. The country is definitely a patriarchal society, but you have odd cultural aspects such as wives traditionally being the ones in control of the household finances. There is feminism there but it does take on a different form (it’s all about society as a collective, not the individual, a concept that seems to utterly baffle Americans) and isn’t as widespread as in the west. Sexism exists to a much larger degree than it does in the west. I recall seeing a promotion in the middle of Shinjuku on a Sunday morning where women were passing out flyers dressed in short skirts and high healed thigh high boots. Western Feminists would have a fit if they saw what was going on.

They would also have a fit over Race Queens; women who are promotional models for motor racing teams (generally the Super GT motor racing class) dressed in revealing clothing and generally high heeled boots (Race Queens are also known as pit girls or grid girls in the west). Putting aside that the fact most people would probably consider the whole concept of Race Queens as sexist, speaking honestly as a heterosexual male I find them quite interesting. Generally I ignore modern feminism’s obsession with policing other women’s expressions of sexuality and seemingly finding normal male heterosexual desire as something abhorrent and threatening. But I refuse to pretend for a second that I don’t find women sexually attractive.

Race Queens are essentially a US import altered and evolved to Japanese standards. From what I can figure out in the very early 1980’s Japanese companies saw that one of the US teams brought models to the 24 Le Mans race. In 1984 the idea was imported for the Suzuka 8 Hours motorcycle race. While the whole idea behind Race Queens (and pit/grid girls) is that they’re there to advertise the team’s sponsors. However their actual official job (if you can call it that) is to hold an umbrella over the team’s driver on the grid before the race begins. They can also be seen holding up the team's sign on the grid before a race. Over the years this seemingly minor part of car racing in Japan has become a major focus of the races themselves. A lot of the women who are races queens are actually gravure idols, in other words a bikini or lingerie model. These models often have larger careers appearing on the covers of seinen manga magazine weeklies, cheesecake photo magazines and participting in the huge market of self released (or contracted to companies that release) DVDs, photobooks and CD or DVD-ROM photo collections. There’s even a Race Queen idol music unit named Drift Angels who are part of the Up Garage team.

Hey fellas, you do know there's a motor race happening today?
Naturally there is a magazine dedicated Race Queens; Gals Paradise. This is a quarterly magazine (with a fifth special issue, “Super GT Race Queen Official Guide Book” coming out every May) has been running since 1991 and is published by San-ei Shobo who publish Autosport magazine as well as numerous other motorsport magazines. Running about 100 pages per issue the magazine is in an oversized mook (magazine/book) format. The magazines come out like clockwork four times year; The first in February or March, the second in late June or early July, the third in September or October and final issue in November. For the last few years, the November issue has been issued with a DVD (which is mostly just interviews with the models and some additional footage of the cover photoshoots). Other bonuses include large posters (usually massive A1 size - 594 mm x 841 mm) and occasionally a clear file.

What got me about the women who take up the job of Race Queen is that they are far more mature than their music idol counterparts. The average age is mid 20’s with a fair percentage in their late 20’s (or older). Certainly there a few models around the 18 year old mark, but surprisingly they’re in the minority. The other surprising is unlike mainstream idols in the music or anime industry, most have normal voices and don’t put on some silly squeaky childish voice for the fans. The format of Gals Paradise magazine is pretty much the same issue; there’s usually a two page spread of all the Race Queens taken on the grid at a local racetrack, a feature on the cover models which includes them in gravure idol style bikini shots plus short Q and A articles with the models, and the rest of the magazine is taken up with shots of the various Race Queens teams of each racing team. Some teams have up to half a dozen models in their Race Queen team. Other sections in the magazine promote gravure idol products, Gals Paradise sponsored award nights for Race Queens and amateur photography awards for the fans. I must admit some of the fan’s photos are incredible. There’s also the yearly “A-Class” in which five or six of the most popular Race Queens are given a special photoshoot by the magazine. Apart from Super GT and other motor races, there are also photos of the models from the annual Tokyo Motor Show.

Since I discovered the magazine a couple of years ago I’ve managed to acquire about 20 or so back issues, plus some photobooks and other defunct Race Queen magazines I found in Jinbocho. I suppose I am addicted to ladies in boots (not quite my fetish, but an interest shall we say…) and exotic looking women, so I guess I was destined to get this magazine on a regular basis. In the last year or so San-ei Shobo has been releasing a lot of digital versions of the magazine, releasing Kindle versions of additional photoshoots plus promoting the hell out their mobile app. I suspect eventually the magazine will go full digital and the physical copy magazine will be no more. When that will be, I’m not sure. Bookstores and still abundant in Japan, but manga and magazine sales are on a slow decline.

It's kind of amazing that this magazine is still around after 25 years. Race Queens are kind of a niche within a huge market that is the gravure idol scene. There were a small number of magazines dedicated to Race Queens in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, however Gals Paradise remains the only surviving magazine of that mini boom. I find these little niches within the larger part of Japanese pop culture (which is already unique and evolved quite differently from western pop culture) really fascinating.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Video Backlog: “Dororo”

Publisher: Eastern Star (Discotek, USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles
Length: 26 episodes x 27 minutes
Production Date: 1969
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

In the Sengoku (Warring States) period in Japan, warlord Daigo Kagemitsu makes a terrible deal with 48 demons. In exchange for more power, he allows the demons to take whatever parts they want of his unborn son. Later his son born as a limbless, faceless creature. Upon seeing his son, Kagemitsu realises the demons have accepted the deal and late orders his wife to abandon the child by sending him downstream in a basket. The child is later found in the river by a man named Dr Honma. Honma cares for and raises the child and later carefully constructs prosthetics for to replace his missing body parts. As he grows into manhood, monsters and various ghouls visit him. One of them explains that his body parts have been taken away by 48 demons and that he has to defeat them in order to get them back.

Now known as Hyakkimaru, the young man sets out on his quest to slay demons and various monsters in order to regain his original body. In one town he comes across a child thief named Dororo and saves him after the locals beat him for stealing. Dororo decides to follow him in order to steal his swords. Hyakkimaru attempts to discourage Dororo as much telling the child that demons and monster follow him around. Sure enough that night a strange monster comes out of the lake while Hyakkimaru. This scares Dororo, but not enough to stop following him. In the next village they tell the locals about the monster which came out of the lake. However the pair are captured and held prison by order of the village’s female chief, Bandai. However at night, a monster comes of the well and attacks Hyakkimaru and Dororo. When Hyakkimaru eventually discovers the secret of the monster and destroys it, one of body parts grows back. This leads the villagers to believe that Hyakkimaru is some kind of monster and force him to leave town. This happens in all villages that Hyakkimaru kills demons in. Even as Hyakkimaru regains his humanity piece by piece, he is still considered a monster.

This TV series is based on Osamu Tezuka’s manga from the late 1960’s. It’s a really bloody and dark story with quite a lot of on screen and explicit killing, depictions of war and grotesque monsters. Apparently the material was way too dark for Fuji Television Network back in 1969 and they asked for the story to be toned down a bit. This included the addition of a small dog to the duo of Hyakkimaru and Dororo. The dog, Nota, strangely wears an Eboshi, a traditional headdress worn by men who had come of age (in modern times seen on the heads of Shinto priests). Still this addition and the toning down of the material of the manga could hide the bleakness of the graphic depiction of battlefields with hundreds of dead of the Sengoku period. The bleakness also extends into rural and village life with the townsfolk being terrorised by bandits and soldiers alike as well as the occasional demon and monster.

The series, directed quite skilfully by Gisaburo Sugii (“Night on the Galactic Railroad”, “Touch”), was produced in black and white which was unusual for the time as the vast majority of anime were being produced in colour. This was probably a financial decision, yet it doesn’t lessen the impact of the bloodshed. Dororo’s backstory is also explored early on and it’s just as tragic (perhaps even more so) as Hyakkimaru’s. Dororo’s family was part of a bandit clan, but ended up being betrayed in a move for other to gain more power. Dororo’s father eventually killed and her mother dies in a snowstorm as she tried to protect Dororo. In a war torn society, Dororo is forced to become a thief to survive. As the series progresses, Hyakkimaru and Dororo develop a deep friendship and look out for each other as Hyakkimaru kills as many demons as he possibly can in order to get his body back. Hyakkimaru’s prosthetics are quite interesting. Besides two swords for arms (hidden inside detachable prosthetic arms), he also has some sort of gas inside one of his legs, though it is never fully made clear what it actually is nor how it works. The only problem with a lot of prosthetics is that they never seem to make a whole lot of sense or seem be centuries ahead of technology of the time. At point in the series Hyakkimaru claims he can’t see, hear or even speak (until the demons that took those parts are killed and he receives them back). In the manga it is explained that Dr Honma was an alchemist, though I don’t think this even mentioned in this this anime adaptation.

As the original manga was actually cancelled before it finished, about half way though there are a number of original stories including the ending. While it’s a bit rushed the ending is pretty amazing. The anime was also renamed mid-way though the series from “Dororo” to “Dororo and Hyakkimaru” to acknowledge the fact that Hyakkimaru was indeed the main star of the show. Apparently Tezuka’s intention for the manga was to let it develop into a coming of age story about Dororo but of course this never happened. Fans of Tezuka will be quite familiar with his “star system” where characters reappear throughout his work. Maybe because I’m far more familiar with posthumous anime adaptations I was quite surprised that only one of his previous characters, Acetylene Lamp (who appears briefly as a bandit), makes an appearance in the series.

Originally “Dororo” was streamed on the ill-fated Anime Sols website. The business was shut down before people had a chance to crowdfund DVD sets of the series. Luckily Discotek decided to licence the series. The DVD set is pretty good for what it is. The source material is better than I had hoped for series of this age. There are some aged film artefacts in the video, two next episode previews are missing (and are audio only) and there is some really notable aliasing in some episodes. I suspect is maybe due multiple video sources being used, but I can’t be sure. The set also includes a colour 15 minute pilot film (with different voice actors) and unlisted storyboards of the final episode. This set could do with some liner notes, but I’m just glad it even got a home video release.

Overall this is a pretty good series. The story telling shines through nearly 50 years after its original broadcast. Sure the animation may be rather limited, but the cinematography is brilliant. The content is quite bloody and dark and not even the upbeat theme song and addition of a cute dog can hide this fact. Apart from the minor quibbles I have with function and practicality of Hyakkimaru’s prosthetics, there really isn’t too much I can fault this show on. Despite the darkness and gloom, the strange and grotesque monsters and the pair’s journey make a really fun show to watch. 7 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Two movies, three OVAs, six TV series. In addition I am also waiting for second parts of for eight TV series and one OVAs to be released before viewing them.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Video Backlog: "Go Go Anime!"

Publisher: Live Sockets (USA)
Format: Region Free DVD, NTSC, English Dialogue
Length: 59 minutes
Production Date: 2004
Currently in Print (as of writing): No

At the peak of the surge in anime home video sales market in the US in the 2000’s, there were a number of documentaries made on the fandom surrounding it. Only a handful were ever completed and even fewer still got any sort of home video release. By my count only two ever got a commercial home video release; “Otaku Unite!” directed by Eric Bresler who now runs a gallery/art space called  the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, and this film, “Go Go Anime!”. This documentary was created by a company called Live Sockets which their ad copy tell us are “a leading producer of street racing, underground hip-hop and action sports videos”. Before I give my opinion on the doco, it’s probably a good idea to talk about the video itself.

A shot on video cheapie, “Go Go Anime!” roughly follows three sets of fans groups before they make their pilgrimage to Anime Expo in Los Angeles in July 2003. First up we are introduced to Sailor Jamboree. They are a cosplay group formed in 1999 who as you may have guessed do Sailor Moon themed cosplay. The group are all female teens of a mixed background, though many have an Asian heritage. Like a lot of young American fans, they are quite excitable and seem to talk nonstop when asked questions by the interviewers. For the Cosplay Masquerade this year, they have chosen to perform it to the song “Cell Block Tango” from the 2002 film “Chicago”, which was based off the stage musical of the same name. Most of the footage from this section of the film shows them rehearsing and figuring out dance moves for their performance.

Next we meet Glen Kristiansen a middle aged anime fan who has regular anime viewing nights every Friday with his two best friends Al and John. Though most of the time it looks like they are drinking with empty bottles and beer cans of imported Japanese beers all over the place. While Glen has a very extensive anime laserdisc collection (and bizarrely tons of Hong Kong bootleg DVDs), it’s quite clear he’s a family man too with at least two kids in the family photos we see. And considering most of his vast collection is brand new, not second hand imported Japanese laserdiscs (and considering the size of his house and the decor), he’s certainly quite well off and not your typical US anime fan. Later we get an edited tour of his collection which also includes unopened commercial US anime VHS and fansubs on VHS.

The third section, titled “Manga Artist”, focuses on amateur comic book artist Henry Liao. He’s gearing up to sell his work at the artist’s alley at Anime Expo. All of his work so far has been self-published or pieces done for friends. He shows off his portfolio which by all accounts is a bit amateurish and mimics shonen manga style artwork. He says that in terms of his own artwork he wants to live by Bruce Lee’s words that he should fight with emotional content. Despite him being laid off from his job, Henry seems to be determined to make a go of his art. The segment ends with Henry going to the printers to correct a mistake in a sample copy of the comic he’ll be selling at artist’s alley.

Finally the week of the convention is here. The documentary makers momentarily forget about their subjects as they trawl the convention and dealer’s rooms editing in random shots with grabs of interviews of various (now defunct) retail and video companies such as Akadot, Bandai Entertainment, Suncoast and ADV Films. We’re also treated to some footage of drunk teenage fans and the infamous Man-Faye, the satirical cross dressing cosplay by Damon Evans of Faye Valentine of “Cowboy Bebop”. However the makers of the doco really have no idea who Man-Faye is, nor do they seem to care about finding out. Afterwards we suddenly find out that some of the members of Sailor Jamboree are going to a Final Fantasy cosplay gathering, though the footage seems to show about half those in attendance aren’t cosplaying from that game. I suspect other footage shot at different times was used, but I can’t be certain.

Then it’s on to artist’s alley where Henry is sharing a table with another artist, Jen Chan. She’s a published artist and considers herself to be a professional now. She takes us to her partner’s table, Long Vo, who was a founder of UDON Entertainment. Jen explains she doesn’t think much of mainstream US comics as they generally portray women as all bums and boobs and there is more to comics than that. This section amusingly and seemingly edited that way unironically by the documentary makers, segues into the next segment on a cosplay themed “Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball” photography section that Glen, Al and John eagerly attend. All of the cosplayers that took part are amateurs and no professional models are in attendance. One of the cosplayers states that most of the female cosplayers asked didn’t want to do it. I wonder why.

Finally we’re taken back to the hotel where Glen, Al and John are joined in their room by two other middle aged friends and, surprise, surprise, drink Japanese beer, then go down to watch a concert at the convention. Afterwards we see members of Sailor Jamboree scrambling to finish up costumes and changing out of other costumes in order to make it to the cosplay masquerade. We get snippets of a number of other masquerade contestants out of context and edited abruptly before we come to an edited performance of Sailor Jamboree. We don’t see the announcement of the judging, but are later told they did not place. However the girls tell us they only really do it for the performance.

Compared to Bresler’s “Otaku Unite!”, “Go Go Anime!” (obviously the prerequisite for an anime documentary is an exclamation point in the title), is poorly edited, has some terrible music and as a whole film nothing really congeals together. There seems to be no real effort to explain to the audience what any of this anime stuff is about. Coming in without any knowledge of the subject and watching the documentary would be really confusing for anyone. In fact if you didn’t already know about anime fandom from that era (2003 or so) and were an anime fan, the film would probably leave you scratching your head at some points. There are two main problems with the documentary I have. The first is that damn sloppy editing. It’s truly some amateur hour shit. It really looks like the film was made on a tight budget, but Christ almighty, even with consumer level equipment you could edit it better than this. There’s no flow, no thought into attempting to edit the film seamlessly. It often just jerks abruptly from one scene to other, often without explanation, or establishing shots or anything of that nature.

Though you never really hear the questions from the interviewers, the responses indicate that nothing of substance was asked of them, nor questions that would reveal something of themselves or get them to properly explain what is going on. Look, I don’t expect a Werner Herzog style doco, I just expect something competent. Possibly the other problem with the documentary was the subjects themselves. Certainly with the members of Sailor Jamboree being teenage girls at time, they’re not all that articulate (they were previously featured in “Otaku Unite!” anyway). Henry isn’t that interesting of a subject either. Glen feels a bit stand offish about his anime collection and I really think him and his buddies would just prefer to drink (though admittedly I think they’re the most interesting of the interviewees here, as they are atypical of anime fans). I really have to wonder how and why these three sets of people were chosen for this documentary. It’s sort of baffling.

The best thing you could probably say about his documentary is that it provides a glimpse into American anime fandom and conventions of 13 years ago, five years before the wheels of the US industry supporting that fandom began to wobble and fall off. Mostly because that fandom didn’t really care about paying for their anime. The disc contains no real extras, except for trailers for products featured in the film. I suspect that there were supplied by companies for the purpose of editing into the film and Live Sockets just used what they wanted and stuck the full trailers on as extras. There is also a bunch of photos as extras, most are used to form the cover art work. I originally bought this a few years ago and was going to write about it as part of another project for a defunct blog. That never happened, so it sort of languished in a box for years. I got it for cheap off an eBay auction, but the disc is long out of print and hard to find. There is no bar code on the disc and I think it was only available from the Live Sockets website.

So in the end, it’s a barely edited, poor excuse for a documentary. It’s just someone's glorified home video at points. Real amateur hour shit. But it is interesting to see what US fandom looked like back in the early 2000’s though. 5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: One movie, two OVAs, 10 TV series. In addition I am also waiting for second parts of for four TV series and two OVAs to be released before viewing them.