Saturday, December 9, 2017

Video Backlog: “Perfume Clips 2”

Publisher: Universal Music Home Video (Japan)
Format: Region Free Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue
Length: 63 mins
Production Date: 2012 - 2017
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

In the last few years I’ve discovered a number of Japanese artists by accident that I’ve become massive fans of. They range from the noise/punk/psychedelia of eX-girl to the electronica of Suiyobi no Campanella (Wednesday Campanella). Idol and J-Pop stuff are genres I generally have no interest in. However when I first saw Perfume on SBS Popasia a couple of years ago, I was intrigued. With songs written and produced by Yasutaka Nakata of the electronic dance group Capsule, who is also the writer and producer of all of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s songs, Perfume's music was much more in line with dance music than pop. Their image was also far more mature and sophisticated than their contemporaries.

However the group had very humble beginnings. Formed in 2001 in a talent school, the group consisted of three young girls; Ayaka Nishiwaki (better known as A-chan), Yuka Kashino (Kashiyuka) and Ayano Omoto (Nocchi), who replaced a member who left very early on. As one kanji in each of the girl’s name meant scent, the trio decided to call themselves Perfume. Releasing several independent singles staring in 2002, eventually the group had made a big enough name for themselves to be signed to major Japanese label Tokuma Japan Communications in 2005. However success did not come easily, with their management company giving them one last chance with “Polyrhythm” in 2007. Due to the fact it the song was chosen to promote a NHK recycling advertisement, it became a top 10 hit. Since then the group has hit the top five with every subsequent single and all five of their studio albums have hit number one on the Japanese charts.

Their music videos have for the most part been quite inventive or at the very least colourful and fun. If I was being honest, I think a lot of the group’s appeal to myself is the visual element including the music videos and rather elaborate live performances. Even though single and album sales in Japan have shrunk dramatically over the last decade (for example Perfume once sold almost 100,000 CDs for most of their single releases after 2007. Recent singles are now lucky to ship above 60,000 ), the music videos for them are still fairly high concept and budgeted with innovative dance moves by their long time choreographer and Mikiko Mizuno (PKA Mikiko) of the dance troupe Elevenplay (also the choreographer for Babymetal). In late 2014, their former label (Tokuma) released the compilation “Perfume Clips” which complied all 22 of their major videos they made from 2005 to 2012 plus a new video complied out live performances. As they the group have only released two and a half albums worth of videos on their current label, I honestly thought they would not release a second compilation until after their sixth album was released. I suspect that with video sales also slumping, they decided to get this compilation out now. I’ve decided to review this blu-ray set in the same way as I do with my series on anime music video compilations, that is track by track;

Spring of Life
This video was the very first Perfume music video I ever saw. The director was Yusuke Tanaka who is a long-time collaborator with the group. He has also directed videos for a number of Japanese artists including Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and also US group OK Go. In this video the trio play robots inside some sort of laboratory. The first few cuts have the girls being worked on by an industrial robot arm with part of the their internal workings exposed. The trio's dresses are covered in LEDs which pulse to the music. All three have an electrical cord attached their back which must have made it quite difficult to dance. In the instrumental interlude the trio perform in very jerky robot-like moves. Considering the group has been criticised in some circles as being machine like (mostly in terms of their partly auto tuned vocals), it seems a bit ballsy (or daft) to make a video like this. At any rate it’s quite a fun video, however the final scene which has Nocchi and Kashiyuka gleefully unplugging A-chan seems a bit weird. As per a lot of high profile major label artists in Japan, this song was used in a TV commercial, this time for a Kirin vodka based drink. The single was originally released in April 2012 on CD and also in a limited edition CD with a bonus DVD containing the music video.

Spending all my time
One of the more unusual songs and videos in Perfume’s catalogue, it features (almost entirely) English lyrics, something they’ve only done once before; on “Take Me, Take Me” which appeared on their 2008 debut album “Game”. This seems to be a deliberate as their management company, Amuse, were gearing up to market the group to a western audience. They knew there was a sizable fanbase outside Japan and toured internationally for the first time that year, albeit in Asian counties, though they did do one show at Singapore. This video was directed by Yusuke Tanaka and features Perfume in a disused room with several scenes repeated over and over again in time with the music such as them knocking on and attempting to open a locked door, two of them stepping towards each other and other various short cuts. Intercut with this are the trio performing various acts of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis such as levitating cups and apples, using Zener cards, bending spoons and knocking over or destroying small objects with their mind. The choreography in the clip is also quite minimal, using repeated gestures using mostly their hands, arms, legs and feet. The single was originally released in August 2012 on CD and also in a limited edition CD with a bonus DVD containing the music video.

Mirai no Museum (Museum of the Future)
This single was initially recorded for the anime film “Doraemon: Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum” which is part of the long running and beloved Doraemon manga and anime series. The music video is a part animated, part live action clip shot in black and white which mimics one the manga origin story of Doraemon. The character designs are also reminiscent of those by the original creator of the manga, Fujiko Fujio. The story of the video has an old inventor from the future transporting Perfume back in time to help his younger self. There Perfume open a basement door and end up fighting various creatures in order to save the younger scientist’s self. The scientist as an old man and as young boy has the letters PTA in place of his eyes. PTA is the name of Perfume’s fanclub. The video mimics manga right down to speech bubbles (referencing the lyrics of the song) and on screen written sound effects. The video also references the previous two videos with the LED lit dresses from “Spring of Life” and Kashiyuka using the same psychokinesis moves as she did in “Spending all my time”. The special edition CD release (which also included a DVD of the music video) included a mini manga made up of screen shots of the video. Again, Yusuke Tanaka directed the video. The single was released in February 2013, one month prior to the release of the “Doraemon” film in features in.

Magic of Love
Easily one of my favourite Perfume videos. The setup is pretty simple; in a colourful set the trio dance, duet with copies of each other and the director, Yusuke Tanaka, crams as many visual tricks he can into three and three quarter minutes. It’s everything I love about the group; it’s full of absolute fun and colour. My favourite parts of the video include an early section where Kashiyuka turns around and takes off her hair and turns into Nocchi. There’s also a reversed shot of the girls dancing and singing, however the miming isn’t quite right and it looks a bit off. The bridge section of the song has the camera reversing through various doors and port holes revealing a new set of the trio as it travels. I suspect this effect was done in sequence and you can see Perfume less and less happy as with each pass. I think they must have got sick of it by the end! Another great effect is that in some shots the trio have clothes which match the background of the set and use props to make themselves appear or disappear. This song was also used in a commercial for Kanro’s Pure Gummy confectionary and as the theme for TV Tokyo's “Sukkiri” TV show. The single was released in May 2013.

1mm
This is a promotional video for the “Level 3” album which was released in October 2013. The video appeared on a bonus DVD which came with the special edition of the album as well as appearing on local music video TV shops across Japan. The video mimics the design of the album covers and inside artwork. In fact both the video and photography for the album were probably produced in the one session. A relatively simple video, it mostly features the trio in a studio with clear Perspex dividers lit with LEDs. As the girls sing the verses, the lyrics of the songs appear and fade on the dividers. As the song finishes the camera rises above the dividers to reveal they spell the letters for “Level 3”, as they do in the interior artwork for the album. The director of the video was Kazuaki Seki, also a long-time collaborator with the group who has previously directed Perfume videos such as “Spice”. He has also directed videos for Namie Amuro and Girl Next Door.

Sweet Refrain
Literally only a month after the release of their “Level 3” album, Perfume released a brand new single. However the song  originally appeared as the theme of TV Asahi’s “Toshi Densetsu no Onna 2” drama programme back in October, before the release of “Level 3”, yet did not appear on the album. Yes, this is how the Japanese music industry works; keep ‘em buying stuff. The set for the video is reminiscent of an art gallery, with the camera doing continual sweeps of the set with multiple A-chans, Kashiyukas and Nocchis dancing, bouncing balls and striking poses at various points. It feels similar to “Magic of Love” however the colour palate is far more muted with mostly shades of grey. Interestingly all three look quite different, almost unrecognisable with changes in make-up and hair as well as the designer clothes worn for the video. Perfume look extraordinarily mature here. Also of note here is the clock motif which ties in with the piano loop in the song.

Cling Cling
This single had a massive promotional push and the CD versions included four brand new songs, three of which had some sort of music video made for them. The video for the title track of the single is set in a market which seems to be an amalgamation of several Asian cultures. The girls in Chinese style dresses are seen cooking and manning stalls in the market as a you girl enters and finds a kaleidoscope. Intercut with these scenes during the chorus is the trio dancing on a stage in the middle of the market with what seems to be monks. Later in the video, one of the monks steals the little girl’s kaleidoscope, however using a hook on a rope and pulley, Perfume retrieve it for her. Compared with the pervious videos for their new record label, this one has quite a large budget. The costumes for this video were displayed at various promotional events in Japan including a “Cling Cling World” gallery. The single was released in May 2014.

DISPLAY
This short music video was made essentially as a promotion tool/product demonstration for a new line of Panasonic 4K ultra high definition TVs being released in Japan. The clip merges three camera passes of a set with the set colour and Perfume’s dresses changing each time. All three passes are then combined and partially merged with the others. Due to the high resolution of the source material, the video looks overly sharp, unnatural and a little bit off-putting in my opinion, even on my 1080p blu-ary player and 10 year old digital TV. I much prefer the filmic look of their other videos. Unfortunately the only version of this video in existence is the one presented here which only runs for about a minute and half. Like many of the B-sides of Perfume’s recent singles, amazingly this track did not find a place on their last album. This song originally appeared on the “Cling Cling” CD single.

Hold Your Hand
The third video from the “Cling Cling” single. This is probably Perfume’s most simple and most likely their cheapest music video. After the single was released, the group put out a call for fans to take photographs of their hands with kanji or hiragana of the song’s lyrics. These photos were complied with additional photographs of A-chan, Kashiyuka and Nocchi doing the same thing to make a “lyric video”. It’s a really cute idea and it’s quite effective, even though I’m not exactly a huge fan of the song. Some of the painting and drawings on the hands are really well done, but due to the number of photos used, they flick by quite quickly. Flicking through the images one by one is quite interesting and brings up a number of surprises.This song also originally appeared on the “Cling Cling” CD single. The video clip did not appear on the bonus DVD of the limited edition CD/DVD sets of “Cling Cling”. Instead it was heavily promoted on Perfume's Youtube channel and later appeared on the bonus DVD and Blu-ray in the limited edition versions of “Cosmic Explorer” album.

Relax In The City
This release was a double A single with “Pick Me Up”. A slower ballad song, the video clip has Perfume in a Perspex cube room which appears near the beachfront somewhere remote in Okinawa. The trio in white dresses mostly just walk around outside the room during the verses with camera suddenly zooming in and zooming out to reveal a new scene transition (and usually whoever is singing the next part of the song). It’s relatively subtle and quite well done. From what I understand the video what shot in February and due to the sheer material used in the dresses, Perfume were quite cold and unconformable during filming. The song was also used in a TV commercial featuring Perfume for Sapporo Green Aroma beer. This single was released in the usual standard CD and and limited edition CD single with bonus DVD versions in April 2015.

Pick Me Up
The other A side of the split single. This was a double collaboration. First with Japanese department store Isetan. With the initial scenes set outside the Shinjuku store close to midnight, the trio find themselves being drawn inside by some unknown force. There they explore inside and eventually find doppelgangers of themselves. They separately try to escape and are menaced by mannequins  Intercut with this are sequences if the trio dancing and acting like mannequins in the store’s windows. Coupled with the incredibly unsubtle Isetan plugs is a second collaboration with US rock group OK Go. They appear at the very start of the video as store mannequins. The group were returning a favour as Perfume had also made a cameo in their “I Won't Let You Down” video. Later the two groups would collaborate a song called “I Don’t Understand You” for the “Sushi Police” anime soundtrack.

STAR TRAIN
This single was released to promote the documentary film “We Are Perfume”, which followed the group on their third world tour in October and November 2014 taking in Taipei, Singapore, Los Angeles, London and New York (the first time Perfume had toured the US, a real achievement from them) as well as a performance at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin Texas. The video is a very simple affair with the group miming to the song mostly while watching the film on an old 16mm film projector. Most recently the song has been used as an emotional closer for their concerts. The director of the video was long time collaborator Kazuaki Seki who has directed videos for Base Ball Bear, Boom Boom Satellites, Glay and OK Go. This single was released in conjunction with the “We Are Perfume” documentary in October 2015.

FLASH
This video was created to promote their fifth studio album, “Cosmic Explorer” which was released in April 2016 in a multitude of physical formats. Originally released on the soundtrack for the live action film series of the “Chihayafuru” manga, this video is also a simplistic affair with the trio preforming martial arts-type dance moves on an empty studio stage. Some computer graphics have been added in post-production to make the action a bit more impressive and in the latter part of the video the girls use long florescent tubes in a kind of mock laser sabre battle/dance. It has been noted by fans that the dance moves in the video were similar to those used by Babymetal for their video “Karate” which was released around the same time. Both groups use the same choreographer, Mikiko, and are managed by the same production agency. The video was directed by Yusuke Tanaka.

TOKYO GIRL
The first new single in the next cycle of multiple singles before finally, a new album. The video for this song opens on Tokyo at night. A large tower has appeared in the city, with Perfume separately riding it’s glass elevators to the top. Meanwhile several people carrying small luminescent pyramid structures run around various landmarks of the city leaving the pyramids in various places. Eventually beams of light emit from the pyramids and converge at the apex of the tower Perfume are on as they dance on an illuminated stage inside. Fans tired to figure out what the tower would be in Tokyo if it were real and discovered it was right in the block were Perfume's production company, Amuse, is; in Shibuya. This single was released in in February 2017. Kazuaki Seki directed the video.

Everyday
The split singe for this release (released with “If you wanna”) was mostly a massive promotion for a new range of Panasonic washing machines. Some of the footage shot for the video ended up only in the TV commercial for the washing machines and some was specially shot for it on the same set. In the video Perfume dance on a stage set around what look like clouds (or soap suds) with a ring of clouds (or soap suds) flying in formation around them. Both sets of clouds/soapsuds light up in sequence on occasion. Intercut with this are single shots of the trio, with the clock motif from “Sweet Refrain” repeated, except with the clock occasionally “exploded” to show it’s individual parts. Perfume are also shown levitating and somewhat disturbingly shown with the lower half of the bodies dissolving into soap suds, with some of the suds falling from their body to the ground. The single was released in August 2017.

If you wanna
The title track of the split single with “Everyday”. Unlike “Everyday” the video did not appear on the special edition CD and DVD set of the single. Instead it exclusively appeared in this video clip compilation. A throwback to their earlier material, this track features heavily processed stuttered vocals. The video has the trio hibernating in an expansive white room. From there each member is seen in from of large floating objects such as large ships, passenger planes and cars. The verses feature close ups of each member of perfume while the chorus cut to a different set filled with numerous flashing light boards. Clocking at just over two minutes, it’s Perfume’s shortest single to date. If I was cynical this was in part to create a shorter and cheaper music video. The song was also used in a TV commercial for Kuchimoto Ora2 beauty products.

As per the original limited edition “Perfume Clips” sets, the packaging for this limited edition version is pretty much identical. The blu-rays come in a digipak with a lenticular image on the front featuring images from videos. This open sup to reveal a simple insert in a pocket with the credits for the videos and the packaging. Over the digipak fits a thin cardboard sleeve (identical to “Perfume Clips”) which probably is meant to mimic the border around a TV set. There's also A 24 page booklet with comments from staff, selected storyboards, image boards, plus shots of Perfume catering for staff, in a video editing studio and with camera equipment. The second disc of extras includes commentary with Perfume themselves on all of the videos. This is not done in the usual way with just an audio track. Instead the trio are in a theatrette with the camera on them with video matted into background. They mostly talk about their experiences in making videos, however for “Mirai no Museum” amusingly they just end up dramatically reading the sound effects off the screen. Also included on the disc is an alternate short version of “Everyday” with the trio shot behind a green screen with added CG bubbles which was probably used for the Panasonic washing machine campaign, plus TV commercials for every single and album release for their current record label to date.

Overall it's a fantastic package that fans of the group will love. I love most of the videos here, however I think some of their earlier ones, especially those created for the singles from the “JPN” album are the best of the career. Still it amazes me that their production company and record label still pours a lot of money in the group and these videos despite the rapidly dwindling singles, album and home video sales. The group has lost their a lot of their edgier dance sound and are heading for a more dance pop sound, seemingly becoming influenced by whatever is trending in western markets, yet I still find them fascinating. Like the first set, I think I'll end up playing this over and over again for years to come. 8.5 out of 10.

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

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Forgotten Anime: “Sanctuary”

Distributor: Viz Video (USA)
Original Year of Release: 1995
English Video Release: 1996, NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles (English dubbed VHS version also released)
Japanese Title: Sanctuary
Runtime: 65 mins

Note: Originally published on the "Anime Archivist" blog April 2014, based on a previous version published on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2005.

Like a lot of their early manga output, Viz released a lot of anime that you’d think would sell like lead bricks. I often wondered if their game plan was throw whatever was available out there and see what sticks. Shoujo, romantic shonen, ancient anime like “Galaxy Express 999”. Another bizarre genre they stuck their toe in was Yakuza anime. Yep, Yakuza anime. I bet you can’t name five Yakuza anime off the top of your head. The only other one I could immediately think of was “Gokusen”, which is more on the comedy side of things, or “Crying Freeman”, but what else is there? There certainly isn’t many titles in the genre available, let alone in English. First up, the story of this OVA;

Yakuza member Akira Hojo and his underling Tashiro are attempting to blackmail a prominent politician, Shuichi Sakura, with some incriminating photographs showing him making love to woman who isn’t his wife. Before they have time to react, Shuichi’s secretary and right hand man, Asami Chiaki, punches Tashiro. This politician doesn’t take threats from the Yakuza seriously. He tells them that he doesn’t care if anybody sees the pictures. It’s time for the young and clever yakuza Hojo to change tact. Hojo’s boss, the don of the Sagura clan tells him not to mess with politicians. Sagura secretly has dealings with the dirty Shuichi, and he doesn’t want them to mess them up.

Hojo’s main business is running a casino for the clan, but he has higher ambitions. Unbeknownst to all sides in this tangled web of corruption, Hojo and Asami have actually been friends since school. Asami took the path of politics, while Hojo became a Yakuza. Though they’ve chosen radically different career paths, they are working closely with each other for a common goal. Hojo’s men visit Shuichi again. He is taken to a hotel where he sees from a distance Hojo and his daughter frolicking together near the hotel’s pool. Shuichi is told that if he doesn’t retire, something may happen to his daughter. Later Shuichi tells Asami that he doesn’t care about the threats from the yakuza. Things are not going to plan and Hojo is having even greater troubles.

The clan don Sagura is upset with Hojo, but Hojo’s men carry out a plan to appease the don. They pay him off with money from fraudulent loans Shuichi has made with Daito Credit Union. The Secretary General of the Japanese parliament “mysteriously” comes across the photos Hojo was blackmailing Shuichi with and decides the party should withdraw support for him. He doesn’t want a scandal to taint the government. Shuichi vows to run as an independent, but Asami tells him in no uncertain terms that he plans to take over his constituency and run as member of the party with their full support. Hojo and Asami are finally within reach of their goals. Nothing seems to be able to stop them.

However a spanner in the works soon arrives in the form of Tokai. Recently released from prison, he is a yakuza member of the Sagura clan and he likes to do things the old way. This causes friction amongst some members especially Hojo. Tokai built up Sagura’s empire and considering the position he’s currently in, he feels a little short changed. Sagura has seemingly made the situation worse by giving Tokai’s former territory to Hojo. But this is all part of Sagura’s plan. He believes he is far too ambitious, and sets about manipulating Tashiro and Tokai into killing Hojo to get him out of the picture.

As I said before, anime based upon the popular yakuza manga genre is very rare indeed. Having previously seen “Crying Freeman”, one of the very few yakuza anime series commercially released in English, and the fact that I really detested the series, I really wasn’t looking forward to watching “Sanctuary”. Add in the fact that “Fist of the North Star” writer Sho Fumimura (aka Buronson) and “Crying Freeman” writer/artist Ryoichi Ikegami produced the original “Sanctuary” manga, and I the fact I really hated both of those manga and anime, I was even less enthused. I suspected it would be another “Crying Freeman” with naked killers, absurd violence and incredibly implausible storylines, but I was very pleasantly surprised the maturity and realism of this OVA. Unlike the ridiculously unbelievable crime world of “Crying Freeman” and the over the top violence of “Fist of the North Star”, “Sanctuary” has an air of realism about it that is very believable. No naked female killers, no exploding heads. It could almost be a day in the life of a real yakuza clan.

Surprisingly this adaptation of the first arc of the Sanctuary manga is very well done and rarely strays from its source material. The story flows effortlessly, and plot is very engaging and mature. While I really enjoyed the crime aspect to the OVA, the sex scenes felt a bit exploitative to me. But while there are several sex scenes in “Sanctuary”, luckily they are few in number and fairly short. Most of the time I felt they weren’t necessary and cheapened the production. What scared me though is how Ryoichi Ikegami draws the majority of his female characters. Their faces are very similar to his male characters (those damn eyebrows!). As a result it looks quite strange to see all these red-blooded males having sex with women which, quite frankly, look like men. It’s really off putting and makes a lot of the sex scenes a lot less erotic than what they were intended to be.

If the sex wasn’t exploitative enough, another thing which put me off was the way women were treated. There is a short rape scene in the OVA, and one scene has Shuichi saying that he doesn’t care if his daughter gets raped by a yakuza or married off to an idiot husband. To him it’s the same thing. I really found that line to be a little shocking. Another rather cruel scene involves a police woman, Kyoko Ishihara, who is trying to entrap Hojo. She sets out to seduce him, but ends up drugged and finds herself in naked in motel room and what she thinks is blood on the sheets under her body. She thinks she’s been raped, but then notices on the table next to the bed is a can of half empty tomato juice and a letter from Hojo revealing that he knows who she is. It’s a really nasty scene, but at the same it’s a bit humorous because it’s a little over the top and quite evil. Due the fact the show is adapted from a seinen manga mostly aimed at businessmen, I really shouldn’t be surprised at the blatant sexism and outright misogyny.

Apart from the very engaging storyline and realistic characters, the other element that impressed me the most was the music. Apart from a couple of minor background music pieces, the music selected for the show is very sophisticated and adult orientated. It makes such a change from the bland pop music soundtrack that most anime have.

“Sanctuary” is a quite cleverly plotted and produced anime. The gratuitous sex scenes and slightly misogynistic tone I could do without, but the story stands up quite well to many American mafia dramas. It’s plays out much like a live action piece, and in fact was also adapted into a live action movie that Viz also released around the same time as the anime. Both the dub and subtitled versions of this anime are fairly easy to come across and are pretty cheap second hand. If you’re after something completely different from a genre not usually seen in anime and want something more mature than your standard anime fare, “Sanctuary” is something you should be checking out.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Dead Anime Magazines in English: “Anime-zine”

Publisher: Robert Fenelon, Beverly Headley, Minstrel Press Inc
Format: A4
Genre/Type: Anime, some tokusatsu coverage, some western animation
Years Active: 1986 – 1988
Issues Published: 3

Note: Originally published on the "Anime Archivist" blog April 2014, based on a previous version published on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2006.

During my initial years in anime fandom, especially in those early pre-internet years, one of the things I loved doing was collecting anime magazines. Most were a wealth of knowledge and data, especially for information starved fans like myself. Certainly in the early years of fandom these were an important source of news and info, especially if you were completely Japanese language deficient. As I’ve already gone through a brief history on the Japanese side of things, I thought it might be good to have a look at what happened in the west. With this series of posts, I hope to cover the majority of English language anime (and some tokusatsu) magazines that are no longer published, but it will be by no means a definitive list. Some are just too obscure (such as ones published in Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa) or were printed in such a low number that they were practically impossible to find when published, let alone years afterwards. Before I begin, I must note that I am including any publication that has been printed on proper printing press as a magazine. Though I am not including fanzines, however I am including magazines which began as fanzines/newsletters which eventually became magazines.

So the first magazine on the pile is “Anime-zine”. Widely considered to be the first English language anime magazine, it’s debut issue was published in April 1986. The magazine born out of the ashes of the Star Blazers Fancub. Club founder Mike Pinto was instrumental in getting the magazine up and running, though the actual core staff of the magazine were editor Robert Fenelon, co-publisher Beverly Headley and Luke Menicheli who did the layouts and graphics. While the presentation of the magazine was a little rough in spots, the debut issue was quite impressive. In its humble 28 pages it included articles on “Megazone 23”, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and an article on the “Godzilla” films. In it’s pages you’ll also find some pretty good fan art for the period, including a Desslar “Gamilon Express Card” comic which Fenelon would later act out in cosplay at AnimeCon ’91.

The second issue, released in 1987, saw the magazine expand to 44 pages and a full colour cover. The magazine had improved substantially with articles on “Saint Seiya” and the third “Yamato” TV series, which included a detailed section on the original aborted plan to make it run for 52 episodes. The late Toren Smith (founder of Studio Proteus) also contributed with an article on “The Wings of Honeamise” that included a script comparison of Go East’s obscure and so-dreadful-it-only-played-once English dub of the film titled “Star Quest” (screened at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in February 1987, a month before the Japanese release). Also in the issue was an article on Toho’s sci-fi films of the 1950’s and 1960’s and what was meant to be a continuing column; Toren Smith’s “News From Japan”. Looking back through some of these old magazines, some of the info really of surprises the bejesus out of you. Toren Smith tells us that Harmony Gold have done a horrible English dub pilot of “Aura Battler Dunbine” and that mecha designer Yutaka Izubuchi (who would go on to direct “RahXephon” and “Yamato 2199”) told him that Lucasfilm will be providing special effects for a live action version of the series. Toren seems to swear black and blue that he saw Harmony Gold’s English dub, but that news about a live action “Dunbine” is kind of hard to swallow.

But regardless of the what could described as somewhat dubious information presented as fact, these three issues are prime examples of why I usually keep these old magazines and sometimes use them as a main source for reference rather than the internet. There’s just some brilliant nuggets of information here. Apparently Viz were considering publishing Mitsuru Adachi’s “Touch” and even the “Doraemon” manga in English. Mark E Rogers’ fantasy short stories book “The Adventures of Samurai Cat” was apparently getting an animated movie adaptation by Hyperion Films (“The Brave Little Toaster”) with character designs by Go Nagai. However quotes from Rogers in a news article in the third issue have him cursing the studio who seem to have led him up in the garden path. Apparently the Go Nagai thing was a lie by the studio, and his characters were reduced to ethnic stereotypes. Unsurprisingly the film was never made. As you may have guessed, general western animation was also covered to a degree with several news items including the aborted attempt to make a sequel to the 1986 animate film “Yellow Submarine”. It was reported in two issues that the new film, titled “Strawberry Fields”, was in pre-production at the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab, who had previously produced sequences for the “Lensman” movie. The magazine also noted that ITC Productions was putting up $6 million for the project. Apparently it was due for a summer 1988 release, but in a latter issue it was reported it had been moved to a spring 1989 timeframe. Surprisingly I cannot find information on the web about the film which is as detailed as what is in this magazine.

The final issue saw the magazine reach 60 pages and included articles on “Gundam: Char’s Counterattack”, The “Dirty Pair” and “Crusher Joe” franchises (with the “Dirty Pair” material taking up more than a third of the magazine), “Dragonar”, 1960’s anime “Eight Man” and a small article on musician Ryuichi Sakamoto (formerly of Yellow Magic Orchestra and composer for the film scores of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, “The Last Emperor” and The Wings of Honneamise”). There were also articles on the works of American animator Ralph Bakshi; one on the 1980’s remake of “Mighty Mouse” and the 1977 film “Wizards”. The “Wizards” article was written by the late Jeff Thompson who would later publish Animenominous magazine in the early 1990’s and also would later become a producer at the Right Stuf. Patricia Malone of the New York chapter of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organisation also wrote an interesting article on the ethnicity of characters in anime and a column called “New Visions” which focused on new TV and OVA releases was published in place of Toren Smith’s “News From Japan”.

It was promised that issue four to was to contain articles on “Zillion” and more on “Saint Seyia”, but luck was not on the magazine’s side. A post on rec.arts.anime in 1991 by Winston Sorfleet of Ianus Publications indicated that the publisher suffered a stroke and during the same period the editor had a serious car accident. Publication of the magazine halted immediately, and it never recovered from these terrible setbacks. Subscribers were given issues of Ianus Publications’ and Protoculture Addicts’ “Poster-zine” (which used many of the staff from “Anime-zine”) to make up a year’s subscription. Despite its short life and humble beginnings, it contained some great info, some of which you can’t find on the web today. Unfortunately I only discovered the magazine in a second hand bookstore in Sydney some eight years after it ceased publishing. It would have been interesting to see how the magazine may have developed had it continued, as each issue was better than the last. While it certainly wasn’t as polished as the magazines which followed it, “Anime-zine” is a great little read if you want to see what pre-US anime industry fandom looked liked. Despite the fact nearly 30 years have passed since it was first published, all three issues can be found easily on eBay.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Video Backlog: “Dancouga”

Publisher: Eastern Star (Discotek, USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles
Length: 38 episodes x 24 mins
Production Date: 1985
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

During the late 20th century, an alien empire called Zorbados is in the process of invading Earth. With little effort and in a short amount of time, the invaders lay waste to the vast majority of Earth’s defences. At the Space Officer Academy in Australia, even new recruits are sent into battle. This includes the close couple of Shapiro Keats and Sara Yuki. Shapiro realises the Earth is doomed and believes this is his chance to make something of his life. He takes the bold decision to defect to the enemy. Sara attempts to follow but another cadet, the cocky Shinobu Fujiwara, fires at her plane to disable it which forces her to land. Shinobu advises the military that Shapiro is presumed dead but in fact has been caught and is being tortured by the enemy for information. Brazenly he tells them he wants to defect to their side and offers up a plan to prove himself. He suggests a plan to attack the top secret North American weapon cache, which supplies the continent and has caused trouble for the empire. Since Shapiro’s information is accurate, Emperor Muge soon realises that Shapiro could be highly useful to them and gives him a prominent position in their military, despite the grumblings of his generals.

Back on Earth, Shinobu is transferred to Japan as part of the Cyber Beast Force (or CBF), which is an agency specifically set up to fight the alien attack with advanced technology. There under the supervision of General Ross Igor and Professor Kotaro Hazuki, Shinobu’s fighter is modified. Sceptical that the modifications will enable him to better fight the enemy, he is given orders to pilot the machine now called the Eagle Fighter. As per his nature, Shinobu ignores the general and professor’s orders in terms of engaging the enemy. However, while in combat that he realises that through his anger, it changes into “Aggressive Beast Mode”, in which he is able to wipe out most of the empire’s fighters. Shinobu is soon joined by Sara who is tasked with piloting a tank called the Land Cougar. Though at first Shinobu protests at her inclusion in the team due to the fact she tried to defect with Shapiro, he later accepts her as a team member. Two others later join them; a young man named Masato Shikibu who pilots a tank called the Land Liger, and the rather aloof and cool Ryo Shiba who pilots another tank called the Big Moth (as in Mammoth).

Through the many battles with the aliens, they discover many things about their craft they pilot. All of them have the “Aggressive Beast Mode”, and can change into “Beast Mode” (into a mechanical Eagle, Cougar, Liger and Mammoth respectively). Not only that, their machines can transform into a humanoid form and eventually can link up together to form the giant robot “Dancouga” when Shinobu enters the code word “Dancouga” in his Eagle. Although they are sometimes defeated by the enemy, they always return to counterattack. They are sometimes helped by a mysterious fighter only known as the Black Knight who has his own beast warrior machine. However General Ross warns the CBF not to engage with the Black Knight as he may not be on their side. Early on in the series, Shinobu befriends a young girl called Laura Sullivan. Her mother has been killed in an attack on Sacramento city and only her and her puppy, Becky, have survived. But due to an alien attack, Shinobu manages to lose track of her. Later in the series, Sara discovers Laura and brings her back to the CBF base where General Igor eventually adopts her.

With the continuing Zorbados empire attacks, Sara notices the pattern of tactics being used is similar to those favoured by Shapiro. She believes that he is directing the attacks, however Shinobu convinces her that it’s a coincidence. In a latter operation Sara accidentally comes across Shapiro inside the enemy’s fortress. The confirmation that Shapiro did indeed defect to the enemy which shocks her. The former lovers are now on opposite sides of the war, directly fighting each other. As the series progresses towards its final arc, the war against the Zorbados empire is soon getting worse and it seems that Earth is losing. After a long search often hampered by the CBF themselves, the Zorbados empire eventually finds the hidden CBF base and attack it mercilessly. But General Igor and Professor Hazuki have an ace up their sleeve that may be able to save the Earth.

This somewhat mediocre robot show from the mid 1980’s has for some reason always fascinated me. I’ve previously written about it a few times. Possibly the only other franchise I’ve written about more is Gundam. Originally released by Software Sculptures on VHS in the US in the late 1990’s, it had the unfortunate distinction of being the longest series released on VHS that was never reissued on DVD or blu-ray.  Finally Discotek has decided to release the series on DVD. Although the show is from the mid 1980’s, it does feel at times it is a throwback from another era, especially with some elements obviously taken from super robot shows. Certainly with shows like “Macross” and “Votoms” airing years before “Dancouga”, the general set up of the series feels downright old fashioned. Couple this with the fact it’s an anime explicitly made to sell transformable toys and looking like a combination of “Go Lion” and any number of 1970’s giant combining robot vs alien invaders shows, it’s somehow is quite entertaining. There’s enough plot twists to keep the viewer interested nearly all the way through. Despite the fact CBF look like a clichéd fighting team on initial viewing, the characters have a decent amount of depth to them, though some can be rather unlikable at times, and some have really interesting backgrounds. But as I said before a lot of the show is pretty mediocre. A lot of the story is predictable. For example, guess who General Igor’s estranged son is? Also the way the general acts towards his team is pretty clichéd as well. Outside of “Zeta Gundam”, I’ve never seen so many people get slapped or punched (mostly team mates hitting each other or high ups doing the hitting).

Playing an odd role is a girl called Laura Sullivan. Though it would seem she’s only there to sell the soundtrack to the series (she sings a song named “Harmony Love” and her voice actor sings both opening theme songs.), she plays an important part in the end due the song she sings. The creators have also included some odd pop culture references in the show. A child solider they come across is named Dan Aykroyd, and the system that controls Dancouga is called “THX 1138”. Even worse is the terrible stereotyping of foreign people. Since the show takes place in many countries, the writers had many chances to show their general ignorance. In one episode the CBF go to Harlem in New York where they meet a group of African Americans who just dance and play Jazz all the time. In another episode they go to Switzerland where a local says “We Swiss are always prepared for war!”, and we cut away to the locals bringing out a massive cache of weapons and even anti-aircraft turrets.

Unfortunately some of the animation isn’t too crash hot. For a large number of episodes towards the first quarter of the series, in some scenes only the key animation is used. So there’s only about two frames a second in some of the animation. It looks terribly cheap, even for TV animation. Also some of the character designs are massacred by the animators and are really off model at times. However, towards the end of the series, especially in the last five or so episodes, the animation improves substantially. Like a lot of robot anime of the period the soundtrack is reasonably good. Most of it is with a full band and includes a lot of brass instruments. There are some synthesised tracks, but these are kept to a minimum and most of these are OK, albeit a bit cheesy at times. There’s no one on the staff roster of note other than Masami Obari who did some of the mecha designs and key animation. His style is pretty distinctive and you can easily spot his animation cuts, especially those involving Dancouga or any other mecha in the series.

Discotek’s 6 disc set is about as good as you’re going to get in terms of an English langue release. The original 8 volume set put out by Software Sculptures not only cut out most of the ending animations as well as the next episode previews, but the second opening animation featuring the song “A Real Kiss In Return”, was transposed with the first. Naturally the Discotek version reverses all of these edits and unnecessary changes. The original episode title cards had the episode title in Japanese as well as an English language title, often not a translation at all and sometimes phrased awkwardly or misspelled. Software Sculptures never actually translated or subbed the Japanese titles, however Discotek have finally done the right thing and subbed them. The translation in part seems to be ported directly over from the original script found on the old VHS tapes. I sort of wish they had scrapped that script and done a completely new translation. The other thing I noticed in this set is the rather noisy analogue tape hiss in the audio. I can only assume this was present on the Japanese DVD and blu-ray box sets, so I’m confused as to why the audio was never cleaned up. This DVD set contains no extras whatsoever. The final VHS tape in Software Sculptures’ release featured the follow up OVA, “Requiem for Victims”, albeit edited down to 30 minutes to remove recap footage from the TV series. Unfortunately, this OVA is not present in Discotek’s release. The company have not stated if they will release this OVA or the other OVAs in the franchise.

“Dancouga” is a decent robot anime TV series. Without the plot twists and fairly interesting characters it’d be dull as dishwater and just a toy commercial. It just manages to rise above being average. There is a significant rise in the quality of the story and animation towards the end of the series which just about saved this show for me. In short, this show is hardly as good as many other robot anime of the time, but still it’s worth a look if you like the genre. 6 out of 10.

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Anime Music Video Compilations: “Bronze Cathexis Koji Nanjo”

Publisher: Youmex/Margaret Video/Toshiba EMI
Format: VHS and Laserdisc, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue
Length: 33 minutes
Original Release Date: 6 July 1994
Animation Exclusive to this Release: Yes
Other Sources (Japanese unless noted): None
Currently Availability (as of writing): Out of Print

Note: Originally published on the "Anime Archivist" blog April 2014.

Coinciding with the amazing rise of anime’s popularity in the west in the early to mid 00’s was the fandom around Yaoi. What struck me was that despite all of the material released during that period, Minami Ozaki’s popular manga “Zetsuai 1989” and the follow up series “Bronze: Zetsuai Since 1989”, as well as their anime adaptations, were never translated and marketed to an English language audience. I think it’s easily one of the best in the genre, and I’m not exactly a fan of Yaoi. I first came across the series around 1998 or so when a friend recommended it to me. I borrowed his fansubbed tape which also included the “Bronze Cathexis Koji Nanjo” music video. While I wasn’t completely sold on the OVA (the 1996 “Bronze: Zetsuai Since 1989”, in which the character designs overemphasised the pointy chins and noses almost to parody of the original designs), I thought the music video collection was brilliant. It was dark and moody and the music was fantastic, the antithesis of the brightly coloured, perpetually happy idol filled J-Pop I had heard (and mostly disliked) up to that point

The origins of the story, believe it or not, come from Ozaki’s “Captain Tsubasa” dojinshi published in the late 1980’s. Based on the highly popular shonen soccer manga, it featured forward Kojiro Hyuga and goalkeeper Ken Wakashimazu in a homosexual relationship. As you might have guessed by the title, the manga was released in 1989 and soon developed quite a following. Ozaki halted the series only after five volumes, but recommenced the manga under the title “Bronze: Zetsuai Since 1989” in 1991, only for it to cease prematurely at 19 volumes due to illness. Ozaki later drew a dojinshi to give the story a proper conclusion. The manga spun off two OVAs; Madhouse’s “Zetsuai 1989” in 1992 and Production I.G’s “Bronze: Zetsuai Since 1989” in 1996. A number audio dramas, a couple of albums and scores of mini albums also followed. I suppose with one of leads being a rock star, it was rather inevitable that the music and animation would eventually come together. But before we look at this compilation track by track, I think we should take a closer look at the story of the franchise;

“Zetsuai 1989” follows 17 year old rock star Koji Nanjo, who has become rather apathetic towards life and feels that he can’t find happiness. After a solo pub crawl late at night, he ends up out on the street collapsed on a pile of garbage bags in the pouring rain. 17 year old Soccer prodigy Takuto Izumi is in the midst of training when he comes across Koji. For some strange reason and against his better judgement, Izumi feels compelled to take him out of the rain and back to his flat. Koji awakens the next morning and is stunned that he finds himself being drawn towards Izumi. Passing billboards in Shibuya, Izumi realises who Koji is and asks him to return to his career. But Koji soon develops an obsession with him, much to Izumi’s annoyance. It later occurs to Koji that he had previously saw Izumi some six years ago at school and had immediately fell for him then.

Despite Izumi’s initial reluctance, their relationship eventually develops but Izumi decides to take off for Italy to further his soccer skills without telling Koji. Koji discovers what has happened and races off to airport, but ends up in a serious accident on his motorbike. Nearly dying from this incident, Kojo awakens to find he cannot speak. Soon after the sudden death of his father forces him to become the head of his influential and rich family. He tries to avoid this task and continue his music career, but his brother blackmails him into doing it by threatening to publicly reveal his relationship with Izumi. Meanwhile Izumi decides to turn his back on Koji and their relationship and heads off to Italy permanently to play in the national league. As you’d imagine, the music video compilation is just as melodramatic as the plot of the manga and anime adaptations;

“Bad Blood” performed by Hayami Sho
First up I should mention that this compilation was produced by Madhouse who made the first OVA two years prior. The compilation was directed by none other than Rintaro (“Galaxy Express 999”, “Metropolis”) and features some Madhoue’s top talent of the time working on storyboards. “Bad Blood” was storyboarded by Kodera Katsuyuki who is probably most famous as the director of “Sci-Fi Harry”. This video looks like a typical live action music video of the time. Koji and his band are playing in what seems like an abandoned building. Like the music, fast paced rock with wild guitar and lot of synth, it’s very moody looking. Intercut with the scenes of the band are various shots of a lone Koji; a shot of him in a seemingly abandoned Shibuya, next to a wreck of a car, near a military base etc. Towards the end there is a shot of Koji draped over a young white haired man (I’m not sure if this is meant to be Izumi or not) on a bed, bare chested with his hands tied above his head. It certainly fits the song’s lyrics which are not only sexual, but quite violent. The song “Bad Blood” is performed by Koji’s voice actor, Hayami Sho, who performs all of the vocals on this compilation. The song was first released on the mini album “Shakumetsu Natsu: Zetsuai -1989- Version 2” in September 1992.

“Jesus Christ Love For You” performed by Hayami Sho
Well if the pain, blood and overt homosexuality was too much for you in the first video, then you may not like what’s coming up next; blasphemy! There are a ton of Christian imagery references in the video, mostly to do with angels and most perplexingly an image of the Ark. The song lyrics and imagery leave little doubt that Koji believes he is Izumi’s saviour. However despite his best efforts, in the end he fails. Izumi in his angel form whisks Koji off towards heaven. Apart from the angels, there’s scene of some strange ceremony in a church and unexplained shots of a black carriage being draw though a snowy landscape by galloping black stallions (with Koji in the carriage). There’s also a reference to Izumi’s childhood where we see him as child in a pool of blood, stabbed by his suicidal mother. Believe it or not, Yoshiaki Kawajiri (of “Ninja Scroll” and “Wicked City” fame) drew the storyboards for the video. The song used for here is has a slower tempo, but is just a moody and dark as the other tracks on this compilation. Like the previous track, it also appears on the mini album “Shakumetsu Natsu: Zetsuai -1989- Version 2”.

“Katsuai (Thirsty Love)” performed by Hayami Sho
The third video reverts back to a simpler style of music video. The majority of shots are of Koji and his band inside a recording studio performing the song. Apart from shots of the band and Koji, there are close up cutaway shots of the studio’s equipment. As the video progresses, we see shots of Koji embracing Izumi and standing alone next his car beside the bay bridge in Tokyo. The last part of the video has Koji performing in concert with chains draped over him, and his hands seemingly fondling the microphone stand. The camera finally focuses in on the young white haired boy from the first video, who is standing in the crowd. Yes, it’s full steam ahead with the over the top Yaoi imagery with this one. The song, like all of the tracks here, is really well produced with layers of synth and also a few slightly off kilter notes from a saxophone. The lyrics are really dark and quite disturbing with the one line “I hate you/I rape you” being sung in English. It comes off as a really abusive love song. This version of the song is a was taken off the mini album “Cathexis” which was released in June 1994. The original can be found on mini album “Bronze Endmax Katsuai XX93” which was released in September 1993. Koichi Chigira, who would later go on to direct “Gate Keepers” and “Full Metal Panic!”, worked on the storyboards.

“20XX Zetsu-ai (20XX Desperate Love)” performed by Hayami Sho
The fourth video is set in a sci-fi post apocalyptic world. Izumi seems to be the leader of a resistance group fighting against a tyrannical Koji. It starts off with a number of soldiers being brutally killed with gushers of blood spraying everywhere. Izumi then sneaks into Koji’s compound to do a bit of sabotage. Koji watches him on a monitor and latter goes out to battle him. In the ensuing fight, Koji gets the upper hand, chases him, then strikes him down with his sword to subdue him. He then proceeds to strip Izumi and seemingly sexually assaults him. In the final shot, Koji is crying tears of blood. Putting aside the obvious Nazi imagery (which the animators barely obscure), the other slightly disturbing part of this video is the lyrics, full of sexual violence. But when you think about it, it’s really no more shocking than the other songs in this compilation. Both Koji and Izumi are dressed in black with their over the top capes flapping the in the breeze (reminding me a lot of CLAMP’s “X”). It’s all very dark and moody (I know, I’m overusing those two words…), but almost teeters on the edge of parody. The song used for the video is probably best described as hard rock with a driving guitar but lots of layered synth as well. The song was first released on the “Bronze Endmax Katsuai XX93” mini album in September 1993. Morio Asaka who would later direct such titles as “Cardcaptor Sakura”, “Chobits”, “Gunslinger Girl” and “Chihayafuru”, drew the storyboards.

“Gekkou ~ Möbius no Eien (Moonlight Eternal Möbius)” performed by Hayami Sho
Yet another dark (literally) and moody video clip. It begins with a close up shot of Koji’s face as his long hair (coloured black rather than his usual white/silver) blows around his face in the breeze. This is intercut with real leaves animated as they were blowing in the wind. This progresses to a real shot of a “photograph” of Koji in various stages of destruction, literally being torn to pieces. The clip then reverts to normal cel animation as Koji is seen in a black, but snowy landscape with a giant full moon in the background. Mid way through the clip, we see images of the couple making love and then from the manga the sequence where Izumi leaves for Italy and Koji goes after him. The accident sequence is really well done here, in fact a lot more dramatic than how it was presented in the “Bronze: Zetsuai Since 1989” OVA a couple of years later. At the end of the video Koji sees Izumi in a doorway, only for him to turn and leave Kojio again. The song is essentially a love ballad, but as with the rest of the music here it has a dark undercurrent flowing beneath it. The track first appeared on the “Bronze Endmax Katsuai XX93” mini album. Toshio Hirata did the storyboards for this one. He is best known at the director for “Barefoot Gen 2”, “The Fantastic Adventures of Unico” and “Pet Shop of Horrors”.

The music video compilation ends with an “Original Image Picture Crip” (I think they mean “Clip”, not an LA gang member). This is a six minute slideshow of Minami Ozaki’s colour artwork from the series. The music is a classical piece, Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G minor” which is actually taken from the “Cathexis” mini album, released in June 1994. I can find no credits for the performers of the piece. A couple of minor effects used in the clip are a little bit cheap and cheesy. Strangely the VHS version of this compilation was released as a two tape set; the first tape with the five animated music videos, the second tape with the image clip. The laserdisc version contains both on one side of the disc.

“Cathexis” is still one of my favourite anime music video compilations. However there is an aspect of the compilation which bugs me. It’s the animation. While it may the animation may be all brand new and doesn’t include any previously released animation, it’s quite obvious it was produced on a budget. There are a lot of still scenes with camera pans, however most of the action scenes are well animated. The animation frame rate is generally a notch or two below TV animation of the time rather than of OVA quality. However for me the budget animation is a minor annoyance. The music is excellent. Sure it’s rather melodramatic and over the top, much like the visuals and the original source material, but it’s extremely well produced and performed with layers of moody synths and wailing electric guitar. Hayami Sho performs the songs with a lot of emotion that feels genuine.

Despite the popularity of the franchise, no one seems to be interested in re-releasing any of the animated adaptations including this music video compilation. Generally you can find the two VHS tape version for less than ¥500 on Japanese auction sites and Amazon.co.jp, though I have seen copies as high as ¥2,500 and even up to ¥10,000. As most copies hover well under the ¥500 mark and are quite plentiful, so there really is no reason why you should pay above that amount for a copy. The laserdisc version usually goes for around ¥1,000 or less. It’s slightly more rare, but can be found easily. Both versions came with a bonus telephone card, however my second hand laserdisc was missing the card and only came with the black and white lyric and credits insert. In conclusion, even if Yaoi isn’t really your thing (as it is with me) and you aren’t offended by subject matter or the perplexing Nazi imagery in a couple of the videos, then you probably should look into getting this compilation. The music is brilliantly crafted Japanese pop-rock and the visuals are awesome.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Obscurities in the Western Connection Catalogue: “The Sensualist”

Release Date: 28 June 1993
Format: PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Runtime: 54 mins
Catalogue Number: WEST005
Japanese Title: Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man)
Japanese Production Date: 1990

Note: Originally published on the "Anime Archivist" blog March 2014, based on a previous version published on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2004.

This is the second part in a series on the UK video label Western Connection (please click here for the intro). The very first anime the company released was the highly obscure OVA “The Sensualist”. While it’s blatantly obvious that the title was really out of step with the material Manga Entertainment and other anime companies in the UK were releasing at the time, it really fits in with the mixed bag of live action foreign and arthouse films that Western Connection had released prior to this. I think we can safely assume that Sasha Capliko had absolutely no intentions of marketing this tape to the anime crowd. Of course this title changed everything for the company. But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the contents of the tape.

Sometime in the Edo period in Japan, an aging man in his early 60s drinks sake while recounting his life. He laments that he is getting old and grey and the women he loved are also turning the same way. From the age of seven until the age of sixty, the man, Yonosuke, had sex with over 3,742 women and 725 men. Born into a wealthy family, offspring of a merchant with loose morals and a prostitute, his obsession with lust eventually led him to gaol, his father disowning him, and even a brief stint as monk, until his lust drove him mad a week later.

Around 10 years earlier, Yonosuke was merchant and running the Kyoto branch of the family business, a shop named Yume which sells kimonos. One of his underlings, a tailor named Juzo, comes to visit him at the shop. He explains he is off the Edo in order to sleep with the tayu oiran (high class prostitute) called Komurasaki. Yonosuke is extremely surprised at this because these women will not sleep with anyone on the first meeting, let alone see commoners such as lowly tailors. Juzo explains that he was drunk at a party and made a bet with the host he could sleep with the legendary Komurasaki upon the first meeting. If he wins he gets a villa, but if he fails he will literally lose his manhood. A man called Uhei is travelling along with him to confirm the bet. Yonosuke realises that Juzo has been duped and decides to travel with him to Edo to give him the best chance he can of winning the bet. During the journey and upon arrival the red light district of Yoshiwara, Yonosuke teaches and prepares Juzo to give him the best chance he has to succeed. Upon arrival of Komurasaki’s residence, they are told that the mistress will be unable to see her for a few days. But eventually she makes her appearance and having done as much as he can to prepare him, Yonosuke leaves Juzo to complete the bet.

This OVA is based upon Ihara Saikaku’s 1682 novel “Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man)”. Saikaku was a really talented man. Like the protagonist in this OVA, he was the son of a wealthy Osaka merchant and studied under a couple of the country’s top poets. He soon became well versed in the art of haikai poetry (a satirical form of Japanese poetry that uses puns). Supposedly Saikaku wrote somewhere between 16,000 and 23,500 haikai stanzas in a single day and night in 1677. In 1675 when his wife died, he was so grief stricken he wrote a thousand verse haikai poem in 12 hours. After roaming Japan as a monk, he began writing lurid accounts of the business dealings and affairs of the merchant class, of which “The Life of an Amorous Man” is probably the most famous of these.

As I mentioned before the era the OVA depicts is the Edo period, sometimes referred to the Tokugawa period. To be honest not I don’t think it’s a period really well known or understood by many westerners. Sexuality in this era is even more of a mystery to the average westerner, so of course world of the courtesans called oiran would completely unknown to most. During this time, Japan was possibly the most liberal country in terms of sexual openness. The oiran had to be well versed in a number of skilled Japanese arts such as flower arranging, tea ceremonies, calligraphy, traditional Japanese instruments as well as being knowledgeable in scholarly matters and to hold witty and intelligent conversation. They expected clients to be of high social ranking and could turn down any client at whim. It wasn’t just about sex, in fact there was a lot of ritualised “foreplay” to get though before the act was even considered. While some of this is explained in the OVA, I think the creators assumed the viewers had some knowledge of the subject. The tape could have benefitted by some liner notes, but of course this is a Western Connection tape, so would have never been on the cards.

While the film itself is quite amazing for the most part, it’s perhaps a little too crude towards the end. The setting and content really is the exact opposite of what was being produced in Japan during that time period. The animation is drop dead gorgeous most of the time, but is to a degree quite experimental and deliberately quite flat looking. A lot of the time the imagery reminds me of a Edo era woodcuts with the character designs also have a similar feel but obviously having a more modern look. As the story of Yonosuke helping out the hapless Juzo unfolds, it is intercut with Yonosuke’s back story and scenes of him having sex with various prostitutes. The thing is for the greater majory of the film the sex isn’t really explicit at all. Yes, you can clearly see the characters having sex, but whilst they’re doing the deed certain elements are represented in surreal and abstract ways. For instance at one point male genitalia is represented by a turtle’s head and female genitalia by black ink morphing into vulva like shapes. It’s certainly not meant to be pornographic, but it can be very sensual. A lot of the time the focus is on the woman’s face, usually in ecstasy with a few strands of hair in her mouth. But the problem with the film is there isn’t a great deal of plot. We learn of Yonosuke’s debaucherist past, Juzo’s path to fulfil his bet and we meet the courtesan Komurasaki, and that’s it really. Oh, and the sex. The climax (ooh-err!) of the film contains the most explicit sex scene of the film with a male voyeur spying on a couple while he, uh, tugs himself off. I understand that in terms of story the voyeur was needed in that scene, but it did feel rather crude, almost like a scene out of an exploitation film, especially after the artily done sensuality of the previous sex scenes.

The studio who made it, the now defunct Grouper Production, isn’t all that famous for experimental anime of this type. In fact their two most famous productions are the crude “The Ping Pong Club” and the 1986 film “Super Mario Brothers: Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach”. The director (also the art director) was Yukio Abe who is most famous for working on a lot of Sanrio’s animated children’s films as an art director. It seems he never returned to the director’s chair after this film. But the screenwriter, Eiichi Yamamoto, has a background more in line with this film. He was the director for the trilogy of Osamu Tezuka/Mushi Production films made in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s referred to as the Animerama film series; “A Thousand & One Nights”, “Cleopatra” and the lesser known “Belladonna”. These trio of films were aimed at an adult audience and to various degrees contained sexual themes. I suppose due to the bubble economy in Japan during the late 1980’s to the very early 1990’s, a lot of money was poured into various industries. Anime of course got it’s share too, so it’s no wonder that a fair amount of unusual projects got the green light, including this one.

Curiously the only versions available of this OVA are three VHS versions; a Japanese version released by Toho, a French release and this one. It has never been reissued on Laserdisc, DVD or Blu-ray in Japan or anywhere else for that matter. According to an ANN article on this film by Justin Sevakis, Central Park Media attempted to licence the film back in the 1990’s, but two of Japanese the producers had a falling out and flat out refused to grant licence for US distribution. This falling out is probably also the reason why the film has never made it to DVD or Blu-ray in Japan. In fact once the film was originally released by Toho in Japan on VHS, it just seemed to fade into obscurity. There is very little in the way of Japanese sources of information on the title. A couple of English language sources try to claim this film was a theatrical release, however there is no evidence that this was the case. There’s no entry on the Japanese Movie Data Base (only the 1961 live action theatrical version released by Daiei is listed) and no other movie sources list it. The website of the film’s co-producer, OB Planning, clearly lists it as an OVA, so that’s pretty definitive in my book.

Overall I think it’s an extremely well animated and engaging OVA. The only thing I can compare it to is the 1987 anime film “The Tale of Genji”, but other than a couple similarities in style and genre, the two films are quite different. If you interested in animation as art, then should track down this film. It’s a gorgeous piece of work. As this was one of Western Connection’s earlier releases, the subtitling is rather decent (well, compared with their latter work). Certainly there are a few mistimed lines and a couple of untranslated lines of dialogue (nothing of real importance is missed), but overall it’s decent. It’s quite passable. The packaging and artwork is also above the company’s usual standard, though the front cover is almost an exact facsimile of Toho’s VHS cover. As for current availability of this tape, well as you’d expect for something so obscure released some two decades ago, it’s slim pickings. There’s only one copy I can find available for sale at the moment, being sold on Amazon.co.uk for £21. This is arguably the best anime title the company released in its catalogue. The remaining anime titles I’ll be covering in this series are far more on the trashier side.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Melbourne: A Piss Weak Anime Shopping Guide

About a year ago I went down to Sydney for a trip, mostly to get away from work and see the city which I really hadn’t been to for about half decade. I also wanted to compile a list of anime shops as there really wasn’t a guide anywhere for the city. I ended up being rather disappointed at what I found. There was only two dedicated anime shops in the city (though another has set up shop quite recently in the CBD), a substantial change from the 1990’s and early 2000’s where there were several anime related shops in the CBD. I had decided to make a similar list for Melbourne which I had planned to visit again within the year.

I almost didn’t get around to doing it but decided to go to Madfest in early November. I really wasn’t expecting much in terms of shops. I thought a couple had closed and knew the shop selling Japanese magazines had shut down (now online only) and so did a maid café which only operated on Fridays and Sundays. Unfortunately I was a bit sick during my stay, so I didn’t get to as many shops as I liked. Also due to the convention, a lot of shops were closed as they prepared to sell their merchandise in the dealer’s room. However I was really surprised at how many shops there were in Melbourne. There was also a ton of Gundam plastic models (or Gunpla as they’re colloquially called) in every single anime shop in the city. I love the fact that building plastic models is still something fans do in this city. It’s a hobby that has unfortunately fallen out of fashion with most anime fans all around the world. There are a large number of comic book shops in the city, but I have only included those with a large manga and/or anime section. Also because I didn’t get around to all of the shops I wanted to see, the list isn’t as comprehensive as I would have liked it to be. However I think I have complied all of the important shops in the city.

One Stop Anime
Address: Level 3, 180 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Phone: (03) 9663 9098
Opening Times: Everyday 11am to 6pm, except Thursday and Friday, closes at 7pm, Sunday, closes at 5pm
Right in the middle of Chinatown, this shop is hidden away on the third floor of a building next door to Hungry Jacks. It’s pretty easy to miss the entrance, but does have a couple of A4 sized laser printed signs outside the entrance. Like a lot of the shops I tried to visit on my trip, this one was closed when I visited.  Originally opening in 2002, looks like the shop has moved a couple of times before settling in Bourke Street. The shop has a quite large range of merchandise including Ichiban Kuji prizes, Figma, Gundam plastic model kits, Nendoroids, crane game prizes, cards, DVDs, plush toys, key chains and even wind chimes and other assorted miscellaneous anime merchandise. However like most anime shops the core of their business is selling figures. Prices seem comparable to other anime shops.

Nekocards
Address: Level 1, 311 Elizabeth Street (entrance on Little Lonsdale Street), Melbourne
Phone: (03) 9650 6356
Opening Times: Everyday 1pm to 8pm, except Thursday and Friday, closes at 9pm, Saturday 11am to 9pm, Sunday 11 am to 6pm
A year or two ago, one of the editors from Anime News Network (which I am no fan of) publicly berated a Japanese tour operator because they took his group to a card shop in Akihabara. Because we all know westerns don’t play these games, right? Oh wait they do, you massive knob. Admittedly though this part of fandom the west is rather niche. However there have been at least two attempts to set up card shops in Australia; one in Sydney which by all accounts didn’t last too long, and this shop in Melbourne’s CBD. The shop is in the same building as the local branch of the Pepper Lunch restaurant chain, but the entrance is located on Little Lonsdale Street, with a graffiti style logo above the entrance, so you can’t miss it. Apart from selling card games by Bushiroad, Weiβ Schwarz as well as Cardfight!! Vanguard, Future Card Buddyfight and Force of Will games, the staff can also show you how to play the games. You can also play the games there and they often hold special events.

Minotaur
Address: 121 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne
Phone: (03) 9670 5414
Opening Times: Everyday 9am to 6pm, except Friday, closes at 8pm, Sunday, 11am to 5pm
In my opinion, this easily the best comic book shop in Australia. Though I think more correctly they’re called a “pop culture superstore”, as a lot of comic book shops, Minotaur included, have branched out over the last two or three decades to include other segments of pop culture including manga and anime. As you walk down the stairs, you’ll pretty much find the manga and anime sections of the shop to your right. They have a very extensive collection of manga including some books, pretty much every Australian anime DVD in print (or pretty close to it anyway), a ton of anime merchandise including figures from manufacturers such as Good Smile and Kotobukiya, Figma, Nendoroids, S.H.Figuarts, other miscellaneous merchandise like keychains, t-shirts and other clothing items as well as Funko Pop! Vinyl figures.

Critical Hit
Address: 377 Little Collins Street, Melbourne
Phone: 0448 773 030
Opening Times: Everyday 10am to 6pm, except Thursday, until 7pm, Friday until 7pm, Sunday 11am to 5pm
This shop first began trading in 2010, and although the website makes it look like they’re mostly a games shop, the physical store itself is filled with a ton of anime products. The shop is also located inside the ground floor of the heritage listed Collins Gate art deco building which I thought was a bit unusual. I can only assume the rent might be on the pricy side, however when I went there ion a Friday afternoon there was plenty of customers in the store. Aside from the card games and other western pop culture merchandise they have on offer, they stock second hand games, a large range of Gundam plastic model kits, a wide range of merchandise including some Cospa  merchandise, figures, some CD soundtracks, t-shirts and other clothing items, crane game figures, Studio Ghibli merchandise, DVDs and blu-rays, manga, Funko Pop! Vinyl figures, key kings and other miscellaneous merchandise.

Animasia
Address: QV Melbourne, 26 Jane Bell Lane, Melbourne
Phone: 0425 423 709
Opening Times: Everyday 11am to 7pm, except Thursday and Friday until 8pm, Saturday and Sunday 11:30am to 7:30pm
The QV shopping precent is a bit of a labyrinth to be honest. I had some slight trouble trying to find this store. And of course when I got there, it was closed for the day in preparation for Madfest. You can quite clearly see tons of figures from outside, but upon closer inspection through the window you can see a large table in the centre of the shop with half built Gundam kits and bits and pieces of model making equipment sprawled all over. It’s patently obvious what the owners of the shop like doing. In fact their Facebook indicates you can come in and get hints from the staff on how to make Gunpla. If you google the shop’s name, you’ll see something really nasty within the first few results; a 2015 Sun Herald article saying that convicted paedophile Stephen Maxwell Murray was running the shop at least since a year after its inception in 2010. Not sure what the current situation of the shop is or who runs it, but doubt Murray is involved in the shop anymore. You’d think they would have at least changed the name of the store. At any rate the store sells Gundam plastic model kits (of course), a wide range of figures, wallscrolls and  hobby supplies such as paint.

Hearns Hobbies
Address: 295 Flinders Street, Melbourne
Phone: (03) 9629 1425
Opening Times: Everyday 9:30am to 5:30pm, except Saturday, 10am to 3pm, closed Sunday
This family run hobby shop has been around for more than 70 years. That’s a pretty long time for such a business. Not sure how long they’ve been in their current location in a basement location in Flinders street, but they were in the same location about five years ago when I last went to the store. Currently they are working on the façade of the building and there is scaffolding everywhere, but the shop is easily accessible. I think they had two or more locations, but now their store in the CBD is it. As you can image they mostly sell remote control planes, cars and ships, as well as slot cars, plastic models and diecast cars. However they also sell a lot of sci-fi related plastic models and of course anime related ones. They stock around 150 anime related plastic model kits, almost exclusively Bandai kits, mostly Gundam, but also including a decent range of Yamato 2199, Dragonball series, Girls und Panzer and even a couple of old Evangelion kits. They also stock a number of Gundam accessory kits and of course hobby supplies. The shop also has a club which costs $25 and gives you a 10% discount on kits.

Alternate Worlds Comics and Collectables
Address: Unit 11/13 Malvern Street, Bayswater
Phone: (03) 9738 2662
Opening Times: Everyday 12pm to 7pm, except Monday, 11am to 6pm, Saturday, 11am to 4pm, Sunday 12pm to 5pm
Another shop I was too sick to visit. However I did go to their massive booth at Madfest. They had a ton of English language manga, ranging from stuff published in the late 1990’s until present, a good selection of local and region 1 (USA) DVDs, some of which were from the early to mid 2000’s, and a ton of figures, however most US superhero stuff, not much in the way of anime figures. They are currently located in an industrial area which is a little bit hard to get to. I think if you’re on the hunt for old out of print manga, it might be worthwhile making a trip out to Bayswater.

Anime Town
Address: 728 Sydney Rd, Brunswick
Phone: (03) 9913 4754
Opening Times: Everyday 10am to 4:30pm, closed Monday
Yet another store that I went to on the Friday I was down there and discovered it was closed for the day. I’m not sure how safe Brunswick is, but god the area looked relatively run down. Anyway I could see from the outside that pretty much half of the shop is dedicated to selling Gundam plastic model kits. Down the back of the store is a table which I’m sure is used to build Gundam kits. Their face book page states that they provide “free painting facilities”. Not 100% sure what that means exactly; is it just a place to paint or do they have airbrushes you can use? The other half of the store is mostly figures; a lot of Nendoroids, Frame Arm Girls, a lot of plush toys, some crane game prizes, and the usual range of figures from manufacturers such as Good Smile and Alter. The prices seem comparable to other shops in Melbourne.

Gundam Universe
Address: 246 Huntingdale Road, Huntingdale
Phone: (03) 8555 4563
Opening Times: Everyday 12pm to 5pm, closed Monday and Tuesday
Due to the hours this shop keeps and the fact it takes over 45 minutes to get there via train from the city, I never even bothered attempting to see this shop. As the name implies, Gundam plastic model kits as well as accessories and hobby supplies are the main things sold here. It was a bit of  shame as the store really sounds interesting. They also sell an extensive range of Japanese card games and have a space for customers to play the games in the shop. The store also holds “build meets” and late social events for Gundam builders. From what I could see this shop is a labour of love for the owner. However it seems to be sporadically closed for lengthy periods due illness or other difficulties the owner seems to be having. The opening times on the days the shop also seems to vary, so it’s probably best to check their Facebook page before heading out to Huntingdale.

And that’s it for Melbourne. Certainly a lot more places for anime fans to shop and socialise than Sydney, that’s for sure. And despite the fact all of the small hobby shops selling bootleg resin garage kits (and bootleg fansubs and commercial tapes) back in the 1990’s have disappeared, I’m really pleased to see such a strong fanbase that still makes models still exists. Luckily most of the shops in this guide are located within the CBD; however the few which are out in the suburbs are generally worth visiting.

This will probably be my final anime shopping guide, unless I make a few more trips to other countries or decide to revisit the places I’ve been in a few years times. Despite the fact it is generally easier to buy merchandise online, nothing beats the thrill you get hunting for items you want from actual physical shops. I suspect that in the future a lot of retail spaces for anime will vanish as they just won’t be able to compete with large online shops overseas. Just make sure you visit and buy from these shops before they disappear so you don’t regret it later.