Christopher Harz returned to the GDC this month -- held for the first time at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco -- and reports back on the latest and greatest games, developments and trends.
Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero
(2004) Movie/ 47 minutes. Director: Shinji Ishidaira. DVD bilingual $14.99. Distributor: Central Park Media.
Back in 1998, Hideo Yamamoto penned the manga Koroshiya Ichi or, better known to some by its English title, Ichi the Killer. Yamamoto's detailed and gruesome story of a man named Ichi who is manipulated by a mob kingpin into becoming a highly skilled assassin found a strong cult following and in 2001 it was turned into a live action film. When this movie was released it was actually the first opportunity for the vast majority of Americans who are fans of manga and Tokyo cinema to experience this obscure and twisted story. The live-action movie with its faithfulness to the brutal violence of the original manga and macabre humor found a worldwide fan base outside mainstream cinema. Following the success of both the manga and the comic, an animated short film was produced to delve into the origins of the fabled killer Ichi.
Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero successfully fills in the backstory of who exactly is Ichi and how did he become a cosplay-wearing, one-man slaughterhouse? Right from the beginning I want to warn everyone that this title is not for the squeamish. I am sure that there are some folks out there reading this and laughing to themselves, because they have seen some pretty violent anime before. But the violence of Episode Zero is not the disturbing part I am speaking of. This title skillfully digs into the psyche of what created Ichi and the horrific violence is only a brief release of the torture Ichi's mind inflicts on himself. Yamamoto must have invested some real time in writing this prequel because of the very real pattern in which Ichi progresses down into becoming a monster.
Everything with Ichi's life in the beginning seems to be rather normal, and his family could be anyone's neighbors. But, as the story progresses, the layers of Ichi's torment and revealed. Initially he appears to be a standard average achiever in middle school. He is a shy boy who largely keeps to himself and has difficulty connecting with others and has no real friends. This shyness appears as weakness and sets Ichi up to be bullied by his classmates. It is tough to see this kid get bullied and really take a pounding. I have to say that I honestly felt for him. Later, his parents ask him why his grades have begun to slip, and his little brother tells his parents that it is because of the bullying.
This is where the first clue to Ichi's psychosis is subtly laid out. He not only lies to his parents about being bullied, but he also turns it around, saying that he is the one doing the bullying. From this point on Ichi mind starts its path to degradation. We find that his home life isn't exactly the most nurturing -- his parents openly degrade one another in front of Ichi and his brother, and they regularly engage in shibari and sadism with Ichi within earshot. This mix of violence and physical gratification seems to confuse Ichi and, as the pressure at school beings to mount, he begins to look for a release. After he is forced to dissect a living frog in front of his classmates, Ichi is stimulated in an unusual way. This opens a door in his mind that should have stayed shut, because he begins to savagely mutilate small animals.
The story then backs off a bit and we catch back up with Ichi a few years later when he is incarcerated. Ichi has a type of emotional retardation that while his body and cognitive skills are developing normally, his emotional state is that of a small child. As a result, he lacks the ability to deal with conflict and even his own developing sexuality. Ichi works out incessantly, performing thousands of sit-ups and push-ups in an attempt to quench his growing desires and turns himself into a formidable athlete. After watching martial arts on television, he finds focus and begins teaching himself karate. In a cruel twist of fate, the discipline that he uses to train and earn his release from prison also gets the attention of a mob boss who sees potential in Ichi. Once Ichi is finally released under the ruse of rehabilitation, this mobster then cruelly tests Ichi to see if he can be used. This brings the story full circle to the point where the live-action movie begins.
One of the best qualities of Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero is the writing. Almost no familiarity with either the manga or movie is required to fully understand what is happening. A lot times prequels leave out information that could have been gleaned only from seeing the preceding works. This makes the prequel difficult to understand for those who are unfamiliar with the other stories that are tied together. So, at its core, Episode Zero can stand alone as a 47-minute short feature with no need to have seen the movie or read the manga. One big difference between this installment and the live-action film is the way the story is approached. In the movie there is a great deal of fear and intimidation that is inflicted on the viewer. Not that it is necessarily a scary movie, but there is a constant uneasiness felt while watching it. Episode Zero approaches the story from a psychoanalytical standpoint, and strives to explore the reasons behind what turns Ichi from an average kid into a feared killer.
Make no mistake with this one, it is a very mature title and the 16 and up rating is a little soft for it in my opinion. Although the violence throughout Episode Zero is warranted, because of the type of story being told, it is very disturbing. Violence completely surrounds Ichi's life from his parents' relationship, relations with women, how the other kids at school treat him and all the way though to the end where he is manipulated into turning into a mob assassin. Some truly disturbing and horrific images are shown on screen. The art style is not one of my favorites, but it is well executed. There is fair amount of detail, but everything looks and feels flat. Fight scenes are very well done and really drive home the savagery of the violence. There is a fair amount of animation looping or recycling, but those scenes are pretty generic, so I can't really complain about the looping.
The soundtrack is OK, although it is a bit repetitive. Japanese and English language tracks are available. The Japanese track is well done and the work by Chihiro Suzuki, who is the voice of Ichi, is outstanding. He does an excellent job of expressing the right amount of pain and frustration in his character. It helps in making Ichi someone that can be felt sorry for despite the monster that really exists in his mind. The English track is alright. Not too many liberties are taken with the dialogue, but, compared to the Japanese voice acting, it doesn't seem to match up as well with the onscreen emotions.
The extras are pretty meager. There is a trailer for Episode Zero and an art gallery that features a bunch of screen shots and what looks to be two colored manga stills. One nice touch is that the inside of the DVD jacket has an additional piece of artwork, Japanese and English cast and crew listings and the chapter listings. This title may be a little too intense for the more casual anime fan, and definitely not one to be someone's first exposure to anime. It would also appeal to anyone looking for an anime that would never get on American TV. After the edit, there wouldn't be enough to fill a half-hour on Adult Swim. But for the fans of the movie and manga Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero is a must see.
Hikaru no Go V.5
(2007) TV series. Director: Jun Kamiya. V.1: Four episodes/100 minutes. DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: VIZ Media.
One of the coolest traits of the Japanese creative development cycle is the unique freedom of range that the creators are allowed to work within in regards to subject. There are videogames, anime and manga that are not released stateside that have some of the wildest ideas about what is entertaining. Some titles are beyond bizarre, but the part that I personally find amazing is that sometimes a really compelling story unfolds from a seemingly eccentric idea. Hikaru no Go is one of these titles. Initially I doubt that anyone's instincts would tell them that an anime about a board game would make a good anime, much less an anime that would also appeal to American audiences. But, low and behold, Hikaru no Go is an anime that takes game of Go to the inspirational level of a Rocky film. (Ignoring the last two Rocky movies.)
For those who are unfamiliar with Hikaru no Go, shame on you! Just kidding, Hikaru no Go is the story of a boy named Hikaru Shindo. One day while at his grandfather's house, Hikaru finds an antique Go board and a ghost trapped inside of it appears. It is the ghost of Sai Fujiwara, a master of Go from the Heian period. Through Hikaru, Sai is able to challenge new opponents to help increase his own strength as a player on the way to his goal of playing the "Divine Move."
Hikaru initially thinks that the game of Go is for older people, but, after watching Sai play, he gets inspired to learn to play as well and wants to find out what his true strength really is. Volume 5 follows Hikaru and Sai on summer break playing Go on the Internet and causing quite a controversy. The tournament circuit is all abuzz over who is Sai and Hikaru's rival Akira is suspect that the one behind Sai's games is, in fact, Hikaru. After the online mystery of who is Sai gets sorted out Hikaru sets his mind to chase after Akira and become a pro.
Overall, the look of Hikaru no Go is fairly polished and has lots of detail everywhere. I am especially fond of the Go salons featured. They have a very lived in and somewhat claustrophobic feel to them. Lots of little knickknacks and papers everywhere, random coffee cups, trash on the floor, tournament posters on the walls and all kinds of other mundane little details that help add to the environment. All of this detail does come at a production cost. In the scenes with the most detail, there is often the least amount of actual animation. Strangely, the lip-syncing of speaking characters, as well as general body movement in the shot, is limited in motion. It is very odd to watch a conversation between two people and their mouths don't move. On the bright side, these instances are fairly rare in each episode and the animation that is done is outstanding.
A great deal of thought and time has been spent on the scenes where Go is being played. Cool little subtle elements are shown to depict a player's mood and stress. Players will place their pieces differently on the board as they play. Some will place their stone on the board and then slide it into place, while others will definitively snap their stone into place in the board. As the tone of the story changes, so do the environments. When the tone of the story is normal there is plenty of background elements, atmosphere and light. But, as tension increases, background elements drop out and even start to darken toward black. What this does is creates a visual reinforcement of the scenes tension and really helps to pull the viewer into the action. When Akira plays Sai on the Internet, the action is just awesome. That is something I never thought I would ever say about watching someone playing a boardgame.
The only real flaw in this title is definitely its English language track. Normally the English track is little to be desired, but this one is more on the brutal side. It is cool that the story incorporates characters from all over the world, but it is awful having to listen to really bad accents. If a chosen voice actor does not do a particular accent very well, then they shouldn't even attempt it. It is common practice to use the same voice actor for multiple characters to save on talent costs, and this is often accomplished with a tonal voice change. But, it is down right painful being forced to listen to someone who really has no business using accents.
There is also a lot of what I like to refer to as "Americanisms" in the spoken dialogue. These Americanisms are changes in the dialogue to make it sound more contemporary in American culture. On one hand I can see why this is done and I often agree with the types of changes made in the cases of where there isn't a direct English translation. But, when the subtitled translation is perfectly coherent, I don't see the point in changing it. All it succeeds in doing is turning the dialogue into a cheesy mess. The Japanese language version is just awesome. Those voice actors really do an outstanding job emoting feelings through their voices and really pull the viewer in.
There is a flashback scene where Hikaru's Go club is competing in a tournament and they get owned. In the Japanese language version I found myself hurting for them in their loss, but in the English language version they just seem ridiculous. It is really too bad because Hikaru no Go is a really polished title and VIZ usually does such a good job in regards to its translations.
Sound overall is very good. The English and Japanese audio tracks are both in stereo and subtitles are in eyeball friendly, black-outlined yellow letters. Subtitles are also timed very nicely, keeping good pace with the Japanese dialogue, but not overwhelming during long expositions. Music is really good quality with nice opening and ending themes, and there is also background music strategically placed throughout each episode to help reinforce the tension of a scene at a theatrical quality level. Extras are plenty decent and they are geared toward helping an American audience understand the game of Go. There is a glossary section that helps define Go terms used in this series that are not easily understandable through context, or that are not explicitly defined as part of the dialogue. Some really nice storyboards and sketches are available for viewing for those out there that are interested in anime production. A manga preview for Hikaru no Go is also available.
Personally for me the jury is still out on whether or not these are a waste of space, but it is nice to get a quick glimpse of what the manga looks like as compared to the anime. And finally there is a link to the American Go Assoc. website. So for those who become interested in learning the game of Go, they can use this excellent resource to learn the rules and get started playing.
Hikaru no Go is a surprisingly compelling title. Initially, since most Americans are not even aware of the existence of the game, Go, it would make this title a little esoteric. Throughout Asia top Go players are treated in much the same way that Americans treat professional athletes, but, sadly, Go does not have the same popularity in the States. After all, the only game that is widely popular in America that is even close to the concept of Go is checkers. And that is like saying that a road bicycle is similar as a sport motorcycle. But the way the series is handled, it makes the game of Go far more accessible to those who are unfamiliar with it. In fact, after watching this title, I even dusted off my Go board to play a few bouts. In a nutshell, VIZ has a very enjoyable title here that is worth taking a look at despite its unconventional plot.
(2006) TV series. Director: Shigeru Ueda. V.1: Four episodes/115 minutes. DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon.
What do you get when you take a prepubescent girl, who can turn herself into an incredibly powerful, edged weapon; cross with an idealistic young boy who seems to carry impossible amounts of rope and mix them together in quasi futuristic setting? Honestly I have no I clue, but Mayumi Azuma asked the same question and Elemental Gelade was created. After achieving a fair amount of success with its manga and building a large enough of a fan base, XEBEC studios was charged with turning Elemental Gelade into an anime. Some folks out there may be familiar with some of XEBEC's other work such as Lone Hina and Martian Successor Nadesico. Obviously this baby brother of a studio to Production IG has the experience behind it to really bring Elemental Gelade to life. Thankfully it delivers.
Bringing those who are not so familiar with Elemental Gelade up to speed, we have the story of Cou, a young sky pirate, who finds what he thinks is a treasure, but it turns out to be someone who is from the ancient race of Edel Raids. The person Cou finds is a young, shy girl named Ren who, despite her pension for sleeping all the time, has a great power within her. Ren is not human, and she is descended from the Edel Raid bloodline of the Metherlence. Initially the difference between being human and Edel Raid is a barrier between Cou and Ren, but Cou's pure heart and honest intentions warm up the cold emotions of Ren and they begin to develop feelings for one another. As their feelings grow, Ren decides to bond with Cou, making him an Edel Raid Pleasure, to unleash her formidable wind elemental power. Together, they decide to journey to Edel Garden to find the mysterious one who is trying to call to Ren in her mind.
Elemental Gelade is a cool combination of action, adventure, magical girl and Shonen animes, but this cornucopia of anime styles is not where the real charm of this series lies. The biggest draw of this story is in the bonding of the Edel Pleasures with their Edel Raids. It is rather metaphorical in how the bonding, or reacting as it is referred to, works. Each Edel Raid chooses whom they will react with to release their powers. Once a reaction takes place, that Edel Raid cannot react with another person until the person they have already reacted with dies. This bond that is only broken by death, echoes themes of the life long bonds that are akin to family and marriage. The growing relationship between Cou and Ren is very sweet and as their relationship grows, so to does the power that is unleashed when they react together. The bond between each Raid and Pleasure is not taken lightly and reinforces the emotional ties between the characters.
When villains try to tear the Raids apart from their Pleasures, I hate to admit it, but I really found myself pulling for our heroes, because I didn't want them to be separated. I guess, in a certain respect, I know what it is like to lose a close friend and I was really able to identify with their plight. This aspect of Elemental Gelade's story is really what emotionally submerses the viewer into the series.
Character designs are very cute and very charming. Each Edel Raid has a visible stone located somewhere on their skin, and it is in a different place on each different Raid. Ren, for instance, hides hers on her forehead with the ribbon she ties her hair with. This creative use of costume design to help hide the stones was a pretty clever way to incorporate individuality amongst the Raids. There is some super deformed character action going on with a few characters, but no so much that it interferes with the plot's heavier elements. Environments and designs have plenty of detail to keep things interesting. Crazy items like the impossibly long grappling hook of Cou's and the tank busting armaments under Officer Cisqua's coat are a tad silly, but serve has helpful and somewhat creative plot devices.
Production quality of the disk is nice. Geneon spent a pretty penny on printing the DVD cover art with the metallic looking ink that was used. Plus the cover is double-sided, which is an often over-looked detail that I always appreciate. The cover art is not reversible, but it is a nice touch when someone fully designs the case artwork, especially when the DVD is distributed in those trendy transparent cases. The sound quality is very good, despite the lack of a 5.1 surround sound track. Only 2.0 stereo is used for both language tracks.
The Japanese voice acting is top notch as usual, and even the English language track is pretty decent. There are some significant differences between the English subtitled translation and the spoken English translation. Strangely, I agree with the dialogue changes that were made. I felt that the changes helped the English dialogue deliver a performance that is far closer to the Japanese performance. But, I have yet to hear an English version express the same amount of tonal force and power that seems to be inherent in the Japanese voice actors. Subtitles for the most part are well done. Some of the timing is hurried and required a rewind to catch everything. Also there were one or two subtitles that read fairly awkward. I felt that this must have been a small proofing mistake because of the isolated occurrence.
Special features are pretty slim, I am sad to say, and, honestly, I had expected a little more because of the relatively high production quality of this series. There are two original trailers for Elemental Gelade, which are slightly interesting, but the way I look at it, if I already bought the show, I don't need to see the trailer. And there are three trailers for upcoming releases from Geneon. Would it have been that difficult for Geneon to include a few stills of concept art, model sheets, or even shots from the manga? As a nice bonus, included with the DVD is a $3 rebate that is good on volumes 2-6, and the rebate is lasts through June 30, 2007. With rebates, the cost per disk drops to $27.48. Not enough savings to buy that Ferrari, but combined with the savings from a discount retailer, like Rightstuf, it would make this series a steal. And it is always a nice treat when the anime fanatic can save some cash.
Chris Feldman is a freelance 3D modeler and animator whose work has been featured in television, games and manufacturing. He is an active member in the pop art community, as well as a long-time staff member/promoter of anime and comic conventions. In his very finite spare time he volunteers teaching animation to kids.