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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Shelley Page reports back from Imagina about the daunting task of tackling a trade show, festival AND conference all at once.

Around 1995, Japanese animation (anime) began pouring into North America, Europe and across the globe in video form. Most of these titles were unknown outside of Japan and never covered by animation journals. Whether a title is highly popular or very obscure, a high quality theatrical feature or a cheap and unimaginative direct-to-video release, they all look the same on a store shelf. Therefore, Animation World Magazine will regularly review several new releases (including re-releases not previously covered) that have merit.

American Terrence Walker creates the real thing in Anime: Concept to Reality.

American Terrence Walker creates the real thing in Anime: Concept to Reality.

Anime: Concept to Reality

OAV, 2003. Director: Terrence Walker. 105 minutes. Price & format: DVD $14.99. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

Is it possible for one person to create anime?, the blurb asks. Especially if the one person is an American? If it is, then Terrence Walker has done so. This DVD is certainly a graphic demonstration of how close an American anime fan can come to duplicating the Japanese distinctive art style and sci-fi story formulas. It is more specifically a detailed pep talk on how, with todays digital animation technology, a single beginner can create an animated film. Walkers personal preference is for the anime look, but obviously any amateur filmmaker can select his own style.

Walker is more than just an anime fan who is a wanna-be animator. He was an amateur comic-strip artist for small local newspapers (in Arizona) in the late 1980s, and has worked in the videogame industry since the 90s, picking up professional CGI training. He visited Production I.G in Toyko, one of the best-known anime studios to specialize in computer animation. In 2000, he single-handedly produced Understanding Chaos, a 10-minute anime-style short film and posted it on the Internet, drawing attention from websites devoted to computer graphics, 3D animation and anime. In 2002, he produced Shadowskin, 25 minutes long with much more polished animation.

Anime: Concept to Reality (produced under the name of Walkers Studio ArtFX) consists of Understanding Chaos, Shadowskin, a six-minute Wired music video that morphs images from Shadowskin back and forth between their CGI wireframe beginnings to their finished fully-rendered states, and about an hours worth of Walker enthusiastically explaining how a single person can today create animation with home-based digital editing systems and low-cost 3D software. He shows in step-by-step detail how he created his short films, duplicating the visual style of anime CGI. (He does not name titles, but Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh and Blood: The Last Vampire are three clear influences.)

Shadowskin and Understanding Chaos frankly look like very good examples of animation school class projects, less impressive by themselves than for knowing that one person wrote, animated, directed and edited them, as well as composing their music and voice-acting the male lead characters. Shadowskin is a stereotype of the Japanese sci-fi subgenre of reluctant heroes who are unwillingly used as experimental subjects to develop cyborg supermen, and escape to use their new powers against their villainous creators. But it is an excellent condensation of the plot into a single half hour, with intelligent dialogue (wisely making maximum use of static talking heads rather than action) even if the voice-acting quality is amateurish.

Anime: Concept to Reality may not please those purists who insist that only animation made in Japan by Japanese animators is genuine anime. But it definitely shows how the influence of anime-style animation is spreading internationally. It should also be useful, even if only as inspiration, to aspiring animation students.

Were Jungle Emperor Leo and The Lion King separated at birth?

Were Jungle Emperor Leo and The Lion King separated at birth?

Jungle Emperor Leo

Theatrical feature, 1997. Director: Yoshio Takeuchi. 99 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.95. Distributor: Anime Works/Media Blasters.

Osamu Tezuka wrote his 500+ page Jungle Emperor graphic novel in the early 1950s, about the struggle of the noble white lion, Leo, to create a kingdom where all animals could live in peace and equality with man. His TV series, Americanized as Kimba the White Lion, was based on Leos youth only. This feature by Tezuka Production Co. presents the last half of the novel: from the birth of the adult Leos cubs Lune and Lukio, to his heroic death while remaining true to his ideals. Devotees of animation conspiracy theories can have fun deciding what scenes in Disneys 1994 The Lion King are too close to the 1965 Kimba to be coincidental, and what scenes in this 1997 Jungle Emperor Leo are too close to The Lion King to be coincidental. (Tezuka always acknowledged Disneys Bambi as his inspiration.)

Jungle Emperor Leo is beautifully animated, blending lush cel animation with sparkling computer graphics. The movie also retains the symphonic arrangement of Isao Tomitas 1965 TV music. Since Tezukas graphic novel has not yet been published in English, Americans who want to know what happened to Kimba after he grew up can find the answer here.

But as a modern film for family audiences, the story (or this adaptation of it) has serious problems. It is age-rated as seven and up, but some elements seem too juvenile for anyone much older than seven while others are too mature for those that young. Like many movie versions of novels, the story has been condensed to the point that some scenes may be puzzling to an audience unfamiliar with the original versions. Tezuka had a fondness for comical character names like Dr. Moustache, Mr. Lemonade and Mr. Ham-Egg that went out of style in the West in the 19th century, which undercut scenes that are supposed to be suspenseful. Ham-Eggs expedition of greedy treasure-hunters are said to be frantic to find Mt. Moon as fast as they can, yet they take the time to bulldoze down the jungle and construct a road for their trucks, and stop to shoot every animal they see. It certainly establishes them as cruel and trigger-happy, but also as spectacularly stupid.

Even nine year olds must wonder how hard it can be today to find a single lost mountain that is supposed to tower over the jungle. Leos refusal to fight back against the humans -- his insistence that fighting achieves nothing, and that he will protect the animals but without resorting to violence -- means that he just watches as elephants, rhinos, hippos, gazelles and others are shot and left to rot by the hunters as they speed by; how is this protecting the animals? The tragic, tearjerker death of Leos mate Lyre (also spelled Laiya) from death pox and Leos own dramatically suicidal sacrifice to save the benevolent Dr. Moustache, may be too intense for the younger end of that seven and up range. And why is Tezukas name presented Japanese-style, family name first in the title and credits (Tezuka Osamus Jungle Emperor Leo) when all the other names are presented Western-style, family name last?

This may be unfair criticism. Cynics have pointed out that Disneys The Lion King begins with all the prey animals in Africa cheering the birth of another predator, and that did not stop it from becoming the most popular animated feature before Finding Nemo. If you liked The Lion King, you should have no trouble loving Jungle Emperor Leo.

Japanese mythical figure Himiko is the basis for this high school co-ed character in Legend of Himiko.

Japanese mythical figure Himiko is the basis for this high school co-ed character in Legend of Himiko.

Legend of Himiko. V.1, Sacred Fire. V.2, The Pendant. V.3, Sword of Seven Blades.

TV series (12 episodes), 1999. Director: Ayumi Tokobuki. V.1-3, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

Much anime is based upon Japanese history or mythology, and can have some educational value. Himiko is the earliest verified name in Japanese history; apparently a 3rd century A.D. queen (some theorize a tribal priestess) of the Yamatai people who eventually became the islands dominant kingdom. Legend of Himiko (Himiko-den, 12 TV episodes broadcast January 7 to March 31, 1999; animated by Group TAC) uses Himiko as the basis for a romantic fantasy that is far removed from much historical reality, although viewers may be amused by the good Kingdom of Yamatais costuming in the period of the Japanese Heian era of the 9th century, while the evil Kingdom of Kune is costumed like the imperial Chinese court of the period.

In a magical faraway past, the peaceful Yamatai kingdom worships the light of the Bokka (Sacred Flame). The Kune kingdom crushes Yamatai in a sneak attack just as its Shinto-like priesthood is about to select a queen from six warrior-maid candidates. The Bokka whisks the queen candidates to safety, and when Kunes sadistic Prince Shikara throws the Flame Guardians infant daughter Himiko into the Sacred Fire, she magically disappears.

Himiko Himejima is a high-school coed in modern Japan, a foundling adopted by an archaeologist. She and her boyfriend Kutani are helping her father investigate a prehistoric ruin when the two teens disappear in a green flash. They are transported to Yamatai, where only three years have passed. Yamatai has become an oppressed province of Kune, but five of the warrior queen candidates (the sixth appears to be a traitor) with the military guidance of loyal General Iga are leading a spirited guerrilla resistance. Shikara has converted the Shrine of Fire into a Fountain of Darkness and is slaughtering people to turn them into mindless zombie soldiers controlled by him personally. The King of Kune is on the verge of executing Shikara for incompetence in not pacifying Yamatai, even if he is his son. The Kune high command is a real snakepit of treachery, except for young Lord Chosa who is personally honorable but bound to Kune by loyalty to his nation.

Himiko and Kutani are shocked and bewildered by this strange world of sorcerous strife. The spiritual affinity between them has accidentally given Kutani partial control over the Bokkas magic powers, but he does not know how to use it properly it could burst loose in an explosion that would destroy both Yamatai and Kune. The two are separated, and Himiko is rescued by handsome Chosa while Kutani is persuaded by sexy yet tomboyish warrior maid Inari to join the resistance. There are some battles but even more plotting and attempted misdirection between the Yamatai freedom fighters and the Kune oppressors, and among the Kune leaders scheming for dominance over each other. Viewers must guess whether Himikos and Kutanis high-school romance is true love or whether they will form more serious relationships with Chosa and Inari, and whether the two will return to modern Tokyo at the end or stay to begin new lives in Yamatai.

Master Keaton defies categorization and crosses all story genres.

Master Keaton defies categorization and crosses all story genres.

Master Keaton. V.1, Excavation I. V.2, Excavation II. V.3, Killer Conscience. V.4, Blood & Bullets. V.5, Blood & Dust. V.6, Fakers & Friends. V.7, Life & Death. V.8, title TBD.TV and OAV series (39 episodes), 1998-2000. Director: Masayuki Kojima. V.1-7, 5 episodes/115 minutes; V.8, 4 episodes/95 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Master Keaton (39 episodes, episodes 1-24 broadcast October 6, 1998 to March 29, 1999 and episodes 25-39 released direct to video monthly from June 21, 1999 to June 21, 2000) could easily be a live-action TV series, but what genre would it fit into? Drama? Comedy? Suspense? Detective? Educational? Romance? Just say Human Interest. You never know what the next episode will bring.

The first episode introduces Keaton as a college lecturer moonlighting as an insurance investigator for Lloyds of London, looking into a suspicious death in a picturesque Greece village. The climax reveals that he was in the SAS (British Army commandos) in his youth. The second episode, in Dusseldorf with German radical terrorists, fills in his full name and some background: Taichi Keaton-Hiraga, father Japanese, mother British, avocation archaeology. The third episode, in Florence and Marseilles, adds that Keaton is divorced but has a teen daughter of his own. Each episode is a separate mini-drama which adds to the picture of just who Keaton is: one of those nondescript men who generally goes unnoticed or underestimated, but turns out to be skilled in detection, self-defense, historical knowledge, art criticism, personal counseling -- a genuine Most Unforgettable Man I Ever Met.

A few of the setups are unconvincingly melodramatic, such as his just happening to run into some Russian Mafia thugs while in eastern Poland. But once the action starts the characterizations are very convincing. There are murder mysteries both as serious detection puzzlers and as comedies (as when Keaton is grabbed by an elderly would-be Miss Marple to serve as her bumbling assistant). There are tender stories such as Keaton helping the arguing sides in a child custody case realize what is best for the child, or Keaton playing Cupid for a young couple in London's Chinatown by tracking down a recipe for a rare Chinese delicacy that Sun Yat Sen brought when he was a refugee in Britain before the Chinese Revolution of 1911. There is suspense as when Keaton must help a disillusioned IRA terrorist defuse a bomb in a crowded department store, or when Keaton must escape on foot from a killer dog tracking him through the Spanish Pyrenees.

The characters are intelligent, the dialogue is witty, and you will want to find out more about Keaton: why he is working in (or out of) London while his family is in Tokyo, how he came to be both a college intellectual and a detective and anti-terrorist expert. Master Keaton is not good animation in the sense that it is flashy and memorable as animation, but it is excellent animation (by the Madhouse studio) in that it does just what it needs to do to bring the characters to life and make you want to watch every episode.

Get ready for Valley girl speak, Japanese style in Super GALS!

Get ready for Valley girl speak, Japanese style in Super GALS!

Super GALS! V.1, GALS Gotta Have Heart! V.2, Never Break a GALs Heart! V.3, Ran Loves Shibuya! V.4, Look Out! Love is Dangerous! V.5, Its Okay to Have a Change of Heart! V.6, A GALs Heart Never Stops!

TV series (26 episodes), 2001. Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi. V.1-2, five episodes/125 minutes; v.3-6, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Dude! Are you ready for 26 half-hours of concentrated Japanese high-school GIRL talk?! Super GALS! plunges you into the latest (as of 2001) hanging-out street scenes for guys and gals around Tokyos super-cool Shibuya shopping district. This swinging, hip-hopping girls comedy was presented on Japanese TV with frequent GAL lingo lessons to translate the latest girl talk for any Moms who might be watching, such as ganguro = a tan-face girl with the face covered with light-colored makeup; and kara-mara = a karaoke marathon. There are extensive liner notes for American viewers describing in more detail some of the cultural activities that big-city Japanese high-schoolers will be familiar with, such as Subsidized dating is a relatively recent phenomenon, where school-age girls agree to accompany older men in exchange for expensive gifts and money. Its not quite prostitution, not in the traditional sense, as the girl isnt expected to do anything except hang out with the guy... usually.

Ran Kotobuki is a wild 16-year-old first-year high school student; the despair of her straight-laced police detective father and older brother Yamato who is a rookie cop at the neighborhood police station. Ran, with her bleached hair, mini-skirts, uber-long fake nails, platform shoes and exhibionistic attitude, is determined to be the GAL of all gals. Yet despite her low grades and contempt for authority (Gee, teach, I couldnt do my homework cause I was abducted by aliens!), she is sensible where health and personal safety are concerned. She is loyal to her best pals Miyu Yamazaki and Aya Hoshino, and helps them with classroom and home-life personal problems.

Ran is also a self-appointed one-GAL protector of any Hounan High girls (even her rivals) against boys or older men who try to go too far with them, as well as acting as Cupid to help a romance between Miyu and her brother Yamato, and counselling the emotionally-frail Aya whose parents determination to make her study 24/7 to get into college is driving her towards a nervous breakdown. But is Ran too busy being Shibuyas No. 1 kogal and a Big Sister to those who need her to look out for her own future?

Super GALS! Kotobuki Ran is a frenetically-paced romantic comedy featuring cutely-drawn gals and GL (good-looking) guys in bright settings that segue from realistic to exaggerated pop-art styles reminiscent of Yellow Submarine or South Park. It ran on TV Tokyo for 52 weeks, April 1, 2001 through March 31, 2002, although A.D.V. is only releasing the first 26 episodes at this time. Production company Studio Pierrot is well-known for its sweet magical little girls TV series aimed for a younger audience. Super GALS! shows that the studio knows how to appeal to the teen set, too.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainments The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).