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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

In this months excerpt from Stop Motion, Susannah Shaw continues her look at character design with making your own model.

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.

Birth, a Chuck Jones Coyote-&-Road-Runner cartoon mixed with sci-fi drama.


Theatrical feature/OAV, 1984. Director: Shinya Sadamitsu. 85 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Birth is more a curiosity piece than a must-have, but it is good to have it available on DVD if only for the historical record, and in an accurate translation for the first time. It was one of only a handful of productions by the impressive but short-lived Kaname Production Co. in the mid-1980s. It was one of the first for the new homevideo market, during the couple of years that it was standard to give such a theatrical release (July 21, 1984) to pretend that it was not really only an OAV when the video was released barely a month later. There were English-language video releases in England (World of the Talisman) and the U.S. (Planet Busters) in the late `80s and early `90s, but they were kiddified and not faithful translations. At last we have Birth as it was originally released.

The temptation to change the title is understandable since Birth sounds like a high-school biology film. It hardly suggests this non-stop chase adventure that anime fans have described as forcibly merging a Chuck Jones Coyote-&-Road-Runner cartoon with a sci-fi drama. Rasa and Nam are two young adolescents on the rocky planet Aqualoid. Rasa is enjoying an early-morning spin on her aerial floater-bike when she is accosted by a gang of metallic-looking bikers called Inorganics. Meanwhile, Nam is attacked by a larger and much more vicious Inorganic. Moreover, two guys (Bao and Kim) in a falling-apart junky spaceship are pursuing a glowing sword that is floating through space toward Aqualoid.

The action during this first part is a series of light-hearted sequences in Yoshinori Kanadas extremely cartoony art style. The Inorganic bikers banter with Rasa as they race along. A baby Inorganic does a surrealistic parody of an animated-cartoon musical sequence. Bao and Kims spaceship toots a steam whistle when it goes into warp drive. Several humorously grotesque native animals are seen, notably Rasas pet yellow blob, Monga, which saves her and Nams lives several times in comedic deus ex machina ways.

When the four main characters are united, a spirit of the sword finally explains the metaphysical plot. The universe is an embryonic life form evolving toward birth. When enough individual organic life forms exist to achieve a critical mass, they will merge into a single super-being that will be the next stage in evolution. The Inorganics are the equivalent of cancer cells that are out to kill organic beings to stop this fusion. Earlier dubs of Birth called the Inorganics evil robots, but they seem more like intelligent germs just trying to protect their own existence. Humor disappears from the chase sequences in the last half, as the four humans are attacked by increasingly huge and deadly Inorganics.

The final scene, which looks like it should explain everything, shows two characters talking in Heaven without any dialogue. Kanames explanation was that the next step in evolution would be too advanced for mere mortals to comprehend. It was commonly believed that the movies budget ran out before the post-production dubbing could be completed. Birth is so surrealistic that it hardly matters. It is less a coherent whole than a series of set-piece scenes that are individually enjoyable for their bizarre humor. Birth is also notable as one of the few anime productions besides the features of Hayao Miyazaki to have music by Jo Hisaishi; certainly not his best but still pleasant.

Jimmy, a teenage Sherlock Holmes, stumbles upon a secret international crime cartel which try to kill him with an experimental poison in Case Closed.

Case Closed: One Truth Prevails [Detective Conan]. Case 1 v.1, The Secret Life of Jimmy Kudo. Case 4 v.1, Deadly Illusions. C.4 v.2, The Desperate Truth. C.4 v.3, Like Old Times. Further volumes to come.TV series (373+ episodes), 1996-current. Director: Kanetsugu Kodama. C.1 v.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; C.4 v.1-3, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: FUNimation Productions.

After an abortive announcement of coming soon to the Fox Family Channel in 2000, one of animes most popular juvenile titles has finally shown up on the Cartoon Network. Meitantei Conan (Great Detective Conan), based on the manga by Gosho Aoyama (1994 to date), began its TV run in Japan (animated by TMS Ent.) on Jan. 8, 1996. Episode #373 was broadcast on Sept. 6 and no end is in sight. There has also been a Detective Conan theatrical feature in Japan every mid-April since 1997; eight so far.

Juvenile amateur detectives who solve crimes that baffle their adult professional counterparts have been a staple of childrens fiction since before the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. There was a teenaged James Bond Jr. in the early `90s, for kids whose tastes ran more to action with lots of secret-agent gimmicks rather than puzzling out whodunits. Case Closed/Detective Conan combines both of these. Each mystery includes a Crack the Case Game which invites mystery-loving viewers to solve the crime before Conan reveals the culprit. However, the exaggeratedly young age of the detective combined with comic-bookish unrealistic elements (including such crime-fighting devices as super-powered shoes, a bow-tie with a voice-changing microphone and a solar-powered skateboard) implies that the real target audience is kids who will enjoy the mild action and suspense without bothering to try to outguess Conan.

Jimmy/Shinichi Kudo is a 17-year-old whiz kid, the son of a mystery novelist who takes advantage of his fathers acquaintance with police detectives to accompany them on their investigations. He solves the crimes in Sherlock Holmes-fashion by deducing from the clues on the scene. The resulting publicity is great for his adolescent ego, but it infuriates his high-school girlfriends father, a comedy-relief incompetent private detective. Oh, and Jimmy just happens to live next door to a friendly mad scientist, Prof. Agasa. One day Jimmy stumbles upon agents of a secret international crime cartel who try to kill him with an experimental poison. The drug instead makes him physically ten years younger. Prof. Agasa, the only friend to know his secret, helps Jimmy disguise himself as a naïve elementary school boy, Conan Edogawa (after Conan Doyle, Holmes creator, plus Ranpo Edogawa, Japans first mystery novelist), as a perfect disguise to go on detecting. Agasa invents the abovementioned secret-agent gimmicks and even arranges for Conan to board with his unsuspecting girl friend so that he can play detective behind the back of her private-eye father, who is so egotistical that he really believes he is brilliantly solving the cases all by himself.

Cartoon Network, which debuted Case Closed on May 24, 2004, is Americanizing many character names. For example, Conans girlfriend Ran Mori becomes Rachel Moore and her father Kogoro Mori is Richard Moore. Funimations DVDs provide both versions. The Japanese dialogue option not only gives the original names but the Detective Conan title cards. However, the DVD releases have started with Case 1 volume 1 (episodes 1 through 4) and then jumped to Case 4 volume 1 (episodes 53 through 55) and following. The reason is to market Never Before Seen Episodes while the Cartoon Network is running and rerunning the first 52 episodes (Cases 1 through 3 of 13 episodes each). It is far too early to tell whether Case Closed will be popular enough in America to permit an American release of the whole series, which is currently approaching 400 episodes.

Dead Leaves offers non-stop battle sequences and violent cyborg monsters.

Dead Leaves

Theatrical featurette, 2004. Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi. 50 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: Manga Ent.

Manga Takes Anime In A Whole New Direction In Latest Co-Production With Japans Acclaimed Production I.G, reads Manga Ent.s press release. That direction may be new for Japan, but it seems to follow such American works as Wes Archers Jack Mac and Rad Boy Go!, Jhonen Vasquezs Invader ZIM and a lot of what can be found in the Spike and Mikes Sick & Twisted Festivals of Animation. This is not unreasonable if Dead Leaves was requested by Manga Ent. for the American teen video market. (The DVD is rated 17+.)

Dead Leaves is a visual showcase for Imaitoonz, the hot young Japanese graphic designer whose distinctive vibrant style has appeared everywhere from MTV Japan logos to advertising art, T-shirts, arcade games and pop-culture magazine covers during the past decade. He has had many gallery exhibits of his art. Imaitoonz and his associate Hiroyuki Imaishi created numerous grotesque character designs, which were turned over to the Production I.G staff to be turned into a youth-oriented film. Manga Ent.s press release also says, Takeichi Honda, one of Japan's most blistering young screenplay writers, wrote the script. Complimenting the film is a pulse pounding electronica soundtrack from Yoshihiro Ike (Blood: the Last Vampire). The 50-minute featurette premiered at the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival 2003 on Nov. 4 and was given a general theatrical release by Shochiku on Jan. 16, 2004.

Hyped as hyperkinetic, high energy and a comically abusive and chaotic adventure, Dead Leaves starts off with a bang and never slows down. Pandy (a woman with a panda-like red circle over one eye) and Retro (a man with a 1950s TV set for a head) wake up naked with no memories of their past. To get clothing and other necessities, they go on a Bonnie and Clyde-type crime spree, machine-gunning their way through cities populated by hordes of identically stylized salarymen until captured by a massive wave of police. They are rocketed to Dead Leaves, an escape-proof prison on the Moon which is also a military laboratory attempting to create super-soldiers from the inmates, most of whom have been turned into obscenely deformed freaks by the experiments. Pandy and Retro have such wild sex in their cell that it releases the locks on the doors. The two lead a frantic trigger-happy jailbreak against the guards commanded by sadistic wardens 666 and 777, two of the successful super-soldier mutants. At times the movie seems to be little more than a non-stop battle sequence with exaggeratedly stylized hordes of biological and cyborg monsters firing machine guns and bazookas and throwing hand grenades in all directions, while comic-book sound effects like BOOM BOOM BOOM and RATATAT flash in alternating English and katakana in the background.

The press release quotes Mangas ceo Marvin Gleicher saying, We wanted to produce a new anime film that... pushed the envelope of Japanese animated pop culture. It is probably not accidental that they got a film that looks designed even more for two American video-buying markets; the anime fans and the fans of outrageous animated film festivals.

A high school student becomes a violent murderer in Ichi The Killer: Episode Zero.

Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero

OAV, 2002. Director: Sinji Isihira. 47 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.99. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

This is an animated prelude to Japanese bad boy director Takashi Miikes controversial 2001 live-action sadomasochistic extravaganza Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1). That art-house thriller was released at five international film festivals before its Japanese general release and a lot more festivals since. The sadistic boss of a Japanese Yakuza gang has disappeared with its money. The gang, now led by next-in-command Kakihara, searches for him. They are intercepted by Ichi, a mysterious invulnerable killer who dispatches them in a variety of comically exaggerated, imaginatively gruesome manners. It becomes obvious that Kakihara is a masochist who had enjoyed being tortured and mutilated by their former boss and that Ichi is gradually replacing the boss in Kakiharas affections.

For those who want to know who the mysterious Ichi really is and what turned him into such a pain-loving death machine, we now have the direct-to-video Koroshiya 1: The Animation Episode 0 (September 27, 2002, 37 minutes plus ten minutes of closing credits; animation by the A.I.C. studio). The action starts with Ichis confrontation with Kakihara (unidentified; it is assumed that Episode Zero s audience is familiar with Miikes live-action feature), and then goes into a flashback. Ichi is really Hajime Shiorishi, a muscular but extremely sexually-repressed young man who is tormented for most of his adolescence by school bullies and abusive teachers. He lives in a small apartment where it is impossible to avoid awareness of his parents noisy sadomasochistic lovemaking or his little brothers videogames that provide a constant background of images of extreme violence. His parents nag him to be a man and solve his own problems until he snaps and beats them and one of his high-school tormenters to death. His mind rejects all this and he reverts mentally to an amnesiac six-year-old. Therapists gradually turn him into a model citizen who can safely be released back into society, but the shock ending reveals how he ends up as Ichi the Killer instead.

The production makes skillful use of limited animation to present the story in stylized raw graphics suggesting dementia. The art style is bold and deliberately ugly, emphasizing closeups of cruel, leering faces and terrified eyes. Although Hajime is tall and handsome, camera angles convey his obsession that everyone is looking down in contempt at him. There are fewer scenes in full color than in monocolor; heavy black outlines and silhouettes on backgrounds of solid red (or blue or ochre or a dirty white or even pink, but usually bright arterial red).

Episode Zero is intelligently written, but the emotional situation is so exaggeratedly bleak that practically any normal person would either retreat into catatonia or go berserk as Hajime does. (His school looks like it should be a breeding ground for psychotic drop-outs.) This story of what turns a high-school student into a violent killer is complete, but for those unfamiliar with what happens next in the live-action Ichi the Killer, the ending will be confusingly incomplete. The DVD is rated 16+ with warnings of graphic violence, nudity and sexual situations.

Horror fantasy-comedy, Japanese feudal history, animistic mythology and teen romance come together in Inu Yasha. ©2001 Rumiko Takahashi / Shogakukan Yomiuri TV Sunrise Sho-Pro NTV Toho Yomiuri-TV Enterprise. All rights reserved.

InuYasha the Movie: Affections Touching Across Time

Theatrical feature, 2001. Director: Toshiya Shinohara. 100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: Viz Video.

Inu Yasha (Yasha the Dog), arguably Rumiko Takahashis most popular series (including Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku and Ranma 1/2), began as a serialized manga in 1997 (U.S. volumes since 1998). The TV series, by the Sunrise animation studio, began in Japan on Oct. 16, 2000 and has just ended with episodes #166-167 broadcast as a one-hour finale on Sept. 13. The series began in America on Cartoon Network, Aug. 31, 2002 and is one of that channels most popular titles.

Inu Yasha is a horror fantasy-comedy blending Japanese feudal history, animistic mythology and teen romance. Kagome Higurashi is a modern junior-high senior whose priesthood family has maintained a Shinto shrine at the foot of an ancient tree for many centuries. Kagome falls into the shrines dry well and emerges 500 years in the past, when peasants were beset by supernatural demons. The tree, much younger, has an unconscious handsome youth with dog ears pinned to it by an arrow. Kagome pulls out the arrow and brutally learns that she has just freed a half-demon boy imprisoned by her priestess ancestor Kikyo 50 years earlier. Inuyasha, because of his mixed parentage (human mother; dog-demon-lord father), is emotionally mixed up. He has two powerful magic artifacts; the sword Tetsusaiga, which can slay 100 demons with one swing and suppresses his demonic nature, and the Shikon Jewel, which amplifies the power of demons. Kagome learns that she is the 20th century reincarnation of now-dead Kikyo. The first story-arc ends with her accidentally shattering the Shikon Jewel into hundreds of shards, which fly in all directions, each powerful enough to turn some insignificant plant, animal or insect into an evil demon. Inuyasha, no longer under the direct influence of the Jewel, joins with Kagome to find all the shards and to fight the exotic demons that each shard has created. Some adventures take the two to modern Tokyo. A prickly adolescent romance develops between the teens, complicated by the fact that Inuyasha and Kikyo had a crush on each other 50 years earlier and Kikyos ghost is still around, creating a uniquely awkward love triangle.

By the time this first theatrical feature (Inu-Yasha: Toki o Koeru Omoi) was released on Dec. 15, 2001, the TV series had been running more than a year. Many supporting characters had joined Inuyasha and Kagome notably the human demon-fighters Miroku (a lecherous young Buddhist priest) and Sango (a ninja girl who rides a two-tailed cat demon) and the friendly animal-demons Shippo (a child fox-demon) and Myoga (an elderly flea demon). Naturally the movie has to include everybody. Viewers unfamiliar with the TV series may want to first watch the 35-minute DVD extra Special Edition: All About Inuyasha, which introduces the cast and summarizes the TV adventures, before turning to the movie.

The TV episodes were all variants on Inuyasha, Kagome and their fellow questers battling a series of demons, which either tried to protect their own Shikon shard or had preemptively attacked the team to steal the shards they had collected so far. The movie introduces their greatest menace yet. Menomaru the moth-demons goal is to steal Inuyashas super-sword rather than a jewel shard. Menomaru cunningly studies his adversaries and sends his two femme-fatale demonic spies Ruri and Hari to steal each of the questers magical weapons. With virtually all of the magical artifacts at his disposal and the questers in confused disarray, Menomaru seems truly invincible by the time he attacks.

Note: The name in English has been spelled Inu Yasha, Inuyasha and every other possible variant. According to a VIZ representative, each American merchandising licensee can determine its own official spelling; there is no consistency. The movies subtitles spell it Inuyasha while the decorative movie title logo is InuYasha; and the manga version is Inu-Yasha.

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