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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Taylor Jessen talks with Henry Selick about going dry-for-wet on The Life Aquatic and opening the door on the looking-glass world of Coraline.

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.

Azumanga Daioh literally means

Azumanga Daioh literally means "the greatest comics ever." © A.D.V. Films.

Azumanga Daioh. V.1, Entrance! V.2, Festivals! V.3, Rivals! V.4, Friends! V.5, Seniors! V.6, Graduation!

TV series (26 episodes), 2002. Director: Hiroshi Nishikori. V.1, 3 & 4, five episodes/125 minutes; v.2 & 5, four episodes/100 minutes; v.6, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

There seem to be an increasing number of anime schoolgirl romantic comedies being released in America. This is the first of three such titles reviewed this month.

Azumanga Daioh literally means "the greatest comics ever." This is arguably justified in that seldom have a manga (a Japanese newspaper comic strip rather than the usual comicbook series) and its anime adaptation been so popular with almost no action. It has been described as a situation comedy, but it is really a personality comedy more like Charles Schulz's Peanuts -- a good American rival for the title of "the greatest comics ever."

Six girls go through the three years of high school together. Tomo is hyper energetic and rambunctious, always leaping into action without thinking things out. Sakaki is so physically huge and taciturn that everyone stereotypes her as athletically minded and anti-social, not realizing she is painfully shy. Yomi is the studious "brain, irritated by being constantly interrupted by Tomo. These three middle-school classmates are joined in their high school freshman homeroom by two transferees; Chiyo-chan, a 10-year-old prodigy promoted directly from elementary school, and Ayumu, who has just moved to Tokyo from Osaka and is promptly nicknamed "Osaka" by Tomo. The sixth begins as Kaori, another classmate of Tomo, Yomi and Sakaki who has a schoolgirl crush on "Miss Sakaki, but she is replaced due to a homeroom shuffle by Kagura, who is similar enough to both Sakaki and Tomo to become a friend of one and a rival of the other.

Each of the DVD volumes covers a half-year of school. The 26 episodes (animated by J.C. Staff, broadcast April 8 through September 30, 2002) are each divided into five mini-episodes in emulation of the manga's newspaper comic strip format, although the mini-episodes are connected into a single story to encompass a particular test or sports event or seasonal activity. The girls gradually become comfortably familiar with each other and their classmates and teachers (particularly English teacher Miss Yukari and Phys. Ed teacher Miss Minamo -- in a casting against type, it is the P.E. teacher who is most sensitive and intelligent and the English teacher who is crass and oblivious); and we follow along with them as they grow intellectually and emotionally during the three years until their graduation.

Unlike most other girl-oriented high school anime series, Azumanga Daioh has no fantasy element other than the TV-comedy exaggeration of humorous situations (it is fun to watch the insensitive Yukari mishandling her classes, but let's hope that no real school system would retain a teacher like her for long), and there are no first-love situations. Azumanga Daioh concentrates on other aspects of co-eds' lives: working together on class projects, going shopping together, holding karaoke and slumber parties, and in the final episodes deciding on what future careers to try for. There are personality-driven ongoing situations: both Tomo and Osaka are poor students (Tomo is too energetic to concentrate while spaced-out Osaka mentally veers off into non sequiturs), and their friends help them develop study habits.

Chiyo is emotionally three years their junior; they realize the situation intellectually and try to work around it, but there are times when it is just awkward for a group of adolescent girls to have a "little sister" tagging along with them. Sakaki likes animals and thinks she would like to become a veterinarian, but she has never had a pet and is constantly being bitten by a neighborhood cat. Is this just an unusually bad-natured cat, or does it indicate that Sakaki is poor at handling animals and should choose another career?

A 12-page booklet with each DVD explains Japanese educational and social customs. Many will be amusingly fascinating to American viewers, notably how Japanese students struggle with mandatory English-language classes. Considering how mundane the setup is, it is hard to describe how heart-warmingly charming the characters become and how funny the brief setups can be. One of my favorites is the Christmastime conversation when the other girls realize that Tomo thinks just because Santa Claus is not real, reindeer aren't either, and they must convince her that reindeer really exist even if they don't pull sleighs through the sky. Azumanga Daioh is delightfully witty and even an educational window onto what Japanese high school life is really like.

Marmalade Boy may be a high school situation comedy because of its setting, but the locale is secondary to the teenage soap-opera melodrama. © TOKYOPOP.

Marmalade Boy may be a high school situation comedy because of its setting, but the locale is secondary to the teenage soap-opera melodrama. © TOKYOPOP.

Marmalade Boy Ultimate Scrapbook. V.1 - V.4.

TV series (76 episodes), 1994-1995. Series Director: Akinori Yabe. V.1-4, 19 episodes/475 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $99.99. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

Marmalade Boy, based upon the popular teen romance manga by Wataru Yoshizumi, ran for 76 episodes from March 13, 1994 through September 3, 1995 (produced by Toei Animation Co., Ltd.). TOKYOPOP is releasing it in four "ultimate scrapbook" boxed sets of three DVDs containing 19 episodes each; almost eight hours, not counting the DVD extras.

Miki Koishikawa is a junior at Toryo High School, a normal adolescent girl developing a social life with her classmates and not paying too much attention to her parents -- until they announce that they just met another married couple during a vacation in Hawaii, and they became such good friends that they have all decided to get divorced, remarry each other's spouses, and move into the same mansion together. Oh, and the other family has a son Miki's age, so she will be gaining a stepbrother in addition to two more parents. Talk about a teenager's parents doing something so silly that she could die of embarrassment!

Japanese law does not allow divorced women to remarry for six months, so the Koishikawas and the Matsuuras must a low profile during this period, though they will not let this stop them from setting up housekeeping together. Miki hopes to keep the situation a secret from her classmates, though this becomes difficult after the Matsuuras' son, Yuu, transfers to her school. Yuu is so handsome that she is elated yet mortified at having such a good-looking boy move into the bedroom next to hers. She is also infuriated by the way he patronizes her like a kid sister. Yuu is agreeable to keeping their parents' secret, but he and Miki cannot keep their classmates from noticing that the two always arrive at school together and have the same address.

Miki had a crush on a boy, Ginta, in junior high school but he laughed her off when she sent him a love letter. Now that they are a couple of years older and he is discovering girls, Ginta is showing obvious jealousy of Yuu. Miki is thrilled that Yuu's presence may awaken romantic feelings in Ginta towards her. Then Yuu's girlfriend from his old high school shows up, and Miki is horrified to realize that she is also getting jealous. Is she more attracted to Yuu than to Ginta? Does he feel anything more for her than a big brother? And what are the social proprieties regarding a romance between a stepbrother and stepsister?

The slapstick parent-swapping scenario is downplayed almost immediately. Most of the humor in Marmalade Boy is based on either mildly risqué "brother and sister" situations (such as when all four parents go on another vacation and leave Miki and Yuu un-chaperoned in their house -- Miki cannot decide whether she wants anything to happen or not), and the expanding romantic complications around Miki, Yuu and Ginta. Arimi, Yuu's former girlfriend, realizes that Miki is undecided between Yuu and Ginta, so Arimi persuades Ginta to pretend to fall in love with her to make Miki jealous enough to abandon Yuu. But Miki dithers for so long that Ginta begins to get seriously interested in Arimi.

Tsutomo, who has a crush on Arimi, declares a vendetta on both Yuu and Ginta. Meiko, Miki's best friend who she is counting on for levelheaded romantic advice, turns out to be carrying on a secret affair with handsome teacher Mr. Namura -- a definite no-no in teacher-student relations.

Each romantic entanglement runs three or four episodes before being replaced by a new one, which often adds a new supporting character. Yuu is hired to tutor Suzu, a prestigious juvenile model. She develops a crush on Yuu, and even though she is a couple of years younger, Miki worries that she will not be able to match Suzu's professional sophistication. Why has Kei, a handsomely talented young jazz player, abandoned a promising career; and does Miki have a moral obligation to re-inspire him? Many of these situations take place during school trips to colorful tourist sites around Japan.

Marmalade Boy may be a high school situation comedy because of its setting, but the locale is secondary to the teenage soap opera melodrama. The animation quality was not notable even by 1994 TV standards, but the adolescent romantic angst among the upper class (Miki's and Yuu's parents are always going on round-the-world vacations and leaving them alone in a mansion; their private high school is almost as fancy as a royal court) won enough TV viewers to keep it on the air for a year and a half. That popularity is still high among America's growing audience among young girls for anime.

You dont have to be an adolescent schoolgirl to find Seven of Seven funny. © Anime Works/Media Blasters.

You dont have to be an adolescent schoolgirl to find Seven of Seven funny. © Anime Works/Media Blasters.

Seven of Seven. V.1, The Luckiest Number. V.2, A Test of Love. V.3, Greatest American Heroes. V.4, Heartbreak by the Numbers. V.5, Eight is Enough. V.6, title to come.

TV series (25 episodes), 2002. Director: Asako Nishida. V.1-2, five episodes/125 minutes; v.3-5, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: Anime Works/Media Blasters.

A friend watching this schoolgirl fantasy-comedy with me said, "I have never enjoyed a program so much that was this ridiculously silly!" I could not put it better. This is about a junior high school senior's first romance, but judging by the juvenility of the humor and the suggested-age rating of 7+, it seems just as appropriate for elementary-school seniors of an age to giggle at an Older Sister's first crush.

Nana Suzuki, a junior high school student, is hopelessly in love with handsome classmate Yuichi Kamichika, but is too shy to let anyone know about it except her best friend Hitomi Onodera. In Japan, junior high students do not automatically go on to their neighborhood high school. They can apply to the high school of their choice. The top high schools are deluged with applications; only the best students can hope to be accepted. Nana has never really cared about high school, but she does not want to be separated from Yuichi so she is determined to get into the same high school he does. They both get into their junior high's special "fast-track" class for seniors that preps them for tough high school entrance exams, although Nana seems hopelessly out of her depth.

Nana's parents are temporarily living in San Francisco on business, while she stays home with her grandfather; a kindly mad scientist. When she opens the microwave oven to bake a chocolate cake for Yuichi, she interrupts Grandpa's experiment to condense the colors of the rainbow into solid jewels. This somehow multiplies Nana into seven Nanas, each with a different personality: tomboyish Nana, brainy Nana, giggly Nana, crybaby Nana, lazy Nana, superstitious Nana and the original Nana. (By no coincidence, Nana is a girl's name and also a homonym for the Japanese word for "seven;" there are Nana puns throughout the series.)

Each Nana gets a color-coded jewel which gives her super-powers and together they can form a team just like their favorite TV heroines; the Nana Rangers. The other six Nanas help run interference for Nana against bullying classmates and comically sadistic teachers who bury her in homework; but they cannot help her to pass the fast-track class' hard tests if she spends more time mooning over Yuichi than she does studying. Worse, each of the Nanas is equally enamored with Yuichi and really wants him for herself. As Nana says at the end of each episode, "My love life and exams are out of control!"

Seven of Seven (Shichichin No Nana, produced by the A.C.G.T. studio, 25 TV episodes January 10 through June 27, 2002 plus one unbroadcast episode) is a quirky school comedy that contrasts very ethnically Japanese social customs (young girls' giving sweets on Valentine's Day to the boy that they like; attending the mid-August Obon Week Festival in traditional Japanese dress) with a lot of American early 20th-century popular music as background music; especially Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag which appears in several arrangements.

English is a required subject in Japanese schools, and a running gag is that English is Nana and Yuichi's worst subject. Even their pompous teacher, Assistant Principal Handa who boasts of his English skills, mangles it. Contrariwise when an American teenage girl visiting Japan tries to coach Nana with her diction, it is a disaster because she is a parody of a Hollywood cowgirl with an exaggerated Texan accent (reciprocated for Japanese viewers because she learned to speak Japanese with a burlesque Osaka accent).

In episode #14, Nana uses her Nana Rangers powers to fly to San Francisco and becomes a parody of a Japanese tourist in America, with cartoon animation over photographs of San Francisco's best-known landmarks. (Strangely, all the English-as-a-foreign-language jokes are translated faithfully in the DVD's subtitles to go with the Japanese language track, but the English dub is rewritten with different jokes that hide the fact that English is a dreaded school subject in Japan.)

Whether you are an adolescent schoolgirl or not, Seven of Seven is very funny. Its fantasy, its humor and its idealized puppy-love romance are obvious sugar-coatings for advice on the importance of avoiding distractions to studying for exams.

Mobile Suit Gundam is one of the most influential works in Japanese animation. © Bandai Ent.

Mobile Suit Gundam is one of the most influential works in Japanese animation. © Bandai Ent.

Mobile Suit Gundam F91: The Motion Picture.

Theatrical feature, 1991. Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino. 118 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Mobile Suit Gundam, created by writer/director Yoshiyuki Tomino and the Sunrise animation studio, is one of the most influential works in Japanese animation. It was the pioneer of the "second generation" of giant-robot TV cartoons. It upgraded them from juvenile comicbook superheroes battling evil monsters to adolescent sci-fi semi-realistic futuristic military combat vehicle.

When the original Gundam appeared as a TV series in 1979-1980, fans demanded a sequel. The 43 TV episodes were edited into three theatrical features (with some new footage), but this was not enough. They demanded more original Gundam stories. And ever since 1985, Tomino and Sunrise have been churning them out for TV, original video releases, and movies: Zeta Gundam, Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, Victory Gundam, G Gundam, Gundam Wing, Gundam X, Turn-A Gundam and many others including Japanese TV's current Gundam Seed Destiny.

Mobile Suit Gundam F91: The Motion Picture, released March 16, 1991, was promoted as a new Gundam story in theatrical-quality animation; a distillation of the best of the Gundam concept. Unfortunately, it serves best as an example of what is wrong with too many theatrical features based upon popular TV series.

Gundam F91 does have higher-quality animation than the original TV series, but not enough better to make it stand out by today's standards. Much more serious flaws are that the story is not new enough, and it is strangely chopped up. Tomino basically plagiarizes his original TV series with only superficial changes of characters' and organizations' names. The 43-episode plot is crammed into a single 118-minute story, which assumes that the viewer is already familiar with the general Gundam future-history background and plunges right into the action.

A couple of 100 years in the future, most of humanity is living in artificial space colonies circling the Earth. Humanity is politically united under the Earth Federation, but a group of colonists who consider themselves genetically superior plot to take over the colonies and proclaim the space nation of Cosmo Babylonia. Warfare breaks out, with heavy casualties among the civilians in the colonies as squadrons of mobile-suited fighter pilots battle in their midst. Seabook Arno is one of a group of high school students and younger children who become separated from other refugees and are picked up by a military training ship, the Space Ark, which is carrying the prototype of an improved Gundam battle armor model, the F91.

Any fan of the 1979-80 Gundam series can guess where the story is going after the first five minutes. Seabook Arno, who becomes the reluctant pilot of the Gundam F91, is just a copy of Amuro Ray who was the reluctant pilot of the original Gundam battle suit. Cecily Fairchild, Seabook's girlfriend who turns out to be the disguised daughter of the enemy Cosmo Babylonia's rulers, is Sayla Maas who was the daughter of the founder of the enemy Zeon. The space colonies Frontier I through IV are the space colonies Side 1 through 7; the Space Ark is the military training ship White Base; and so forth.

Gundam F91 is nominally a sequel set 43 years after the first series, but history has never repeated itself this exactly. Worse, anyone not familiar with the original story is likely to be confused over who is fighting in this future war and why, because there is little background information. The compression of the plot into 118 minutes strips it of all character development as well as the complex "future history" background details that makes the first Gundam still such a great adventure. If you are not familiar with the original Gundam, F91 is at best a "Cliff's Notes"-type plot synopsis with all the names changed.

If you like Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z or Yu-Gi-Oh! then Shaman King may be your bag of tricks. © FUNimation Prods.

If you like Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z or Yu-Gi-Oh! then Shaman King may be your bag of tricks. © FUNimation Prods.

Shaman King. V.1, A Boy Who Dances With Ghosts. V.2, Perfect Possession. V.3, Pai-Long Attacks! V.4, Ryu is Possessed. V.5, The Shaman Fight. V.6-21, titles to come.

TV series (64 episodes), 2001-2002. Director: Seiji Mizushima. V.1-21, three episodes/75 minutes (one, probably the finale, will be four episodes/100 minutes). Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: FUNimation Productions.

Do you enjoy game-oriented TV anime with constant battles like Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!, but would you prefer more imagination and variety in the formula? Then try Shaman King. The manga serial by Hiroyuki Takei began in 1997, and was animated by the XEBEC studio for 64 TV episodes from July 4, 2001 through September 26, 2002. The American version began on the Fox Box channel on August 30, 2003 and is still running (episodes 37 through 40 during December 2004). It is scheduled to end around September 2005, but there are rumors that it is so popular that Fox may commission new episodes from the Japanese producers to continue the series.

Fox's Saturday-morning TV version (produced by 4Kids Entertainment, using many of the same voice actors who play characters in Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!) has been considerably Americanized. There are many name-changes: Manta becomes Morty, Tao Len becomes Lenny and Horo-Horo (the Japanese nickname of Horokeu Usui) becomes Trey Racer, to name three. Relationships are similarly Americanized: 13-year-olds Yoh Asakura and Anna Kyoyama in the American version are "good friends, and she orders him around because she feels protective towards him. In the Japanese version they are engaged; their old-fashioned parents formally agreed upon their arranged marriage when they were infants. Yoh, a modern boy who listens to rock music on his headphones, is too young to be interested in girls at all, much less the bossy Anna; but she is determined to hold him to his family's promise. Many jokes in the Japanese dialogue are therefore missing from the American version.

The popularity of manga and anime has risen to the level that more and more American youths want to know what the characters are "really saying. An accurate translation of the manga has been published in Viz's monthly Shonen Jump magazine since February 2003. Now FUNimation is releasing the "Original Uncut Edition" of the TV episodes on DVD with a choice between the English dub and the Japanese dialogue with English subtitles.

Japan has a millennia-old tradition of belief in nature spirits, ghosts and demons -- but what culture doesn't? Yoh is the latest descendant in a dynasty of shamans; people who can sense, communicate with, and sometimes control the supernatural world. Every 500 years there is a contest among shamans from all over the world to determine who is the most powerful; the next Shaman King. Yoh has come to Tokyo to look for a really powerful ghost to become his familiar. He chooses Amidamaru, a samurai who was killed 600 years ago, but first he must free Amidamaru from the spiritual bond that chains him to his grave. They have barely done this when they must face a Chinese zombie herder who controls corpses by talismans stuck to their foreheads (an ancient Taoist belief becoming well-known to American fans of Chinese horror movies).

The abovementioned Horo-Horo is a teen shaman from the Ainu people of Japan's northernmost island, culturally distinct from the rest of Japan. As Yoh and his increasing supporting cast of allies and adversaries travel around the world, there are Native American medicine men with their animal spirit totems (hawk, buffalo, coyote), Central Europeans (Faust VIII, a descendant of Dr. Faust who is a necromancer; and the vampire Boris Tepes Dracula III), Mexican shamen posing as a mariachi band who use bone magic to control skeletons, and so on.

Shaman King is a very superficial introduction to international folklore, but it covers the exotic highlights from Africa to Australia. Viewers will get a crash course in mystic vocabulary (in Japan the onmyoji, a Shinto diviner or fortuneteller; the itako, one who can summon and talk with the dead; the miko, a shrine priestess; in China the doshi, the Taoist zombie herder) and comparative animal spirits (in Japan the tanuki and fox, in North America the coyote, in Australia the kangaroo).

Yoh stands out from the other battling shamen because he treats his ghostly familiar Amidamaru as a friend and equal partner instead of a tool to be ignored when it is not being used. How the others react to this concept of friendship and cooperation rather than dominance generally defines whether they line up among Yoh's friends or among those determined to defeat him at all costs.

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).