Saturday, June 11, 2016

Video Backlog: "Go Go Anime!"

Publisher: Live Sockets (USA)
Format: Region Free DVD, NTSC, English Dialogue
Length: 59 minutes
Production Date: 2004
Currently in Print (as of writing): No

At the peak of the surge in anime home video sales market in the US in the 2000’s, there were a number of documentaries made on the fandom surrounding it. Only a handful were ever completed and even fewer still got any sort of home video release. By my count only two ever got a commercial home video release; “Otaku Unite!” directed by Eric Bresler who now runs a gallery/art space called the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, and this film, “Go Go Anime!”. This documentary was created by a company called Live Sockets which their ad copy tell us are “a leading producer of street racing, underground hip-hop and action sports videos”. Before I give my opinion on the doco, it’s probably a good idea to talk about the video itself.

A shot on video cheapie, “Go Go Anime!” roughly follows three sets of fans groups before they make their pilgrimage to Anime Expo in Los Angeles in July 2003. First up we are introduced to Sailor Jamboree. They are a cosplay group formed in 1999 who as you may have guessed do Sailor Moon themed cosplay. The group are all female teens of a mixed background, though many have an Asian heritage. Like a lot of young American fans, they are quite excitable and seem to talk nonstop when asked questions by the interviewers. For the Cosplay Masquerade this year, they have chosen to perform it to the song “Cell Block Tango” from the 2002 film “Chicago”, which was based off the stage musical of the same name. Most of the footage from this section of the film shows them rehearsing and figuring out dance moves for their performance.

Next we meet Glen Kristiansen a middle aged anime fan who has regular anime viewing nights every Friday with his two best friends Al and John. Though most of the time it looks like they are drinking with empty bottles and beer cans of imported Japanese beers all over the place. While Glen has a very extensive anime laserdisc collection (and bizarrely tons of Hong Kong bootleg DVDs), it’s quite clear he’s a family man too with at least two kids in the family photos we see. And considering most of his vast collection is brand new, not second hand imported Japanese laserdiscs (and considering the size of his house and the decor), he’s certainly quite well off and not your typical US anime fan. Later we get an edited tour of his collection which also includes unopened commercial US anime VHS and fansubs on VHS.

The third section, titled “Manga Artist”, focuses on amateur comic book artist Henry Liao. He’s gearing up to sell his work at the artist’s alley at Anime Expo. All of his work so far has been self-published or pieces done for friends. He shows off his portfolio which by all accounts is a bit amateurish and mimics shonen manga style artwork. He says that in terms of his own artwork he wants to live by Bruce Lee’s words that he should fight with emotional content. Despite him being laid off from his job, Henry seems to be determined to make a go of his art. The segment ends with Henry going to the printers to correct a mistake in a sample copy of the comic he’ll be selling at artist’s alley.

Finally the week of the convention is here. The documentary makers momentarily forget about their subjects as they trawl the convention and dealer’s rooms editing in random shots with grabs of interviews of various (now defunct) retail and video companies such as Akadot, Bandai Entertainment, Suncoast and ADV Films. We’re also treated to some footage of drunk teenage fans and the infamous Man-Faye, the satirical cross dressing cosplay by Damon Evans of Faye Valentine of “Cowboy Bebop”. However the makers of the doco really have no idea who Man-Faye is, nor do they seem to care about finding out. Afterwards we suddenly find out that some of the members of Sailor Jamboree are going to a Final Fantasy cosplay gathering, though the footage seems to show about half those in attendance aren’t cosplaying from that game. I suspect other footage shot at different times was used, but I can’t be certain.

Then it’s on to artist’s alley where Henry is sharing a table with another artist, Jen Chan. She’s a published artist and considers herself to be a professional now. She takes us to her partner’s table, Long Vo, who was a founder of UDON Entertainment. Jen explains she doesn’t think much of mainstream US comics as they generally portray women as all bums and boobs and there is more to comics than that. This section amusingly and seemingly edited unironically by the documentary makers, segues into the next segment on a cosplay themed “Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball” photography session that Glen, Al and John eagerly attend. All of the cosplayers that took part are amateurs and no professional models are in attendance. One of the cosplayers states that most of the female cosplayers asked didn’t want to do it. I wonder why.

Finally we’re taken back to the hotel where Glen, Al and John are joined in their room by two other middle aged friends and, surprise, surprise, drink Japanese beer, then go down to watch a concert at the convention. Afterwards we see members of Sailor Jamboree scrambling to finish up costumes and changing out of other costumes in order to make it to the cosplay masquerade. We get snippets of a number of other masquerade contestants out of context and edited abruptly before we come to an edited performance of Sailor Jamboree. We don’t see the announcement of the judging, but are later told they did not place. However the girls tell us they only really do it for the performance.

Compared to Bresler’s “Otaku Unite!”, “Go Go Anime!” (obviously the prerequisite for an anime documentary is an exclamation point in the title), is poorly edited, has some terrible music and as a whole film nothing really congeals together. There seems to be no real effort to explain to the audience what any of this anime stuff is about. Coming in without any knowledge of the subject and watching the documentary would be really confusing for anyone. In fact if you didn’t already know about anime fandom from that era (2003 or so) and were an anime fan, the film would probably leave you scratching your head at some points. There are two main problems with the documentary I have. The first is that damn sloppy editing. It’s truly some amateur hour shit. It really looks like the film was made on a tight budget, but Christ almighty, even with consumer level equipment you could edit it better than this. There’s no flow, no thought into attempting to edit the film seamlessly. It often just jerks abruptly from one scene to other, often without explanation, or establishing shots or anything of that nature.

Though you never really hear the questions from the interviewers, the responses indicate that nothing of substance was asked of them, nor questions that would reveal something of themselves or get them to properly explain what is going on. Look, I don’t expect a Werner Herzog style doco, I just expect something competent. Possibly the other problem with the documentary was the subjects themselves. Certainly with the members of Sailor Jamboree being teenage girls at time, they’re not all that articulate (they were previously featured in “Otaku Unite!” anyway). Henry isn’t that interesting of a subject either. Glen feels a bit stand offish about his anime collection and I really think him and his buddies would just prefer to drink (though admittedly I think they’re the most interesting of the interviewees here, as they are atypical of anime fans). I really have to wonder how and why these three sets of people were chosen for this documentary. It’s sort of baffling.

The best thing you could probably say about his documentary is that it provides a glimpse into American anime fandom and conventions of 13 years ago, five years before the wheels of the US industry supporting that fandom began to wobble and fall off. Mostly because that fandom didn’t really care about paying for their anime. The disc contains no real extras, except for trailers for products featured in the film. I suspect that there were supplied by companies for the purpose of editing into the film and Live Sockets just used what they wanted and stuck the full trailers on as extras. There is also a bunch of photos as extras, most are used to form the cover art work. I originally bought this a few years ago and was going to write about it as part of another project for a defunct blog. That never happened, so it sort of languished in a box for years. I got it for cheap off an eBay auction, but the disc is long out of print and hard to find. There is no bar code on the disc and I think it was only available from the Live Sockets website.

So in the end, it’s a barely edited, poor excuse for a documentary. It’s just someone's glorified home video at points. Real amateur hour shit. But it is interesting to see what US fandom looked like back in the early 2000’s though. 5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: One movie, two OVAs, 10 TV series. In addition I am also waiting for second parts of for four TV series and two OVAs to be released before viewing them.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Roaming Around Japan: Utsunomiya

On my first trip to Japan, I decided to go to the Bandai Museum in Matsudo in Chiba. Unfortunately I later discovered that the museum has closed and moved way out to Utsunomiya in Tochigi prefecture (also the capital of the prefecture with a population of about half a million), some 110km north of Tokyo. Worse still the museum itself was out on a country line out of the city. Regardless I wanted to see the museum and as a bonus took my first shinkansen trip. After managing to screw up in an attempt to get through the gates to the platform, it was short 43 minute trip to Utsunomiya from Ueno station. Unfortunately the private railway to get to the museum is about a half hour walk away. It’s far easier to get a taxi (unless you want to bus it) to Tobu-Utsunomiya station (station number TN-40). From here, take to train to Omocha no Machi station (TN-35, the name of the station literally means “Toy Town”. Besides Bandai, Takara Tomy also has a factory out here).

The area around the station is actually the town of Mibu. There are a number of interesting tourist attractions in the area such as a museum dedicated to war relics and a science museum. The major problem though is there is practically no public transport to get to these attractions and walking isn’t really an option due to the distances between them, nor a bike as there seems to be no rental cycle shops in the area. The two remaining options are a rental car (to get to some of the attractions you may end up paying a road toll, though you can take alternate roads) or taxi. Of course both are a bit problematic. I took a taxi, which in retrospect wasn’t the greatest choice. Sure it’s cheaper, but you have to deal with language problems if you’re not too well versed in Japanese, and as a result I saw far less than I could have of the area’s attractions. On the other hand you’re free to drive anywhere you like for the day and a lot of rental cars do have English GPS (well the Nissan car rental chain does offer that option at least).

From Omocha no Machi station, I took a taxi to the Mibu Toy Museum. However I arrived a bit too early and decided to have a look around the parkland that surrounds it, Tochigi Wanpaku Park. This is an area which seemed to be developed in the 1980’s. There’s lots of strange little things placed around the park suck as Moai (Easter Island statues), some Aztec inspired ruins and these weird wooden figures. It was early morning in the park on a weekday in late October and it really isn’t in a suburban or built up area, but there were still a number of people walking around. I got accosted by a business man who could speak English a bit and one of the greenkeepers. It was at this point I realised that people outside of metropolitan Tokyo were far more friendly than those inside the city.

Anyway, the Mibu Toy Museum opens at 9:30 am and costs ¥600 for adults. The idea behind it seems to be that the kids can play in the centre of the building while the adults look at the exhibits. It is primarily a play centre for kids and the museum part is a little lacking. Once you pay, the first thing you’ll see is a massive collection of soft toys;

There’s also a number of ex-promotional material such as life sized Sailor Moon figures and this kind of out of place Ultraman Tiga. It looks as if Rei is not impressed with the new Sailor Senshi member…

More human sized ex-promotional models such as various robots from Toei’s long running Sentai series.

Some of the exhibits are just over the shop and seemingly have no rhyme or reason to them. Take this collection of toy ambulances above. They’re just packed in there without any real thought.

However there are a number of really interesting items on display, like this Lupin III mahjong game

Or this toy microphone set, merchandise linked to 1970’s idol group the Candies.

And more 1970’s idol merchandise such as these Pink Lady dolls. Apart from the displays, there is also a room with a large model train set up. There’s an additional fee to operate the model trains.

On the way out you’ll see the actual Yatter-Wan prop from Takashi Miike’s 2009 film “Yatterman” (a live action remake of the 1970’s Tatsunoko anime TV series) next to the souvenir shop and cafĂ©.

Outside the museum is a Zoids inspired life sized figure/playground equipment (well a cubbyhouse type thing at the very least). I needed to get to the Bandai Museum and my Japanese wasn’t good at all, so I asked the two ladies at the counter to phone a taxi for me. One of the ladies even led me out to the designated spot where taxis drop off and pick up people.

The Bandai Museum is open from 10am and costs ¥1,000 for entry. The museum is partly an archive for Bandai and is probably cheaper to have both together rather than in Chiba where it previously was. The museum itself is divided up into five areas; a Japanese toy area, a world toy section, a hobby section, another inexplicably dedicated to Thomas Edison and a play area for kids.

Outside are three life size bronze statues of Aba Red from “Abaranger”, Kamen Rider number 1 and Akarenger from “Gorenger”.

Why Bandai would collect Thomas Edison stuff is beyond me. Regardless the collection is quite interesting and informative.

The world toy section is comprised mostly of a collection from the now defunct London Toy & Model Museum. When the museum was closed in 1999 due to low attendance rates, Bandai bought up a lot of the collection. They even put out a book on the museum detailing 500 of the pieces they bought. Another odd piece in their collection is a steam tractor which sits outside the museum. It seems to have been purchased from the Tom Varley collection, which the owner, a collector of working steam powered vehicles in the UK, died in the 1990’s.

The hobby section includes this large Gundam torso (you can see a life sized model of Amaro on the walkway above the Gundam’s right shoulder)...

...a White Base diorama...

...and this glorious mess of a display which Yoshiyuki Tomino supervised himself.

And finally the Japanese toy area which of course includes lots of Bandai related toys such as Sailor Moon (which was a bit of a mess itself...).

And one of my favourites, Marmalade Boy. There are thousands and thousands of items on display and it will take you a good hour or two to go through the lot. It’s probably not as good as the original museum in Chiba, but the area is quite a nice change of pace if you’re sick of Tokyo and want to get out of the city.

Two more shots of the displays, here’s Pen Pen from “Evangelion”...

...and here’s Ultraman Tiga who was being humiliated because it was close to Halloween. To get back to Utsunomiya, walk out of the museum, turn left and walk straight ahead for around ten minutes to Omocha no Machi station.

There is an underpass in the park to get to the station platform on the other side of the tracks, but before you do have a look at this small steam engine just beyond the park. I believe Takara Tomy put up the money to preserve and display it. From Omocha no Machi station, it’ll take about 15 minutes to get to Tobu-Utsunomiya station. Try to exit the station out of the north entrance of the Tobu department store close to where Louis Vuitton is. To the right of the Louis Vuitton store front will be a very long covered shopping street (Orion Dori). Walk down here for around 500 meters and on your left (crossing one street along the way) will be Utsunomiya Festa.

This is another one of those “anime complexes” that you find from time to time in areas outside Tokyo. The main stores in this building are Mandarake, Lashinbang, Animate, Yellow Submarine, C-labo, Volks and Melonbooks. There’s also a performance space, a yoga studio, dress shop and some fast food places.

Utsunomiya was also the first place I found the regional Kit Kats. The Tochigi strawberry flavoured ones where first region Kit Kats I ever bought. That’s it for Utsunomiya. Next time I’ll be looking at Odaiba in Tokyo.