Saturday, December 5, 2020

Anime On the Big Screen: “Violet Evergarden: the movie”

Venue:
Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 5 December 2020
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 140 minutes
Production Date: 2020
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

Exactly a year on from going to see “Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll”, here I am going to watch the follow up film and conclusion to the series. It had a been a pretty eventful 12 months, that’s for sure. The film itself has been delayed twice in Japan due to COVID-19. While there were heatwave conditions the previous weekend, the week had cooled down substantially, and by late morning it was 24°C. But it felt rather cool due to a breeze and the fact it was overcast, but not overcast enough not to let some sun through the cloud cover. The forecast called for at least 15mm of rain during the day, but while it threatened, there was no rain until the early evening. It didn’t really feel like the Christmas shopping season, but that changed after I came out of the cinema around 3:15pm to a crowded mall.

Bafflingly Dendy had initially decided to screen this film at the bizarrely inconvenient time of 3:30pm during weekdays. I really have no idea if anyone except a few people would have showed for those screenings. I opted for a 12:30pm slot on Saturday. The film was also screening at Hoyts in Belconnen which now seems the norm for anime released via Madman (I don't know if this city has that many anime fans for three screenings a day for this film, but anyway...). The screening times on weekdays seem a lot better at Hoyts, so maybe I’ll drive over to that part of town next time. Unlike the middle aged, male heavy demographic for the previous “Violet Evergarden” film, this time the audience was mostly female and young; 14 patrons showed up, a mother and her two teenage children, a couple, a group of six slightly rowdy teenagers, mostly female and two women who came separately, one who wept during the film. Time to talk about the film, I think. I won’t be going into the back story of the franchise and will be assuming you’re already familiar with it. If you’re not, go here. There are some minor spoilers ahead, but nothing that hasn’t already been revealed in Japanese trailers and other promotional material.

This concluding chapter of the franchise follows on directly from the previous film, but oddly begins by fast forwarding around 70 years into the future where the unnamed granddaughter of Ann Magnolia is mourning her death. Ann was the daughter of Clara Magnolia, a client of Violet Evergarden. Ann and her granddaughter were very close, but unbeknown to her was that Ann’s mother had asked Violet to write 50 letters to Ann, with each one being sent on her birthday for a period of 50 years. This was because Clara didn’t have long to live and wanted to send something for her birthday every year after she had passed on. Moved by what Violet had done, Ann’s granddaughter sets out to discover more about Violet.

Rewinding back to the Leidenschaftlich of 70 years ago, Violet has been commissioned to write a proclamation which is to be read out by the chosen queen presiding over this year’s blessing of the fleet. Afterwards she, along with other members of CH Postal Company, are greeted by the mayor and his wife who praise Violet’s writing. Violet is incredibly humble but in her stilted speech she almost sound like she is insulting the mayor which leads Claudia to cover for her. Walking through the carnival like atmosphere of the stalls after the blessing of the fleet, Violet comes across a stall selling broaches, which immediately reminds her of the time when Gilbert gave her the broach she treasures so much. Despite the fact she has been told repeatedly that he is most likely dead, Violet still believes he is alive somewhere.

Later at the postal company, the staff discuss the fact that technology is rapidly moving on in the post war world. The telephone is becoming commonplace. With the near completion of the radio tower in the centre of the city, they all realise that the occupation of Auto Memory Doll will become an antiquated one and they’ll eventually have to move on to other careers. Iris is particularly angered by the invention of the telephone. Some time later, Claudia and Benedict Blue ask Violet to accompany them on an outing. She politely declines. Instead visits the grave of Gilbert’s mother which she attends to at least once a month. There she runs into Gilbert’s elder brother, Dietfried. He realises that she has been placing flowers on her grave and tending to it for some time. Dietfried later advises her that he is selling the family boat and asks if should would like any of Gilbert’s childhood possessions which are on board. Her eyes light up and she agrees. She eventually decides to take a book he loved as a child (the same one Gilbert read to her) and a backgammon board game.

Upon returning to the postal company, Violet receives a call from a young boy named Yurisu who wants to use her services. When she questions him about his age, he retorts reminding her that her company advertises that they will travel to anywhere their clients are. She accepts and travels to the hospital he is in. After making Violet hide when his family shows up unexpectedly, he forces them to leave then asks her to write separate letters to his parents and younger brother. As Yurisu is slowing dying of an incurable disease, he wants her to send the letters to them after his death. Violet advises him that previously she had already done something similar a for a client in same position who wanted to send letters to her young daughter on her birthday for 50 years following her death. After accepting a reduced rate for her work (as Yurisu doesn’t really have any money), she completes the letters to his satisfaction. Just as she is leaving, he calls her back to write a fourth letter for Ryuka, a friend of his which he pushed away after the diagnosis of his illness. Violet promises him to return to complete it.

A large number of postal items addressed insufficiently causes Claudia and Benedict to evaluate what to do with them. Going through the storage area for these items, Claudia spots a letter with handwriting that is very familiar to him. He later confronts Violet to advise her that he may have discovered where Gilbert may be. He tells her it is a bit of a long shot, but the only thing she can hear is that he may still be alive. Violet insists that she goes along with him to the island the letter was sent from. However, the trip does not go well at all. While on the island during a fierce storm, the postal company contacts the pair to say that one of their clients is on his death bed. Violet feels responsible that she was never able to complete the letter to Ryuka and tries to set out back to the mainland to get to the hospital where Yurisu is. Claudia advises her that there is no way she can get back to the mainland and she’ll have to wait until the morning when the ferry arrives.

As I previously stated, this film wraps up Violet’s story. Though you could easily suggest that nothing needed to be wrapped up at the end of the TV series. The conclusion was perfectly fine and there really was no hanging questions or unresolved plot threads. While the previous film diverted somewhat from Violet's life story and ventured into two side stories which tied into each other at the end, once again the focus returns to Violet. For almost around half of it’s runtime, the film seems to meander around, following Violet doing her everyday tasks. It slowly but surely focuses on her sole unresolved issue in her life; finding Gilbert Bougainvillea. In hindsight how they’ve written this into the story is quite interesting. It creeps up slowly without you noticing. It’s also interesting to note Violet’s change from being very formal to barely restrained mania when she thinks she may find Gilbert.

Coupled with the Gilbert Bougainvillea plot line is a secondary plot involving a young boy, Yurisu, who has a fatal disease. To a degree this feels unrelated to the main plot, but does tie in with the main storyline for the search for Gilbert. Both story threads are about reconnecting with loved ones you have been apart from. But from the start we know how Yurisu's story is going to end. At this storyline’s climax, it does blatantly ramp up the melodrama and sadness, almost to the point of being mawkishly maudlin. Considering what is happening in the main storyline simultaneously, it does seem really over the top, though honestly, I’m a sucker for this franchise and I didn’t mind it too much. This part of the story also ties in with the events of episode 10, in which a sickly mother asks Violet to write letter to her young daughter. This in turn links up with the third storyline in the film which follows the the unnamed granddaughter of the mother’s daughter.

To be honest, this is the least successful of the plot lines and could easily be trimmed with no consequence to the film. In fact, I think would have made the film tighter and better paced. As I have previously mentioned, the film opens some 70 years in the future with the unnamed granddaughter mourning over her death and having a fight with her parents, where she accuses her mother of not visiting her own mother often enough. After the discovery of letters written by Violet, and her father explaining what Auto Memory Dolls are, she sets off to find out more about Violet. The granddaughter only appears in three sections of the film; the opening scene, a second section where she goes the CH Postal Company office, which is now a museum and the post climax sequence, where she travels to the place Violet remained until her final days. As a whole, the granddaughter’s story does feel rather divorced from the rest of the film. It would have made more sense and tied her into the film more closely if she had been the narrator of the film and been more involved in discovering and retelling Violet's story.

Violet herself in seems like she has reverted to a previous version of herself right from the beginning of the film. This seems at odds with how she was portrayed in “Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” and the end of the TV series. Perhaps this was done to show that her unresolved feelings for Gilbert are getting in the way of her fully living a normal life. I quite liked how they portrayed Claudia in this film. He knows he cannot compete with Gilbert, who for all intents and purposes is long dead. He also understands that he really can’t reconcile Violet's longing for Gilbert. Another stand out character is Dietfried. While he is still portrayed as untrustworthy, in this film he is redeemed to a large degree. The film also manages to squeeze in cameos from all of the cast members without it feeling forced or unnatural. There are also numerous Easter eggs hidden away in the film if you look closely enough. Admittedly most of them are blink and you’ll miss them type shots, so it maybe easier to spot them when the film eventually comes to blu-ray.

Wrapping up; this film is a quite satisfying end to one of my favourite TV series of recent years. The animation is excellent as per Kyoto Animation’s usual standards and I always find the acting within the character animation to be subtle, extremely expressive and really well done. However, I don’t think the three main plot lines meld as one all that successfully, especially with granddaughter’s scenes, which feel really out of place with the rest of the film. Possibly trying to tie all three plot lines together was a bit too ambitious. I think the previous film was a far better film overall, and nothing can beat the original TV series. But I have to admit the climax was quite emotionally satisfying and well done. There is a short post credits sequence (and I was the only one in the cinema who stayed for it) which does tie a short scene with Yurisu and Violet to Gilbert and Violet. It’s not essential to the film itself, but it’s a really nice coda. Overall, I’ll give this film 7 out of 10.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Anime On the Big Screen: “Akira”

Venue:
Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 24 October 2020
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 124 minutes
Production Date: 1988
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): Yes, Bandai Namco Arts/Emotion (Japan, 4K Ultra HD Version; Japanese dialogue, English dub, English and Japanese subtitles)

I didn’t think I’d be watching this film on the big screen. To be honest I had deliberately avoided watching the film back in the 1990’s that way. I had already seen it on VHS (the old Streamline English dub) and had no desire to watch that shitty, poorly mixed dub again via a scratchy, worn out 35mm print. Local distributors, Ronin Films, had the rights to the film for decades and would often play it at midnight screenings in their own (now defunct and sadly missed) Electric Shadows cinema. That cinema was the only place in town which played any anime films and even hosted the local screenings of Japanime 02 back in 2002. Now, like every other anime title in this country, Madman owns the rights to the title. “Akira” is getting a re-release in cinemas now as part of a promotional push for a forthcoming 4K Ultra HD blu-ray release.

I had originally bought my ticket early in the week online, but by the end of the week there was torrential rain and intense thunderstorms forecast for Saturday. Luckily the weather forecast didn't pan out that way. There was some rain on and off during the day and was frustratingly inconsistent in the morning; there would be a torrent of rain for about a minute, then it would stop, then start again. The weather was drab and quite humid, even though the temperature was only 20°C. It was one of those spring days where you could not decide if it was t-shirt weather or not. I went to the earliest screening, 10am, with Dendy was running four sessions of the film today and Sunday, which kind of surprised me (with Hoyts in Belconnen also screening the film). Dendy had already ran the film as part of an earlier mini anime film festival two months ago, so apparently there is a pent-up unquenchable demand to see this 32 year old anime film in cinemas here. I suppose being 2020, it is an excellent time to revisit the film.

The audience was mostly made up of young people in their late teens or early twenties with few women in attendance. 18 people showed up altogether. A couple sitting near me would not shut up and pretty much provided a running commentary on the film. Another guy at the front constantly left the cinema and returned throughout the entire second half of the film. There were two living, breathing otaku stereotypes in attendance, both quite obese, one constantly feeding his face non-stop and make a bit of noise doing so. At the end of the film, pretty much everyone just got up and left the very second the credits started rolling. A couple of guys behind me called the film “boring” and one said he fell asleep five times. Boring is not exactly how I'd describe the film, but OK, whatever. So, all in all, not one of the best outings I’ve had at the cinema. It surprised me that a fair wack of the audience had seemingly never seen the film before. That really shouldn't be surprising. I guess most younger fans haven't seen the film, so I'll quickly give a rundown (or attempt to) on the story;

31 years after World War III, which was seemingly caused by a nuclear blast in Tokyo on 16 July 1988, Tokyo has been rebuilt into what is now called Neo-Tokyo. Crime and urban decay are rampant with seemingly never-ending civil disobedience in the forms of violent protest and even more violent suppression of it’s citizens by riot police. The 2020 Olympics are being held in Neo-Tokyo next year, but no one seems to really care, especially when society seems to be on the verge of collapse. The city seems to be overrun by bosozoku gangs, a type of Japanese bike gang who are very territorial, noisy and disruptive, and on occasion, violent. Leader of one of those gangs is Shotaro Kaneda. Their enemy is another gang called the Clowns. After a bloody and violent confrontation with the Clowns through shopping streets and then onto a highway, Kaneda's best friend, Tetsuo Shima, chases down a Clown member who has broken away from the group. Though he manages to beat him down, Tetsuo collides into what initially seems to a young boy, with his bike oddly exploding upon impact with him.

Kaneda and the other members of the gang arrive and come to Tetsuo’s aid, and Kaneda is confused at the presence of the young boy who is wrinkled like an old man. He shouts out to him but the boy walks away. Suddenly several military helicopters arrive on the scene. Unbeknownst to Kaneda, the young boy is an esper in his late 30’s, called Takashi, who was part of a secret experiment since his childhood into developing a trio of children with psychic powers. Earlier that day he had been freed from a government laboratory with the aid of an anti-government resistance group, who has ties to a politician within the opposition party in parliament. The man who helped free Takashi was killed by government forces and he had been wandering the city alone looking for the leader of the resistance group. Colonel Shikishima, who has been tasked with Takashi's capture, takes him back and also orders the capture of the injured Tetsuo. The other members of the gang are arrested and taken away, with many of them confused thinking the military has seemingly joined forces with the police.

The next day the gang are interrogated with a bunch of suspects thought to belong to anti-government resistance movements. Upon discovering they are nothing but a bosozoku gang, the authorities release them. However, before they do Kaneda manages to convince them that a young woman who has taken his fancy, Kei, is part of their gang. Kei is part of the resistance group that freed Takashi. She thanks Kaneda and runs off, much to his annoyance. Meanwhile the doctor heading up the esper project, Doctor Onishi, realises that Tetsuo's contact with Takashi has somehow awakened his own psychic abilities and proceeds to use him a test subject. This is despite his power being very similar to another esper, Akira, who was the actual cause of Tokyo’s destruction in 1988. Takashi's fellow esper, Kiyoko, forewarns Shikishima of the destruction of Neo-Tokyo. However, at a council meeting of at Neo-Tokyo's parliament, the politicians dismiss Shikishima's concerns and his handling of the situation, saying they will formally investigate him.

Tetsuo tires of his treatment and the experimentation and escapes in order to return to his girlfriend Kaori. He hatches a plan to escape the city by stealing Kaneda's motorcycle. But members of the Clown’s gang ambush him and severally beat up Kaori. Kaneda and rest of his gang who have been in pursuit of Tetsuo after he stole the bike, save the pair from the Clowns. Kaneda has an argument with Tetsuo; however, he begins to have intense and disturbing hallucinations due to withdrawal from the medicine he has been taking. A team led by Doctor Onishi retrieves him, much to Kaneda and the gang’s anger and confusion. Afterwards Kaneda joins Kei's resistance group after following her post chaos and confusion of a train station bombing led by her group. The group decide to let him join as his friend is being treated in the same complex as the other espers they plan to liberate. However, the infiltration by the group goes badly. Several of the group are killed by armed guards and Tetsuo’s psychokinetic powers awaken. He becomes egomaniacal and unstable after the trio of child-like espers attempt to stop him. Tetsuo flees the facility after learning from Kiyoko that he can gain help from Akira, who is in cryonic storage beneath the Olympic Stadium construction site.

This film is of course based on the classic manga by Katsuhiro Otomo which ran from 1982 to 1990. Otomo had been producing manga as a professional since 1979 and gained recognition the following year with “Domu”, which I think to a large degree is quite an underrated manga, or more correctly was totally overshadowed by “Akira” which followed it. I feel “Akira” (both the manga and the anime) to a large degree are products of their environment, or more correctly a by-product of the Japanese bubble economy. It feels as if it is simultaneously a celebration and criticism of that period in the 1980’s. Like the rest of the world at the time, in Japan during the 1980’s there was a culture of excess and over consumerism. You could argue that this includes this film, which at the time was the most expensive animated film ever produced in that country. At the same time youth subculture was on the rise. In this case of this franchise, the focus was on bosozoku gangs, who had hit their peak in membership the same year the manga first began serialisation. Again, the inclusion of this subculture elements feels like both a celebration of it and criticism of the society that they were born from.

Otomo really hadn’t had much experience in the director’s chair up to this point. In the year prior to this film he had directed short segments in the omnibus anime films “Labyrinth Tales” (aka “Manie-Manie” or “Neo Tokyo”) and the opening and ending segments of “Robot Carnival”. It’s kind of nuts to think that the producers were OK with handing such a large budget to a rookie director, even if the “Akira” manga was a massive success at the time. But of course, Otomo made an incredible film. As a director he did the complete opposite to what other directors and studios would in making an animated film in Japan. The dialogue was pre-recorded before most of animation was even begun. Not only did this mean that the lip flaps matched perfectly, the animators could used the performances to animate the characters, which arguably meant both elements matched each other perfectly. The film also used more animation cels than any other anime film of the time; 160,000 in it’s 124 minute run time. Computer animation was also used extensively, though in ways that weren’t obvious. The most obvious CG is of course the pattern indicator used by Doctor Onishi, but it was also used extensively to plot the path of falling objects like glass shards and the falling Lego blocks in the scene where the esper kids fight Tetsuo. The CG animation was then rotoscoped onto animation paper.

Besides the incredible visuals, the other major element of the film is the soundtrack. Otomo specifically chose music collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi to perform the soundtrack. You could safely say that no other anime soundtrack, before or after this film, sounds anything like it. The most prominent elements are traditional Indonesian instruments such the Jegog and Gamelan as well as musical elements and vocalisations based on Noh theatre performances. Mixed in with these elements are digital synthesizers and waling electric guitars. It truly sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard. It feels quite ancient and tribal but also otherworldly. I remember reading comments years ago from younger fans saying they didn’t like the soundtrack because it wasn’t typical of other more conventional soundtracks. Honestly that baffled me as to why those fans wanted everything to sound the same. Also, about a decade ago Brisbane band Regurgitator preformed their own version of the soundtrack at the Sydney Opera House. While it was interesting (and drowned out pretty much all of the dialogue in the film), for the life of me I could not see the point of removing one of the most iconic soundtracks ever and replacing it with a rock band. Imagine doing the same thing to “Psycho”, “The Godfather” or “Jaws”.

Although I do love the film and pretty much watch it at least once a year, I do have some issues with it. The biggest one I have is the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo. I can understand Tetsuo’s frame of mind would be out of wack upon receiving an absurd amount of power after living a life of being bullied and abandoned. And yes, I can understand Kaneda is a young man who wants to assert himself in a world that is totally hostile to him and everyone around him. Maybe Kaneda just has no fear and is a complete idiot, but with society literally collapsing around him, the army battling the psychic powers of Tetsuo and firing destructive lasers from satellites at him, he doesn’t seem to pause and say, “maybe I need to sit this out”. Instead he seems to be totally focused on fighting Tetsuo regardless of the utter chaos around him. The second issue I have is with the female characters in the film. Compared with how they are portrayed in the manga, here they are relegated to bit parts, especially Lady Miyako who only gets a couple of very short scenes (cameos really). Kaori, who is in a completely different role in the film, possibly comes off the worst. However, I completely understand that due to time constraints of a two hour film, certain storylines and characters need to be truncated or removed completely. But the resulting film does feel totally male focused.

The reactions to the film from fellow patrons reminded me that "Akira" is not for everyone. You could easily argue that it isn’t exactly a commercial work; an utterly bonkers, ultraviolent animated film with motorcycle gangs, wrinkled kids with destructive psychic powers and a kind of airy-fairy spiritualist ending which doesn’t really explain what happened to the protagonist, nor fully explain who this Akira guy is. For years, especially in the west, it’s been a “midnight movie”. The kind that would often rotate in the in the same set of films like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, “The Evil Dead” and other B-movie or cult films. Because of this, the film didn’t receive a lot of praise (or even appraisal) from mainstream critics. Although the film did introduce a new audience to anime (as well as influencing countless creators) and caused a new wave of anime fandom to emerge in the 1990’s, possibly it could have turned off a large percentage of people to anime as a whole. Over the years I have overheard a number of people (non anime fans) in conversation saying they either hated the film are were totally flummoxed by the plot.

As I previously mentioned before, this re-release of the film is part of an international push (well in the UK, USA and Australia at least) to promote a new 4K transfer of the film which will be released on Ultra HD blu-ray at the end of the year. Filmed on 35mm stock and of course being largely cel animation with a few composites of CG animation, "Akira" looks pretty damn amazing on a large theatrical screen. This time around I managed to spot a few little details I had never seen previously. The audio has been remixed in 5.1 surround, which I think is a brand-new mix to previous 5.1 mixes. In the theatre I found it brought out a lot of little elements in the music as well as elements of sound effects which I hadn’t noticed before. The subtitles were produced by Funimation, but I am not sure if it is a completely brand-new translation. The company seemingly cannot subtitle signs in a subtle or non-evasive way, which detracted from the experience. They also did not translate the infamous “Just cancel it!” graffiti on the sign counting down the days to the Olympic Games.

While the re-release of this film is just to promote the forthcoming Ultra HD blu-ray, the screenings couldn’t have come at a better time. The film and manga have predicted a number of current day events; the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, a pandemic (in the manga version), a society in disarray with social unrest (albeit not in Japan), who also are now prone to believing crazy rumours, a ruling class who only look out for themselves and increasingly disillusioned youth who are mostly underpaid or unemployed. We’re just missing the espers, cool looking bikes and full on laser weaponry. I think to a large degree the film has withstood the test of time and still looks and sounds great. It’s possibly even more relevant today than it was in its initial release, even if the younger people at the screening would probably disagree with me. Overall, it was definitely worth my time revisiting the film in the cinema.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Anime On the Big Screen: “Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul”

Venue:
Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Thursday 8 October 2020
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 105 minutes (main feature), 14 minutes (“Marulk's Daily Life” shorts)
Production Date: 2020
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

Here we are, several months into the pandemic and I thought I would not be seeing a film inside an actual cinema for at least 12 months after. While pretty much every theatre shut down in the initial stages of the pandemic, most decided to reopen a few months later. But most big studios are extremely wary of releasing films at this time. Some have tried and failed miserably (see the box office bomb that was “Tenet”). Most new films have been delayed indefinitely, though some have been fast tracked to streaming, including a small number of anime features. This has led to the cinemas that are still open to run old favourites. I’m not entirely sure this strategy has worked for them. With the risk of catching the coronavirus still a possibility, why would you pay $15 to see a film you could see for a fraction of the price at home, even if you were in a socially distanced cinema? Independent film distributors however are taking a risk and hoping filmgoers will come out to see something new.  This includes Madman who are releasing this film in both subbed and dubbed versions.

While it rained all morning, it was sunny (albeit with some cloud cover) in the afternoon. It was nice that it turned out to be a pleasant and cool, spring evening. The screening was at their usual time of 6:30pm for anime features, so I decided to get some dinner at an Italian restaurant beforehand which I didn’t realise was a chain restaurant. Regardless it was a pretty good meal. The city felt a bit dead as there weren’t many people about, even for a Thursday night. Most of the restaurants and bars were closed. I accidently got there early and just waited in the cinema because no one was checking tickets. Despite the spaced out, socially distanced seating arrangements, 20 people had shown up for the screening. I suspected less patrons and thought that maybe the cinema would eventually end up going broke doing this. But 20 patrons is far more than the average for anime films in this city. Most were in their early 20’s or late teens and I really felt out of place. Luckily a couple of older women showed up and I didn’t feel so bad. Before I get into the film, I think a quick summary of the TV series is in order;

A gigantic chasm, one kilometre across and seemingly bottomless, was discovered 1,900 years ago on an island in the southern ocean of Beolusk. Inside explorers find lost relics and lost technology far beyond man’s current technical abilities, as well as previously unseen creatures and plants, some of which are deadly to man. An industry develops around the pit, colloquially named the Abyss, with explorers, called Cave Raiders, becoming famous from their discoveries. A large town called Orth develops and encircles the edge of the Abyss. In this world, currently similar to the 19th century, we meet a 12 year old girl named Riko. Currently living in the Belchero Orphanage, her mother, Lyza, is what is known as a White Whistle, one of the elite and famous Cave Raiders. The Belchero Orphanage funds itself by training and sending children in its care down into the Abyss to find artefacts to sell. Riko and her partner Nat are attacked by a creature called a crimson splitjaw. Riko draws the creature’s attention away to save Nat from being eaten. However, Riko is cornered by the creature after trying to lose it amongst a labyrinth of caves and crevices. She is saved by a blinding blast of energy which wounds the creature causing it to flee.

Upon searching for her saviour, she finds a boy robot and hauls him back to the surface with the help of Nat. Riko manages to revive him and with the help of her friends, they concoct a story in order to have him accepted at the orphanage. Riko does this because she cannot realistically hide him and the authorities would take him away and disassemble him if they found out she recovered such a valuable artefact. The boy robot has amnesia and can’t remember his own name. Much to his chagrin, she names him Reg, after her pet dog. Reg has numerous powers and functions such as extendable arms that can shoot out via wire cables and a beam cannon in his hand, which injured the crimson splitjaw. One day, a group of Cave Raiders returns from the Abyss with Lyza’s White Whistle and a sealed document. Inside is a note for Riko saying to meet her at bottom of the Abyss. The document also contains drawings and detailed notes of previously undocumented creatures, including a picture of a robot which looks exactly like Reg. Even though Riko has not seen her mother for a decade, she decides to trek down into the Abyss in order to find her and to help Reg discover his own past.

The Abyss is highly dangerous for humans. Apart from the dangerous creatures that lurk within it, humans can get sicker as they descend into each distinct “layer” of the Abyss. Not only can they go insane, but they can literally lose their humanity, even their physical form as a human, and devolve into other creatures. This means that Riko’s mother could possibly not be in her right mind. There is also the possibility that she may not even be human anymore, or more likely died a long time ago. Regardless, Riko sneaks out of the orphanage and descends into the Abyss with Reg. After many adventures including coming perilously close to death on several occasions, they come across a creature called Nanachi who helps them when Riko’s life is in grave danger. Sent down into the Abyss as a human child with her friend Mitty, they were both tricked and subjected to cruel experiments along with a group of other children at the hands of White Whistle named Bondrewd. The pair eventually escaped Bondrewd’s clutches, but Mitty ended up as a deformed creature in severe pain. While caring for Riko, Nanachi pleads with Reg to help Mitty, who reluctantly complies. When Riko recovers, Nanachi decides to join Reg and Riko’s search for Lyza.

Following on directly from the final episode of the TV series, the movie opens with the trio reaching the fifth layer of the Abyss where a field called the Flowers of Fortitude exists. Reg senses the presence of several Cave Raiders who seem to be following them. One of them seems to cry out in pain, but a closer inspection reveals one of Bondrewd’s underlings, collectively known as Umbra Hand, is standing over what seems to be the corpses of several Cave Raiders. Reg prepares to defend himself and the rest of the group, but the Umbra Hand says he is not here to stop or fight them. Instead he is here to destroy the parasitic insects which have invaded the flower field. The insects have inhabited the bodies of a party of Cave Raiders and keep them barely alive to grow their larvae inside them. The bodies are no more than decimated corpses and make intermittent eerie statements such as asking who is there or manically laugh. Knowing that the insects are about to spawn, the Umbra Hand burns the entire infected field with flame thrower, which upsets the Riko and Reg. However, they know they must leave go to the Idofront, the Forward Operating Base which is the only entrance to the sixth layer. It is also where Bondrewd lives and conducts all his experiments. There they hope to negotiate with him to pass and then use Riko’s mother’s White Whistle to enter a portal to the sixth layer.

Upon reaching the Idofront, the trio are surprised to be greeted by a young girl their age named Prushka who claims to be Bondrewd’s daughter. With the arrival of Bondrewd, the situation becomes tense, however he states that he is more than happy to let them pass through to the sixth layer. Prushka invites them to stay overnight. After not being able to sleep, Nanachi decides to seek out Bondrewd and confront him. He tries to persuade her to join him again to continue his work. Believing that agreeing to his request will give Riko and Reg the best chance to get to the sixth layer, Bondrewd reveals that Reg is a rare and valuable relic that needs to examined.  Meanwhile Riko awakes and finds Reg and Nanachi are missing. Searching for them, she ascends a chained off staircase which apparently leads to a curse. Hallucinating that her body is being ripped apart and dissolving, she awakes to find that she fell flat on her face and her injuries have been attended to by Prushka. Telling Prushka that she can’t find Reg and Nanachi, they both search for them, but find the main door to the rest of the complex has been sealed. With the help of Prushka’s pet, they ascend the staircase while avoiding the curse, but to their horror discover that the Umbra Hand have been conducting painful experiments on Reg. With the help of Prushka, the trio escape, but Bondrewd and Umbra Hand peruse them.

As with the TV series adaptation of Akihito Tsukushi’s manga, pretty much all of the staff and cast returned to work on the film; the director Masayuki Kojima (“Monster”, “Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi”), Hideyuki Kurata (novelist for “Read or Die”) wrote the screenplay, Kazuchika Kise (character designer and director of “Ghost in the Shell: Arise” and character designer for “xxxHOLiC”) adapted the original character designs for animation and Australian composer Kevin Penkin (“Norn9”, “The Rising of the Shield Hero”) wrote and conducted the music. Kinema Citrus (“Revue Starlight”, “The Rising of the Shield Hero”) also retuned to handle the animation production.

As for the content itself, hoo-boy, where to start with this film. So, if you’ve seen the TV series, you pretty much know what to expect; a fair bit of cuteness with an adorable kid looking for her mother she hasn’t seen for a decade (that’d be Riko) and her realisticly human looking robot sidekick Reg, whom she found in a gigantic chasm dubbed the Abyss. The kids at the orphanage are essentially little slaves who bring up relics from a long-forgotten civilization in order to keep the orphanage in the black. In contrast to this is the Abyss, which although has great beauty and wonder, it is also an alien place that is utterly hostile to humanity. If you don’t get eaten by some weird prehistoric creature or poisoned by its exotic flora, the Abyss contains little understood “curses” which can send you literally insane or deform you into some weird blob without humanity.

As Riko and Reg search the Abyss for Riko’s mother, all manner of utterly horrifying things happen to them (Riko mostly). However, Riko loves the adventure and the wonder of the Abyss and usually bounces back like a silly puppy ready to see what is next. As a result, the anime goes back and forth between very cute or wonderous moments to utter terror and horror. It’s certainly a weird mix which should not work but somehow does. People often view it as an allegory for the pain of transition from childhood to adulthood. I myself see it more like a “Brothers Grimm” story which ventures down dark paths. The basic core story of the series also feels similar to the core stories found in Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” or even “Event Horizon”, where adventure ultimately leads to utter madness. Except in “Made in Abyss” it’s not the protagonists who experience this madness, it’s those whom they meet.

The film is far more brutal than the TV series. There’s more body horror in it than your average David Cronenberg film. The cruelty can be utterly astounding. However, it’s not as if the TV series didn’t warn us of this. We were introduced to Bondrewd at the end of the TV series and Nanachi and Mitty’s story makes it quite clear what kind of man he is. I feel his crimes against children, and humanity in general, have parallels to the infamous Unit 731 and the Nazi’s experiments on human subjects. Like those who participated in both, he seems to think he’s doing this for the greater good. I’ve read some reviews stating that Bondrewd clearly loves his daughter. I don’t think that’s true at all. Bondrewd cares and raises Prushka in the same way a farmer would prepare a bull for competition in an agricultural show. But there’s only one real reason why farmers breed cattle. Of course, unlike a farmer, Bondrewd is utterly insane. Being in the Abyss for that long would send you that way eventually.

What got me though was the utter cruelty and violent actions displayed by Riko, Reg and Nanachi. I totally understand they are fighting for their lives against what seems to be an indestructible, immortal psychopath, but it seemed a little out of character for them. The gore also seeped into their meals with the gutting of a fish like creature they caught and prepared. Even the cute, reflective moments seemed incredibly dark. Prushka’s “happy” memories for instance show her partaking in her father’s experiments (though nothing explicitly gory is shown). Unsurprisingly the film was rated R15+ in Japan and received a well-deserved MA15+ rating here for violence. While I liked the TV series, I really felt the gore, violence and treatment of the victims of Bondrewd was quite gratuitous, especially the final moments of Prushka’s screen time. This turned me off the film somewhat.

Coupled with the film are all four shorts of “Marulk's Daily Life” these were short animations which one accompanied the main feature every week for four weeks in its Japanese screening. Luckily Madman showed all four at once. Though in retrospect seeing them all on sitting did become a little tiresome. You may remember Marulk in the TV series who is Ozen’s helper at the Seeker Camp deep in the Inverted Forest in the second layer of the Abyss. The four stories aren’t really connected as such; the first has Marulk trying to get Ozen into bed after she falls asleep on the table. The second has Marulk cleaning the rooms of the inhabitants of the Seeker Camp. The third has Marulk running an errand for Ozen on the surface in Orth. The final short is easily the best and chronicles how Marulk began serving Ozen.

At this point it's probably time to address the elephant in the room (for some at least). The accusations from some fans and professional reviewers (sigh, the usual crowd...) that the anime TV series and movie sexualises children is totally off the mark. For starters any nudity almost entirely takes place off screen. References to genitalia or bodily functions (which are almost all dialogue based) is done purely for laughs. One review of the film bizarrely stated that Bondrewd’s actions towards children could only be viewed metaphorically as sexual. That statement blew me away. I think it speaks volumes about how these reviewers and fans view nudity and more disturbingly, how they view children. There is one scene in the first “Marulk's Daily Life” short where Marulk accidently ends trussed up in a very specific Japanese bondage style which could be seen as a bit questionable. However, it is a very short scene and again is played for laughs. While I understand that some panels of the original manga can be construed as voyeuristic of the prepubescent characters, I think if you find any part of the anime adaptation sexual (and it’s far, far tamer than the manga), this says far more about you than it does about the anime. I also find it utterly extraordinary that people find the totally imagined and non-existent sexualisation to be an issue, but have little to say about the explicit depictions of violence and cruelty towards children.

Wrapping up; I did like the TV series, but to a large degree this film is a completely different beast. Having a cinema release meant they could amp up the violence and gore, and they did. I was expecting this, but I did feel a lot of it to be rather cruel and unnecessary. Unlike the final episode of the series which showed the fate of Mitty, there wasn’t much of a post mortem on any of the high impact scenes in the film. For me that’s what made the TV series work; something horrible or utterly hideous happened, but there was space and time for both the audience and characters to digest it. Here that doesn’t happen. We just swerve into the next horror show after the leaving the previous one. Having said all that, there were plenty of moments to enjoy and Riko and company are getting closer to their goal, even if Riko now realises it may not be what she expects or wants. I can only give this film 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Decade in Review: The English Language Adaptation Industry and Fandom Part 2

And now it’s on to the second part of my decade review of the English language adaptation industry as well as fandom, which of course covers the USA, UK and Australia. In this part I’m looking at the Australian anime industry and fandom, English speaking fandom as a whole, controversies in that fandom and the US industries, anime tourism, tokusatsu titles released in English and industry icons who passed away.

As I live in Australia, I thought I’d dedicate a paragraph or three (or four) in regards to bumpy ride decade we had over here. The biggest surprise was the continuing resurrection of Siren Visual. The company was the distributor for Manga Entertainment back in the 1990’s, but with Madman Entertainment becoming the dominant force here from the late 1990’s onwards, they had fallen on hard times. The early 2000’s saw them releasing a pitiful number of anime titles on DVD, then an ill-advised venture into ero anime, with all of their titles being cut to ribbons to appease local censorship classifications, and unwanted attention from religious right campaigners. Finally, they got it together in the mid 2000’s releasing titles from Sentai Filmworks, Aniplex and Funimation. They also ventured into subtitled only titles with anime still not released in other countries in English on DVD or blu-ray with “Welcome to Irabu's Office”, “Hakaba Kitaro” “Nodame Cantabile” and most surprisingly, “Monster”. But things would come crashing down late in the decade when their distributor, Gryphon Entertainment, went belly up and they seemingly couldn’t secure a new deal with anyone else. While they continue to have booths at the dealers area in every single anime convention in the country selling old stock, it seems unlikely we’ll see any future releases from them.

Out of nowhere in 2012, a new anime company arrived on the scene; Hanabee. Founded by Eric Cherry, former CEO of Siren Visual, initially the company sold gaming merchandise from franchises such as “Red vs. Blue” and “The Guild”. Most of their titles were sublicences from US based companies like Aniplex of America and Sentai Filmworks. Unlike Siren Visual, Hanabee did not release any titles that had not been previously released in other English speaking territories. Like Siren Visual, things unravelled at end of the decade for reasons unknown, with the recent “Initial D” movies being the last release for them around mid 2018. Like Siren Visual, the company always seems to have a booth at every anime convention in the country. Their website now sells mostly gaming merchandise and old anime stock. An update at the end of 2019 stated that the company went under a restructure due to a focus on US company Rooster Teeth. They stated they want get back into anime, but considering Madman Entertainment’s stranglehold on the market, that seems unlikely.

Finally, on to Madman Entertainment’s wild ride of the last decade. One of the biggest things to happen to the company was the constant change in ownership over nearly a decade and half. Back in 2006, toy company Funtasic bought them out for AU$34.5 million dollars. Fast forward eight years and Funtasic was a floundering as a company. The co-founders of Madman plus a small coalition of investors then made an offer to Funtasic to buy the company back for significantly less, AU$21.5 million. To paraphrase Kerry Packer; you only get one Funtasic in your lifetime. Despite Funtasic agreeing to the deal, two years later the matter ended up in court, with Funtasic saying Madman owed them an additional AU$2.5 million credit adjustment. The court rounded the amount owed down to a measly AU$268,000. Later Japan came knocking, with Aniplex becoming a minority shareholder in the company in 2017. In early 2019, Aniplex purchased the anime division for AU$35 million.

Animelab celebrate their one millionth subscription 
While their home video division kept pumping out titles over the decade, the company branched into other areas. The Madman Screening Room evolved into a part free, part subscription service called Animelab in 2014. Despite the competition from Crunchyroll and other overseas services, the streaming service did incredibly well and eventually reached over one million subscribers within four years. In 2019, Animelab was merged into a consortium of other international anime streaming services headed up by Funimation, to steam a far wider selection of titles. As in the US, theatrical animation became a major part of Madman's business. Their annual film festival-like tour of anime films, Reel Anime, was phased out in 2013 in favour of limited runs of single films. Initially these were “events” as with the “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” and “Love Live! The School Idol Movie” screenings, which included bonus items and giveaways at some theatres. However, after these two films, anime in cinemas proceeded without much fanfare. In fact, outside social media, there seemed to be little promotion of anime films. Despite this, Madman had some big hits with these films; for example, “A Silent Voice” grossed over AU$600,000 at the box office.

It wasn’t all sunshine and light for the company. They lost distribution rights to Viz manga titles in 2016 to local distributor Simon & Schuster. For their 20th anniversary, they held the inaugural Madman Anime Festival. The event was so successful it became a touring event with conventions in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. This was after several well-established anime conventions gave up the ghost, mostly in the early part of the decade with the decline of university anime clubs mostly to blame (anime clubs were usually the core part of the committees who ran them). Anime conventions certainly didn't die out with Animaga (Melboune), Smash! (Sydney), AVCon (Adelaide), GeeCon (Darwin) and AICon (Hobart, finishing in 2018) keeping the tradition going. Tons of Japanese guests came to these conventions including Shinichi Watanabe, Yuko Miyamura, Sakura Tange, Kotono Mitsuishi, Toshihiro Kawamoto, Megumi Ogata and Toru Furuya.

Gerry Harvey
After years and years of threats, the federal government finally came through and charged 10% GST on all goods bought overseas from 1 July 2018, regardless of their cost. Previously it was only for goods valued over AU$1,000 (or AU$500 if you are getting stuff delivered via a courier). The main instigator of this law was Gerry Harvey of large furniture and electrical goods chain store retailer Harvey Norman. As Australians are big shoppers on overseas online stores, this move didn't exactly make him popular. The government decided that it should be retailers collecting the tax and then sending the money to the tax office. Many people scoffed at this arrangement, yet somehow many online retailers complied including CD Japan and AmiAmi. However, companies like the Right Stuf and pretty much all UK retailers did not add on GST to Australian orders. This inconsistency led to an unfair advantage for these retailers. Worse was to come with Amazon refusing to collect the tax, and publicly berating the federal government by threatening to block Australian customers from buying products from their overseas sites. The government didn’t fold and on 1 July 2018 Australian citizens could no longer order products from any of their international sites. Amazon eventually relented and began paying the tax while allowing Australian customers to buy products from their US site. However, all other international Amazon sites are still blocked to Australian customers, including the Japanese site. This was quite disastrous for Australian anime fans who wanted to buy cheap blu-rays, books and other merchandise.

While cosplay continued to expand into almost a more mainstream hobby, unfortunately harassment of female cosplayers became an issue at conventions. Explicit anti-harassment policies were enacted by conventions in the early 2010’s, mostly under the banner of “Cosplay Is Not Consent”. Though it should have been something that was common-sense to most, it served as a reminder to fans that cosplayers deserve respect and as a voice for cosplayers in order to report harassment.

Vic Mignogna
As the alleged cases of sexual assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey seeped into the public domain in the final couple of years in the decade, anime fandom had its own “Me Too” moment. Initially this appeared as a list of harassers complied in a spreadsheet on a website called “Broken Staircase”. The idea was people could anonymously send in allegation of harassment which would be entered on the spreadsheet. This method always had the potential to be abused, and was with one very prominent person being included on the list who was completely innocent of the allegation being levelled at him. Unsurprisingly the website was taken down after a short while, but did resurface in an alternate location.

With momentum against sexual abusers and harassers building, the US anime industry’s worst kept secret was brought into the public domain. Several women including voice actors Monica Rial and Jamie Marchi, publicly accused fellow voice actor Vic Mignogna of sexual assault and harassment. An avalanche of accusers and allegations, both from fandom and the industry were publicly aired with Mignogna being terminated from his contracts with Rooster Teeth and Funimation. Mignogna categorically denied the accusations but made a public apology at a convention soon after. He then filed a defamation lawsuit against Rial, Marchi, Rial’s fiancee Ron Toye III, and Funimation with Mignogna’s fans coughing up an absurd US$236,000 to fund the case. Funimation then filed an anti-SLAPP motion which is a piece of legislation designed to provide for early dismissal of meritless lawsuits. The legal team for Mignogna was laughably incompetent. The end result was that his lawsuit was dismissed and he was forced to pay the defendant’s legal fees which amounted to US$223,042.42. Regardless, Mignogna’s fans seem to blindly support him despite the mounting evidence against him.

Internally, fandom had a very difficult decade. It became more fractured and deeply divided than ever before. There were several factors that caused this, but the main catalyst was probably Gamergate. Mixed in with that debacle was sites like 4chan and 8chan (which were both born from large anime communities), lurching to the right or more correctly the far right. But this also mirrored a more fractured political scene in the US with the general population becoming entrenched with one side of politics. To be blunt, this all happened around the 2016 US election. Rightly or wrongly, those from the left and right began to inject politics into anime, even if it was there or not. Fandom became surprisingly prudish, with a new moralism creeping into anime fandom. But not from the Christian right as you’d might expect, but from the left. Those on the right also chased phantoms like “political correctness” being inserted into anime (when it wasn’t the case). At times it really felt like anime fandom was at war with itself and wanted to wipe the other side out. The fracturing was so bad that niche pockets within fandom actively despised other niche pockets of fandom. However, it was quite apparent that the vast majority on both sides never really understood fandom or how that fandom consumed anime, the history and tropes of anime or even Japan itself. You could easily argue that social media enabled this division, and that division was stoked and exploited by individuals for personal and political gain. By the end of the decade, many in fandom were bemoaning social media and pined for the fandom of the previous decades of message boards, fan websites and blogs.

The Anime Man & Akidearest
Aside from the seemingly perpetual growth of podcasts (the vast majority of which weren’t worth listening to), the growth and incredible popularity of Youtubers soared. Of course, this also applied to Anitubers (i.e. Anime Youtubers). I am fully aware that I am not in the demographic these Anitubers appeal to, however to be brutally honest, most of the material they put out isn’t all that entertaining or informative. You could easily argue that a fair whack of it is utterly juvenile, serves no real purpose other than to generate controversy in order to get more views (e.g. saying a popular anime “sucks”), promote falsehoods, are completely ignorant of the history and fandom behind anime and even promote piracy over legitimate companies. Despite this, popular Anitubers such as Akidearest, Gigguk, The Anime Man, Mothers Basement and Digibro often have followers in the millions.

In the latter part of the decade, a couple of what could only be described as scams were pulled on anime fandom, but oddly never reported widely on English anime news websites. First up, the Flying Colors Foundation who promoted themselves as a non-profit organisation that wanted to engage with the western anime community in order improve the anime industry. This would initially done via a survey filled in by fans and promoted heavily by popular Anitubers. Red flags started to be raised mid-way through the survey when it asked rather intrusive questions about mental health, including if you had a mental health condition and if so, what you were diagnosed with. The survey wasn’t exactly anonymous; you had to fill in a valid email address at the end of the survey in order to submit it. There was also the fact many filling in the survey were teenagers. The whole thing was rather ethically dodgy to say the least. It was also hard to figure out who was running Flying Colors Foundation. Their senior leadership was cloaked in secrecy until the organisation eventually relented and publicly released the information. However, it was revealed by one fan journalist that there were many more people working for the organisation than revealed, a lot with industry connections. They also claimed that they weren’t paying Anitubers to promote the company, but that had been contradicted by Anitubers themselves who stated they were paid. It was quite obvious that Flying Colors Foundation was set up with purposes of marketing stuff to anime fans and to sell analytics data to companies. There wasn’t anything non-profit about it. When found out, Flying Colors Foundation backpedalled quickly and eventually shutdown operations, stating they’d publicly publish the data from the survey. That never eventuated.

The other scam was the ill-fated cryptocurrency Otaku Coin. Unlike the Flying Colors Foundation, Otaku Coin was immediately treated with a great deal scepticism by fandom. Created by online anime merchandise shop Tokyo Otaku Mode (who also had a hand in the Flying Colors Foundation), Otaku Coin’s goals were vague to say the least. It was apparently meant “to closely and seamlessly connect fans worldwide with creators and otaku-related companies and contribute to the preservation and development of otaku culture”, whatever that meant. 100 billion coins, were to be released with 39 billion of those being distributed to the Otaku Coin Fund for the intent of funding operating expenses, which was a much larger amount than is common for such a scheme. Their website also stated that a percentage of that money would go to the Otaku Coin Preparation Committee Administrative Members, who were oddly a group of people separate to those listed on the Otaku Coin website. While the initial concept paper says that fans will be able to support the wider anime industry with their coins, in reality the coins could only really be spent easily at Tokyo Otaku Mode or other companies involved with creating Otaku Coin. It all seemed rather dodgy and fans stayed away from the scheme in droves.

Easily one of the biggest niche fandoms to emerge in the decade was Sakuga fandom. While this type of fandom had been active in Japan since the 1980’s, it was intriguing that it suddenly became popular in the west this decade. Essentially this fandom focuses on the animation itself and tries to identify the individual animators for well animated scenes. Some parts of fandom did suggest Sakuga fandom only cared amount the quality of animation and not about the plot or anything else, I felt this was misplaced criticism of those fans. Without animators there would be no one to create the anime we love. While voice actors, directors and screenwriters are well known to fans, animators also deserve recognition as well.

Unicorn Gundam statue outside Diver City
Tokyo in Odaiba 
Although anime fans had been making trips to Japan since at least the 1990’s, “anime tourism” seemed to really take off in the 2010’s. While some smaller Japanese tour operators designed tours specifically for western fans, other tour companies were formed to cater to them. Tours catering to specific hot spots such as Akihabara and the Ghibli Museum also emerged. The decade also saw the emergence of new otaku type attractions like the life sized Gundam coupled with the Gundam Front museum in Odiba and the AnimeJapan convention. Of course, there were the traditional otaku events such as Comiket which exploded in popularity, almost to the point where it became almost unworkable. The Japanese government eagerly jumped on the bandwagon with their “Cool Japan” promotional package, but ultimately didn’t spend the money in the places it was need and was rightly criticised as a waste of government funds and a missed opportunity. Coinciding with all of this was mainstream tourists who saw Japan as a hot new destination. By the end of the decade many tourist spots had become overflowing with foreign tourists, some behaving badly, much to the local’s disgust.

Believe it or not, Harmony Gold was still flogging “Robotech” during the last decade. But the company had several legal issues with the three properties which made up the series. Tatsunoko, whom they licenced the properties off back in the 1980’s, claimed Harmony Gold owed them US$15 million in damages, claiming they had breached their contracts including sublicensing the shows and not paying home video royalties. Unbelievably Harmony Gold won and Tatsunoko actually renewed their agreements to the three series for at least another decade. This dashed the hopes of “Macross” fans in the west who had thought that other "Macross" anime series in the franchise would be up for grabs by licencors after the original deal would have expired in 2021. However, licensing agreements with the franchise are far more complex than the mantra “Harmony Gold won’t let anyone licence any Macross anime” that western anime fans constantly repeat.

I thought I’d like to talk about movements in tokusatsu in the west in the last decade because a lot happened in a very short period of time. First up with the freeing of the “Ultraman” licence from Thai production company Chaiyo Productions. Sompote Saengduenchai, founder and president of Chaiyo Productions, claimed the late Noboru Tsuburaya (of Tsuburaya Productions, creators of the “Ultraman” franchise), who had died in 1995, had given him and his company a contract which had given him rights to everything related to “Ultraman” including characters outside Japanese territories, in exchange for a monetary loan. Essentially this was utter bullshit based on what was a highly dubious legal document. After years of legal wrangling, Tsuburaya Productions finally won the case. In July 2019, Mill Creek announced they were distributing the entire franchise on blu-ray in the US, starting with “Ultra Q” and “Ultraman”.

In a surprise move, Shout! Factory, who distributed the “Power Rangers” franchise, began releasing the original Japanese versions of the “Super Sentai” franchise “Power Rangers” was based on. Beginning distribution in 2015 with “Zyuranger”, the company released every series up to “Hurricaneger” and in addition “Jetman”, which was never used for the “Power Rangers” franchise. The DVD sets unfortunately ceased in 2019 due to Hasbro's acquisition of the “Power Rangers” franchise from Saban Brands. In the final year of the decade, Criterion announced their 2,000th release and it was a doozy; a blu-ray box set of the entire showa era “Godzilla” films, i.e. every film from the original 1954 film to 1975’s “Terror of MechaGodzilla”. It was an amazing set with some fantastic extras, though maybe the packaging was a little unwieldy and it could be argued that the artwork didn’t really represent the era the films were created in.

Fred Patten with Osamu Tezuka in 1980
And finally, I am unfortunately ending this post on a rather sombre note. But I must mention that the decade also saw the passing of numerous key players in the industry; Fred Patten who was key player in anime and furry fandom, served as a publicist at Streamline Pictures and was also an avid archivist of anime fandom paraphernalia and fandom historian. Voice actor Peter Fernandez who was most famous for the lead role in “Speed Racer” also left us. As did “Robotech” creator and founder of Streamline Pictures, Carl Macek. Sadly Toren Smith, who set up Studio Proteus back in the very late 1980’s and translated and released some of the best manga ever produced in English via Dark Horse comics, also went before his time.

Well, that wraps up my reviews of anime in both the Japanese and English adaption industries. It took over six months to complete, but I got there in the end. Who knows what will happen over the forthcoming decade? 2020 has already thrown quite a few curveballs and we’re just half way through the year. To be honest, I am not all that optimistic about the future. I just hope creative industries such and anime and tokusastu continue to thrive and fandom continues to enjoy them.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Decade in Review : The English Language Adaptation Industry and Fandom Part 1

With the Japanese side of things out of the way, I thought it might be fun to look at the English adaptation side of things. It’s taken me a while, but I have pretty much finished it. However, it is pretty lengthy, so much so I have decided to split it up into two parts. For the most part I am of course concentrating on the US, but important developments happened in the UK as well as Australia during this time. With part one, I am looking at the physical and streaming home video industry, cinema releases, Hollywood adaptations, crowdfunding, the explosion of popularity in figures and movements in the UK industry;

Anime companies in the very early 2010’s were, to a degree, still reeling from the busting of the US anime bubble of the late 2000’s. Most US companies had scaled down releases substantially. With the exception of Funimation’s titles, the vast majority of physical home video releases were subtitled only. The situation became more dire with the head office of Bandai announcing that they were pulling out of the US home video market and that they would be winding up operations of Bandai Entertainment in March 2013. It soon became apparent that this new strategy was a worldwide one as Bandai also shut down their European video label, Beez, soon after. The company announced they would be now taking a more international approach to home video, with many of their top tier titles receiving English subtitles, and sometimes English dubs, on the Japanese blu-ray releases. However, in the end, most of these titles eventually received western releases anyway.

Aniplex of America's Garden of Sinners Box Set 
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for anime on home video formats. The 2010’s saw the rise of the blu-ray format and whole slew of new companies taking advantage of a collector’s market. An early entrant was game maker NIS America who released a slew of titles including “Toradora!”, “Love Live!”, “Anohana”, “Natsume's Book of Friends” and “Cardcaptor Sakura” for the first time on blu-ray. Though the oversized long boxes did irk some fans, they soon released their titles in more standardised boxes. But by the middle of the decade they decided to pull out of the US anime market. The other big entrant was Aniplex of America. While they used a similar marketing and release strategy to the ill-fated Bandai Visual USA of the previous decade, somehow, they managed to survive and even flourish in the market. This was mainly due to mega hits they actually owned the rights to including “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”, “Sword Art Online” and the sprawling “Fate” franchise. Rightly fans rightly criticised the company for their overly expensive releases, most of which could be argued aren’t value for money compared to similar US releases, especially when quality of packaging, actual content and extras are taken into consideration.

One of the biggest surprises of the decade was Disney relinquishing theatrical and home video rights to almost all of the Studio Ghibli catalogue to independent studio GKIDS. I’ll talk more about GKIDS in the theatrical releases section of this post, but will mention that the studio teamed up with independent DVD/blu-ray producer Shout! Factory to release their titles, which not only comprised the Ghibli catalogue but other anime fare, both otaku-type titles and family films. But the most unlikely hero in terms of physical releases this decade was Discotek. Though initially releasing niche and cult Asian cinema in the previous decade and a few older anime films from the 1960’s and 1970’s, they soon switched gears and aimed directly for the sector of the market which enjoyed older anime with a whole slew of new and “rescued” licenses. This included series and films saved from oblivion and painstakingly restored such as the 2001 “Cyborg 009” series, “Robot Carnival” and “Kimagure Orange Road”.

Viz Media's Sailor Moon Box Set
Licence rescues or releases of fan favourites that never previously saw the light of home video continued through the decade including the “Dirty Pair” TV series, almost every piece of “Gundam” animation, “Rose of Versailles” and most amazingly all of “The Legend of Galactic Heroes”, albeit in an absurdly expensive blu-ray set which retailed for an astronomical US$800. Viz also had a massive scoop with the acquisition of the entire “Sailor Moon” franchise, including “Sailor Moon Crystal”. But the material they received for the 1990’s TV series wasn’t exactly high definition (old analogue composite master tapes in reality) and made the terrible decision to “enhance” the series by running through a filter that made the video look splotchy and smeary. Fans were rightly livid, but amazingly Viz ignored the criticism and did the same thing for the first three series. By the fourth series, “Sailor Moon S”, they had received better masters, but did not go back and redo the first three series. Release of the series was glacial as well; a total of five years for all five series and three films.

Funimation made some odd moves in the decade; sold off by Navarre to a group of investors that included original owner Gen Fukunaga, partnering with Crunchyroll only to nullify that deal several years later after Sony bought a 95% stake in the company. However, the weirdest thing was that Funimation briefly shared offices with Christian media company EchoLight Studios, a Texas-based Christian television production company run by Rick Santorum, the former conservative politician. Fukunaga was also the co-founder and manager of EchoLight Studios. The internal machinations of the company came under scrutiny when fans noticed incredibly negative reviews from employees on recruitment website Glassdoor with titles such as “Cannibalistic, Orwellian Nightmare”.

Reception of Sojitz's main office
Early in the decade Funimation sued Sentai Filmworks and the remnants of the company they were rebirthed out of; ADV Films. Just before the anime bubble burst in the previous decade, ADV Films needed an injection of case and gained a new Japanese partner who would invest in them; Sojitz Corporation. What actually happened is that Sojitz bought up anime properties for them at absurd prices and got them into incredible debt. When ADV couldn’t pay back the money they sold everything off to Funimation, who became the debt collector. ADV owed US$8 million. I still am utterly baffled as to why anyone at ADV thought it was a great idea to take up such a shitty deal to stay afloat. Three years later the lawsuit was dropped after both companies came to an agreement.

Although I’m not covering manga, it would be odd if I didn’t cover the demise of Tokyopop. Originally beginning in 1997, the company single-handedly changed how manga was released in the western world; from single issue comics sold in comic book stores to “tankobon” sized, “unflipped” (i.e. read right to left and printed the same way as Japanese managa) and sold in bookstores. However, the company flooded the market with hundreds of titles and several large chain stores carrying their titles went bankrupt, owing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Somehow the company managed to limp into the 2010’s. But the death knell for them was Kodansha entering the US market and taking back their licences. The company ceased manga distribution in April 2011. A dreadful reality web series called “America's Greatest Otaku” followed as well as a documentary on the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami called “Pray for Japan”. However, the company still continues to exploit young comic book artists with some of the worst contracts in the industry.

Shiori Kawana
Voyager Entertainment who had previously released the English adaptations of “Space Battleship Yamato” in the US (mostly under their broadcast names of “Star Blazers”), unceremoniously sacked the only man on their team who knew how to market their stuff in the west, Tim Eldred, and tried their hand at releasing the newest entry in the Yamato universe; “Yamato 2199”. While the vast majority of anime fandom is in their early twenties or far much younger, Voyager incomprehensibly renamed the series “Star Blazers 2199” and attempted to sell it to US anime fans. This did not go down well. First there was no streaming, it was released as single discs (four episodes for an insane US$45) instead of half or a full season, and there was no English dub. Promotion was almost entirely limited to a series of utterly baffling videos featuring cosplayer and gravure model Shiori Kawana (dressed as series character Yuki Mori), who to be utterly fair, wasn’t completely well versed in English. Coupled with this was low production values of the videos including the obvious logo of the freebie software in the top left-hand corner. English speaking fans, who were not used to this uniquely Japanese promotion, were equally horrified and amused by the whole thing. Fandom sent in some rather demeaning questions for Shiori asking why it treats it audience like kindergarteners and if she was a nude model. Fandom wasn’t going for US$45 blu-rays sold by gravure models and ended up mocking Voyager. The series releases came to grinding halt with Funimation eventually licencing the series the latter part of the decade.

I’ll have a look at Australian companies separately, but I just want to mention one non US company; All the Anime. Founded by ex-Beez staff and based in Scotland and France, over the course of the last seven years have released some of best anime box sets in the English speaking world. They also released a number of titles in English (subtitled only of course) which hadn’t been released elsewhere such as “Princess Arte”, “Tokyo Marble Chocolate”, “Amanchu!” and a collection of Production I.G short films.

Despite the downturn in physical home video sales, companies were still willing to enter the market. One of more interesting outfits was Anime Midstream. Their first title was the little known early 1990’s robot show “Raijin-Oh”, which they not only had dubbed but initially released in single DVD format with five or four episodes on each disc, while other companies where releasing titles in half season sets. After a wonky start and delays between releases, the company relented and released the latter half of the series as one set. In the later part of the decade they released all of the “BT’X” franchise.

Lastly, the weird story of Crimson Star Media. A brand-new company, they licenced the anime “Looking Up at the Half-Moon Anime”, but disaster struck when owner, Corey Maddox, was gaoled for a year on charges of violating probation. The original charge? Nine counts of sexual exploitation of children. In the end Crimson Star Media didn’t release a single disc. Nozomi Entertainment (video company for the Right Stuf) released the series instead.

Chris Beveridge
Even though there was a lot of movement in the physical home video industry, things were changing. Fandom’s go to source for everything DVD releases, AnimeOnDVD.com, had already been sold to a company called Mania.com back in 2008. The company rebranded the site and to be frank, it was never as good as the old AnimeOnDVD.com. Eventually the site’s former owner, Chris Beveridge, jumped ship in 2011 and created his own site, The Fandom Post, which covered much more than anime, but was still heavily focused on anime releases. Mania disappeared a couple of years later. However, the lack of posts on The Fandom Post’s message boards compared to the heyday of AnimeOnDVD.com was indicative of shift in the way fandom watched and consumed anime.

Of course, the biggest change this decade with fandom was the move from owning physical copies to streaming anime from legitimate companies. This had already begun in the late 2000’s when pirate anime site Crunchyroll went legit and began licensing titles directly from Japanese companies. This soon morphed into “simulcasts”, where anime would be translated and released to fans several hours after broadcast. In many cases western fans had access to most broadcast anime before most Japanese fans who did not reside within the metropolitan Tokyo region. This is because stations in other prefectures don’t broadcast episodes for up to a week later. Other companies soon realised there was money to be made in streaming. Funimation initially had a streaming deal with Crunchyroll, but broke it off in the latter part of the decade and created their own streaming platform. Funimation also pioneered “simuldubs”, which as it sounds involved the English dubbing of titles being broadcast several weeks after the initial broadcast. Other established companies got into the streaming game as well, such as Sentai Filmworks who created the Hidive website.

Unsurprisingly mainstream companies got back into the anime game after an absence of many years. Netflix became a mainstream steaming service giant during the decade and cast its eye over anime. They managed to licence and even commission some big shows including “Devilman Crybaby”, a CG adaptation of the recent “Ultraman” manga, “Violet Evergarden” and “Little Witch Academia”. But their biggest title was the original “Evangelion” TV series. This acquisition wasn’t without its issues; a new dub was commission for its release, and the series’ iconic end theme had to be replaced due to licencing issues. Streaming wasn’t without its issues though. Crunchyroll in particular was criticised for poor quality video, and worse, underpaying translators. The timing of its issues with translator’s pay unfortunately happened at the same time Crunchyroll management had spent a fortune on creating a rather gaudy new office for the company. Fandom rightly criticised them for it. As home video rights are often tied to streaming rights, this meant in some cases a physical home video release did not eventuate, especially for Netflix titles, which did irk a section of fandom.

So, we know anime fandom mostly dumped physical releases when the bubble finally burst in the 2000’s and never really went back to buying them. So, the question is; where was that money going? The answer of course was merchandise, mostly towards highly detailed figures. Thanks to an overabundance of anime comprised mostly (or entirely in some cases) of female characters, there was never going to a be a shortage of inspiration for these figures. If we’re being totally honest, the vast majority of these figures are aimed young men. And naturally, even if the character didn’t act that way in the anime, a fair wack of these figures had a sexual aspect to them. It did amuse me that western fandom would baulk at paying a single cent to watch anime, yet seemingly have no qualms about plonking down US$150, minimum, for one of these figures, and usually would have a harem of dozens of these figures. Other merchandise that tickled a mostly young, male western fandom included body pillow covers, which again, were even more sexualised than the figures.

The other big change this decade in terms of how fans viewed anime was the increased presence of anime in cinemas. There were a couple of reasons why this took place. First there was the change in how film was distributed to cinemas; from 35mm film prints to digital which made things a lot cheaper for distributors. Especially so for distributors of foreign language films, they no longer had to source 35mm prints and “burn” subtitles onto that existing print. Secondly there was an increase in cinema for nice audiences such as simulcasts or rebroadcasts of opera, theatrical plays or concerts. This included anime as well. In the US two film distributors lead the way in theatrical anime. The first one was Gkids. Founded in 2008, their focus was in foreign language animation. Apart from their acquisition of the entire Studio Ghibli catalogue, they also theatrically released some of the biggest hits of the decade including “Promare”, “The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl” and “Weathering with You” All of their titles also received physical home video releases as well. The other main distributor was Eleven Arts. This company is a US branch of a larger Japanese one. Much like Gkids, this company focused mostly on foreign language material, notably Japanese cinema, but also distributed some US/Japanese co-productions, mostly of the exploitation and genre variety. The company distributed some big anime hits of the decade as well, including “Penguin Highway”, “Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms”, “Liz and the Blue Bird”, “Sound! Euphonium the Movie - Our Promise: A Brand New Day” and “A Silent Voice”. Oddities they distributed included “Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Reflection” (which never got a physical home video release in the US) and most bafflingly “The Laws of the Universe: Part 1”, an anime film from right wing religious cult Happy Science.

Crowdfunding saw the promise of creators sourcing funding directly from fans. However, the reality wasn’t what some in the industry hoped for. Many US and UK companies used online companies like Kickstarter in order to help source and collate the funds. However, the projects put up for crowdfunding were sometimes rather curious. For example, was there a need to crowdfund for English dubs of “Escaflowne” and “Aria”? Surely there was no need to crowd fund a blu-ray box set of the original “Bubblegum Crisis” OVA? While companies like All the Anime, Funimation and the Right Stuf dabbled in crowdfunding, AnimEigo used it for every release they issued in the decade. For them it was a guarantee of shipping a set number of units for a predetermined price. Japanese companies also used it as a way to gain funding directly from English speaking fans. This was used mostly for pressing up English language blu-ray sets and creating one off OVAs. While it worked well for the former, there was mixed results for the latter, with the vast majority of projects failing to meet the required funding goal. Projects which did succeed included “Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade” and “Nekopara”.

After licencing numerous anime and manga for adaptation in English, Hollywood actually came through this decade with several decent adaptations actually hitting the big screen. Easily the best and most successful would be “All You Need is Kill”, which was adapted from its light novel origins into “Edge of Tomorrow” and stared Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. For a big budgeted action flick, it was highly entertaining and well written. It made an astounding US$370.5 million at the box office. Hollywood had another crack at “Godzilla” and managed to turn out a decent film. Directed by Gareth Edwards, who had only made the low budget but special effects filled sci-fi horror film “Monsters” previously, it was a pretty good film for what it was. A sequel, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was released at the end of the decade, but the box office wasn’t as good.

After promising to make the film for nearly a decade and a half, James Cameron finally came through with “Alita: Battle Angel”, though with Robert Rodriguez in the director’s chair. The resulting film wasn’t bad at all. The CG created Alita was amazing, especially with her facial expressions and Rosa Salazar’s performance was very empathetic. Christoph Waltz was also excellent as Dr. Dyson Ido. Unfortunately, the dialogue at times was gobsmackingly awful. Though the film made an astounding US$404.9 million at the box office, a sequel looks unlikely, despite fans of the film championing for one. Though audiences seemed to despise Rupert Sanders’ (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell”, I thought it was an interesting take on the franchise. Criticism of the film seemed to centre solely on the fact Scarlett Johansson portrayed Major Mira Killian, who in the original manga was a Japanese woman (Motoko Kusanagi). The criticism seemed to ignore the fact a key theme in the film was loss of identity, which Killian was grappling with in the film. It also seemed to ignore Killian’s real identity which was revealed towards the end of the film. Despite the accusations of “whitewashing”, the cast was quite diverse with Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han and Danusia Samal in the lead and secondary roles. Lastly, Japanese pop culture has really seeped into western pop culture. For example, “Ready Player One”. Though not a great or memorable by any stretch of the imagination, the film did include some surprising cameos such as a Gundam, Kaneda’s motorbike from “Akira” and the Mach 5 from “Speed Racer”.

That offending scene from "Code Geass Lelouch of the
 Rebellion R2"
At the beginning of the decade in the UK, changes in laws banning what was known as “extreme pornography” also contained a subsection colloquially known as the “Dangerous Cartoons Act”. Essentially this was a change in the law do to with possession of “non-photographic visual depictions of child sexual abuse”. The change meant that non-realistic depictions were now illegal, where as before, the law explicitly stated only photorealistic images and drawings were banned. This change did cause some waves as there was the possibility UK anime fans could be gaoled for importing ero anime and manga freely available in the US and Japan. However, there were no real cases of this happening. While the British Board of Classification (BBFC) was notorious in the 1990’s for censoring and even banning various anime that Manga Entertainment had intended to release, censorship of titles had been loosed over the decades and it was now unheard of for a title to be censored. However, in 2010 UK company Beez received a notice from the BBFC to censor a single shot from episode 10 of “Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2” due to the fact it may “encourage an interest in underage sexual activity”.  The issue with this problematic shot was that it included a picture from a photo album, which had a nude young woman in the background holding up her arms so her breasts weren’t showing. The incident seemed rather hysterical and absurd. It’s highly doubtful any part of “Code Geass” would turn anime fans into paedophiles.

In the next part I’ll be looking at what happened in Australia, a decade of turbulence in English speaking fandom, and the rise in physical tokusatsu releases amongst other things. And seeing as we have just discussed the home video market, here’s a list of my favourite releases of the decade;

My Favourite English Language Physical Anime Releases of the Decade

  • Tiger & Bunny Part 1 to 4 Limited Edition (Kaze/Manga Entertainment, February 2013 to September 2013)
  • Attack on Titan - Part 1 and 2 Limited Edition (Funimation, June and September 2014)
  • Love Live! School Idol Project - Season 1 Premium Edition (NIS America, September 2014)
  • Patema Inverted Ultimate Edition (All the Anime/Anime Limited, October 2014)
  • Kill la Kill - Part 1 to Part 3 Collector's Edition (All the Anime/Anime Limited, October 2014 to June 2015)
  • Escaflowne Ultimate Edition (All the Anime/Anime Limited, November 2016)
  • Outlaw Star Complete Blu-Ray Box Limited Edition (All the Anime/Anime Limited, November 2016)
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena - 20th Anniversary Ultra Edition (Nozomi Entertainment, January 2018)
  • Flip Flappers - Complete Collection Limited Edition (Sentai Filmworks, February 2018)
  • Robot Carnival (Discoteck/Eastern Star, March 2018)