How Many Curtains Does It Take to Get to the Truth of Anime Production?

One of the recurring endeavors in the study of anime and manga has been to remove some of the aura from Tezuka Osamu. Rightfully one of the most influential figures in anime and (especially) manga history, it’s not so much about questioning whether Tezuka had any impact on Japanese popular culture but to what extent the attributions given to him (either by others or himself) are necessarily accurate. Did he really create the first anime (no) or the first TV anime (no)? Did he really invent shoujo manga (the answer is also no)? However, amidst the pursuit of the truth, this brings to mind the question of how much one is willing to peel back the veils of illusion that go into the production of art and media, to look at the creators themselves, and perhaps to take away even their brilliance in favor of treating them and their works as mere people and products.

What inspired this post was the book Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements, which aims to study anime as objects, created and sold, and in doing so reveal a side of anime’s history that isn’t merely about lauding the successes or pointing out obscure, overlooked works. As much as one might argue that this is removing the “magic” from anime, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, especially if one is in pursuit of a more factual type of truth. In fact, it’s not so much that the veneer of fantasy has been peeled away from the anime or the creators that has me writing this post, but rather about the degree to which another might accuse me of doing the same thing through this blog.

One of the aims of Ogiue Maniax from the very beginning has been to get people to think more about anime and manga, to explore why one might love anime in a certain way. To this extent, I’ll talk about different themes in series but I’ll also bring up both creators and audience in a mix of modernism vs. postmodernism that I don’t necessarily think needs to be resolved. I’ll go to panels at Otakon and lament the lack of audience for Maruyama Masao, who is one of the greatest troves of anime production knowledge in existence (though maybe now that he’s been parodied in Shirobako this might change things) and question why people pay so little attention to the creators. And yet, is that so different from what Clements does in his book?

While Clements strips away the aura from the creative process a bit in order to question the self-congratulatory aspects of creators and studios, am I stripping away the fantasy of the anime as a story in and of itself, the narrative as entity that wishes for people to engage it on some level as inherently real? Do even the people who follow voice actors do this same thing in their own way? And perhaps most importantly, should these contrasting stances all be considered under the same umbrella of “fandom,” or are they distinct enough to need more specific categories?

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BUDDHA DISLIKES SUFFERING: The Buddha Film

I had the opportunity to see the Buddha animated movie recently, thanks to the New York Asian Film Festival. Based off of a manga by that one-and-only god of comics, Tezuka Osamu, it is meant to be the first part of a trilogy. I have no prior experience with the Buddha manga, so my reflection on it is not influenced by a comparison to the source material.

Following the life of Prince Siddhartha from birth to adulthood, the Buddha movie tells us about the life of Buddha. And by that, I mean it really tells us. Repeatedly, over the head, with a hammer gripped by two ham fists. Scenes which actually start out with some subtlety soon after get bludgeoned by the desire to make every message as clear as possible, whether it’s through excessive narration (literally telling and not showing), dwelling too long on certain details, or having an extremely overwrought musical accompaniment. I found myself at times getting into the movie, feeling for the characters in their lowest hour, and then in comes the music which really, really wants you to know that this is a sad moment. This turned out to be a recurring theme throughout the viewing.

To Buddha‘s credit, this meant that the film was continuously successful in pulling me in, but to its discredit the film would also drag me right back out almost without fail. In a way, the movie is its own worst enemy, and it is very clear that this film is meant to appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience, a summer popcorn flick that can’t seem to get its act together entirely. Siddhartha himself makes for a somewhat lackluster main character, not necessarily because he’s a religious figure and portrayed in the film almost without flaw, but because his “development” just feels like events plucked out of his life, all of which tell the same story. As a young boy, Siddhartha was naturally predisposed to disliking the death and suffering of others. A traumatic event causes him to dislike them even more. As a teenager, Siddhartha still is against death and suffering. Another traumatic event occurs to reinforce those feelings. As an adult, once again, death and suffering bad, here’s another thing to show that Siddhartha continues to be really against those facets of the human condition. His character never really develops, it just becomes much more of the same. This isn’t entirely bad, as I doubt any film like this would show Siddhartha’s “rebellious middle finger to the MAN stage” (and disliking war and violence and the Hindu caste system is technically sticking it to the man in this instance), but if this is just how it happens, then the film could have just been structured around that better.

There are other characters in the film as well, but their strengths and weaknesses are almost the same as Siddhartha’s, except for perhaps one twist in the character of a young peasant named Chapra, who tries to go against the caste system as well, in his own way.

Overall, I think Buddha was just okay, and that’s only because the good narrowly outweighs the bad, of which there is a lot. Again, the film is successful in becoming engrossing, but it continually undermines itself. What would have been much more powerful or poignant are cut off at the knees for the sake of removing ambiguity. Should the next sequel ever get made, I sincerely hope they realize that they have something, albeit mired in so much mud.

Crush Them, Giant Pluto

Before I actually talk about what this post is about: If it wasn’t clear from my blog anniversary post, I am thankful for everything going on in my life.

I recently finished Urasawa Naoki and Nagasawa Takashi’s Pluto, a widely acclaimed series which has people hoping it might some day meet its brother Monster in being adapted into anime. The likelihood of this happening is way up in the air, but as I was reflecting on the series, I decided that if Pluto were to indeed become an anime, I would want Imagawa Yasuhiro as director.

Pluto is loosely based on a story from Tezuka Osamu’s Tetsuwan Atom/Astro Boy, taking “The Greatest Robot on Earth” and turning it into a suspenseful mystery. One of the themes in the series is the “human” element of robots, particularly how the Greatest Robots on Earth (and those somewhat less great) are affected by war. In many cases, while they might not be outright traumatized, it’s clear that fighting and killing their fellow robots by the scores has an impact on how they view and value life. This in many ways resembles the Imagawa-directed 2004 Tetsujin 28 anime, which took a manga title from Tezuka’s contemporary/rival Yokoyama Mitsuteru and gave the series the benefit of hindsight by having it be primarily about weapons of war both mechanical and biological and their place in a post-war environment. It’s quite a good show and gives a lot to chew on, and it’s this anime’s success that has me believing that Imagawa would be the best fit for a Pluto adaptation, though he might have to tone down some of his typical stylistic choices.

Besides, a series like Pluto wouldn’t run the risk that Tetsujin 28 did with its retro character designs and would probably be more marketable as a result. Or I guess you could just go around that almost entirely.

Style Born out of Necessity

In Fred Schodt’s book The Astro Boy Essays, Fred points out that many of the qualities and traits of Japanese “limited” animation (as opposed to Disney-esque “full animation”) could trace their origins back to Tezuka Osamu’s original Tetsuwan Atom anime TV series, a series which was impeded by a staggeringly low budget that all but required these sorts of animaton “shortcuts.” Critics in Japan at that time would remark that the qualities of anime described above, qualities that were born out of necessity, gave anime much of its distinctive Japanese style and that it was in certain ways better than Disney-style full animation.

Of course, not everyone agreed, and others saw the fact that the limited animation style was because of a lack of money, and could not see it as a “style.” Evidently, Tezuka himself had mixed feelings about it: he was happy that these cost-cutting measures allowed him to animate Atom in the first place, but as a loyal fan of Walt Disney it hurt him to be unable to use the full animation he loved so much to bring Atom to life.

There is a sort of latent fear that goes hand in hand with the use of limited animation, and it is the fear of limited animation gone awry: Still frames, camera pans on single images, talking heads, if a show consists of nothing but blatant animation shortcuts, how can it be called animation? From that perspective, the concept of full animation seems safer, but it too carries its own pitfalls, namely “over-animation.” This is where an animation wants to show off its use of full animation so much that everything is animated and nothing ever stays still, to the point that it is difficult to concentrate on what’s actually happening in a cartoon. That’s not to say that it is impossible to do either extreme well, but that ultimately the answer lies somewhere in the middle given the limitations.

A similar problem occurs in 3D animation. Sometimes an animator will work very hard on a scene and it will look visibly impressive and absolutely gorgeous. However, because of the ease of replication in 3D animation, where with a simple switch of the camera angle you can use the same animation or effect and make it seem like it’s entirely new, many animators become tempted. They are so proud of their work that they want to use it again, and again, and again, until it loses all meaning and impact, much like the animators who wanted everything in a frame to move in order to prove just how amazing their animation could be. At this point, the animators must choose to limit themselves, to realize that their tools while seemingly infinite will not produce an infinitely enjoyable experience.

People are boxed in by their limitations, but within those limitations they find ways to improve and to get the most out of what they have. Then, should those limitations no longer be necessary, the people who worked in that style might continue to do so, having honed their technique all those years, and from there it no longer becomes a necessary step but a stylistic choice. Among those stylistic choices are stylistic limitations, to keep a work from being overwhelmed by seemingly endless potential.

What’s amazing about this concept, style born out of necessity, is how often it occurs in art: Tezuka and Tetsuwan Atom leading to the prevalent style of the anime Industry is one example, but you also have video game music of the 80s and 90s giving birth to the “chiptunes” (electronic music made through sound chips, generally the kind found in video games and computers) scene, and even oils becoming one of the de facto forms of paint, among many others. What’s even more amazing is that when you move well beyond the era in which the artistic style was born, well beyond the memories of anyone who was alive to experience that era, you get fresh minds and fresh faces who can approach material with few preconceived notions.

A while back I attended a outdoors chiptunes concert with some friends. While I was enjoying the music myself, I also noticed that a small boy, no more than four years old, enjoying the hell out of the chiptunes. At first I thought it was cute, but then something occurred to me: this kid had been born well after the heyday of the NES and SNES, and so he wasn’t enjoying chiptunes out of some sense of nostalgia, but rather out of the aesthetics he had acquired in the little time he had been alive. It gave me hope that we would be rid of the idea that just because a style was born out of necessity that it would not be considered inherently inferior.

My Modern Take on the Tezuka Star System

Tezuka Osamu, the “God of Manga,” is famous for many innovations in comics and basically influencing the entirety of the manga industry we see today. His techniques for cinematic paneling, use of comics to tell long and drawn-out stories, as well as breadth and depth of topics basically helped define manga as we know it. Even the comics that tried to reject Tezuka’s methods were still a reaction to Tezuka’s work.

One technique Tezuka introduced is something referred to as Tezuka’s “Star System.” Tezuka grew up in Takarazuka, home of the Takarazuka Revue theatre where an all-female cast would give stage performances. Much like actors in a play, Tezuka’s characters would assume different-yet-similar roles across the manga he created, like Orson Welles playing Kane in Citizen Kane, Harry Lime in the Third Man, and Unicron in Transformers. However, the “Star System” concept never really caught on among anime and manga creators and remains something generally unique to Tezuka. “Generally,” I say, because I can think of at least one relatively recent example of the Star System in use.

My-HiME came out in Japan in 2004 sporting an almost all-female cast and telling a story of love and betrayal and summoning a mechanical dog to shoot ice shard bullets. Around the time it ended, there was news that a sequel was starting up, and that it would star a new main character instead of the titular Mai, pictured on the left. Instead, the protagonist would be the girl on the right, Arika, and to emphasize this point the last scene of the last episode of My-HiME shows Arika, like a hint of things to come. What people did not expect, however, was that the “sequel” to My-HiME was anything but a direct continuation of the story. Released as My-Otome (also sometimes spelled My-ZHiME), Arika’s story took place on what seemed to be alternate Earth completely different from My-HiME. Arika’s world had a sort of techno-medieval vibe, and in the story male characters were de-emphasized to an even greater extent compared to the previous series. The most interesting thing though, is that the characters of My-HiME were re-cast as new characters, similar yet different, without any explicit acknowledgement of who they were previously, not unlike actors in a new television series. Here in anime, Tezuka’s Star System manifests itself.

My-HiME’s Kuga Natsuki on the left, My-Otome’s Natsuki Kruger on the right

Anybody who sees the My series is sure to acknowledge that the show is designed to sell to a certain audience and to push figures and posters and all sorts of goodies on the demographic of guys who think anime girls are hot. Fanservice is not a stranger to My-HiME, and the re-using of characters from My-HiME in roles for My-Otome may seem like just an attempt to draw in the same audience who fell for the girls the first time. However, when you think of the characters a little less like actors and a little more like actor-idols, and incorporate the concept of (pop) idol worship, then the My-HiME Star System really shows itself as a modern, 2000s adaptation of Tezuka’s technique.

Incidentally, stars (the literal kind) are a common motif across the My series. It is the source of power for characters in My-HiME, and My-Otome was originally going to be titled “My ☆Maid” (pronounced My Star Maid). Whether this was a conscious reference or not, though, I can’t really say.