Gold Lightan Is Bananas

I don’t remember exactly where I first heard of the 1981 anime Golden Warrior Gold Lightan. I think it might have been one of those English-language anime magazines, like Animerica or Newtype USA, where a writer imagined the bizarre board meeting that would allow a sentient Zippo lighter to be the star of a children’s TV show like some tobacco ad gone horribly wrong. But it was during my study abroad in Japan that I had the opportunity to check out the series firsthand, thanks to my college’s extensive anime DVD library. Unwilling to devote my entire time in another country to just watching Gold Lightan of all things, I watched a smattering of episodes just to get an idea of the series a whole: the first few episodes, some from the middle point, and the very end.

Gold Lightan turned out to be far wilder than I had imagined, as it could easily swing from boring “monster of the week” fare to intense melodrama at the drop of a hat. Its backstory alone is ridiculous but played straight: the narrator explains how villains from the “mecha dimension” aim to conquer our third dimension, as if they go in order from 1st, 2nd, 3rd, to “mecha” in the most natural way. The titular robot transforms itself from palm-sized lighter to metallic titan by shouting “RAINBOW ROOOOAAAD!” and emerging from a massive wormhole after being sent through a prism. Despite being just a chunky yellow block with arms and legs, Gold Lightan animates surprisingly well in combat. Intense fight scenes end with a brutal finisher that would make Kano from Mortal Kombat proud—the “Gold Finger Crash” involves thrusting a hand into the enemy robot’s chest to pull its mechanical heart out. The anime concludes with a finale that looks closer to the trauma of a Tomino-directed Gundam.

Against all odds, Gold Lightan is currently licensed and streaming legally in the US thanks to HiDive under the name Golden Lightan. It’s already been almost a year since the announcement, and in this time, I’ve taken to re-visiting the series every so often with the hopes of doing what I hadn’t in Japan: watching the entire series. Now, fifteen years after I first laid eyes on this bizarre anime, I’ve come to the conclusion that Gold Lightan just has an absurd amount of effort put into it by everyone involved. It’s as if the studio behind the series, Tatsunoko Pro, saw the inherently weak premise as an opportunity to just flex on everyone with their animation chops.

But that’s what Tatsunoko has always been known for: a high level of detail when it comes to animating action. Its animators pioneered elaborate explosion effects and particle animations, and the studio as a whole as a history of sleek and stylized works ranging from Speed Racer to Gatchaman to KARAS and on. What’s bizarre to me is how moments of intensely beautiful animation can show up in Gold Lightan at seemingly innocuous moments. In one episode, one of the kid characters powers up his little go-kart for a ride, and just watching the engine roar to life and the exhaust pipes bellow and shift tells me that someone had to have dedicated themselves fully to getting this throwaway go-kart scene juuuust right. 

I think the modern equivalent of Gold Lightan’s attention to quality is when an anime about some free-to-play, wallet-draining mobile game turns out to be one of the big hits of the season. The difference is simply that times have changed, trends have shifted, and these mobile game anime are a mere 13 episodes instead of a whopping 52. I’d recommend Golden Warrior Gold Lightan to those who want to check out the more obscure side of giant robot anime, to those who want a show where effort overcomes a paper-thin concept, and (I’m not kidding) to sakuga fans who just revel in seeing things lovingly animated with skill and grace. It’s a ridiculous and wonderful time.

Great Minds Think Differently: Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

Whenever there’s a work of fiction about creative types, I think back to an old art professor of mine. He would lament that the artistic process was rarely, if ever represented accurately in media. But if he had the chance to watch the anime Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, I think he would be pleasantly surprised. 

Adapted from a manga by Oowara Sumito, directed by Yuasa Masaaki and animated by his current studio, Science Saru, Eizouken! is very clearly made by people who believe just as strongly in the art of animation as the characters themselves do.

Eizouken! follows three characters–director Asakusa Midori (the main protagonist), animator Mizusaki Tsubame, and producer Kanamori Sayaka–as they form their own school club in order to make anime. Asakusa has a life-long passion for external exploring as a way to fuel her imagination, and her sketchbooks are filled to the brim with ideas and flashes of inspiration–from small doodles to elaborate world-building designs. Mizusaki is a model, but her true passion is in animation, and nothing gets her more excited as a sakuga fan than the hard work that goes into the art of portraying movement. Kanamori isn’t really artistic, but she has a knack for looking at the pragmatic side of things: costs, advertising and exposure, and deadlines. The difference between Asakusa and Mizusaki as similar yet distinct creative types, as well as the contrast between their energy and Kanamori’s, fuel the conflict and the camaraderie at the heart of Eizouken!

The series looks fantastic, has memorable characters, and is such a genuine love letter to anime and animation–even putting in nods to beloved classics like Future Boy Conan and Akira. However, what impresses me most is that Eizouken! makes a lot of difficult and daring decisions. It would have been all too easy to make Mizusaki the heroine because of how people tend to focus on characters in anime in the first place, and her specialty aligns closest to that. But not only is Mizusaki someone whose love of animation goes beyond simply making characters look impressive, but it’s the more conceptually oriented Asakusa who’s the main character. There’s something a little more intangible about Asakusa’s mindset, and the willingness to have her be the primary focus is something I appreciate.

But if having someone like Asakusa as main is uncommon, then featuring a character like Kanamori at all is like finding a four-leaf clover. While a similar series like Shirobako might have characters on the production side, it’s exceedingly rare to have a character who so clearly shows the “producer” mindset. It reminds me of something I heard once when it came to Studio Ghibli: while directors Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao were considered the geniuses for their successful animated feature films, some consider producer Suzuki Toshio the real secret to Ghibli’s success because of his skills in promotion and turning a profit. Kanamori embodies this spirit, and I think that it also provides a window into how those who aren’t on the artistic side can still be big contributors to creative endeavors in a world where schedules matter.

Something that encapsulates the joy and detail put into Eizouken! is the opening video, shown above. There’s a part in the OP where it shows multiple quadrilaterals spiraling towards the center of the screen, one set for each character. Asakusa’s are chaotic, Mizusaki’s stylishly overlap, and Kanamori’s are rectangular and precise. They’re perfect summations of the girls’ respective mindsets.

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is a series for anyone who’s interested in seeing an involved yet mildly fantastical portrayal of the creative process in action, as well as for anyone who enjoys seeing girls being passionate about what they do. There’s a lot of love that’s gone into Eizouken!, and I can’t help but expect a generation of creators to come out of watching this series eager to take the anime industry by storm. 

Sakuga Fans Need More Carl Sagans

In a recent blog article on the site Wave Motion Cannon, blogger tamerlane laments two aspects of how we talk about anime. First, he discusses lack of appreciation (one might even say disdain) that many American fans and experts of animation have towards anime. Second, he argues that sakuga fans (essentially fans of especially expressive, dynamic, and powerful Japanese animation) aren’t doing enough to help spread appreciation of the animation in anime. On these general points, I completely agree. Whether it’s anime or manga, the technical skills of Japanese creators are often unfairly get derided, labeled as being full of shortcuts and cop-outs. Anime defies the rule books of animation that people take as gospel, so critics prefer to point a finger at anime rather than the rules themselves. Similarly, I also find that sakuga fans can often sabotage themselves, but one thing that tamerlane might not realize is that in his very post are those risky elements, that which makes sakuga fans, perhaps unfairly, seen as an insular group.

To start off, I want to highlight a couple of  lines from the article:

That is, strip away all those aspects of animation that have superior alternatives elsewhere – story, music, draftsmanship – and look at what’s left. That is animation.

Animation shouldn’t exist for its own sake, certainly, and there’s no shortage of animated films that are as vacuous as they are pretty, but without any way of meaningfully differentiating itself from other forms of art it might as well not exist at all.

In other words, animation should do what is uniquely suited to it, otherwise there’s no point. It’s simple… or not.

The problem with such a sentiment is that, while it might seem like the proper way to view animation, there are serious limitations to pinning a medium down to what is unique to it. Granted, it’s not a bad way of viewing things. An artist might want to push the boundaries of the medium, and in doing so create something great. However, it leads to what philosopher and scholar Noël Carroll refers to as an over-reliance on “medium essentialism,” where in trying to emphasize the qualities of animation that cannot be replicated elsewhere one ends up ignoring the “common” aspects that can also empower a form of artistic expression. Comics scholar Thierry Groenstein describes comics in general similarly, that it is because comics are a mixture of elements found elsewhere that it can create interesting outcomes. Try telling someone who plays visual novels that they should either read a book or play a real game. Try telling someone that they shouldn’t enjoy Inferno Cop because of its intentionally terrible animation (though I have to acknowledge the possibility that one only begins to appreciate Inferno Cop if they are a fan of the act of animating itself).

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I don’t believe tamerlane means to come across as so completely essentialist, and at the very least he points out that the two schools of thought discussed in his article about animation (anime vs. Disney-esque animation) are equally valid. However, I think it’s still important to focus on the idea that to be a fan of animation (or anime) is to be a fan of the construction of animation, that it is of the highest priority for anyone who calls themselves a fan of animation. In response to this, I would argue that, while it might be impossible to just ignore the act of animating outright, one’s interest in animation can rightfully be defined by elements outside of appreciate of technical or expressive skill.

I’m going to use myself as an example. I am not the average anime fan, and I have what I would call a fairly passable understanding of sakuga and animation. I can’t necessarily recognize an animator’s work just by seeing a cut in isolation, but I appreciate Kanada, Umakoshi, Itano, and so on. However, appreciation of animation is but one facet of my interest in anime, which I would more generally describe as a fascination with the interaction of ideas and emotions across Japanese animated cartoons and their narratives, and given limited time I do not prioritize it above all else. I leave that up to the experts, whether certified or self-proclaimed, because even if they’re the latter their passion leads them further.

In fact, the reason I started looking into animators is because of Ben Ettinger, the guy behind the blog Anipages. Based on his writings, he is very clearly a fan of animation in the same sense that tamerlane and other sakuga fans are. He knows the names of the animators. He can recognize their work. He looks into the most obscure and even uninteresting shows to find strong animation. However, most crucially, I don’t sense hostility from his writing, or the idea that his way of viewing things is the right way or the only way.

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The problem comes when sakuga fans, as ambassadors of quality animation, deride the uninitiated for not “getting it,” or not understand the values of others. This can only serve to push their potential audience and potential comrades further away. If there is not an actual inability to relate to non-sakuga fans, it can appear to be the case.

It’s not my first time reading what tamerlane has to say about anime or animation. A couple of years ago, he commented on some Kill la Kill posts of mine, and expressed that one of the issues was that the characters weren’t fun to watch, tying this into his passion for the act of animation, while also stating that those who enjoyed the series only had weak reasons to do so. I disagreed on the simple basis that, while I could recognize some of the weaknesses he mentioned, they weren’t a deal breaker for me, and what I valued in Kill la Kill was still very present and very strong. However, this also gave an image of tamerlane as someone with a very specific and at times contentious point of view, so much so that I almost chose not to read his post.

I want to emphasize two things based on what I just said. The first is that, if I had ignored his article based on past interactions, I would have been the stupid one. It would have been an example of me judging someone purely through some brief internet talk where communication was marred by a number of factors that weren’t just on his side. I think it’s more than possible to see both sides, or to disagree about one thing while agreeing on another, but most importantly I believe it’s possible to respect the other side.

The second point is that not everybody can ignore their initial impressions, and how one communicate to others as fellow human beings can be just as important as what you have to say. I know, because I struggle with this to. I understand what it’s like to be frustrated that others don’t share my point of view, or to not be able to express myself well. However, at the end of the day, positioning one’s own reasons for liking a show as just inherently better will always rub people the wrong way.

Even if accusations against sakuga fans are unfounded, the impression one gives when communicating can plant that idea in the reader or listener’s head, and whether you’re talking to hostile skeptics or people eager to know more about animation, driving them away by telling them to get on your level is only going to convince a few. Sakuga fans have to speak to other fans on their own terms and empathize with them. And if not, they have to at least let their passion come across in a way that is not confrontational. Sakuga fans need more Carl Sagans, and if not him, then at least some Neil deGrasse Tysons, who can be both snarky and personable.

I’m going to leave off with some screencaps from Episode 3 of Aoi Honoo, a J-drama about the school where many future luminaries of the anime industry came from. Though obviously different from real life interactions and conversations, I think it’s worth nothing how Anno Hideaki (or rather the actor who plays him) is shown to express his love for animation, in spite (or perhaps because) of his lack of social skills.

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