The Sincerity of Tokusatsu

I have watched a lot of anime, but it comes to tokusatsu stuff, I’m far less experienced. When Toei launched their official worldwide tokusatsu channel on Youtube a few months ago (despite a major hiccup where they accidentally banned themselves), I originally saw it as a way to legitimately watch more obscure giant robot anime such as Lightspeed Electroid Albegas and Space Emperor God Sigma. However, thanks to the sheer range of shows available—stuff leading back to even the black & white era of television—I thought it was high time I made a more concerted effort to watch tokusatsu and form my own opinions.

What I’ve come to notice is that I enjoy these series a lot more than the adapted tokusatsu works I’ve seen over the years in the US—Power Rangers, VR Troopers, Super-human Samurai Syber Squad, etc.—and I think I know why. When it comes to Japanese tokusatsu, there is a greater degree of earnestness that makes these shows more enjoyable overall. They might not have much of a budget, as shown by their threadbare special effectss, but everything feels somehow more sincere.

Sure, the localized shows have their own merits, and there have been memorable storylines over the years that lend at least an air of seriousness and compelling storytelling to their worlds. In Power Rangers alone, there’s the original Green Ranger storyline from Mighty Morphin’ and the bond between Astronema and Ecliptor in Power Rangers in Space that revealed the two more than just evil villains. However, they feel more like exceptions to the rule—-chances for otherwise very non-serious stories to reveal an edge.

With Japanese tokusatsu, on the other hand, even the very first episodes feel like they’re working hard to get viewers emotionally invested. They’re also still ultimately kids’ shows as well, but their presentation is such that they expect the young viewers at home to enjoy drama and tension in their entertainment. When you hear the ending theme to Janperson, even if you don’t know Japanese, there’s a strange yet heartfelt sense of passion. It’s definitely cheesy, but it’s a convincing kind of cheesy. The difference is akin to the kind of pro wrestling that easily makes you suspend your disbelief versus the kind that takes you out of the magic.

Anyway, if anyone has recommendations, I’m all ears. A part of me wants to check out Space Ironmen Kyodain and Akumaizer 3 just because of Konata’s fiery karaoke from Lucky Star, but I’m down to keep exploring.

Traveling the World One Story at a Time: Ashita no Nadja

Two of Toei Animation’s most enduring franchises are Ojamajo Doremi and Precure. Magical girl anime that are as different as they are similar—the former is four seasons following the continuing adventures of the same core characters, while the latter is currently running 10 years strong and changes its cast almost every season)—the two are chronologically separated by only one year. What filled that gap was a 50-episode anime known as Ashita no Nadja. Literally meaning “Nadja of Tomorrow,” the title points to the idea of a young girl who, in spite of all hardships, continues to look forward.

Unlike the shows that bookend it, Ashita no Nadja is not a magical girl series, though it is similar in being a shoujo series geared towards a Sunday morning children’s audience. The anime’s story follows a young English orphan in the early 20th century named Nadja Applefield as she travels the world as part of a traveling troupe of entertainers in search of her mother. Initially unaware that her quest will get her entangled in the complications of European nobility, along the way she makes lifelong friends, a few bitter enemies, and manages to make almost every guy she meets fall in love with her energy and honesty. While Doremi and Precure thrive on varying degrees of entertaining “filler” episodes combined with the occasional dramatic climax, Nadja more or less continuously builds up its narrative, though not without throwing in an aggravating twist of fate every so often, to emphasize the small tragedies of Nadja’s life, and by extension her never-give-up attitude.

In this way, Ashita no Nadja bears similarities to both melodramatic 70s shoujo series such as Candy Candy, as well as World Masterpiece Theater series such as Anne of Green Gables. Namely, while the main narrative isn’t about romance, it is a constant presence in the series, and in that respect it’s also similar to Candy Candy in that Ashita no Nadja is sort of a reverse-Bechdel Test. There is rarely a single conversation in the series between two men that doesn’t somehow involve Nadja. Men rich and poor, young and old, and on all sides of the law fall for Nadja Applefield.

If this makes it sound like Nadja is something of a Mary Sue, that’s not necessarily all that far off, but it also doesn’t mean that Nadja is a bad character. The anime as a whole just wouldn’t quite work without Nadja being a strong protagonist both in terms of personality and what she contributes to the overall story. While she does have certain elements of wish fulfillment for a young audience, she always comes across as very human, maybe even ultrahuman (as opposed to superhuman). What I mean is that her humanity, her emotions, radiates seemingly without end.

This is not to say that the series is endlessly optimistic. While I’ve already mentioned that the show has tragic elements at times, I want to emphasize this point again because Ashita no Nadja can get surprisingly dark at times. Although it’s not exactly butchering people left and right, it’s not afraid to take away a beloved character or sprinkle in a bit of betrayal. Notably, the series addresses the gap between the rich and the poor during the period in which it takes place. For example, two aristocrats frustrated at the system also vehemently disagree over how to solve this problem: one believes in working within the system, using his family’s money to help the needy, while the other believes in attacking the system Robin Hood-style. Rather than confine this theme to an episode or two, or using it merely as flavoring, this portrayal of a turning point in history, when nobility is on the verge of becoming a relic of bygone times, is actually a persistent plot point throughout Ashita no Nadja.

The surprising level of consideration for Nadja’s world and the interplay between tragedy and hope are such prominent parts of the series that it even affects the merchandising engine that Ashita no Nadja was supposed to be. Like Doremi and Precure (as well as Sailor Moon, of course), Ashita no Nadja was a vehicle for selling toys. Indeed, the show is full of conspicuously toy-like products, from pink castanets to umbrellas, and even a flashy typewriter for some reason. However, at one point in the series, a male character gives Nadja a kaleidoscope, with the meta-intent being that kids will surely want this exciting new product, but the back-story they created for it is anything but joyful. It turns out to be the most prized possession of his dead mother, who lived a sad and lonely life inside the mental and emotional prison known as aristocracy, and the closest she could come to seeing the outside world was that kaleidoscope. That’s Ashita no Nadja, a show where even “BUY OUR TOYS” comes with an element of sadness.

The last thing worth mentioning about Ashita no Nadja is its visuals. Generally the show looks decent enough, full of vibrant colors and just an overall cute aesthetic. Some episodes better than others, as is expected of such a long series. In some cases, though, the animation will punch well above its weight class. While this also happens with Doremi and Precure (especially when it comes to Precure‘s fight scenes), here it is even more noticeable. In particular, episode 26 (seen above) has such eerily gorgeous character animation, set design, and atmosphere that it’s absolutely unforgettable, and even a little difficult to capture in screenshots or clips. It might come as no surprise that the episode director (and one of the key animators) was none other than Hosoda Mamoru, acclaimed director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. He also directed the opening (seen at the beginning of the post) and ending for Ashita no Nadja, which by themselves probably endorse the show far better than my humble words.

As each episode finished, I actually found it hard to skip that ending. It’s compelling and strangely addictive, which also describes Ashita no Nadja as a whole.

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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.