Thursday, February 25, 2010


Haven’t heard yet of Sukima no Kuni no Polta (Polta: A Country Between The Worlds)?

There’s some doubt that you soon will, given that the title’s initially short run on Japanese national broadcaster NHK in 2006 generated such a hugely positive response from critics and TV viewers alike that it prompted production company Aniplex to generate a new batch the following year - but it's since seemingly disappeared so far as I know, save for the occasional rerun.

Which is sad because, while ostensibly aimed at kids no taller than most people’s kneecaps, Polta is such a gamely surreal romp that it comes across as deliriously upbeat and gloriously quirky all at once - due in no small shrift to the original character designs by Ryoji Arai, a man rightly considered the best kids’ book artist in Japan right now and a winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in this field.

I recently got to interview Arai and will be running with that non-fireside chat shortly on this site.

But now to veer wildy back to this TV series for now: It's narrated by actor Hidetaka Yoshioka (a veteran of Japan’s exceptionally long-running Tora-san movies, and the 2006 Japanese Academy Award-winner for Best Actor in Always) and a superb, off-kilter score has been rendered by Tomoko Kataoka, a member of Instant Cytron.

The bonus surprise here?

That the animator and director of Polta is one Toshikatsu Wada. While his moniker may currently be less renowned than those of Arai, Yoshioka and Kataoka, this is very likely to change.

At the 2006 10th Japan Media Arts Festival, Polta was a runner-up in the Animation Division to Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time - a movie cited by many Japanese critics as the best animation to emerge from this country last year, despite stiff competition from Satoshi Kon's Paprika and Tekkon Kinkreet.

None of those other movies made the cut at the festival, but Polta did - and it received a coveted prize for excellence along the way.

In giving the award, the festival organizers were obviously smitten: “This is, without doubt, a masterpiece,” they waxed lyrical on their website.

“[No] previous animation has previously achieved a feeling as relaxing, heart-warming and cozy as this work… Wada’s outstanding technique reminds of the sharp, avant-garde edge of Norman McLaren and Břetislav Pojar... he is an exceptional animator.”

In a short statement upon acceptance of the award, Ryoji Arai paid similar homage to Wada. “I would like to give my heart-felt applause to the director, who successfully captured and animated the hand-made quality of the original individual elements of this story.”

Wada, born in 1966, was nourished as a wee tacker on a steady diet of Lupin III (“Especially Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro,” he interjects), and Tex Avery’s 1950s cartoon Deputy Droopy. But he is in fact a relative newcomer to making animation.

“I was 30 years old when I started,” he advises. “I was attracted by director Tadanari Okamoto’s work, and this encouraged me to enter a production company making short films - then the direct trigger was buying an Amiga.”

He also stresses that major creative juices were inspired by the work of Kihachiro Kawamoto (Shishi no Sho), Taku Furukawa (Hashimoto), and Koji Yamamura (Mt. Head).

For NHK, Wada made a show titled Bip and Bap, a comedy-action series of 5-minute episodes (like Polta) that told the yarn of two detectives and their archenemy burglar.

Already his signature-style was starting to emerge.

“It’s the classic paper-cutting cutout technique, with 3DCG computer software,” Wada says. “I’m also using Light Wave 3D, gouache and watercolor paper.”

Before the collaboration with Ryoji Arai on Polta, Wada was “Doing script, continuity, direction and animation all by myself, but for this series I’ve done the animation with two other staff-members, since Polta was our first extended TV series.”

Wada’s animated cutout approach and Arai’s deliberately naïve-style imagery work together in brilliant synchronicity in the new show, and there’s some truly innovative 2D cut-up techniques reinvented as a three-dimensional aesthetic.

Polta relates the tale of the laid back, itinerant package-delivering central character, his trusted steed (the guitar-strumming donkey Roba-Roba, who Wada says is his favorite character), and a cluster of escapades involving fugitive hot-air balloons, crazed soccer-playing penguins, a talking bus with a penchant for fishing, and a girl - Accel, who just so happens to have a head of helicopter hair.

“In Arai's pictures, there’s a unique half-three-dimensional perspective,” Wada suggests, perhaps alluding to the characters’ personas as well.

“I thought the paper-cutting technique matches that rather well. Also, I found it was easy to understand the personalities of characters, and that they moved around in the background space seemingly without permission, or any real rules of reality - and so I didn't have to think so much as director.”

A taste of the future indeed. Just a pity this particular series seems to have been forgotten before its time.

© Arai Ryoji/NHK/NEP, Aniplex Inc.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shikinejima: Flying Fish Island

Just a three hour jet-ferry ride from Tokyo is an island amidst the Izu islets called Shikinejima.

Jima means island in Japanese, and Shikinejima is your basic garden variety jima, even if your first impression, upon approaching (with flying fish spiraling about the vessel in deceptively calm seas), is that it resembles Skull Island from King Kong.

Let me sing the island’s praises first.

It’s a gorgeous, sub-tropical island 250km south of Tokyo, where you can indulge in beautiful weather with a completely relaxed atmosphere, especially in off-season (September) when it’s practically deserted.

There are secluded beaches where you can find Homer Simpson's favorite Japanese cuisine, fugu (puffer fish), lazing in the shallows, there’re overgrown bamboo forests, and shrines in the middle of nowhere.

The downside?

You'll need your phrasebook – nobody on the island that I met spoke even a smattering of English – and for god's sake consult the tome when checking the signs next to the natural hot springs on the beach there. There's no romaji, but apparently the kanji warns against bathing in these onsens before the tide comes in and cools the pools down; something to do with the volcanic heat that pumps into them.

I didn’t take note - namely because I'm a shade stupid, didn't think it was important, and couldn't read the text properly anyway - and jumped in... then nearly par-broiled myself. My legs ended up looking like those of a lobster, post-cooking method

Then there are the bugs.

The beaches crawl with millions of bizarro creatures that resemble a cross between prehistoric trilobites and cockroaches (see happy snap below).

If they were any bigger I would've felt like I'd been tossed onto the set of Starship Troopers or one of those crappy '50s B-movies were the bugs have been irradiated and enlarged and go round crushing and/or gorging on inane people who have no common sense. Like me.

Speciality food? Think those aforementioned flying fish, barbecue-style... which definitely sound better or at least more exotic than they actually taste.

Chewing on their flesh is akin to munching on a well-worn pair of Grecian sandals. Still, better these than eating the bugs. Or vice versa.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Keroro Gunso / Sgt. Frog

This newsflash just in from the battlefront ‘burbs: Militant extraterrestrial frogs do dig anime, in particular the many series that happen to include Gundam in their title.

And when it comes to digging, let it be known that I love Keroro Gunso (ケロロ軍曹, aka Sgt. Frog outside Japan).

Mostly I think I'm enamoured with Keroro's erstwhile colleague and sparring partner, the battle-scarred Giroro - voiced by the sublime Jōji Nakata, an otaku fave who also provided the vocal workouts for Alucard in Hellsing and Roy Revant in Solty Rei; in addition Nakata dubbed Gerard Butler's Leonidis in 300 and Reverend Lovejoy in The Simpsons Movie.

My daughter Cocoa and I just now watched the latest installment in a series that kick-started before she was even born.

Keroro Gunso has been bouncing off the walls on TV Tokyo - via Gundam studio Sunrise Inc. - for almost 6 years now (it began in April 2004), adapted from the original manga by Mine Yoshizaki.

“You don't need to be logical to have fun,” stressed the show’s producer, Makoto Shiraishi, from TV Tokyo when I interviewed him for Anime Insider magazine a while back. “We thought both children and adults could enjoy this series.”

The emphasis here is that it’s not just kids who adore this seemingly innocuous children’s anime - it's also relatively consistently rated towards the the top in the viewing habits of Japanese otaku, if their message-boards and blogs are to be believed.

“Keroro is very cute,” says Harumi H, a self-confessed “hardcore otaku” salary-man from Tokyo who has his own blog and adores this show. He was once my student, so I get these quotes in a pinch.

"Keroro’s also a little stupid," Harumi goes on.

"It's funny that he’s supposed to be an invader, but instead lives with and sponges off the Earthlings, and then gets into the culture of Japan. For otaku, many of the parodies in the series concern Gundam, Doraemon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dragon Ball Z, Ultraman, Urusei Yatsura, Durty Pair, Macross, and so on; it's difficult to count all the parodies but it's very funny to find them!”

Shiraishi, the producer, agreed that the show’s success over the past few years in Japan related to its ability to transcend barriers.

“Though it was popular with otaku people in the beginning, it’s since also been embraced by children and their families,” he reported.

It’s basically the story of a slippery character called Keroro, an alien from a race of frog-like critters who set their sights on an invasion of the unsuspecting Earth.

Part of an advance party reconnoitering the local terrain, Keroro’s cover is blown in the Hinata family household, the invasion is called-off - and he’s stranded to the whims of the family’s kids.

Life for Keroro is no longer that of a globe-trotting master of menace, but instead filled with mundane activities like household chores and keeping the kids at bay, sorting out the various hangers-on from his destitute invasion squad – and putting together Gundam model kits in those precious few moments of freedom.

There's set-piece action still, and more recently the show has gone back to its spatial roots, but this is a Sunrise production after all, and more than half the cast and crew – including director Yusuke Yamamoto - worked on one Gundam off-shoot or another.

“I'm a fan – now,” Shiraishi said of the influential Gundam franchise itself.

“In the past I knew about Gundam, but I had no particular interest in it until I met Keroro. I became a big fan after that!”

Most of the other seiyuu are no slouches either: Keroro is played by Kumiko Watanabe (Shippo in Inu Yasha), Kururu by Takehito Koyasu (who voiced Shigeru Aoba in Neon Genesis Evangelion), while Tomoko Kawakami – who made a splash as the nun with a gun, Rosette, in Chrono Crusade – breathes life with equal panache into the character of Fuyuki Hinata.

“Overall, it’s not only a parody or a matter of great seiyuu, but a good story,” says Hosono, the otaku fan who also says he prefers Jōji Nakata in the Giroro role.

“Even if you don’t know the original manga you can enjoy what happens in the anime series. I think Keroro has charm enough for all ages.”

Copyright All rights reserved. Sunrise/KADOKAWA PUBLISHING CO.,LTD.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kuhonbutsu Temple, Tokyo

Another (mostly) unknown treasure in Tokyo is the sprawling Kuhonbutsu Temple, located right next to Kohonbutsu Station on the Oimachi Line, just 20 minutes from Shibuya (and 5 minutes from us).

It's oh-so-conveniently sandwiched between Futakotamagawa — rated the fourth most popular place to raise children in Tokyo — and Jiyugaoka... the fourth most preferable place to live single, footloose and fancy-free.

Aside from this odd sense of spiritual (dis)placement, that which sets this holy place apart from all the other local shrines and temples is the sheer size of the sanctuary, as well as the three wonderfully renovated, historic main halls that house a set of nine massive statues of Buddha, captured in subtly different poses.

It's like Madonna, circa 1989, if she were tastefully cast in bronze.

Kuhonbutsu Temple (本堂 - 九品仏浄真寺) was also apparently constructed several hundred years ago on the old grounds of Okusawa Castle, and parts of the aged foundations of this can still be discovered if you look hard enough.

So if you’re looking for a spot of relaxation, reflection and contemplation away from the hustle and bustle of the 24-hour metropolis at play outside the temple’s walls, this gorgeous location is the place to discover it—with the stand-out here being the serenely photogenic bell tower (sho-ro), built in 1708, adorned by a huge clapper that was cast in honor of the two great bodhisattvas (Kannon and Seishi), and fittingly designated a national cultural treasure.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Top 12 Manga Romps Ever (with a catch)

Today I chatted with my student Aiko K, an apprentice mangaka who works on both shojo and shonen styles of manga but personally prefers doing horror stuff herself.

Somehow we got to talking about a few different tomes I'd read myself over the years, and ended up with this list of 12; we then set about deconstructing each and putting them into some sort of order she felt happy with herself. Half of this ordering I don't agree with; a couple I do.

Aiko based her selection on self-admitted biases like over-saturation here in Japan (Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999) and a love for the people involved in the anime versions rather than the original comics (director Mamoru Oshii and musician Yoko Kanno on Ghost in the Shell).

Others Aiko couldn't really explain her affection for, apart from the fact that she grew up with them; she loves CLAMP but considered Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle their weakest effort, while she felt that Doraemon is the best manga (and anime) ever made in Japan.

Anyway, with further ado, here's the list:

1. Doraemon (ドラえもん) by Fujiko F. Fujio (a.k.a Hiroshi Fujimoto) and Fujiko A. Fujio (a.k.a Motō Abiko)

2. 20th Century Boys (20世紀少年 Nijusseiki Shōnen) by Naoki Urasawa

3. Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai) by Shirow Masamune

4. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ Kaze no Tani no Naushika) by Hayao Miyazaki

5. Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート Tekkon Kinkurīto) by Taiyō Matsumoto

6. Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便 Majo no Takkyūbin) by Eiko Kadono

7. Princess Knight (リボンの騎士 Ribon no Kishi) by Osamu Tezuka

8. Akira (アキラ) by Katsuhiro Otomo

9. One Piece (ワンピース) by Eiichiro Oda

10. Battle Angel Alita (銃夢 Gunnm) by Yukito Kishiro

11. Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (ツバサ Rezaboa Kuronikuru) by CLAMP (Satsuki Igarashi, Nanase Ohkawa, Tsubaki Nekoi, Mokona)

12. Galaxy Express 999 (河鉄道999 Ginga Tetsudō Surīnain) by Leiji Matsumoto

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Asahi Building

You can't complain about the location - on the banks of the Sumida River, a short walk from Sensoji, Tokyo's biggest temple district, and the hugely popular Asakusa tourist area; you may even see a geisha or two, if you're exceptionally provident.

And the product is virtually a trademark - if you've ever dabbled with Japanese beer, you would've brushed up against (or at least guzzled a few drops of) the silver-shrouded contents of Asahi Super Dry, without doubt Japan's most famous international amber fluid.

Almost as famous is the commercial HQ for the Asahi company itself.

Known quite simply as the Asahi Building (not to be confused with the TV Asahi building in Roppongi Hills), it was completed in 1989 at the height of Japan's excessive bubble economy to replace Asahi's old offices. Some of the building's harsher critics have suggested that French designer Philippe Starck had had one Super Dry too many when he finished the design for the monolith, which is constructed from super-expensive black granite and capped by his trademark gilded flame, an icon apparently weighing in at 300 tons.

And confusion reigns supreme in this city as to what the symbol really represents - is it a firework that reflects the nearby Sumida River's annual hanabi (fireworks) festivities? Is it an overturned post-modern glass of beer? Is it a golden radish or turnip? Or is it - as popularly espoused around the traps of Tokyo - just a humongous blob of excrement that'd do Godzilla proud?

Others see it in a warmer light - the windows are tinted yellow, apart from the top few floors, where the windows appear white... mmm... beer...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Naoyoshi Shiotani: Anime Man

While currently perhaps not quite as well known as people like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Koji Morimoto or Mamoru Hosoda, Naoyoshi Shiotani could easily shape up as the next big anime thing, evidenced in his directorial debut – the gloriously bittersweet anime Tokyo Marble Chocolate (2007) – and more recently the man’s prolific input into Shinsuke Sato’s CG/anime feature Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror, for animation heavyweight Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell).

That opening paragraph has left me a little breathless (my kingdom for a stray full stop), so here's where I pass on the baton.

"There’s nothing in animation that can be described as ‘easy’. Directing, drawing, design... These are very different roles that require different skills; therefore I could hardly establish which one is the most challenging," Shiotani told me in a recent interview we undertook, to be published in Impact mag over in the UK in a couple of months' time.

"However, I must admit that I’m probably still uncomfortable with character designing. Once Ishikawa-san [Production I.G’s president and CEO Mitsuhisa Ishikawa] told me that the human characters I design are too unique, and they’d fit only in an art movie."

Shiotani's exact involvement in Oblivion Island (ホッタラケの島 ~遥と魔法の鏡~) is not all that clear - he's been listed alternatively as unit director, animation director and character designer of the stuffed toy sheep character Cotton – so what other input exactly did he have in this movie?

"My role can be described as ‘animation director’," he suggests.

"Shinsuke Sato, the director of this movie, has come from live action film making, so my role was to adapt and expand his ideas into the animation medium. I joined the production when the script was almost completed, so the first step was to share with Sato-san our mutual vision.

"A movie director may not necessarily be present in the studio all the time, so I also had the role to supervise the animation team. Sato-san and I had long brainstorming sessions in order to be sure that I would proceed in the direction he envisioned, and that he agreed on what I had in mind; we exchanged ideas on everything – like how to make the story more gripping and compelling? How should the characters look? What should the island be like? And so on.

"I added most of the action scenes you see in the second half of the movie, but I won’t list them here, as I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the film. I can only say that what Cotton does in the second half of the movie was not in the original script! Most of all I convinced Sato-san to add the scene when Haruka and Teo watch the memories inside the mirror, and when I saw the final result I was glad I’d been so persistent.

"I also made rough concept designs for the island, as I wanted it to fit with the story concept, and I designed Cotton – the younger Haruka’s toy stuffed animal. After all these modifications I drew the storyboard, a tool that can be described as the movie blueprint, and from there I had meetings with each section of the crew. We decided the lighting and camera angle for each scene, how the characters were supposed to move, the visual effects, the colours, and so on.

"But apart from being the supervisor, I also had a very important job to do: since the island’s conceptual design was fundamental to the project, I was determined to keep the same style and atmosphere in each scene. This, however, ended up with me drawing the background art boards – the reference drawings used by the background artists – for about 1000 scenes. When everybody in the studio left I was still at my desk drawing, sometimes till the next morning... So, you see, I did a wide variety of things for this movie."

Shiotani shrugs.

Cotton himself is a super-cute soft toy that cannot only do song-and-dance numbers, but can ride to the rescue of our heroine even after being torn in half. What's the inspiration behind his concept and character?

"Cotton’s the stuffed animal everybody had when he or she was a kid. I wanted everyone in the audience to relate with and overlap his/her personal childhood memories the very instant Cotton appears on screen. His role in the movie is the answer to the question: if a toy could be given the opportunity to move and talk, what would he say?

"He’s a neglected childhood treasure who has the chance to meet up again with his owner, the very person that left him lying around and eventually forgot him. Within the context of the movie’s main themes, Cotton is one of the most emblematic characters," the character designer suggests.

"I wanted him to be cute in his appearance and movements, so I went through a process of trial and error – and I concluded that he would look cuter if I did not change his facial expression. The risk was to have a very creepy doll, so I came up with the idea of using buttons for the eyes."

Going back for a moment to Tokyo Marble Chocolate (東京マーブルチョコレート), the movie was awarded the Grand Prize in the feature film category at the 12th annual Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival (SICAF) in 2008.

I worked with Francesco Prandoni from Production I.G on the English subtitles for T.M.C., and two years later I'm still curious as to where Shiotani got the inspired idea of the manic mini donkey-in-a-nappy...

"I must confess that I’m particularly happy with the success of this little, devilish character because, to tell the truth, when I first presented ‘him’ to the other staff I got a mixed reception, both regarding his look and the way he moved," remembers the director.

"The idea for the mini donkey comes from a fashion magazine I had at the time; there was this picture of a model walking in the park of a big city... with a donkey. The donkey had this misty look in his eyes that somehow struck my imagination, so everything started from that photo. I re-sized the donkey to make him a pet that you could keep at home, and then added the diaper while thinking about those pet owners who force animals living in big cities to wear baby-like garments."

He laughed at that point.

"The diaper also helped me with giving him a stronger personality and more colour, as donkeys are just grey and I wanted a fairy-like creature. At a first look, you don’t know whether you should laugh at or be scared of this mischievous beast! But he’s a character you learn to understand and appreciate once you spend time with him."

The rest of this lengthy chat will feature in Impact magazine shortly.

Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror

Tokyo Marble Chocolate
© 2007 Production I.G / Project Tokyo Marble Chocolate

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I Was An MP in Post-WW2 Japan

Ever feel like you've been thrust into a '60s revisionist version of WW2?

Not so much Catch-22. I'm thinking instead of 1965's The Battle of the Bulge, helmed by regular Disney director Ken Annakin, starring journeymen soldier actors Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw.

Far be it for me to tart up the battle itself, but I'd like to draw your attention to a subplot in that movie. It was one that related to the real-life, dueling-scar bearing German Waffen-SS commando, Otto Skorzeny, who assembled a unit of English-speaking German soldiers, dressed them up in American and British uniforms and dog tags snatched from corpses and POWs, and operated behind enemy lines (here read our side) to misdirect traffic and generally cause disruptions aplenty.

Operation Greif was nicknamed the Trojan Horse Brigade, as the Allies mistakenly believed Skorzeny & Co. were planning to kidnap or kill their commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The general was subsequently assigned a look-alike in Paris, while thousands of American MPs were waylaid from more important chores, and put to work instead trying to hunt down Skorzeny’s men. It's like a real-life inverse version of the script to Inglorious Basterds, minus the scalping.

The American MP bit is vaguely ironic because in February exactly 2 years ago I got tapped on the shoulder to play an extra in a Japanese movie set just after WW2 - as an American MP.

And I'm Australian.

None of the other 12 gaijin roped into the movie to play American MPs were from the USA, either. Russian, sure. French, German, Brazilian, British, another Australian. The closest we got was one Canadian.

Which brings me to the Battle of the Bulge reference.

Weird as it may have been to see so many people wearing WW2-era American GI and MP uniforms, more surreal was the fact that the majority of these "soldiers" didn't speak English without a heavy accent, and they preferred rattling on in Russian, French and - yes - German between takes.

It was like those phony enemy infiltrators from the Bulge all over again.

Oh yeah, but we each had tags to prove our international flavor.

These read "Gaikokujin", which is basically another reference to gaijin, or foreigners - as if it wasn’t already obvious that we (collectively) stood out on the set like sore thumbs or dismembered left feet, with our white helmets, wooden truncheons, faux M1 Carbines, and menacing scowls.

One of the reasons for these scowls was the cold weather; another the god-awful coffee on offer. A third was the title of the movie itself.

It's one that a lot of people here seem to have trouble translating into English: 私は貝になりたい Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai.

The title has been variously interpreted, but seems to shape up best as I Want to be a Shellfish, and is listed on under this moniker; on the Japanese DVD released last year it's subtitled "I Want to Return to the Family".

Released theatrically on November 22nd 2008 here in Japan, the movie starred actress Yukie Nakama (Trick, Shinobi, one of the most celebrated faces in Japanese advertising), alongside Masahiro Nakai - a member of domestically über-famous J-pop band SMAP.

Unfortunately for me, in those first couple of days on set doing the two-stepping MP marching and handcuffing thing, I didn't get to see, meet, greet or fake arrest either of these stars - though I did later get to meet Nakai-san at Toho and he was surprisingly charming.

Probably the truth was that it was February, a particularly cold winter that year, and the shoot was outdoors.

I had no doubt they were somewhere cushy and warm with their feet up, laughing at the outtakes.

For my sins I got to push and pull these heavy prison gates, then wandered dusty streets with an actress dolled-up as a particularly unattractive prostitute. Going by this movie, all post-war hookers in Japan were hideous creatures, and American MPs six decades ago must've had remarkably open taste.

My only aspiration in this wasteland of extras was to ride about in the white on-set military jeep, which the Brazilian and the Canadian MPs got to do on both days. Lucky bastards.

They were the escorts for the military bus, on which rode Nakai's character, Toyomatsu Shimizu, who's been abruptly arrested as a war criminal following the cessation of hostilities in World War 2, and is now being tried for murder even though he believes he's not guilty of any wrong-doing.

This story was also made as a TV drama in 2007 for NTV, starring Shido Nakamura from Letters from Iwo Jima and Death Note.

It's based on autobiographical notes by Tetsutaro Kato - during the war years reputed to be one of the more brutal commandants of Niigata 5B POW camp, located 160 miles northwest of Tokyo - under the pen-name Ikuo Shimura.

During the subsequent occupation Kato was tried and found guilty of an array of sordid activities, including beatings which left some POWs permanently disabled, and was sentenced to death by hanging for the bayonet execution of an American prison escapee.

In 1959 Kato's yarn was adapted into a screenplay, dramatized, and directed by Shinobu Hashimoto - a man better known as the co-writer, with Akira Kurosawa, of Seven Samurai (1954) - and the movie starred Frankie Sakai of Ghost Story of Funny Act in Front of Train Station (1964) and one of this hack blog's fave kaiju flicks, Mothra (1961).

The ending was also vamped up to tweak the tragic.

Whereas Kato's sentence was conveniently commuted by Douglas MacArthur, thanks to family connections, and he left Tokyo's Sugamo Prison on good behavior in 1952, the fictional Toyomatsu Shimizu goes all the way to the noose.

Prior to his execution, Shimizu writes a long-winded farewell letter to his wife and son, the gist of which says that if ever he were to be reincarnated, he would hate to come back as a human being, and would prefer instead to be a shellfish living on the bottom of the sea.

Hence the strange title of this affair.

While Kato no doubt had a lot of time on his hands during his initial interment for war crimes, Sugamo Prison was an interesting place for the conjuring up of the original tale.

Built in the '20s to a European blueprint, the prison was located in Ikebukuro in Tokyo, on the site that the 60-storey Sunshine 60 building now stands, erected in the '70s as part of the Sunshine City shopping metropolis.

It's confided that the ghost of wartime Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo - himself an executed Class A war crim - haunts the retailers there, but in amenably Japanese style: after closing time.

So it came as some surprise to find myself dressed in that American MP uniform, standing beneath a huge sign that read "Sugamo Prison", with a big blue back-screen that was used to superimpose the CG ring-in for the prison complex itself.

My VIP job in this all-encompassing human drama?

Ceremonial gatekeeper. Sure, I got the helmet, the gun, and the girl. But I also had to drag two huge prison gates open and closed again, open and closed again, ad infinitum, as the director and his extensive crew shot and re-shot that white jeep (with the Brazilian and the Canadian) and a military bus driving through, for about eight hours all up.

Even more interesting, it seemed, was that the other gate-keeping sentry doing this manual labor was also an Aussie.

60 years on, Americans are - it seems - too busy for such mundane chores in Japan... as are the British, French, Brazilians, Germans and Russians.

Give the job instead to the newer kids on the block. It's a job that may in fact suit our talents, if you take into account that 220 years ago Australia started out as a penal colony.

SPOTLIGHT: Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru) was the director's first semi-independent production away from the studio system constraints of Toho and Shochiku.

While a scathing indictment of the Japanese bureaucracy - complete with its entwined corporate greed and self-serving political maneuverings - that shaped this country's business and social structure following on from the Allied occupation (and the country's economic miracle thereafter), the plot opening here also rings true to contemporary Japan 50 years on.

After police arrive at a wedding to arrest a corporate assistant officer on charges of bribery in a kickback scheme, newspaper clippings tell a background yarn of suspicious construction fees intermingled with free dinners and billions of yen worth of probable bids rigging; the tale then segues into a familiar Japanese casebook study of secretaries and underlings taking the fall for their major corporation bosses.

The Bad Sleep Well - like Ran and Kumonosu-jō (Throne of Blood) - then draws on Shakespeare, in this case the Bard's Hamlet; there are also moments reminiscent of Michael Clayton.

Toshiro Mifune yet again puts in a powerhouse effort as the restrained, focused Koichi Nishi, a young man who manipulates his own elevation to a prominent position within a corrupt company in order to expose the men responsible for his father's death.

Masayuki Mori (the gentle, naive title character in Kurosawa's earlier film The Idiot) here renounces any sympathetic kindling whatsoever as the despotic vice president of the company in focus.

Also on-screen is Kyoko Kagawa, previously with Mifune in Nippon Tanjo (The Birth of Japan, 1959) as well as one of the highlights of Kurosawa's 1957 film Donzoko (The Lower Depths); she also popped up in Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) and would later appear in the Kurosawa movies Red Beard and High and Low along with the classic kaiju flick Mothra.

Joining them on board a cinematic ride that's as gripping as it is meaningful are Tatsuya Mihashi (whose last role before he passed away - 44 years later, in 2004 - was the kindly, meaningful GP in Casshern) and Kurosawa veteran Takashi Shimura.

Masaru Sato returns on sound track duties; he previously did the score for Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, as well as the later double-act Yojimbo and Sanjuro - and would aurally shine in 1974 on Jun Fukuda's Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

His score here is superb.

Viewing DVD thanks to Madman Entertainment Australia
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