Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Much Ado About Macross

Today I picked up the flier for Macross Frontier ~Sayonara no Tsubasa~.

I always hate it when they put those fancy squiggly things like "~" in titles, as it just looks twee, but aside from that inconsequential complaint the movie will hit screens across Japan from 26 February 2011.

The subtitle Sayonara no Tsubasa has been roughly translated in recent press statements as "The Wings of Goodbye", whatever precisely that means.

It's the sequel to last year's Macross Frontier ~Itsuwari no Utahime~ (more squiggling action, which actually does look better in Japanese: マクロスF ~イツワリノウタヒメ~).

That movie was directed by Shōji Kawamori (河森正治), previously the mechanical designer on Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor 2; he also acted in Oshii's Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters, created the original Macross Frontier manga - and apparently was responsible for the initial toy designs in the late '70s for the Transformers' Optimus Prime.

More importantly, Kuwamori was the creator, production supervisor, mechanical designer and writer of the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross (超時空要塞マクロス, Chōjikū Yōsai Makurosu) TV series, a 1982-83 sci-fi melodrama of the finest sort that, according to Kawamori, depicts "a love triangle against the backdrop of great battles" during the first Human-alien war.

And really that tells you enough - it's an awesome romp that has mecha action wrapped up with base human emotions like jealousy, rivalry and anger.

I loved it when I stumbled across it (on VHS) back in Australia in the early '90s.

Even better, however, Kuwamori also co-directed the ground-breaking Macross Plus (マクロスプラス) in 1994 - with Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop) - thereby creating a slab of absolutely essential anime.

Whether the new movie lives up to these original yarns is yet to be seen (obviously, since it hasn't even screened) but until the unveiling in February they have the website here for more pics/info... in Japanese.

In the meantime here's the bloody brilliant old trailer for Macross Plus; it used to feature on most of the 1990s videos released by Manga Entertainment in Australia (now better known as Madman).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yoyogi National Gymnasium

A couple of days a week I get to teach English to half-bored, half-cool students at a design college in Harajuku (right).

The view from our lecture room on the fourth floor is a superb one that takes in the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (国立代々木競技場), below, and I often find myself glancing out there.

Apparently internationally famous for its suspension roof design, it was designed by Kenzo Tange - the man behind the iconic Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku, which opened in 1991.

The Yoyogi National Gymnasium was built between 1961 and 1964 to house swimming and diving events in the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics; word is that the design also inspired Frei Otto's arena designs for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

The arena holds somewhere in the vicinity of 13,000 people and is now primarily used for ice hockey and basketball - but also was used for the 2010 World Judo Championships, and J-Pop star Ayumi Hamasaki has most of her Tokyo concerts here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Old Relics of Tokyo 東京

You’ll still find the structures in obscure narrow alleyways in downtown areas, or even in parts of Ginza - one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world and the most expensive real estate in Japan - like this samurai armor shop (right) that I stumbled across last year.

I’m talking up architecture.

And no, not the newer, over-the-top miracles of stone, glass, plastics and metals that crop up in Odaiba and Ginza and Aoyama. This month I decided to peer instead into the rear vision mirror, looking for the sense of history that (sometimes) feels like it’s sadly lacking in this metropolis.

You can forget the ancient temples and shrines; they already get plaudits even though most of them have been recommissioned or rebuilt after the general destruction of the Great Kanto earthquake (1923), fires, and the Allied carpet bombings during World War 2.

So what precisely am I thinking?

Well, the wooden abodes, quite often plastered; they’re simple houses, shops and other treats with shoji doors and strange takes on the “bay window” concept.

You’ll see them poking out behind people in old Japanese movies like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) or Ikiru (1952), most built before or during the Taisho period (1912-26) or early Showa era (1926-89).

When I moved into my apartment in Okusawa, near Jiyugaoka, five years ago there was a brilliant two story derelict house just round the corner (see picture above left). As-yet-unslain curiosity cat that I am, I just had to investigate.

The place was open to the street, yet—as per most Japanese derelict abodes—no squatters had ever lived there. In the drawers were old clothes including dusty kimonos, and while the tatami mats were water-logged and buckled up, and the building wasn’t in the best condition, it could’ve been fairly easily renovated.

Six months later it was torn down and replaced with a car park for the apartment block next door.

* The remainder of this self-opinionated rant is online now @ FORCES OF GEEK.

Monday, September 6, 2010

RIP Satoshi Kon

I'm still reeling and coming to terms with the news that anime filmmaker, screenwriter and manga-ka Satoshi Kon (今 敏), passed away on August 24 after a struggle with pancreatic cancer.

He was just 46 years of age, and therefore only a year older than myself.

But the list of Kon's achievements is a staggering one, and for me he was one of Japan's three leading anime directors, right up there with Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away).

After all Kon - a true auteur - was responsible for the superb anime movies Perfect Blue (1998), Millennium Actress (2001) and Paprika (2006), along with the TV series Paranoia Agent.

Millennium Actress remains my favourite Kon movie.

It's as heart-wrenching as it is invigorating - and combines drama with tragedy, comedy with historical fancy, moments of action and violence with a piquant sense of whimsy.

The story itself, on the surface, is deceptively simple.

A film crew set out to make documentary on a reclusive, elderly actress named Chiyoko Fujiwara - but what follows is a blurring of reality, a tectonic, unpredictable shift in time-lines, and a haphazard association with the plot lines in the old movies that made Fujiwara famous.

Add to this the actress’ long-time unrequited love, and an equally lengthy secret crush felt by the documentary crew’s director, the devastation of Japan in World War 2, samurai battles, vindictive secret police, and rocket ship exploration – all of it somehow tied together beautifully by Kon – and you have yourself an anime masterpiece.

The influences themselves are rich enough to dwell upon – from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), which rewrote Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a samurai context, to the real-life actress Setsuko Hara, famous from the 1940s to the ‘60s in movies by Kurosawa (The Idiot, 1951) and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1953), who suddenly withdrew from public life in 1963, the same year that Ozu died, and has only been viewed once or twice in the ensuing 45 years by the prying Japanese media.

Meanwhile, Kon's Paprika is arguably to Inception precisely what Oshii's Ghost in the Shell was to The Matrix.

Late last year I had the chance to interview Kon-sama and the resulting article was published in the January 2010 issue of Impact magazine over in the UK. I forwarded on a copy of the article to him and he e-mailed me back in January to say "It will be good for my English studying. Thank you."

Which was typical of Satoshi Kon in my all-too-brief experience of dealing with a man who turned out to be humourous, genial, thoughtful, thought-provoking, and fun - he even contributed to my long-winded piece on sake.

So, as one struggling way to pass on my own personal kudos, here is much of that interview, promised in this blog a few months back. The insights are at times inspiring as much as enlightening regarding his essential body of work.


Why do you enjoy directing movies, and which part of creating them makes you the happiest?

“I find joy in the entire film-making process – I really enjoy every single moment along the way. From assembling the script to begin establishing the world view, then on into character designs and art setting, story boarding, and collaboration work with lots of staff for the actual drawing and background art – this all makes for a stimulating experience, and there’s so much stuff I want to do in editing or in the acoustic work, too. Whatever the output, be it a sentence, a picture, or a sound, concreting the idea together is someone who is, after all, nothing but an anime fan.

“After the movie is completed, visuals creation or interview to advertise is a very important mission too; these are great opportunities to look back at the way I directed and what kind of movie I ended up with. In the course of film making, there are actually no jobs I don’t appreciate – though of course it’s not fun to give up or compromise an idea for the budget or tight schedule, I believe those decisions are going to be beneficial for the entire movie world, so I never think those are negative things either. A strategic withdrawal is sometimes necessary, and it’s an important decision to make.

“Among these fun-filled processes, I prefer doing the storyboard.

"When I’m doing this, I really feel like I’m ‘making the movie’. Even if they’re the still images, the story is visualized by connecting pictures, so it’s like letting the actors act, shoot them, and edit them – all on paper.

"Everything about my film making is on the storyboard.

“I was originally a manga artist – so therefore, controlling the storyboard is really easy for me since the style of story boarding is like doing comics. Manga artists are good at drawing tiny pictures within the frames; the only major difference between storyboarding and a comic is the fact that the storyboard is the blueprint to move characters, and the time flow, divided by 24 frames per second, becomes the important factor.”

How would you personally describe the kind of movies you make?

“It’s difficult to answer to that kind of wide-ranging question!” [laughs]

“But if I do dare to put into words the movies I have been directed, it would be ‘fantasy based on a world that has reality’. To only describe the real world is not enough, and only fantasy is far too sweet to have. Therefore, I’ve wanted to make something that has reality in its foundations, then take off from there and fly into the domain called fantasy. Quite basically this mentality hasn’t changed since I was drawing manga, before making anime. I can’t say for sure that this philosphy will continue into the future, however.”

It's been said that "Satoshi Kon's forte [speciality] is in the surreal interaction of reality and dreams - which often drift into nightmares." Would you agree?

“Of course. The interaction of reality and dreams is a motif I still have interest in, and I keep bringing it back into my work. Since my debut Perfect Blue [1998] got attention for that motif, I intentionally used it as a central focal point in Millennium Actress, Paprika, and so on. I think the way in which I’ve handled this, along with my workmanship skills, have got better and better after using this motif several times.

“However, it’s not healthy to keep using the same motif again and again, neither for the audience nor creators – even when utilized in a different context. So I think it’s better for me to steer away from ‘the surreal interaction of reality and dreams’ for a while, though I’m still interested in the theme.”

You did your first script for Magnetic Rose, directed by Koji Morimoto and based on the work of Katsuhiro Otomo, in 1995. How was that experience for you?

"Magnetic Rose became the movie that gave me the first opportunity to use the ‘interaction of reality and dreams’ concept, but at that point I wasn’t sure how to place and blend reality and dreams, so my technique and workmanship were simple. Still, there's no doubt the experience with that script led to the common characteristics of my work, and that became the big turning point in my creation history. I was in charge of script, art setting, and layout. I liked the story and visual factor, though at the same time I often felt the differences between my interpretation and the producers'. But I can say that it made me interested in the directing job so it certainly was memorable for me."

Millennium Actress (2001) is a wonderful movie that manages to reflect Japan's changes in the years before World War 2, and since then. Was this your intention?

"The answer can be yes and no; it depends to which ‘intention’ belongs. Originally the idea of Millennium Actress was for the main character, the actress, to run through her subjective time – which in reality is a play within a play – and for that we wanted to describe an eventful life story over a lengthy period.

“Then, while padding plot lines and thinking about the script, the idea dawned on me to insert a Japanese film history aspect and integrate the actress character’s development; it became a movie you can interpret in multiple layers. The notion of change in Japan itself filtered out during the film making process, which I hadn’t thought about in the beginning. I wouldn’t say that I became familiar with history through making this movie, but Millennium Actress is a special film which gave me the opportunity to rethink the relationship between me and my country.”

In Millennium Actress reality and unreality become blurred, and it becomes a story within a story. Could you tell us more about the development of the script?

“The plan for Millennium Actress got started by a call from a producer who’d just watched Perfect Blue.

“I began by thinking about a story which has the structure of ‘trick’ paintings, since the producer told me that he wanted to make a movie that was as much like a ‘trick’ painting as Perfect Blue apparently was for him. The first inkling of an idea was a sentence, and it was this: ‘Once upon a time an old actress talks about her life, but her memory is scrambled, mixed with various roles she acted in, and together this creates a dramatic story.’ I made a rough plot from this first memo.”

It's said that the character of Chiyoko Fujiwara is loosely based upon real-life actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine. Is this true? What other influences shaped her character?

“As the image model, as you say, Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine are the actresses who represented the postwar movies, but I was influenced by a lot of other actresses too. In Chiyoko’s background, the actress who retires all of the sudden is sourced from Setsuko Hara, while the bright smile in the chaos after the war comes from Hideko Takamine’s image. However, those influences are more about the ‘appearance’ images I borrowed; to create Chiyoko’s personality, I didn’t refer to any real actress. Of course, I was going through Ms. Takamine’s bio and many actresses’ interviews, so probably there might be parts I included from those without being conscious about it.”

And then there’s Paprika, the movie Kon released through Madhouse in 2006. The opening minutes of the movie introduce the pivotal character of police detective Konakawa and his recurring nightmare – which revolves around the spliced-and-looped discovery of a homicide victim. You then undercut this traumatic vignette with references to a roll call of Hollywood standards, like Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, Tarzan the Ape Man, Roman Holiday, and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, all rolled up into one sweet dream sequence. Which foreign film directors have most influenced you over the years, and why so?

“It’s a difficult question. John Ford, Billy Wilder, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, George Roy Hill, Robert Altman – it’s endless. I can’t limit myself to the one. For dream sequences and the like Terry Gilliam stimulated me, especially in the beginning of Time Bandits, in Brazil, and in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. These are my favourite movies. For the technique to connect different times and space, I was hugely influenced by George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five.

"However, for the basic idea of the movie, I think I learned more from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa than overseas directors. I don’t have nerve to say I’m influenced by him, since I just learned, but I often read Akira Kurosawa’s director interviews or his crew’s interviews while making my own movies.

“Of course there are important directors like Yasujiro Ono, Kenji Mizoguchi, Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, Kihachi Okamoto, Kon Ichikawa, et cetera, but there is no one like Akira Kurosawa – who produced numerous masterpieces and who defined such strength of image. People can identify his work at a glance. Not only the acting or look, but the theme music, art, camera angles, the light, the tools or cloths... everything.”


At the time of our chat Kon was gearing up for the release of his long-awaited next anime movie Yume Miru Kikai (The Dreaming Machine), again through Studio Madhouse.

"This is my own original story - therefore different from my previous work," Kon advised at the time.

"While I was developing the script, I heard about a movie called WALL·E... and I got a little nervous that it might be similar to mine. I can't tell you how relieved I was when I learned that the two stories were totally different," he laughed.

"In The Dreaming Machine, only robots are there. I want the audience to enjoy the adventures of robots who survived even after their parents - human beings - had become extinct. After Paprika, I ended up taking a vacation for over a year, so we've just started development on this. You can see this movie in 2011."

I'm not sure what Madhouse's plans for the movie may now be, or how far Kon had gotten in the production of the movie.

According to Wikipedia, Kon left a final statement on his blog here. There's a translation in English also here.

There's nothing really more to add here, except: Respect. We'll miss you, mate.


Perfect Blue © 1997 Madhouse / Paranoia Agent © Satoshi Kon・MADHOUSE/PARANOIA AGENT COMMITTEE / Millennium Actress © 2001 Chiyoko Committee / Paprika © 2006 Madhouse/Sony Pictures Entertainment (Japan) Inc.