Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat - 2011

Hey mates,

I'm dead sure there's a separate entry somewhere here in this blog to stick this update, but I'm chilling out with La Familia as the New Year wind-up and beginning is more important in Japan than Christmas (in my case I get to celebrate both!), so in the meantime I'm putting this here in case anyone's at all vaguely interested.

My debut novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat will now definitely be published, through US label Another Sky Press, at the end of January 2011.

It's a bit of a cut-up fusion of genres and cultures (blame 10 years in Tokyo and the rest in Melbourne, aside from six months in London and a little bit of time on the Gold Coast).

My editor (Kristopher Young, who penned Click), when pressed, put it thus:

"The book itself is sort of... well, indescribable, really - noirish, subtly sci-fi, hard-boiled, futuristic; Blade Runner with a touch of Sam Spade, a smattering of Orson Welles circa Touch of Evil, or The Third Man. And a shot of bourbon."

Anyway, though I'd struggle to insert my own work in the same sentence as these cool people (a list that includes Kristopher himself), I like to believe that's what we've at least fractionally achieved...

While we're still in the edit on the book (mostly cleaning up and organizing the cover artwork - front and back both done by the insanely cool Scott Campbell), we have a sneak preview of the original, unedited first two chapters here, plus you can pre-order the beastie if that insane compulsion grabs you - it's retailing at only US$4.50 plus postage.

Cheap is always good.

Plus we've got some great feedback to the tome from magazines, newspapers and blogs like The Age, Vice, Filmink, Forces Of Geek and Impact.

You can find out more plus peruse the better-tuned propaganda and info online at
Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat

Anyway, I'm obviously over the moon about publication of the bugger in the new year and hope you have the inclination to check it out. If you do find the time to potter over something a little different... read away.

I'd love to know what you think!

Otherwise, two wise last words here: HAPPY NEW YEAR. Oops... them's three, not two.

All the best,

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Well now, ‘tis indeed that time again – the hilariously silly, completely self-indulgent Yuletide season that rounds out yet another year passed by; a few weeks in which people reflect and wax nostalgic over the past 12 months, bandy about inane Top 10 lists, thank-tank the best and worst, and drink way too much at rabble-rousing Christmas parties.

Never quite one to be left out of a bit of wining, dining, carousing, or making twee judgment calls myself, I here get to ruminate over Japan’s celluloid offerings in 2010 and in general. Read on and/or weep.



2010 been an absolutely dire year for TV anime, with most of the more innovative studios (Madhouse, Production I.G, Gonzo, Studio 4°C) seemingly in hibernation over the past twelve months – or at the very least keeping their claws sheathed.

While Madhouse did pull off something nifty in the Redline feature movie directed by Takeshi Koike, and Keiichi Hara’s anime movie Colorful was one of the cinematic highlights this year, the medium was lacklustre on the tellies.

It’s quite clear that the Japanese anime scene is going through a rough patch right now, very much like that which has crippled the newspaper/magazine and music industries, which may (or may not) have much to do with either the Internet or the global financial downturn or both; I’ll leave that appraisal to better qualified people.

So, it may come as some surprise to discover the series that rates as the best animated program on Japanese tellies this year.

But with all disclaimers aside, I'll readily admit it – I'm hooked watching this show every Sunday morning at 8:30, and not only because it's my four-year-old daughter Cocoa's preferred eye candy.

HeartCatch PreCure! (ハートキャッチプリキュア!) is an infectious, disarming, super-cute kids’ series that lacks the annoyance value of, say, Pokémon and has enough humour and action quotient (they kick giant monster arse every week) for adults to lose themselves in it as well.

Having kicked off on TV Asahi (Channel 10) in Tokyo back in February this year, HeartCatch is the seventh version of the long-running girls’ concept series created by the 'mysterious' Izumi Todo – actually none other than an alias for the creative types at Toei Animation.

To my mind the current is the infinitely better interpretation to date; last year’s, for example, called Fresh Pretty Cure!, was just plain bland.

By contrast, for a young girls' romp, there's a surprising sense of patience in the development of the story-telling arc of HeartCatch PreCure!, there're the surreal kaiju-style monsters every week, the villains ham it up, our heroes aspire to fashion, and the character designs are exceptionally cool.

What’s it all the fuss about, anyway?

The yarn started up with our shy, upright schoolgirl heroine Tsubomi (Cure Blossom), swathed in pink, then she was joined by trusty neighbour and fashion-minded sidekick Erika (the all-blue Cure Marine). Five months into the series, the third heroine emerged with the gold enshrouded, androgynous Itsuki (Cure Sunshine) – who dresses in boys clothes but shines in her girly PreCure persona. More recently the mysterious, reticent senior high school student Yuri was revealed to be the somewhat bitter Cure Moonlight.

While it's obviously aimed at the purchasing powers of the parents of the target demographic, there's something for everyone – even the more critical expat foreigners and their open-minded kids.

And it’s hands-down the best anime thing to screen on TV in Japan this year.


1. Thirteen Assassins (d. Takashi Miike)
2. Redline (d. Takeshi Koike)
3. Colorful (d. Keiichi Hara)
4. Villains (d. Lee Sang Il)
5. Space Battleship Yamato (d. Takashi Yamazaki)
6. Cold Fish (d. Sion Sono)
7. Assault Girls (d. Mamoru Oshii)
8. The Last Chushingura (d. Shigemichi Sugita)
9. Caterpillar (d. Koji Wakamatsu)
10. Zebraman: Vengeful Zebra City (d. Takashi Miike)

© ABC All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Yakuza Hunters

Actually released last May but currently doing the rounds of the cinema circuit (including the recent Tokyo Film Festival and the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival before that), the Yakuza Hunters calls itself “a new action, violence, and gore-packed film series that stars Asami - considered the new muse by the Japanese action movie directors of today.”

I’m guessing that they mean directors more inclined toward action of the violent and gore-related variety, since Noboru Iguchi cast the undoubtedly gorgeous adult video “muse” (real name Asami Sugiura) in RoboGeisha (2009) and The Machine Girl (2008).

Which can only be a good thing, really, since anybody who may've distractedly wandered into the pages of this digital limbo should have cottoned on to the fact that I’m a wee bit of an Iguchi fan.

For the two-part Yakuza Hunters, the directorial team Towa Eiken (Kazufumi Nakahiira and Shinichi Okuda) asserts in propaganda notes that they’ve created the coolest possible heroine for 21st century sensibilities – which is quite possibly correct but depends in large part on where those personal sensibilities lie.

In the plus column – aside from, of course, Asami – they’ve also got on board Yoshihiro Nishimura (the director of Tokyo Gore Police) as special gore FX chief, and Tsuyoshi Kazuno (The Machine Girl, RoboGeisha) in charge of VFX.

The synopsis I got from the people at CREi Inc. (formerly known as Media Shogun Ltd.) here in Japan tells the storyline far better than any of my own rambling attempts:

“Asami plays a legendary Yakuza Hunter, always out for revenge against yakuzas who kill with no mercy the people dear to her. Usually, she is cool and calm, but once the flame is set on fire, Asami is invincible! The over-the-top action scenes – all done by Asami herself – are absolutely breathtaking, and when she saves the day it’s a guaranteed standing ovation from the audience! Are you ready to witness the birth of the coolest heroin [sic] in high heels??”

In Part One, called appropriately enough The Ultimate Battle Royale, Asami takes on former fellow gang member Junko, a traitor who's swapped allegiances to join a dastardly yakuza gang that dabbles in drugs and prostitution – and eventually kills members of Asami’s group.

Hence obligatory all-out, yakuza-destroying mayhem.

Part Two, dubbed The Revenge Duel in Hell, sees Asami’s return from the yakuza-destroying battlefront to visit Inokuma, the man who taught her the skills of being a Yakuza Hunter in the first place.

What she finds instead is a district panhandled by more diabolical yakuza types who are planning to build a casino; they’ve also called in cold-blooded killer Akira for protection.

After several friends are systematically slaughtered, Asami steps in to take down the lot.

While the violence quotient gets a bit much, these movies are still a downright hoot, packed with drop-dead girls in an array of skimpy costumes and hilarious Japanese gangster stereotypes.

And there’s some history here – the Yakuza Hunter concept makes tongue-in-cheek references to the Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion movies from the early ‘70s, starring Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood)... themselves based on the classic manga by Toru Shinohara, claimed to have inspired Kill Bill, remade as Sasori by Hong Kong director Joe Ma in 2008, and also homaged in Japanese director Sion Sono’s quite brilliant Love Exposure.

© 2010 YAKUZ BUTING GIRLS Film Partners

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Flash in Japan?

Anyone who's wandered through this rambling depository has possibly come up against the continuing enigma that is HeartCatch PreCure!, the seventh (and easily best) in the girls' anime concept series developed by Toei Animation to lasso young girls' hearts, their mums' wallets, and the imagination of otherwise cynical types who once dug Sailor Moon.

For the first 24 episodes after the show kicked off in February, the closing titles theme song was 'HeartCatch☆Paradise!' by PreCure regular Mayu Kudo - and as the YouTube gems below vividly display, it's been quite the hit here in Japan for the rather eccentric dance moves as much as for the groove (the first one is the real McCoy).

I think my favourite is the Blues Brothers inspired number.

A couple of months ago, however, as of episode 25, Toei up and changed the ending theme to a gospelly number (I guess as a reboot to incorporate the two new heroines, Cure Sunshine and Cure Moonlight). Repetitively titled 'Tomorrow Song 〜Song of Tomorrow〜', it's also performed by Kudo but this one has been slower on the fanbase - although it does seem to be picking up of late as you'll see below:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Is this the greatest thing you could ever buy someone for Christmas?

“I'm was so impressed by Millennium Actress. The outstanding part of it was the sensation that the characters were ‘acting’ – I really felt as if I was watching a genuine actress when I watched that movie.”

So enthused Ryuhei Kitamura, the director of films like Versus, The Midnight Meat Train and Azumi, when I interviewed him late last year for a book project that fizzled when the publishers' economic hassles kind of interfered in things.

“I'm a live-action director and movie fan," Kitamura went on, "not an animation admirer, so I always love the anime that makes me feel like I’m not watching anime at all.”

Things often change dramatically in twelve months, but one thing that hasn't is my own humble opinion that Millennium Actress (千年女優 Sennen Joyu in Japanese) is one of the greatest Japanese stories ever told. It doesn't matter that it's animated, although stylistically speaking the animation does allow the director to get away with a series of superb visual tricks that would blow your typical CG budget out of the water.

That director, Satoshi Kon, was just 46 years of age when he passed away in August this year; he was in his mid 30s when he created this masterpiece.

Put into context, Hayao Miyazaki was a year or so older than Kon when he shot his first feature (The Castle of Cagliostro) and 60 years old when he made Spirited Away - coincidentally released the same year as Millennium Actress (2001).

I'm not about to here debate the worth of Spirited Away, a movie I've seen countless times and treasure highly. As anybody who bothers to actually trawl through this blog may've noticed, I'm a big fan of Miyazaki's body of work.

But I'm going to go out on a limb here and declare something I've felt ever since I first watched Kon's Millennium Actress for the first time several years ago: It's possibly the best animated movie ever made, regardless of nationality.

This presumption comes not just because the anime itself is so worthy, but for the depth of ingenuity at play in it's conception, in the script, and in the wonderful soundtrack by electro-pop musician Susumu Hirasawa, which also rates in the top three anime soundtracks to date - alongside Joe Hisaishi's score for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Kenji Kawai's for Ghost in the Shell.

Millennium Actress is a play within a play that just so happens to be in animated form. The characters themselves are akin to those created by Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, the theme is grandiose, there’s suspense mixed in with unrequited love - as well as samurai, earthquakes, World War 2, and even a sci-fi flourish included for good measure.

As heart wrenching as it is invigorating, it goes still further to combine drama with tragedy, comedy with historical fancy, moments of action and violence with a piquant sense of whimsy.

Topping all this off is one of the strongest, more realistic and empathetic animated female characters in central protagonist Chiyoko Fujiwara, the actress of the title.

But the outstanding nature of Millennium Actress really shouldn’t come as any surprise since director and co-writer Kon also made Perfect Blue (1998) and Paprika (2006).

Kon’s directorial debut, Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that owes perhaps as much to Italian horror meister Dario Argento (Deep Red) as it does to Alfred Hitchcock – and set the trend for the director’s own predilection for split personality characters and a blurring of the lines of reality/fantasy.

Kon had already cut his teeth as a supervisor on Mamoru Oshii’s excellent mecha anime feature Patlabor 2 (1993), then filled the roles of scriptwriter, layout artist and art director for Koji Morimoto on ‘Magnetic Rose’, the best part of the trilogy present in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories (1995).

He won awards from the Japan Media Arts Festival and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal, and the Chicago Tribune newspaper called Millennium Actress “a piece of cinematic art”.

That movie in fact tied with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away for the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival.

“Originally the idea of Millennium Actress was that the main character – the actress – is running through her ‘subjective time’, trying to play catch up with the other key character in the story. It’s reality as well as a play within a play, and for that action we wanted to describe an eventful life story over a long period,” Kon told me in an interview we also did late last year, in October.

“The first idea was the this simple sentence: ‘Once an old actress was telling her life story, but her memory was mixed up, various roles she acted in before started to filter into the tale, and it becomes a dramatic story.’ After that, the idea that the interviewer gets into the recollections of the actress, and if the interviewer appears as a character in those recollections, literally ‘gets into the recollection’, then this would be interesting.

“Then, while padding the plot and thinking deeper about the script, the intention to add in the Japanese film history aspect,” said Kon, a huge Kurosawa fan himself, “and to integrate her development into the changes in Japan over the ensuing period – which I wasn’t consciously thinking about in the beginning. Because of this depth, Millennium Actress became a movie you can interpret in multiple layers.”

The story, on the surface, is deceptively simple.

A film crew set out to make a documentary on reclusive, elderly actress 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, a 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 treasure trove.

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.

Pulling it all together is Kon’s visual palette, as breath-taking as his bold philosophical brush-strokes, which together create a gripping ride that’s been known to tug the hardest of heart-strings.

“I’ve never cried watching animation before,” manga artist Aiko M. told me recently. “Everything about this movie touched my soul.”

On top of this emotional provocation, Kon’s penchant for a blurring of imagination and reality – in this case of documentary and cinema – is at its absolute best here.

“I was thinking of a story which had the structure of ‘trick’ paintings; I wanted to make a movie that’s like one of those paintings,” Kon revealed in that chat last year.

This is a man who's arguably had a significant impact on two of the contemporary Western trendsetters of cinema - Christopher Nolan (Inception) and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) - and Millennium Actress is without doubt the director's foremost lifetime achievement, a classic piece of cinema unto itself that deserves all the recognition, respect and love it can get.

In fact I can't think of any better present to buy someone for Christmas, regardless of your religious persuasion or lack of one.

Any excuse to give this to someone you care about is a good one so far as I'm concerned, and the yuletide season gives me a good opportunity to get up on my soapbox and lecture a bit even if no one reads the cheat notes.

I got my copy of the Millennium Actress DVD from the fine people at Madman in Australia, who're wise enough to support this kind of magic - check out their version online here.

It's not often I play the capitalist tyrant demanding you spend your hard-earned dosh on something, but this movie wins one over in unexpected ways and it's just plain brilliant.

In the meantime, here's the trailer - which doesn't really do the movie justice at all.

Millennium Actress © 2001 Chiyoko Committee