March 29, 2006

Manga-ization


HarperCollins is taking over distribution of Tokyopop manga titles, as well as licensing HarperCollins novels to be adapted into manga. Harlequin has been doing this for some time already, translating English language titles into Japanese, and now reversing the process and bringing those titles back to the U.S. in manga format.

This is an established part of the marketing cycle in Japan, and more common than the novelization of popular television series and movies in the U.S. For example, Fuyumi Ono's 12 Kingdoms novels were picked up by NHK as an animated series, and then released in manga format. Battle Royal started as a novel, was made into a live-action movie, and then released as a manga.

One interesting missing step, though (and for obvious reasons), is the radio drama (often released straight to CD) of popular manga, often created before doing the animated version and using the same voice actors.

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March 23, 2006

Medieval Japanese Culture


A lecture by Lee Butler, Department of History, Brigham Young University (my alma mater), delivered at Southern Virginia University. You can find an MP3 link to the right, or click here (20 MB file). Topics covered: bathing, the art of tea, architecture. Unfortunately, no accompanying graphics.

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March 19, 2006

Appleseed


Appleseed is one of those manga adaptations in which a thousand pages of backstory is squashed into 100 minutes of movie, the result being a tangle of story lines so confusing that you quickly give up and just enjoy the light show. Even the director says in the commentary track about some scenes, "I don't think anybody understood this part."

I've noticed that this backstory problem comes in two general varieties. The first is when the screenwriter starts with too much material and can't bear to part with it (as in this case). The second is when there was no backstory to begin with, and so the producers feel it necessary to make something up after the fact, and usually that something (Star Wars, The Matrix) is pretty awful.

There also needs to be moratorium on any more movies about supercomputers running the world. The rule is, if it ever turned up in an original Star Trek episode, then you've got to wait at least another century before using it again.

What Neal Stephenson says about Star Wars applies here as well: "[V]ery little of the new film makes sense, taken as a freestanding narrative. What's interesting about this is how little it matters. Millions of people are happily spending their money to watch a movie they don't understand."

Stephenson explains it as "geeking out," or immersing oneself in the details rather than the plot, story, or characters. The geek-out element in Appleseed that caught my attention is the digital animation. (Of course, the immediate audience for Appleseed would be those geeks who had already been following the Appleseed manga/anime series since its inception.)

It's all digital (as opposed to Innocence, in which the human beings are hand-drawn, a look I quite like). The static and mechanical elements are as good as you'll find elsewhere. It's the human characters that cost you the big bucks. Innocence and Appleseed offer two ways of getting around the huge rendering costs of trying to make digital people look real.

The problem--call it the Final Fantasy problem--is that really good digital animation of human beings still isn't good enough, and ends up making people look kinda creepy. The Pixar approach is to stay away from humans, or to keep them cartoony. Appleseed takes that retrogression a step further. It makes them look like anime characters again.

Hair, for example, is a bear to render digitally, so they don't even try. Hair is stylized the same chunky way it is in hand-drawn anime. Shading as well uses a very limited palette, just like in anime. The result are low-res digital characters that seem caught in a flatland between two and three dimensions, appearing hand-drawn sometimes and like sophisticated marionettes at others.

What's interesting is that the hand-drawn characters in Innocence, surrounded by digital animation, never jar the senses in the same way. I think it's about physical movement. The eye recognizes the human movements from the motion-capture, but then tries to append it to something that doesn't "look human." I found it both very weird and very compelling.

Related posts

Appleseed: Ex Machina
The "uncanny valley"

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March 08, 2006

Cute Anime Couples


Following up on my sister's post about television/movie couples (in which she mentions Mikako and Noboru from Voices of a Distant Star as the "most touching, even transcendent" pairing), here are a few more thoughts about anime couples.

Hands down, the cutest anime couple is Keiichi and Belldandy from Ah! My Goddess. Keiichi dials a wrong number and gets the "Goddess Help Line," is granted a wish, and wishes for Belldandy, the Goddess, to be his girlfriend. My new favorite couple, though, is Chiaki and Bob from Tenjou Tenge. Tenjou Tenge is another one of those Battle Royale/Lord of the Flies martial arts series, in which the high school (or the entire school district, as in Ikki Tousen) is run by a brutal student government (adults nowhere to be found). In fact, Tenjou Tenge is Ikki Tousen, but without all the confusing allusions to medieval Chinese history.

The relationship between Chiaki and Bob is introduced as a fait accompli when we meet them (they're living together), so right off we've dispensed with all the "She loves me, she loves me not" prevarications that drag down most anime romances. But what makes Bob and Chiaki so loveable is Bob's Japanese/American/African/Hispanic ancestry. Although the writers can't resist some obvious stereotypes (Bob is as big as a Mack truck, to start with), his phenotypical foreignness allows him to be openly affectionate and loyal to Chiaki, and she equally devoted to him. It is easily one of the most satisfying relationships in all of anime.

Also tied for first are Makoto and Saki from Genshiken. In the first episode, Saki falls hard for Makoto, and they're pretty much hooked up by the second. The problem is, Makoto is an otaku of the first order. A cute otaku, to be sure, but as devoted to video games and anime as he is to her. Their relationship isn't as solid as Chiaki and Bob's, but this is to be expected, since much of the humor comes from Saki's efforts to either adapt to the otaku lifestyle, or wean Makoto away from it. But they're actually allowed to behave like college students, rather than bashful teenagers on a perpetual first date.

Runners up include Ranma and Akane, who are declared"engaged" by their fathers but, of course, can't stand each other. (Ranma additionally suffers from that annoying little curse that turns him into a girl whenever he's doused with cold water). They're contenders for couplehood in the first season, but since the relationship never proceeds past the sit-com premise, they get boring as a pair. Kaoru and Aoi from Ai Yori Aoshi suffer a similar fate. The first four episodes are top notch, but then the series turns into a low-brow "harem" comedy, and the viewer is left to muse about what might have been.

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March 06, 2006

Voices of a Distant Star


Voices of a Distant Star ("Hoshi no koe") is less a film than a narrative poem that holds up well after repeated viewings. I have spent more time with this particular DVD than any other title in recent memory, despite the fact that the running length of the feature is less than 30 minutes.

The story echoes plot elements from Ender’s Game, told in the style of the “mecha” genre. High school student Mikako has been mustered into a space armada as a battle robot pilot, charged to track down an alien invasion force that destroyed the Mars colony. As the pursuit draws the armada further away from Earth, from lights hours to light years, Mikako’s increasingly poignant email messages home take longer and longer to arrive. Because of the distortions of Einsteinian relativity, Mikako stays the same age while boyfriend Noboru, aging “normally” back on Earth, is left to pine.

It soon becomes not a story about space invaders, but about the division of two souls clinging to thinnest tendrils of hope, hope condensed into a few shared words separated by years of silence. A strange thing words are, that can communicate so much hope when there is so little to hope for. The result is a kind of cinematic haiku. The emotions it engenders could more precisely be described as a'wa're, the classical Japanese aesthetic concept of loss and transitory beauty, suggesting "an anguish that takes on beauty or a sensitivity to the finest--the saddest--beauties."

The existential nature of the story is partially explained by the fact that Makoto Shinkai created the whole thing on his (considerably enhanced) desktop computer, a mix of digitized hand-drawn cells and computer-generated animation. It's no slap-dash effort, either. The foreground animation is understandably minimalistic. The 3D animation isn’t Pixar, but it’s nothing to frown at. And Shinkai’s background mattes are gorgeous, even breathtaking at times.

He eventually partnered with a commercial studio to handle the post-production and marketing. And the American distributor (ADV Films) has taken Shinkai’s work a step farther. Thanks to the magic of DVD technology, you can choose from Japanese (with subtitles) and an English dub track. Rare for me for other than Studio Ghibli productions (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), but I recommend both versions. The English dub is above average, and it’s fascinating to compare it with the literal subtitles and the original Japanese.

(There is a second Japanese track as well, the original “scratch” track, but I think somebody messed up the indexing because tracks 2 and 3 are the same. The real scratch track can be found under the “storyboard” option in the Extras menu.)

A good dub, after all, requires a rewrite by somebody who can actually write, which is not the same as being capable of producing a competent translation. Science fiction great Neil Gaiman, for example, was hired to rewrite the Princess Mononoke dub. There’s sort of an artistic Heisenberg uncertainty effect going on here. Once you start to mess around with the source material--especially when moving between quite different cultures--the final product will inevitably change, and better to admit that going in.

The end result is that the dub and sub end up as two often quite different retellings of the same story. The full impact of the last five minutes, very much a remarkable work in free verse, demands viewing in both languages.

Also included on the DVD is a similarly moody short titled She and Her Cat, cut three different ways, and a (clumsily subtitled) interview in which Shinkai talks about making movies the same way that the novelist creates a work that is completely independent and individualized. Though that reminds me of the historian’s quip in a Benjamin Franklin documentary, to the effect that Franklin’s autobiography can be considered the first best-selling self-help book, except that many of its readers have failed to take into account that Franklin was, well, a genius.

It’s one thing to be talented at writing, or drawing, or editing; quite another to be equally and productively talented at them all at the same time. The day of the desktop auteur I don’t think has yet arrived. But Shinkai, at least, is hard at work. His new film as well, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, has that refined sense of melancholy written all over it. Shinkai has definitely found his oeuvre and is sticking to it.

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