The Newest Superstars of Exotic Japanimation!

*My new column is up; obviously, I can’t stop thinking about San Diego. I tried to hide my jealousy behind a cloak of mockery in last week’s column, but just as Hawkeye could not be held by a Cloak, neither could my true self. So, just for this week, here’s a more serious look at what I’ve heard from reading reports of this year’s Nerd To-Do. I do still make jokes about pancakes and bears though.

*Anime is in the air! I sort of got myself into the mood for checking out the recent scene through writing my hopefully not too gaffe-laden Golgo 13 thing from yesterday, and then Warren Ellis started talking about Paranoia Agent in Bad Signal today, so I decided to tour the aisles of my local Best Buy and Suncoast, without actually buying anything, of course, because anime dvds are insanely expensive.

I had to remind myself as to what exactly Paranoia Agent was, but I soon realized that it could only be the much-hyped 2004 tv series from largely-adored theatrical anime director Satoshi Kon, a one-time protege of Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo. Kon most certainly made a name for himself as an individual filmmaker, though I must confess I’ve never seen anything past his feature debut, Perfect Blue, which fascinatingly opted to create an original giallo (mystery-based slasher film) in anime form; the Dario Argento influence was heavy in that one, and Kon smartly used the properties of animation to cast reality into doubt in ways that live-action couldn’t quite manage. The ending was fairly stupid, but then, so are the vast majority of giallo endings (Young Hero: “OH MY GOD! So you’re the killer, Mr. Anderson!!” Mr. Anderson: “Ha haaaa! And now all the whores and Jezebels will pay... whoops!” [Mr. Anderson falls off the roof to his death.] Young Hero: “But... we’re on the ground floor...” [THE END, Copyright 1973] ). Kon seems the type to subvert typical anime cliches, his next two films dealing with the fantasy world of an aged performer and a trio of street people who find a baby (Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, respectively). Paranoia Agent concerns a possibly supernatural little boy who becomes involved in murders; it’s out on four dvds, having only required half a regular television season to tell its story (I presume it also aired late at night on a satellite network, as it seems like that sort of show). Ellis says he detected some Cocteau in later episodes, and Kon seems like the type to go for that, just a little more inspired by the wider cinema world while too many anime releases don’t appear to be inspired by anything beyond earlier anime.

But that’s not always a negative; a few years ago, a fellow named Makoto Shinkai made a short anime OVA titled Voices of a Distant Star. I use the generic term ‘made’ because it’s practically all that fits the situation; the film was written, drawn, colored, and animated by Shinkai alone, using assorted home computer art tools. The look of the film was quite impressive, with its ultra low-budget origins just barely poking through. The story, however, was a fairly naked romance-tinged high school homage to an earlier OVA classic by a bunch of scrappy young bastards, 1988's Gunbuster (which is still not on R1 dvd, by the way), directed by future Neon Genesis Evangelion mastermind Hideaki Anno. Both feature a young girl zipping off into space to battle an amoebean alien horde, the niceties of light-speed travel keeping her young while time creeps past at normal speed back on Earth, with her friends. Still, Shinkai’s spin had enough sentiment and angst to sort of carry the burden, and now it seems Shinkai has crafted a feature-length film (presumably with a proper crew this time), The Place Promised in Our Early Days, involving youths in an alternate universe Japan trying to escape into another reality. Plus: additional high school romance and pining with dewy eyes and stuff. Here’s the official site. Visually, it seems quite nice, so it has that at minimum.

But enough with the killings and sci-fi; how about some two-fisted negotiation?! That’s apparently what we’re up for with Yugo the Negotiator, a low-priced ($14.95) series about the world’s greatest freelance negotiator. In the first release, he goes to Pakistan to diffuse a hostage situation. Drafted in that heavy, tall style with the pale colors that ‘realistic’ anime always seems to sport. Looks strange enough to work.

And if you’re looking to go even cheaper, I saw a copy of the 1986 feature film adaptation of They Were 11 for $9.95. None other than Moto Hagio, recent feature interview subject at The Comics Journal, was the creator of the original manga. It’s a shoujo mystery in space, as a crew of eleven space cadets discovers that only ten of them are supposed to be on board; unfortunately, they don’t know exactly which one of them is the uninvited extra, and what exactly that party wants. Did I mention my love for older anime?

Hell, I was delighted enough to discover that the 1986 anthology film Neo Tokyo, one of the old Streamline Pictures licenses, was back in print, and now on dvd. ‘Neo Tokyo’ is not the project’s real title (that would be Mani Mani); Streamline decided that a faux Akira tie-in would be in order, since the film sports the anime debut of Katsuhiro Otomo (ah, see how we’ve come full circle?), directing one of the segments. Otomo would later direct bits of two additional anthologies, the long-missing Streamline licence Robot Carnival from 1987, and 1995's Memories, all segments of which were based on Otomo manga stories, though the man himself only directed one - it was a curious allegorical story about militarism and social indoctrination titled Cannon Fodder, done in a vehemently non-‘anime’ visual style, with some truly superb use of 3D graphics. It seemed like Otomo was driving entirely toward new frontiers. Alas; most reviews of his recent feature, Steamboy (itself due on dvd this Tuesday), indicate a big leap backward in storytelling, if modest continued advancements in visual acumen.

And no discussion of dashed expectations can be complete without mention of my favorite anime character designer in all the world, Yasuomi Umetsu, who was quite a popular artist during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was also one of the segment directors involved with Robot Carnival; it was his directorial debut, and he cracked it pretty much out of the park with a solemn rumination on dolls and creation and love and all of those things. And then, seeking total creative freedom, he went into porno. And his first epic in that field, Kite, turned out to be a huge crossover success in Japan (tantalizing the raincoat crowd and garden-variety otaku alike with its intense, bleak story of young assassins in love) and a huge controversy in the US, blowing through no less than three dvd editions before the damn thing finally appeared uncut. His second project, Mezzo Forte, later got adapted by Umetsu himself into a (non-porno) tv series, Mezzo DSA, which is apparently out now on three dvds. I’ve been told it largely treads water in the Umetsu canon; I heard he had a Korea-based feature coming out, but that seems to have vanished. He doesn’t even do a lot of designs anymore. Kind of sad.

And that’s what I saw in the anime section. Do people really buy all of this stuff? It’s a damn load of money...