Anime to Manga: Path to Glory

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo Vol. 1 (of 3)

One of the funny things about manga's growth as a presence in North America -- coupled with the growth of information about manga -- is that the observant reader can easily track trends and movements that diverge from what's usually seen in Japan itself. Case in point: anime tie-in manga. There's a whole bunch of it perched on the shelves of any big box book retailer you can name, even though, in all candor, most of it absolutely stinks.

Oh, don't get me wrong - anime has left an appreciable mark on Japanese comics, mostly in terms of in-story visual designs. You'll be hard-pressed to find a big-ticket shōnen anthology out today that isn't chock-full of glossy, smooth-featured character designs that seem ripped right out of something probably playing at 2:30 AM on satellite network; so goes the contribution of cultural marginalia (with exceptions) to a mainstream, faltering as it might be.

But actual, honest-to-god manga based on anime is somewhat rarer, perhaps in that anime itself is a 'rarer' thing, and often based on some preexisting manga anyway. These franchise comics don't have much of an aesthetic reputation, as they're often by their committee bosses as as little more than a long advertisement for whatever show they're tethered to, accomplishing every important goal by merely appearing in print. The best talent isn't exactly drawn to the stuff, and the standards are rarely high, judging from what get printed, yet there's a rather large amount of the stuff out and about in North America, no doubt owing to the 'manga' scene's origins as a corollary to anime fandom. They used to call anime Video Comics, so I guess it's not too much to view manga as Immobile Animation.

There are exceptions to the rule, however, like when a tie-in manga somehow winds up getting drawn by the anime's director. A rare thing, but it's what we've got here.

Mahiro Maeda has had a long history with anime, one that got an early start. His first professional job came in 1982 when he was still a university student; the soon-to-be landmark television series Super Dimensional Fortress Macross needed warm bodies to keep its sprawling production active, and Maeda tossed himself in. The connections he made (plus a few extant ones) led to his joining up with the nascent amateur production company Daicon Film, to work on the animated opening film for 1984's Daicon IV (or, the 22nd Japan Sci-Fi Convention, nicknamed 'daicon' for being held in Osaka, the 'O' of which can be pronounced 'dai,' resulting in the dai-con; a 'daikon' is also a white radish common to Japan, hence the veggie imagery). The company would soon cut a deal with toy giant Bandai to produce a full-blown theatrical feature, and change its name to Gainax.

Maeda kept on with the young studio, eventually going so far as to co-direct a promotional video for an abortive film project, R20, in 1991, although his best-known work at Gainax is probably his most limited: designs for the destructive Angels of 1995-96's megahit Neon Genesis Evangalion. In the meantime he became known as a talented animator and designer, working on several Hayao Miyazaki features (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; Castle in the Sky; Porco Rosso), and flitting from studio to studio as need be; he performed key animation on the anime portion of Kill Bill for Production I.G., and directed segments of the anthology films The Animatrix and Genius Party Beyond at Studio 4°C.

However, most of Maeda's directorial works would be for the studio he'd co-found in 1992, the gaming cinemas/trailers house turned high-output, qualitatively varied anime factory GONZO. I can't say I'm much of an admirer of a lot of GONZO's output - far too many of the projects I've seen appear content to lean on fan-friendly concepts and pandering otaku bullshit as an excuse for mediocre execution. Sure, I've got a soft spot for some of it -- in its best moments, 2005's anti-capitalist quasi-superhero tv series Speed Grapher comes off as a deranged villain-of-the-week anime take on some forgotten Pat Mills comic -- but mostly I get the impression there's little real inspiration and lots of they'll-love-this-get-it-out-yesterday at work.

Maeda's own GONZO projects tend to be the big exception; they've only gotten more idiosyncratic as time has passed, and his 2004-05 Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo television project marks the current extreme. All of you who've secretly believed for years that what Dumas' classic tale really needed was homoerotic space vampires will be delighted enough by the story, but I suspect most in-production attention was paid to the series' striking, garish, very nearly headache-inducing visual style, a veritable Photoshop fiesta of layered textures, glowing colored lights, bejeweled CG backgrounds and miscellaneous golden-gilded decadence. Why is it in space? Because space is prettier.

I can't say it's always successful -- it's a bit like Lynn Varley's coloring in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in that many will find parts (and some the whole) to be impossibly ugly -- but it is enough to sort of take you aback on the visual merits, which is more than can be said for a lot of television projects. Particularly coming from GONZO.

Still, it seems anime alone wasn't nearly enough for Maeda, because he also wound up drawing his very own manga version of the same stuff, 2005-08 (so, it began as production on the anime series wound down), from the pages of respected seinen anthology Afternoon. It's still Dumas in space -- it's got to tie in with the anime's conceptual specifics, after all -- and it's still essentially a vehicle for visual ideas (the writer is one Yura Ariwara, who doesn't appear to have any other manga or anime credits), although it's a somewhat different thing. In fact, the key point of reference doesn't seem as much the television series at all as the aforementioned Mr. Hayao Miyazaki.

Maeda has often cited Miyazaki as one of his key influences, on top of literally working on a bunch of his films, and it's not hard to see the man's famed 1982-94 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga as something of a touchstone for Maeda's manga style (although the Nausicaä manga wasn't a tie-in; it came before the anime). His character art shares a little bit of the delicate quality of Miyazaki's, as well as some evident European comics influence - some of Maeda's hallucinatory full-page techno-organic alien spreads suggest he may have been gunning to be the Druillet to the older artist's Moebius.

Yet Miyazaki's Nausicaä also sported a complicated, detail-intensive plot, highly expansive but more tightly-wound than the dreamy philosophical wandering of those European masters. Maeda isn't much for wandering either, but Ariwara's scenario is mostly a rearranged streamlining of Dumas' original, making the fairly character-dense source material simpler; it all feels a lot like a Heavy Metal version of a classic adventure, and not something like the Lob & Pichard Ulysses either, where the whole content is made weird by the telling, but more a sci-fi 'take' on essentially the same content (thus far), albeit with scenes and characterizations shifted, all of it bedecked with some eye-catching visuals.

There's some value in how Maeda handles himself, though, particularly given his background. Unlike Miyazaki, many of Maeda's panels seem dashed-off, almost like he's composing storyboards. Location details have a minimal, hand-drawn quality, only solidifying when a big panel is needed to really set a scene or deliver some kind of impact.

As a result, it seems like a reversal of the more-is-more ethos explored in the Gankutsuou anime, as well as a telling inversion of the usual manga appropriation of the anime 'style,' so often done to give a comic a glaze of slickness. In contrast, Maeda's formidable animation experience seems to give his comic a more personal feel, which I find both endearing and sort of fitting for a guy who still does key animation sometimes, and knows the core of it all in simple drawing.

Your mileage may vary, of course. It's not a stellar work of storytelling, or anything that'll shed much new light on the source material for now, though I found it to be attractive and entertaining nonetheless. I realize Maeda's art won't be to every taste either - those solidifying splashes and big panels have a way of sacrificing clarity for kick, and I suspect the sparser panels will strike some readers as merely unfinished. But I took it as a good chance to witness a new development in a notable man's long career, and a neat departure from what I've come to expect from this kind of manga. My experience is atypical, I know, but so are those Maeda often means to supply, so I think we're even.