Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Dope Island: Just in time for Pearl Harbor Day, the latest from Japan

As my regular readers (the columnist laughs ruefully, pauses) ...know, I have a sideline watching and reviewing fresh home-video releases in Japanese animation.

This is a curious personal situation, as Japanese history and culture holds certain negative associations for me. Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking, the bad KARATE KID sequels and some other disagreeable episodes that the Chinese and the Koreans and the Filipinos won't soon forget.

Why would Japan, this sequestered, homogeneous nation of rigid, militaristic fanatics who elevated their Emperor Hirohito to the level of god, come to nurture a most amazing industry of "manga" comic books and eye-dazzling animation. With incredible emotional depth, unique themes and nuances? Nothing in Japan's old-school scrollworks, samurai swords, incomprehensible kabuki theater or calligraphy looks to my foreign-devil-barbarian POV like Speed Racer or Pokemon - enjoyable stuff, in which, by the way, almost no characters even resemble ethnic Japanese, not even remotely. Where'd they get the mojo?

Yeah, fans say the style was set by the genius artist Osamu Tezuka, and everyone afterwords just imitated his Astro Boy aesthete. But here's my alternative conspiracy theory:
Back in the 1930s and 40s, when the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were ravaging the Pacific, subjugating entire islands and provinces, they came upon a previously undiscovered civilization somewhere in an uncharted region of Indonesia. Perhaps a fragment of lost Atlantis, or Lemuria or fabled Mu. Natives of this land looked more Nordic/European than Asian or Polynesian, with little snub noses, tiny mouths, and generally triangle-shaped heads dominated by huge, catchlight-filled eyes taking up about one-third of the skull. The females, though rail-thin in their usual garb (typically, super-cute schoolgirl outfits) had the unusual physical trait to be curvier than porn stars when undressed.

This lost civilization, then, was the REAL innovator of "manga" comics and anime, merely portraying themselves faithfully in it. Comics and cartoons ended up being their most developed science. And since their main offensive/defensive weapons were card-tournament games, this race of astonishing artists were easily conquered by the bloodthirsty Japanese.

And, since nobody on the Allied side knew that this island civilization even existed in the first place, after the 1945 Japanese surrender the wily Hirohito simply kept quiet about the territorial possession to MacArthur and the Americans. Thus, Nippon got to keep it.

The Japanese have secretly ruled this realm with an iron hand ever since, enslaving the inhabitants. Housed in vast fortress-factories, the Lemurians, or whatever they are, chained to their workstations, have to relentlessly grind out the countless manga and Japanimation classics we in the West have come to admire. GHOST IN THE SHELL, AKIRA, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, LUPIN III, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS, SPIRITED AWAY, PERFECT BLUE...And we down here, we, have no clue that it's just the diabolical Japanese passing the strangers' brilliant draftsmanship and virtuoso storytelling off as their own. Shifty kamikaze Bataan Death March assassin bastards! Never trust 'em.

You've got a better hypothesis of where all that anime I get paid to watch really originates? I'd sure like to hear it.

Not that this horrific scenario of shackled and suffering Lemurians should take away from your enjoyment of anime, of course. And three standouts recently crossed my eyes and have been hovering around my head, waiting for me to tell you about them.

Keep in mind that anime comes in all shapes and sizes. An awful lot of it unfolds in the form of a dozen episodes or so of a TV show, resulting in about five hours of marathon viewing for your poor, underpaid Fiend. Then, however, there are the short ones and features. HAL: THE MOVIE is among the latter, clocking in at just one hour.

Japanese-animation fans occasionally make lists of saddest titles in the genre. I expect future ones to rank HAL (also known as HARU) if not near the top with the agonizing GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, then definitely a respectable second-string tearjerker.

It's hard to say too much about HAL without posting Spoiler Alerts all over. Setting is a subtly envisioned future world, where intelligent, humanoid robots are trained to act as AI caregivers. When an airliner explosion forever separates a pair of young lovers, Kurumi and Hal, one such robot is asked to alter its appearance and step in as a lookalike of the deceased to help the devastated survivor move on.

The friendly and polite `Hal' is first rebuffed by the heartbroken girl Kurumi, but eventually she begins sharing his company. In the process, however, Hal - naturally, mistaken in the street for his earlier self - learns uncomfortable facts that indicate the relationship was less idyllic than first thought. A last-act whiplash twist, not unlike THE SIXTH SENSE throws the entire narrative into a wholly different aspect (and cranks up the pathos), even if it leaves some nagging questions about the logic, at least for me. But it's still an affecting depiction of the extremes of human (and machine) grief. The beautifully imagery testifies to its theatrical-quality production.

At the opposite end of the running-time scale, MORIBITO cost me
650 minutes of my life. But I thought it was worth it, and think you'll agree.
Derived from a popular series of novels, it represents to me the Japanese (or the captive Lemurians) animation aesthete at its most dignified. The narrative is almost ceremonial in its stately pace.

In a realm somewhat like feudal Japan - but existing adjacent to an alternate world of spirits and creatures, sometimes glimpsed in visionary fragments - spear-wielding warrior Balsa is a wandering woman nearing middle age. She takes bodyguard assignments, the tougher and more altruistic the better, to atone for the lives she saw cruelly taken in her childhood as a political refugee.

Balsa's fighting skills gain her a crucial job. The boy prince Chagum, of the considered-divine Royal Family, has been marked for death after royal astrologers diagnose him as somehow carrying the embryo of a dangerous water-spirit, heralding an extinction-level drought in the near future.

But Chagum's mother, the Queen, cannot bring herself to allow the order to be carried out. She charges Balsa with the mission of protecting Chagum, no matter what. On the run with the sheltered kid, Balsa strives to resist violating her code never to kill any pursuing enemy, not even the most seasoned warriors of the throne. Meanwhile palace-bred Chagum struggles to blend in with the common folk, as his old tutor back at the palace looks into the original stone tablets concerning those legends of water spirits...and determines that the stargazers didn't get it quite right.

There's a lot to like about this series, besides the wayyy-cool detail of feudal royal swordsmen who also have handy access to flamethrower (!) technology. Balsa is over 30, a refreshing change in an anime genre almost maniacally fixated on teenage and adolescent protagonists. The prodigious length didn't bother me. Maybe all that extra time spent doing the extraordinary backgrounds and creature designs are even good for the Lemurians. MORIBITO is well worth carving out a few days for serious binge-watching.

Finally, there is the 73-minute omnibus SHORT PEACE. It's actually made up of four segments (five, if you count the prologue) attributed to, as the expression goes, diverse hands in the anime business, marshalled by top-billed Katsuhiro Otomo (which is probably really a Lemurian anagram for "help us! Free us!). The four are all self-contained short subjects that bid to be the cutting edge. In fact, one of them, "Possessions," was even nominated for a Best Animated Short Subject Oscar.

I must admit, however, "Possessions" - about a storm-tossed traveler sheltering at an abandoned temple shrine, where supernatural forces compel him to repair discarded objects - to be a triumph of incredible visual style over esoteric substance. The same goes for the two other companions, "Gambo" (a bloody fight against a nasty demon ogre by a samurai teamed with a heroic white bear) and "Combustible" (Otomo's own contribution, something about feudal-era Japanese firefighters, of all things, engineered more than usual to look like traditional old scroll-illustrations come to life). No, the reason to see SHORT PEACE is the SF-content closer by Hamimi Katoki, "A Farewell to Weapons."

Wow, this one makes it all worthwhile; it's like the really cool hard-combat story that the cult cartoon anthology HEAVY METAL needed desperately but didn't have. Setting is the aftermath of some devastating war. A bunch of grunt soldiers from the winning side are doing a strict cleanup operation in a destroyed city. It's supposed to be a cakewalk, because in their powered armor the men are invulnerable to nearly everything. Nearly everything. For in the ruins waits one last automated defense system, a robot tank called GONK-18. Alerted to the squad's presence, GONK-18 attacks with merciless, single-minded, cybernetic fury, in a spectacle that seems to pack more kinetic, breathless action in its two-reel run time than a lot of features do.

It says something that GONK-18 isn't even the usual Japanimation humanoid "giant robo" or nightmare biomechanoid that looks like an H.R. Giger drawing. At first glimpsed only in patches, through fire, smoke and explosive concussions, the AI tank eventually resolves itself into a purely utilitarian device that CWRU students might work on for IEEE Week, a trash-can looking head on a slow, crab-walking carapace. Doesn't matter. The thing is so terrifyingly relentless that you are shock-and-awed speechless all the same, and the ironic ending ties up the whole package. So there, SHORT PEACE. Take or leave the first three segments, then watch "A Farewell to Weapons" and you won't need that energy drink you were prepared to buy.

I'm sure I'll get more anime in the future worth updating you lot as it comes in. Perhaps the evil Japanese tell their hostage manga and anime creators that if the work is excellent enough, the Emperor will finally release them. What else could motivate three titles with so much to recommend them?

So next time you watch a superior piece of so-called "japan"-imation, remember my conspiracy theory, and say a prayer that the Allies might at some point revive their battleships and aircraft carriers and come to the Lemurians' belated rescue. FDR would've wanted it that way.

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