Via AWESOME ENGINE, a 35-second teaser for the live action 20th Century Boys has appeared online. It’s so short, but still, I can hardly contain my excitement for this. Why? Despite that it’s set to become the most expensive Japanese film project of all time; I’m captivated because it’s an adaptation of Naoki Urasawa‘s manga (of same name).
I’ll put my neck on the line and say that Urasawa‘s Monster is probably the best anime not yet released on DVD in the US and/or Europe (it was close run thing with Honey & Clover). Unlike the vast majority of this ‘stuff’ we love, someone could place Monster alongside The Wire or 24 in TV schedules and it wouldn’t look out of place; given a fair chance, I really believe that his style of writing would destroy this seemingly pervasive notion that all animation is intended for kids and geeks alone; just a pipe dream of mine, really.
The above video is from episode 37 of Monster and watching it now, I’m reminded just how much I loved it. Around this time of year, I suppose many of us are guilty of watching a lot of mediocre and predictable anime because it’s new and shiny, but for me, that’s a waste of time; Monster might have premiered back in the spring of 2004, but it will always be great. If you haven’t seen it, pause everything else and have a look-see.
“There’s a field of thought which postulates that the only reason this universe exists is because we humans do. [...] I’m consumed by the thought that this world itself may be nothing but an illusion. That “Snark” in the Abstract World may be my real self, and my physical body here just a hologram.“
The suggestion that there might be a level of consciousness beyond the physical realm has fascinated people for thousands of years. Are we tied to these bodies forever, or, could this vague concept of “we” be a mere illusion; a solid container that our ‘ego’ is ready to transcend at any given moment? Science has one answer (neurology), religion offers another. While striving to understand this ambiguous essence of our individuality (or “soul”) forever remains man’s greatest quest in life, it’s ironic that the only true answer lies in his death. Ghost Hound is a very literal attempt to answer, or at least, ask those same questions.
Looking over his work, investigation of spirituality often appears in the writing of Masamune Shirow. After all, his most famous creation is Ghost in the Shell; the whole concept of which is built around cyborg Motoko Kusanagi’s search for a (or indeed, her own) soul. Within four episodes, Shirow‘s Ghost Hound has established that several characters are capable of interacting during out-of-body experiences, but unlike Ghost in the Shell, it isn’t so concerned with trying to discover, or define, that ‘ghost’ as much as how our perception of that existence remains shrouded in mystery; a mystery not even fathomed by scientists who boldly claim to understand life and enjoy “playing god” with their genetic experiments under the guise of medical advancement.
Masamune Shirow: “The present animated TV series has slightly changed the original theme and focuses on the “loss of unworldly power and transformation to an alien being called adults” as it reveals a story of three junior high school students coming into contact with the adult world.“
All this talk of spirituality is brought to the fore by Ghost Hound‘s intimate portrayal of loss of youth. Taro’s family still haven’t come to terms with the death of his sister; his grieving mother continuing to lose grip of her sanity. Makoto’s family were blamed for that death; his mother abandoned him and his father committed suicide. Masayuki’s family are just plain loveless and cold. Haunted by this past (and present) trauma, the boys bond together and adventure into a world of ghosts and imagination. People (including Mitsuhisa Ishikawa (the president of Production I.G)) have compared Ghost Hound to Stand By Me, it’s a great comparison because despite its sci-fi overtones, it’s a very emotional and moving coming-of-age journey that deals with a group of kids who, up until this point, haven’t been able to cope with the tragedy that has forever tainted their innocence.
Ryutaro Nakamura: “In an extreme sense, one could say that human existence itself is horrifying. And there are many approaches and directions we can choose in the process of speculating about what exactly this thing we call “existence” actually is.“
Director Ryutaro Nakamura, whose previous work includes Serial Experiments Lain and Kino no Tabi, is interesting, in that he regularly blends his artsy, abstract touches with symbolic human drama. Ghost Hound could quite easily degenerate into an alienating Ergo Proxy-esque philosophical exercise, but it never felt like that for me, it’s as if I can always understand what he’s trying to say. It’s quite an achievement when you consider that Nakamura and writer Chiaki J. Konaka have created a story here that regularly ponders mysticism and spirituality without ever compromising intimacy of feeling with the viewer. In particular, I’d like to note Nakamura‘s distinct use of sound; the almost negligible humming of power cables over head, the constant whirring of machinery and the dissonancent noise of a badly tuned radio. His unique mingling of discordant, unnatural sounds often creates an atmosphere of surreal ill-ease.
“In 2008, Massey University professor Brian Whitworth stated that all physical phenomena in the universe can be explained in terms of information. Therefore, what we perceive as reality is in fact a virtual reality run by someone on a computer.“
I still haven’t seen the last episode of Ghost Hound and I’m not convinced I’ll find an easy answer to every question it has raised. But that’s fine. In this case, being thought-provoking is enough. I don’t want a scientific explanation to try and rationalise the supernatural, or reality, or the source of life. The mystery is more engaging and more important than any answer.
Apologies, I know things have been quiet around here of late. While everyone gets so excited about all this new anime airing in Japan, I just get tired of it. There’s too much to watch, too much to read and too much to say. It tires me out just thinking about it, so, despite having downloaded first episodes of 9 different anime last week, I’ve watched merely two. One was Code Geass, which, true to form, was great, stupid fun, and the other was Kaiba, a show I’ve been anticipating since, well… forever. But wait, Kaiba hasn’t been fansubbed (yet), right? Such enthusiasm forced me into yesterday’s impulsive decision; I decided to watch it raw. For the record, my understanding of Japanese is next to nothing and never before have I bothered to watch anime untranslated, but, at this point, I may as well just quit anime blogging if not inspired by something like Kaiba, something that’s so completely new. Code Geass R2 isn’t new; it’s just the same old collection of genres with a different lick of paint. Mecha, shonen, shojo, moe, harem, sports, we’ve seen it all before, but let me tell you this, you’ve seen nothing like Kaiba. Asked to describe the story, director Masaaki Yuasa mentioned suspense, romance, science fiction, comedy and action, and depending on your perception, it’s all of that, or nothing, but at least it’s new.
I won’t bother with an extended episode synopsis, as aside from my noted lack of comprehension regarding the Japanese language, Owen and BluWacky have recently posted some fine coverage on their blogs too. All I really want to say is that I liked it, a lot. With an aesthetic that’s part Astro Boy-era Tekuza, part Flintstones, it certainly looks different. It’s nothing like Yuasa’s previous work, Kemonozume, where the characters were grungy, gritty and blue (in the greasy, erotic sense). Here, the designs are clear and bright, as if lacking sophistication, an obvious ploy to violently contrast a playful, child-like aesthetic with a disturbing reality tainted with memory-stealing and body swapping. I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s twisted style of storytelling, especially The BFG; all the excitement of Sophie’s wide-eyed adventure into a hidden world of friendly giants, offset when she discovers that they munch on humans.
The evocative visuals are well-matched by a soundtrack that’s ambient, electronic and artificial, yet emphasizes the fantasy and excitement on screen. In truth, it’s wonderfully apt for Kaiba, as a story so removed from reality shouldn’t sound familiar or contemporary; in particular, the opening and ending sequences are beautifully presented; setting the tone for what is an escape into a dream-like, distant plain of imagination.
People might think I’m talking this up because it’s different, because it looks weird. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this now. It’s true that it’s unconventional, you won’t immediately feel empathy for the characters, or understand their feelings. You have to be prepared to submerge yourself in Kaiba, to accept things that might be unrealistic and weird. In this sense, it’s absolutely authentic animation; the product of boundless imagination, and it works because, despite everything, it still feels human; funny, weird and sad. I hope you like it!
Though Legend of the Galactic Heroes might seem like a Death Note style dual of fates fought between two talented leaders (Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire and Yang Wen-li of the Free Planets Alliance respectively) it is what they represent, as much as who they are and what they believe, which is just as riveting; a contrast of dictatorship and democracy and the ways in which both political systems are essentially imperfect and doomed to a rapid degeneration.
Political and military dictators are demonised in the modern world, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes dares to suggest that its own peerless commander, Reinhard, is not as much an ignorant, soulless monster as a power-hungry genius riddled with insecurity. Though his methods can be callous (allowing a massive nuclear strike against his own people to swing public support in a civil war wasn’t his finest moment) he has displayed fundamentally good intentions, galvinised his people under a united cause and rebuilt his corrupt government into an aggressive and forward thinking force. But for all his strengths, the dictator’s worst enemy isn’t the present day, but the future, as decadence, complacency and arrogance takes hold.
By its very nature, the quality of a dictatorship is transient, being as it is limited to the strength of one man and his subordinates. Because there is no freedom to vote for a new leader, that power to control millions passes to the privileged few; nobles, friends and family not necessarily ingrained with the quality to lead a nation. As the ideals of that original generation dilute through time, the dictatorship becomes a dynasty. Rather than earn it, people are born into power and become arrogant. They no longer represent, or even understand, the man on the street, they fight for their own petty and corrupt reasons; power for the sake of power. Eventually, the common majority will grow wary of being ruled by those with no understanding of them and, put simply, a revolution is inevitable. This is exactly what happens during the first season of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, as the impotent Goldenbaum dynasty, having grown weak and arrogant through generations of inbreeding, is completely shattered by Reinhard von Lohengramm‘s tactical nous. They have no answer to his genius because none in their privileged ranks can match his desire or intelligence to succeed. In such a situation, the death of a dictatorship is inevitable, but it remains a long and drawn out affair.
In these regards, democracy is the antithesis of the dictatorship’s long-term weaknesses. Most importantly, the populace has the right to remove the leaders they deem incompetent. Ethically, it’s a better system, but at times of war, democracy faces a distinct disadvantage against the likes of Lohengramm. While the Galactic Empire moves with the poise and clarity of its talented protector, the Free Planets Alliance is bogged down with bureaucracy; days, even weeks, can be wasted in discussions and votes searching for agreement.
While a dictatorship can condition (propaganda) its people into believing anything, a democratic government is tasked with offering an unbiased education system and, vitally, freedom of choice and speech. The Galactic Empire can conscript soldiers, but the Free Planets Alliance cannot; capitalism takes hold as the public, quite rightly, chase their own desires and become reluctant to fight a war that, for them, means little. Politically, the government is mired in corruption; money-grubbing politicians content to delay vital processes for the sake of their own gain. In Lohengramm‘s Empire, such hesitancy would be warmly greeted with execution, but in the Alliance, long inquiries, investigations and proof are required.
Where do I stand on all this? Though I believe a dictatorship like Lohengramm‘s can work, it still relies on the fundamental good nature and whims of one man. If the Empire triumphs, will Reinhard (with shades of Gurren Lagann) step aside and offer the people a chance to elect their own leader, or will the Empire have to live with another gradually failing dynasty? Democracy is a better system and offers a safer future for the human race. However, without the luck of discovering Yang Wen-li, I expect the Free Planets Alliance would have long ago fallen into Lohengramm‘s hands. Obviously, democracy is ill-suited in times of war, and though it has survived in Legend of the Galactic Heroes, I wonder if that’s merely an illusion conjured by Yang Wen-li’s talent? And if one man is so important, isn’t that an (albeit ambiguous) form of dictatorship any way?