Saturday, May 16, 2009

Takeshi Koike's "Redline" for Madhouse & Ian Condry

Last week in Tokyo I had a nice chat with Takeshi Koike. Koike directed "World Record" for The Animatrix, and has worked feverishly on his first feature film, Redline. (Contrary to many published reports, Redline will NOT be premiering at the Annecy Festival next month in France.)

I reference some of our conversation in my latest column for the Daily Yomiuri, but will use more, together with a review of the forthcoming film and comments from noted screenwriter Katsuhito Ishii in a U.S. magazine feature due out this summer.

Methinks Redline will be something special, and Meknows that MIT professor Ian Condry's visit to Tokyo later this month, with his live anime show, will be spectacular.

More soon.
SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / 'Redline' director Koike's otherworldly ecstasy

At this year's edition of the Tokyo International Anime Fair, Tohokushinsha Film Corp. devoted nearly its entire booth to Madhouse's long-anticipated auto-racing adventure Redline--even though it may take nearly another year for the film to be released theatrically.

Redline has been in development for six years, and has been whispered and yawped about via the Internet for at least three. Even Hayao Miyazaki's hotly pursued projects don't usually garner prerelease fanfare for half a decade.

As I noted in an earlier column, Tohokushinsha provided me a DVD prescreener of the partially completed film, which I watched during a turbulent flight from Los Angeles into a New York snowstorm--ideal conditions, it turned out, for the wildly kinetic, rough-and-tumble action on the screen, where race car drivers both human and intergalactic were competing in the most dangerous Formula One-style franchises known to man, or alien.

I found the visuals riveting, almost grotesquely so, but this shouldn't have surprised me. Redline is directed by Takeshi Koike, best known internationally for "World Record," his installment in The Animatrix, a DVD released in 2003 featuring nine animated short films based on ideas from The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers' hit Hollywood film. The Matrix, of course, was itself something of an homage to anime and kung-fu movies, and "World Record" returned the favor with glee, combining an imaginative, elliptical narrative with exquisitely rendered graphics.

I sat down with Koike last week in Tohokushinsha's head offices in Tokyo. A slight, very youthful-looking 41, Koike fits the profile of so many artists in the Japanese industry--humble, frank about his work and utterly unruffled by either attention or praise. He smiles easily at flashes of humor and reacts with genuine surprise at the mildest of compliments. In other words: Koike behaves like a craftsman.

When I pointed out that both "World Record" and Redline feature competitive events--track in the former, car racing in the latter--Koike said he loves the expansive rawness of the physical being in motion.

"When you see it on TV, it all looks so smooth and beautiful. But if you freeze the frame, the faces and single expressions can be kind of ugly, whether they're athletes or machines. I'm interested in that tension. And the tension of competition. The pleasure of animation is about bodies in motion. And competition makes that more intense." [read more here]

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sakura Con Redux

Click above for a video podcast (or click here if it looks wonky and incomplete) featuring interviews with cosplayers and a bloke named Kelts at Sakura Con 2009 (the Pacific Northwest's largest anime/manga/J-Pop convention) last month, courtesy of the fine folks at Backroom Comics.  Admittedly, it's not my finest hour (or 30 minutes, to be more precise), as I was exhausted by travel and a talk I had moderated moments earlier, but the questions were pleasantly probing and I managed to cleave my tongue from my palette long enough to answer a few. 

And below is my latest column for the Daily Yomiuri, reflecting on the crowds and the cash infusion in Seattle as a direct result of this year's Sakura Con.  Couple of quick caveats: the 20,000 attendee figure was based upon an estimate available at the time I was writing the column (as I note); the official figures I've seen more recently peg the tally at 16,500-plus per day -- still a record-breaker. Also, the $13 million is from an NBC television report that aired on the first day of the convention.  I don't have access to the Seattle city coffers, but suffice it to say that the added income probably didn't elicit sneezes from city officials -- at least not in this economy. 

A long overdue and very steep bow to the folks who produced, hosted and staffed Sakura Con.  I was absurdly well cared for.  Thank you.

As a gentle aside: I've been AWOL on this blog for the past couple of weeks for reasons both personal and professional, as I reacclimated to my life in Japan.  I am resurfacing, albeit not without scrapes and scars.  Living will do that to you.

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / Seattle reaps 13-million-dollar Sakura dividend

About 9,000 American anime fans, double the 2008 tally, preregistered to attend last weekend's 12th annual "Sakura Con"--the Pacific Northwest's massive Japanese pop culture convention, now one of the largest in the United States. An estimated 20,000 fans eventually passed beneath the gigantic pink welcoming banner on each of its three consecutive days. Real sakura (cherry blossom) petals fluttered across Seattle sidewalks as a parade of cosplaying Narutos, Pikachus, Gokus and other icons of Japan's most popular anime and manga series made their way to the cavernous Washington State Convention Center. A few American comic characters, such as Batman and Spider-Man, occasionally popped up in the mix.

I even spotted a cosplayer dressed as Hunter S. Thompson, the late, suicidal, "gonzo" American journalist and author, replete with cigarette holder and fly swatter.

From Washington, D.C., to Washington State, record-breaking attendance figures at U.S. anime conventions have become a yearly occurrence--dolorous economies be damned. Swelling ranks of mostly teenage or twentysomething fans pile into sedans, vans and pickups to carpool to "cons," or else swoop into town like an invading anime-addicted army in a sequence of airline arrivals, commandeering local hotels, cafes, delis and barstools.

A downtown Seattle bookstore manager told me that a history scholars' convention only a few weeks earlier had seen its numbers halved this year. Not so for the nation's anime meetups.

Hollywood, too, has been seeing solid box office numbers, prompting many observers to cite the "fantasy factor." When times are bad, escapism makes money, provided its price is reasonable. Sakura Con charged 60 dollars for full access (Friday through Sunday), or 40 dollars per day on Friday and Saturday, and 30 dollars for Sunday's half-day schedule.

American anime conventions offer nonstop participatory entertainment and engagement. Game rooms offer the latest technological wizardry from Japan alongside old-school models like Pac Man and Space Invaders. Musical guests are increasingly cutting-edge and whip-smart. Hangry and Angry, a glorious confection of fashion, anime and alt rock, flew in from Japan and were VIP superstars at this year's Sakura Con, paired with local alt rock heroes The Slants, from nearby Portland, Ore. More Japanese artists are showing up at American conventions because more Americans are demanding them.

A local NBC affiliate reported this year's Sakura Con pumped roughly 13 million dollars into the city's economy ... [read more here]