Tuesday, May 07, 2019

My hero, ULTRAMAN, hits Netflix as anime

New 'Ultraman' anime is a family affair

The Japan Times

I first met anime director and mechanical designer Shinji Aramaki in Tokyo 12 years ago. He had just completed “Appleseed: Ex Machina,” the second in a trio of epic CG-animated films based on Masamune Shirow’s four-volume 1985 manga.

“Ex Machina” was a global collaboration: co-produced by Hong Kong/Hollywood director John Woo, costumed by Italy’s Miuccia Prada and scored by Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono.

Since then, Aramaki has become anime’s go-to guy for Japanese franchise reboots and sequels targeting international markets. As the nation’s domestic audience ages and its youth population shrinks, producers are scrambling to dust off older titles that might resonate both at home and abroad. That has them going to Aramaki a lot.

Now 58 and the father of two adult daughters, he is currently working alongside screenwriter/director Kenji Kamiyama on anime adaptations of 1989’s “Ghost in the Shell” for Netflix and 1982’s “Blade Runner” for Cartoon Network and Crunchyroll.

Last month, Netflix released the duo’s anime version of “Ultraman,” based on a 2011 manga that was a continuation of the classic long-running tokusatsu (special effects) TV series, which debuted in 1966. Ultraman and his brethren (the Ultra Brothers) are alien beings that descend to earth and merge with a human to help the Japanese branch of the Science Patrol battle exotic monsters bent on destruction.

Netflix 2019

The legendary Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-70) of “Godzilla” fame created the original live-action TV show, the first in Japan to be exported. Over the past five decades the Ultraman brothers became ubiquitous in Japan and other parts of Asia through posters, costumes, T-shirts, toys and adverts for products ranging from Honda vehicles to Hawaiian vacations. Ultraman merchandise alone generates over $50 million (¥5.5billion) a year in Japan.

Kyodo 1966

The 13 CG-animated episodes released on Netflix are loaded with fights, replacing the TV series’ “suitmation” (actors wrestling in rubber suits) with digital motion-capture footage. But the focus is on the heroes’ inter-generational dynamics — more psychodrama than monster-of-the-week.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Japan's "virginity crisis"

Virgin territory: why the Japanese are turning their backs on sex

The Guardian
Young people in Japan – particularly men – are shunning physical love, and they’re not the only ones

The grounds of Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park have been colonised by beautiful youth: women and men beneath the cherry blossoms surrounded by bottles of wine, sake and shochu, cases of beer and plastic bags stuffed with finger foods – drinking, playing games and sharing smartphone screens as the buds bloom and fall.

Hanami (flower-viewing) parties are a centuries-old rite of spring, a national symbol of life’s beauty and brevity. But as I walk by them this month, I can’t help but wonder if any of the pink-faced revellers are hooking up, or even care enough to try.

“Sexless Japan” is now a reliable media meme. Bolstered by a plummeting birth rate and an ageing population (leading to dire predictions of a future Japan devoid of Japanese), this portrait of the nation’s celibate society has been further enhanced by a paradox: Japan’s cultural imagination is embedded with erotic imagery, from 17th-century shunga woodblock prints to what non-Japanese today often mistakenly call hentai (perverse) pornographic manga and anime. The sex lives of the Japanese, the story goes, have been almost entirely sublimated.

I once wrote about this phenomenon (sekkusu-banare, drifting away from sex) in these pages, and talked about it in a BBC documentary called No Sex Please, We’re Japanese. Both times I was careful to imply what is now obvious: it isn’t just happening in Japan.

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Donald Keene, 1922 - 2019

Writers recall their initiation to Japanese literature via Donald Keene

The Japan Times

Roland Kelts, author:

Bookforum asked me to review Donald Keene’s memoirs, “Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan.”

I said yes and winced. Keene was in his 80s at the time and had a lot of life to remember. His book would be massive. But then he, too, was vast: a bridge from my America to my Japanese mother’s land and literature. Also, a graduate of and professor emeritus at my alma mater, Columbia University, whose Center of Japanese Culture bears his name.

A slim package arrived: 200 pages. In one chapter, Keene jet-sets around Europe, lobbying for Mishima’s Nobel, when his mother falls ill in New York. He arrives at her bedside too late. She can no longer speak. One cannot live and love in two worlds at once, he observes. The chapter closes so softly I had to put the book down and stare at the wall, shaken.

Keene did what Kafka asks of writers: Ax the frozen sea within us.

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Friday, April 05, 2019

#Metoo meets #anime

#MeToo allegations roil U.S. anime conventions

The Japan Times

Over the past few months, the #MeToo movement breached the American anime convention industry. Most feel it was inevitable. Many say it’s about time.

The first salvo was fired in mid-January in the form of a Twitter thread accusing veteran American voice actor Vic Mignogna (“Dragon Ball Z,” “Fullmetal Alchemist”) of homophobia, anti-Semitic behavior and unwanted sexual contact.

Soon the charges from fans, some of whom claim they were underage at the time of the alleged transgressions, were joined by those from con staff members, professional cosplayers, fellow voice actors and an ex-fiancee.

Less than a week after the first tweets dropped, Mignogna released a public statement rejecting accusations of bigotry, proclaiming the innocence of his intentions and apologizing to anyone who felt violated by his “show (of) gratitude or support.” He has not been formally charged with anything.

Some Twitter users, including those in the actor’s fan club, aggressively defended Mignogna. The hashtags proliferated: #istandwithvic (for) and #kickvic (against), and now, #vickkicksback (anti-against).

The controversy expanded on Jan. 30, when an article appeared on the Anime News Network (ANN) site, one of the largest English-language industry portals. Its headline, “Far From Perfect,” was borrowed from Mignogna’s personal apologia to his fan club members.

Lynzee Loveridge

Lynzee Loveridge, ANN’s managing interest editor, compiled firsthand accounts, mostly anonymous, from a handful of fans and one cosplayer, all of whom felt mistreated, insulted or physically victimized by Mignogna’s actions. ANN also published photos of the actor embracing young autograph seekers. The article consolidated and at least partially legitimized the social media posts.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Haruki Murakami at 70: my latest interview

Still swinging for the fences: Murakami in conversation

The Times Literary Supplement

“You see, I’m like a cat”, he tells me, twice. “I know the best position, and I go there straight. And I do it on my own time. Many people don’t like that about me.”

Despite Murakami’s discomfort in Japan, and the disdain he receives from Japanese literary critics ten or more years his junior, his legacy is everywhere in contemporary Japanese culture. He’s there in the unvarnished prose and surreal happenstance in the work of younger writers, including Sayaka Murata (whose bestselling Convenience Store Woman is an eerily Murakamiesque blend of the magical mundane punctuated by violence) Mieko Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa (who wrote what he calls “a remix” of an early Murakami story, entitled Slow Boat), all of whom claim that his model as an independent, uncompromising artist forged their paths from the parochial forests of Japanese letters to the broader plains of world literature. The authors Masatsugu Ono and Aoko Matsuda, twenty and thirty years younger than Murakami, both pursued his double-life as a translator, Ono tackling French novels, Matsuda the short stories of Karen Russell.

For his part, Murakami has returned the favour, publicly praising for the first time a younger Japanese writer, Kawakami, and her novel, Chichi to ran (“Breasts and Eggs”) (2008). “She has a vision, voice and attitude. She doesn’t care what anybody else thinks, or about her reputation. She just writes what she feels is important to her.”

Murakami’s influence is there, too, in anime’s youngest superstar, the director Makoto Shinkai, who studied literature as a student, specializing in Murakami’s oeuvre. Shinkai’s best-known films, Five Centimeters Per Second and the box-office record-breaker, Your Name, swirl elliptically around stories of lost love, longing and the mysteries of time.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Localizing anime

The story behind anime localization

Les and Mary Claypool

For the past 10 years I’ve been guesting at anime conventions across the United States. Each one is unique. On the coasts they tend to be larger and older than cons in middle America, with massive crowds and decades of history. But they’ve each become more diverse. Most today report a near 50-50 gender mix, with attendees spanning racial and ethnic spectra.

What’s frustrating, though, is that I hardly ever get to talk with anyone. (I talk to them, of course. That’s my job. But sustained conversations are rare.)

Once the crowds show up, cons are dizzying. Your liaison escorts you to the venue, navigating through clumps of cosplayers. The fans pour in, get their book signed, mutter their thanks and maybe share an anecdote about their favorite show, a trip to Tokyo, or a story you wrote that they read. It’s nice, but brief.

Unfortunately, the same goes with other guests, many of whom are professionals I’m eager to meet. A quick hello in the green room, an exchange of pleasantries at the breakfast buffet. Hello, good to see/meet you, goodbye.

Mitch Iverson (photo: Sean Yates)

I’ve come to appreciate being asked to moderate panels on top of hosting my own presentations. I’ve moderated silly ones (AKB48 in New York stands out), others with rising stars who have now risen (Makoto Shinkai) and some with industry staff who really know their stuff: the sausage-makers working the factory floor.

At Anime Los Angeles last month in Ontario, California, I was lucky enough to be hosting a panel with writing, dubbing and adaptation/localization experts Les and Mary Claypool and Mitch Iverson.


Friday, January 04, 2019

Why Hayao Miyazaki is back

Hayao Miyazaki: The never-ending story


Last week, an NHK documentary chronicling Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement and un-retirement, “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki” opened in select theaters across the United States. The same day on the other side of the world, his 1988 classic “My Neighbor Totoro” was released for the first time in theaters across China — 6,000 of them.

Next month, Miyazaki will receive the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Career Achievement Award. In 2019, also in LA, the largest-ever exhibition of his work will inaugurate the prestigious Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Tokyo’s Shinbashi Enbujo Theater will stage a kabuki version of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” Miyazaki’s 1984 sci-fi epic. And 2020 (or soon after) will see the premiere of “How Do You Live?,” his 12th feature film, followed by the opening of a Studio Ghibli theme park near Nagoya.


Miyazaki held a press conference to announce his retirement in September 2013.

“Through the years I have frequently talked about retiring, so many of you are perhaps wondering if this time I am really sincere,” he said. “I am.”

The Japanese anime and film industries were convulsed by the news.

Commercially, no more Miyazaki meant no more bankable nationwide summer releases in Japan for major film distributor Toho Cinemas, or DVD and subsidiary sales overseas for global partners like Disney. Artistically, Miyazaki was the last living master of a craft being trampled by technology — hand-drawn 2D animation. No more him meant the end of an art form.


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