Monday, November 29, 2010

Sometimes It Writes Itself (Evangelion & The Aum Anime)

No sooner do I get back into old habits and I stumble into something so bizarrely fascinating, it just calls for me to write something about it. And a lot of this came about in a sort of two-layer fashion (naturally for me) as I began looking for materials to share with my Combo Attack!! co-hosts regarding the anime phenomenon, Shin Seiki Evangelion, and an upcoming podcast. Now this has been something that I often fall into whenever talks begin to brew over the 1995 series/franchise, I begin looking into the history of the series, and revisit certain totems of the time in which it first aired to remember just what contributed to such a cultural supernova.

And over the years, I have caught up with many devoted fans with the internet's capturing of the general zeigeist of Japan, and discovered many things that may, or may not have contributed directly. One major one being the deepening economic recession whom Japan has still yet to ever fully recover from. Others include closer nuggets of the true to life regarding director Hideaki Anno's crippling emotional state in the years following Nadia. But one of the most curious, and admittedly unexpected elements that so many miss out on is the ordeal dealt out by the at-first considered benign cult known as the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), who went on to create a media firestorm the likes few had ever seen in Japan. Led by the charismatic Shoko Asahara, the religious group went on to spark a reign of terror upon Tokyo's subway stations as well as targeted high ranking officials in the hopes of starting what Asahara saw as a coming(and necessary) world war. No laughing matter, and aside from the horrific 1995 Sarin gas attacks perpetrated in several train stations, crimes such as multiple murders &  forced servitude were revealed over time.

And amidst this time, the Aum went so far as to procure hard weapons training in Russia, and had an impressive influence before things went haywire. Naturally, the reports were all over the news around the time of Evangelion's production, so it does stand to reason that there is some significance to the use of religious symbolism, as well as the apocalyptic storylines, whether they be of a global, or psychological one.

And one of the strangest findings I made today was of this little snippet of anime, obviously made as the group was still gaining steam, and hoping to welcome scores of new members. Perhaps it's just me, but the surreality of seeing Asahara animated in this manner makes me wonder of the folks at GAINAX ever saw this, or took any of this in as it was going down. I can't help but think of Ayanami's desolate room, with only a glass of water & bandages to adorn it.

The Doraemon theme is a nightmarish little touch...

Friday, November 19, 2010

That Gainax Brand Kevlar Vest

Finally got to listening to the latest Speakeasy Podcast from the Reverse Thieves today, which not only piqued my own wishes to expound a little bit on my own relationship with Gainax, but to also chime in on how much my feelings on the popular anime studio have metamorphosed over the course of almost twenty years. And seeing as how something like this can take up possibly more space than any blog can naturally handle, perhaps it may just be best to just say that with all the ups and downs I have experienced throughout the years with this at times supernaturally blessed group of artisans/marketing machines, I have learned to anticipate with something other than merely rolling eyes, or spontaneous gushing.

This may just be the words of someone who can now (shudders) consider himself a patch-wearing member of the old guard of anime enthusiast, but it possibly requires some historical context to clock just how deep an impression can help create the feeling of untouchability (even if history can provide evidence to the contrary). So when Hisui Narutaki wonder why it is that so many fans place the studio in a positive limelight whenever a new series comes to bat. And while I myself can remember a time when this feeling was somewhat familiar to my being, I can also recollect those first moments when that bulletproof flag showed a few gaps. Oddly enough, it was in the form of merchandise before any animated project ever did such a thing. And it was upon discovering the existence of the first iffy-Ayanami vinyl figures &  Cybernetic High School that tipped off to me that this was a company with about as much marketing irresponsibility, as irrepressible personality in animated form. And yet, there was still enough pull & charm for me to overlook such things.

Even as Ebichu kind of softened me enough for a flying knee-groin attack in the form of Mahoromatic, nothing prepared me for the kind of embittering pain that would come once another show came along in 2005. And yet, whenever there seemed to be some glimmer of hope that the Gainax of Nadia, Gunbuster & That (Other) Show emerged, I went ahead and bit, only to either react in near-horror, or with monster hugs (ala Furi Kuri & Gurren Lagaan). The disconnect has been so sporadic that apprehension is now often the most common reaction. And even in a time when their most significant creation is experiencing a new life as a multi-part movie series, I often look back at those times when the connect of their best properties reached an almost fever-pitch. They worked in ways that few to no fankid-centric works have ever been capable of duplicating. As mentioned recently on Twitter, there has always been a certain DIY spirit to the works of Gainax that renders them in a very unusual position in the japanese entertainment world. In the post Yamato/Gundam world, they helped create anime with a most particularly human face. Even as the merchandise began to torrent down in the years post-Evangelion, working for a US-based anime distro in cahoots with these folks helped me better understand that success can be a strange animal, especially when the industry was largely spearheaded in new directions wroth by your own creations. It can easily be said that they changed the landscape, and with it, fell into the pressure to pander harder and harder as the competition heated up.

The output suffered as a result as the bills piled up, and passion projects seemed to dry up. In the years before Gurren Lagaan, it truly felt as if the beast that was EVA continued to mutate the very spirit that led to the creation of their most notable shows. But if one took the time to peek into the production roster to see who was responsible for many of the decisions behind the scenes, it may help illuminate some of the more glaring problems as well as help us fine tune where the quality had gone. It's also no wonder that early guard have moved on, and even led to the formation of separate studios (IE-Studio Khara).

The point is, that there is a big difference between admiring from afar, and then when faced with it (no matter how indirectly) as part of your job. Being inundated with not only an ocean of merchandise, but of stories and decision-making within earshot, a name that was once something to hold up high as a standard of quality, one may be privy to a strange rollercoaster of emotional extremes. Which is to say that I remain a fan of them in their best moments, and lament when they opt for the easy sell. If there was anything I gathered from those halcyon days, is that the marketplace became a pretty foggy place to navigate, making it harder and harder for even a Kare Kano to get made. Groundbreakers can be broken, but the damage isn't always irreparable. I happen to have been consistently surprised by Anno/Tsurumaki's Sequel/Remixes of the Evangelion series. And like I had mentioned before, Gurren Lagaan worked well beyond expectations (especially in a time when this jaded fan's hope felt most lost). So it became something more of an educational experience on how art versus business can have near bi-polar effects.

And yet, why do I feel that Gainax tends to get a so-called "free pass" as opposed to so many other animation studios that have long since emulated their approach? Before anyone says "Hard Work & Guts", it likely is more a case of:

a) Frequency Of Effective Gateway Drugs: It is highly probable that the fervor that still comes when a new show appears is due to them having some of the most significant gateway titles in the last 15 years. There's just little denying the power of merely three shows with the kind of after effects that came in their wake.

b) No Armor Is The Best Armor: One of their most significant traits (especially in their early years) is that of the self-reflective otaku. Even as they were among the first studios to actively acknowledge their love of science-fiction/fantasy/horror & anime tropes, they also did so with a near scathing amount of self-criticism. Something that in the right doses can be disarming to viewers. As geeky as they are, they also are aware of the social problems that come with the lifestyle. Rather than blindly embracing their loser-status, many of their best works have enough baggage to grant us an almost Grunge-Music-era level of self-awareness & effacement.

It may be safe to go ahead and state now that my feelings on Gainax has been run though the gutters from time to time, followed by the occasional barrage of gunfire, and even an acid-bath in the form of He Is My Master. And yet somehow, not unlike so many others, whenever a new project is announced, I take notice. But if there has been anything learned from all of this, it has been to take less stock in company name recognition, and more in seeking out where the talent is. Looking up names of writers goes a long way toward figuring out what titles are going to work for us. The life of a company, especially one as small and tightly knit as this, is in a difficult position when the market is changing at such an alarming rate. Sometimes, the fan in me feels lucky that we even had the hits we did. As to whether or not we'll see something to the level of a Third Impact remains to be seen.

I for one, never expect, but am always hopeful.

(Even in lieu of P & S, always hopeful).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Some Words Regarding Battle Royale 3D & Anchor Bay's News

Oh boy. It was only a matter of time before I had a chance to share feelings on this. Seeing as how Toei wasn't going to skimp out on making even more money off of one of their biggest releases. And they have an all-too-willing Kenta Fukasaku at the ready to shill his father's (the late, great Kinji Fukasaku) final completed work for a tenth anniversary. We just knew that something like a Japanese equivalent to the US 3D upconversion boom that came about in the wake of AVATAR was bound to happen if they couldn't muster up the will to create a wholly new film in 3D themselves. Harsh words, I agree. But the fact remains that the original Battle Royale film, while awash in arterial spray & hyperviolence (between kids, no less) was filmed in a most old-school Panavision style that only feels fit on a 2D plane.

The very idea of it being retouched without his father present is the first of what I suppose troubles this writer. Had Kinji lived to see this day, and had gone along with it, I would have gone ahead and allowed him his Jorge moment. But as it stands, I suppose this makes perfect sense as Kenta (who penned BR's screenplay, based on Takami Koshun's surprise hit novel) has shown himself to be nothing less than a schlockmeister with only name recognition, and access to slightly higher budgets than say, Noboru Iguchi, who's films are done with near nothing, and are infinitely more effectively entertaining. (personal note: My breaking point with young Fukasaku was his version of Sukeban Deka, featuring idol, Aya Matsuura. Submitted my papers promptly after.) So at least Kenta knows where he is coming from.

But for such an immense experience as BR still is, this is still nothing less than naked opportunism. Far more exploitative than many may accuse the film of actually being, and well below the film's ability to shock, even today.

And as for Nippon Cinema's post regarding the long-delayed acquisition of the Battle Royale films (1 & Kenta's ill-fated 2) via legendary horror-friendly company, Anchor Bay, I still feel as if this is another major case of too-little-too-late. All release controversy aside, the original BR has had an entire ten years to flourish as an import (and likely notoriously popular download), even going so far as to being a staple of Hot Topic for nearly five years now. So a release like this, while welcome, feels a lot less a reason to celebrate, so much as a reason for most western BR fans to merely shrug at it. Truth is, that multiple companies have been selling English-Subtitled versions of these films for years (including the Battle Royale SE releases, with additional scenes, and behind the camera footage.).

So yes, Toei found another way to round up the cash cow for another ride (I'm sure the bidding numbers were absurd.), but seeing as how BR has possibly become the first true internet cult phenomenon of the 2000s, I'm not sure why it's any real shakes.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The End Of This Pilgrim's Journey?

And so sound the viola...or lone acoustic Fender?

That's right, it's time to put another toy back into the box, end the waltz, shovel the dirt. After over three-plus months of reporting about both the comic & movie versions of Scott Pilgrim, it is now time to say goodbye in fitting fashion.

                           This weekend's latest Combo Attack!! podcast, while filled with musings, and explorations of Bryan Lee O'Malley's signature comic opus, obviously left the batch of us bereft of one of the most fun pieces of cross-media to have come around stateside in quite some time, but the guest star of the show makes such a ceremony something for the history books. My buddy & cohort from Adventures On Infant Island, Jenny Park joins the team this time, and gives an entry worthy of the greats as we also celebrate today's dvd/Blu-ray release of the movie

And watch out for extras!

Check It All Out Here!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Re: The Sucker Punch Trailer & A Scott Pilgrim Bonus!

Without going into too much detail regarding my er...attitude toward the latest trailer of Zack Snyder's first non-adaptation/remake, Sucker Punch, it just didn't connect (hic) in any way this time. All I saw was a succession of pretty images set to a poorly edited audio track, only made more painful by dead/campy delivery which seems to be either intentional, or a product of Snyder's signature laziness with actors. And considering that Snyder's reputation thus far has been in helping create some memorable trailers, it is quite a disappointment to witness. Perhaps the previous teaser was boosted by using an old club favorite of mine from the 90s? Anyway, from opening setup of our heroine's plight, it is almost completely killed by the obviousness that the acting is going to be this mean hurdle ala Malin Ackerman, again. it is as if Snyder himself regards his actresses almost solely as window dressing, and cares very little for squeezing out any believability, or even emotion fro his performers, which is sad considering the imagery on display. The disconnect instantly works like a scratching LP, it just doesn't work. And with the grand stuff on display, it feels no less like another big budget video game commercial with very little appeal for me. So if that makes me seem like a soulless downer, then perhaps one may be right.

But I just want this guy to deliver something beyond a cool trailer for once, and if this is the best he can muster, I can't help but worry.

So what does it take to start November off with a bang? Celebrating DVD/Blu-Ray release of some cult faves, perhaps? Especially when it is pretty clear that Hollywood had themselves another one of these esteemed few within their grasp late this summer, only to expect it to be a clever blockbuster. Of course, again, I'm speaking of Edgar Wright's adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and just felt like sharing some video I took at an event that took place at the Grauman's Egyptian in Hollywood this Monday to a packed house. Featuring super cool host, Guillermo DelToro and Mr Wright himself, they not only chatted up a storm regarding the geneses of the film, and the kind of obsessiveness required to make such a one-of-a-kind film experience. (Not to mention Mr. DelToro's colorful vernacular that reminds me of family.)

The video here is the introduction from both directors who have a little surprise for us admirers of the film!