ANiUTa – half the solution to the age-old problem of legal AniSong streaming

I have to confess, my initial reaction to finding out about ANiUTa – a new ‘global’ streaming service which will allow fans outside of Japan to stream anime music from shows like Love Live and Macross – was one of joy. Finally – the solution to a problem I had been hammering on about for ages. ‘Why oh why could us fans in the West have incredible, legal streaming access to pretty much every anime as it aired in Japan, but not legally stream the songs from those very same shows?’

As something of a fanatic about both the music industry and anime – I’ve always felt the question of anime music and soundtracks is one that has been largely overlooked compared to wider discourse on anime as a whole. Whether through lack of interest, understanding or the worry that this kind of analysis might veer wildly into the frame of musicology (which can be something of a snoozefest when handled densely), there is comparatively little delving into the real ins and outs of anime music.

But as I pondered ANiUTa some more – the more it started to feel like only half a solution. Firstly, it stands as another example of the classic ‘new contender’ syndrome, which has become an inescapable part of the streaming wars – as new companies try to muscle in to an already crowded market. Each demands their own monthly subscription – and as we have already seen in the TV and anime streaming markets, there have already been many casualties.

Secondly, in many ways ANiUTa represents what the global ‘big three’ record labels (Sony, Warner, Universal) wish they did themselves before Spotify/Apple dominated the game – ie. a distribution platform owned by themselves. As a joint venture between countless AniSong labels, ANiUTa is smart thinking – taking ownership of the distribution instead of relying on a third party who will take their own cut of the earnings.

But therein lies the trouble – the benefit is on the companies themselves, with the consumer losing out. While the prospect of ANiUTa is arguably an improvement over a forlorn ‘ground zero’ in which legal streaming of AniSong is practically non-existent, it also means that the dream of having all these songs in one logical place (ie. Spotify) where listeners can consume at their leisure alongside their existing music collections seems unlikely.

Thus, the consumers are forced into a fractured listening experience, wherein some of their music is located one one service, and some is located on another. This is something we have already see in the TV streaming sphere – how many times have you wanted to watch a show that is ‘Exclusive’ to Netflix, only to find you’re screwed because you happen to subscribe to Amazon Prime instead.

I remain optimistic about ANiUTa – after all, it’s an improvement over the existing situation where Western AniSong fans had pretty much zero legal access to this material. But still – I feel it remans very much a half-measure, an avoidance of clear consumer habits, which – when it comes to the music industry – have arguably already picked their service of choice: Spotify.

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Why Haruhi Suzumiya will always be the ‘hottest’ anime girl

A while back I watched a video by the YouTuber Digibro in which he discussed the notion of whether we’ll ever see another anime girl as ‘hot’ as Haruhi Suzumiya – and it’s a notion that’s always stayed with me, to this day.

Why, out of the countless anime girls from a million myriad series – all carefully crafted to appeal to individual aesthetic tastes – was Haruhi objectively the hottest?

It’s something I’ve pondered for a while – always coming back to the idea that the reason why this idea resonated with me so much was because her character created a very specific kind of instinctual longing/desire.

Going beyond simple discussion of aesthetics of the character design itself – what I struck on was the idea that Haruhi – in many ways – works so well because she represents an experience many otaku have either had themselves, or long for. She – simply put – encapsulates the experience (as I believe the folks on the Anime News Network podcast once put it) of talking to girls properly for the first time as a teenager, and all the notions of ‘coolness’ that go with it.

To that extent, Haruhi is a living embodiment of a very absolute sense of adolescence, that goes beyond base moe-tropes and makes a precision strike at a point somewhere half between nostalgia for this feeling, and the energetic ‘genki girl’ persona. She represents possibility – the possibility of the charisma and confidence you inherently, at that point, don’t have. She is the signified ‘leader’, with you as follower – and as such, she becomes the definition of the ‘pedestal’ girl; with you, the follower, always looking upward.

Another aspect of her ‘hotness’ is delineated via ‘the tease’. By all accounts, Haruhi Suzumiya as a series is comparatively tame when it comes to fanservice – at least by today’s standards. But one scene from the series’ movie follow-up has always struck with me – the part where Kyon, Koizumi and Haruhi are forced to sneak back into their own school. Here, Haruhi changes into Kyon’s gym clothes – and in doing so, takes off her school uniform while Kyon’s back is turned – before delivering the classic ‘But I’ve got a T-shirt underneath line’.

Here we see a perfect account of ‘the tease’ – Haruhi’s sensuality – which for so much of the series is never overtly addressed, suddenly wafted in front of our faces with a wink of knowing awareness. See also the various ‘I’ve experimented’ / ‘even I have needs’ lines, which I’ve seen argued gives off a  distinct ‘Even the girls want her’ vibe.

In short – Haruhi nails the ‘hotness’ aspect so perfectly because her character is fine tuned, in a way which perhaps no other anime character except Asuka from Evangelion comes close, to perfectly encapsulate otaku-specific kinds of longing and desire. While in many ways utterly artificial and unrealistic – Haruhi also strives to bring together the kinds of experiences otaku may have encountered in their own school lives to present a nostalgia tinged ‘If only…’ romanticism that is forever tantalizingly out of reach.

The rise of the Naoko Yamada fanboys

Over the last year, perhaps even more so than the hype and acclaim surrounding Makoto Shinkai in the mainstream press, I’ve noticed an irrespesible degree of coverage around Kyoto Animation director Naoko Yamada. I’d call her a rising star – but truth be told, she already is a star. As any of the half dozen career restrosprctives she has from various bloggers and YouTubers will inform you; the remarkable rise and rise of her career (via shows like K-On and Tamako Market) and ambition is nothing short of astounding.

As part of a wider movement of staff/sakuga appreciation that has swept the anime community over the last year or two, the acclaim around Yamada and A Silent Voice has been a dominant trend within the tight bubble of the anime Twitterati and key bloggers – Even eclipsing traditional ‘staff’ / auteur favourites such as key figures as Studio Trigger.

The acclaim is thoroughly deserved – A Silent Voice is a masterwork, richly imprinted with a clear auterial style. But what fascinates me is the speed at which the ouvre of Yamada appreciation as a fan-created product has snowballed. A kind of mythologising that often usually happens well into a director’s career, is for Yamada happening in the very midst of it.

I’ve expressed thoughts in the past as to whether the current trend of sakuga analysis has lent itself to a kind of anime elitism that marks itself out above and beyond the populist crowd which is arguably the core consumers of anime (think Naruto or Sword Art Online). But equally, it’s hard to deny the evolving and essential nature of new fan discourse that gives further prevalanece to staff.

The question is one of an informed fandom – and on that front, were certainly in a better off place than we were before.

A few thoughts on Momoko Ando’s 0.5 mm [Review]

Having attended the UK premiere of Japanese director Momoko Ando’s 0.5 mm – I felt compelled to write at least a few words on it, as the experience quite frankly blew me away. As the film ended, I felt at once both a great sigh of ‘ahhhh’, and an almost tangible sense of a weight lifting off me; as the intensity of the film’s emotions that had been building throughout its running time were finally set free. That feeling, perhaps, of finishing something that you will stay with you for a long, long time.

There are already a number of great reviews over on Variety, Screen Anarchy and Movie Fiends that offer a pretty comprehensive overview of the film’s plot and key themes – so what I’d like to attempt here is more a short summary of what the film is like to experience – as so much of what it meant to me was rooted in raw feelings. Suffice to say, 0.5 mm deserves to be seen – the kind of thing you find yourself bursting at the seams to share with people; to give them a copy of it and say ‘Please, watch this, feel this, too…’

Those ‘feelings’ are something I find myself returning to again and again in my love of Japanese film – both animated and live action. Whether it be nostalgia, or a sheer degree of pathos for life itself – I have to confess I’ve seen very little in Western cinema that offers those feelings with quite the same heart-wrenching intensity. Maybe my experience of life and emotion has just always felt itself more aligned with the way these things are expressed in Japanese cinema – if one can indeed reduce it to an amorphous whole like that. But this ‘heaviness of feelings’ – the phrase I’ve always thought of when I think of the feelings those truly great films evoke, is what 0.5 mm is all about.

One could compare 0.5 mm to Akira Kurosawa’s ionic Ikiru – it does, after all, deal with similar themes of mortality, abandonment and salvation; with the relationship between a young, enthusiastic woman and a world-weary old man at its heart. Or perhaps the servile relationship between Noriko and the elderly couple in Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I feel these are the easy, superficial comparisons to make – yet make them I will, to try and offer an inkling of what 0.5mm feels like to experience as a piece of visual medium.

The running time is immense – over three hours. In many ways serving us three mini-films of an hour or so each. Each one bringing us a story of protagonist Sawa (played so compelling by the director’s sister Sakura Ando – at once boyishly roguish, yet also utterly feminine) and an old man. Wrapped up in this we see broader, more overt themes emerge: the place of old people in Japan’s ageing society, the role of women, the psychology of the individual and the mass populace in relation to Japan in WW2 and beyond, and many more… Then beyond this, the themes and feelings that seem to spring more from the cracks in between – the kind of indefinable, elusive essence that comes from watching one character’s life play out in such close proximity on screen for over three hours.

When you watch a film like 0.5 mm – you sense, whether naively or not, that someone with Momoko Ando’s clear skill as both a writer and director is destined for future greatness. Hearing her speak before the screening in fluent, articulate English in a breezy, casual manner – I was reminded in many ways of highly acclaimed anime director Naoko Yamada – whose A Silent Voice in many ways left me with a same sense of almost overwhelming depth of feeling and a deep, expressive catharsis of life at both its best and worst.

Both Ando and Yamada stand as two exceptionally talented female Japanese directors, trailblazing a path for the kind of works that in my eyes – straddle a delicate line between the outright arthouse and what one could perhaps call the ‘waiting for mass awareness’ market; not quite mainstream, but with a robustness and strength of narrative drive that places them beyond ‘mere’ art pieces.

Sometimes I feel it’s too easy to be swept up in the wealth of feelings seeing a great film in the cinema can leave you with. Especially these days, when most films are streamed at the touch of a button, and invariably watched with a second-screen in hand serving as a constant distraction. In the cinema at least, we return to a pre-smart-phone era of isolation and quiet, contemplative focus on a singular experience.

0.5 mm – if it can ever really be summed up; is film as ‘experience’ – and for the time being at least, I feel I can give it a place up there amongst some of my favourite films ever.

The threat of the Buddhist terrorist – media manifestations of Aum Shinrikyo

 

Introduction

On 20 March 1995, Japanese New Religious Movement Aum Shinrikyo carried out an orchestrated attack on the Tokyo subway system – puncturing newspaper-wrapped plastic bags full of deadly sarin gas, leaving a dozen people dead and hundreds more injured. At the time, it was the deadliest incident to occur in Japan since the second World War. Following the attack, the country entered a deep period of introspection, not only amplifying the already building sense of social stagnation in the ‘lost decade’ of Japan in the 90s, but also fundamentally changing the way the Japanese thought about religion.

In this essay, I will attempt to dissect a particular niche of media ‘fascination’ with Aum – both in coverage of the movement following the 1995 Sarin Gas attacks, as well as in a range of popular media that has begun to incorporate Aum as a kind of go-to proxy to symbolise the concept of a ‘non-traditional’ terrorist threat.

In a world where the mass public consciousness of terrorism-as-concept has arguably become inherently associated with either a ‘Muslim threat’ or ‘far-right threat’, despite the reality of the 1995 Sarin Gas event, the idea of a ‘Buddhist terrorist’ seems to maintain a notion of the ‘alternative’ – taking on lurid, almost fantastical qualities. I will analyse both Western and Japanese narratives, touching on a persistent notion of the ‘outsider’ portrayed in both and why this generates an increasing relevance to wider modern society.

Aftermath – The construction of a ‘public consciousness’ of Aum

A fundamental aspect to understanding the sheer volume of media coverage devoted to Aum comes in the concept of the creation of a wider ‘public consciousness’ of the cult. In Did Aum Change Everything? Levi McLaughlin discusses a kind of ‘scapegoat mechanism’ in which a social outsider serves as a target for public fear when society feels it is at risk – developing into a constant cycle of catharsis and anxiety. Aum – as the outsider – is something to be feared, but if ‘normal’ life is to continue, it is also a fear that must be conquered and moved beyond. By extension, the more that Aum is developed and shaped within the public consciousness into an apotheosis of the ‘other’, the more it can be targeted and combatted.

McLaughlin raises the point that 1995 may have “triggered a paradigm shift in Japan, turning a general sense that religions are mostly ‘good’ entities deserving legal defense into a widespread suspicion that religions are potentially ‘dangerous’ organisations against which the public should be protected”.

There are a number of key concepts at work here, specifically in the distinction between a ‘good entity’ and a ‘dangerous organisation’. On one hand, the somewhat nebulous term ‘entity’ – on the other hand, a clearly defined ‘organisation’ – complete with the corporate, contemporary connotations such a word comes with. In this sense of ‘danger’, the public anxiety that McLaughlin discusses elsewhere now achieves tangibility. Suddenly, the fear is real – transcending into something dangerously physical.

It is in this light that we can analyse discussion of Aum’s parallels between Buddhist doctrine and violence – for example, as detailed in Aum Shinrikyo – Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons;

“Some forms of Buddhism, such as Zen Buddhism as practiced in Japan, adopt the view that draining bad karma from novice practitioners sometimes requires using physical force to purify, exorcise or drive spiritual pollutions and spirits away from the body. In mid-1988, [Aum founder] Asahara ordered [his wife] to become a committed member of Aum, but she refused. He had her beaten 50 times with a cane and then thrown into isolation to “meditate” in darkness for seven weeks.”

Here, we see a through-line drawn between Buddhism and bodily violence. Complications arise however, when incidents like these are analysed in the context of whether that violence can be specifically classified as ‘religious violence’, or rather – as Brian K. Smith describes: “external to some self-proclaimed ideal form of the true nature of religion.” As such, was Aum’s violence an inseparable manifestation of their religious beliefs, or was it instead violent actions by individuals of a criminal mindset, of which religion was simply one aspect of their character makeup?

In casting Aum as something inherently new, or differentiated from a perceived ‘norm’ of what a religion should be, discussion of the cult often centres around a trifecta of aspects: charisma, technical sophistication, and vast monetary wealth. In this light, Aum is thus also cast within the context of something fundamentally tied into three of the largest driving forces of a modern, capitalist society.

As much as Aum are portrayed as outsiders, they are at once also smoothly integrated into contemporary social norms – the notion that while they might have been inwardly ‘alternative’ or abnormal in their ideals, outwardly they presented as respectable, well-educated members of society such as doctors, lawyers and university students. In this, then, there was a fear in its own right – that suddenly, anyone could be a terrorist; even those that society traditionally held in the highest regard. As Ian Reader details: “The involvement of the highly educated indicated that education need not be a barrier to the development of extremist thoughts; indeed it suggested that those with high levels of education might even be more able to develop critical attitudes to the societies they lived in.”

We see this typified in Hayashi Ikuo, the cardiovascular surgeon who served as Aum’s ‘Minister of Health’ – forming part of what has been termed a ‘government in waiting’; deliberately warping and mirroring the Japanese government in the construction of various levels of bureaucratic hierarchy, including ministries of health, defence, welfare and science. In essence, a dressing of ‘legitimacy’ – ie. the formal machinations of a modern society.

As one of the individuals who personally carried out the sarin attacks, descriptions of Ikuo in the media invariably introduce him first and foremost as a doctor / trained physician; continuing to detail his background as a graduate from the ‘elite’ Keio University. He was not only called on to administer drugs to hesitant Aum members considering renunciation, but also travelled with his wife to the USA to collect documentation on the use of sarin gas prior to the attacks.

This notion of Ikuo as an ‘informed’, intelligent individual even continues into his fate post-1995. During what the media termed ‘the trial of the century’ as the Aum members were brought before the court to face justice for their actions, due to Ikuo’s reports to the Japanese police about who the perpetrators of the attack were (in addition to detailing post-attack Aum actions) as well as his acceptance of responsibility in court, he was ultimately exempted from the death penalty and instead given life imprisonment. In essence, not only was information and knowledge a fundamental part of Ikuo’s persona, it had now effectively ‘saved’ him from death.

In reports of the trial itself, we see a continual process of exaggeration and sensationalism from the media. A contemporary CNN report opens with a description that feels like it could have come straight from the script of a Hollywood movie: “Riot police ringed the courthouse and helicopters whirred overhead as opening statements began.” Japan is said to have ‘come to a halt’ as the trials began, while the scale of the attacks’ fallout is emphasised in the ‘extraordinary gesture’ of a reading during the trial of the names 3,789 victims. We are told that: “15,000 people lined up before dawn for a lottery awarding the 48 seats available to the public.”

Already, we see the horror and viscerality of the attacks themselves as a real-world event being absorbed into an amorphous media generation comprised of aggrandising language and hefty numerical figures. In this manner, we see a return to the cycle of catharsis and anxiety discussed in McLaughlin’s Did Aum Change Everything? – the fear of Aum as a dangerous religious entity now displaced onto a larger-than-life version of Aum as circus freakshow, complete with lotteried tickets.

In a Japan Times report of the trials, the background details of founder Asahara’s life reach almost-ludicrous proportions as they recount his appearance on a popular TV variety show: “In one televised question-and-answer session, the affable guru fielded queries from teens, including about how he washed his long hair in the shower. ‘I use shampoo products made for babies,’ he said to the audience’s delight.” Elsewhere, a BBC article details how Asahara would sell both his blood and bath water to followers – for a price.

Bound up in these periphery profile details of Asahara’s life, we see a continuing creation of Asahara’s ego as a driving force behind Aum – both pre-1995 in terms of building the movement itself, and post-1995 in serving as the centre of a massive swell of media commentary that would cement the concept of Aum within the public consciousness. Rei Kimura’s Aum Shinrikyo – Japan’s Unholy Sect discusses how Asahara would focus on making key Aum figures ‘feel important’, which would in turn feed his own sense of self-importance, whilst a CNN article notes Asahara’s admiration of Hitler, casting him within a wider context of persona-driven incitements to violence.

Thus, Aum and Asahara – as entities – can be shown to exist as a kind of psychological perception that invariably eclipses their real-world existence. Within Aum, this functioned on an individual level – driven by Asahara’s charisma and a constant sense for members to need to feel ‘important’. Outside Aum – within the public consciousness – it was driven by extreme degrees of media coverage: “From 22 March until June 1995, Aum Shinrikyo was the lead story on every news network in all time slots; broadcasters’ statistics indicate that television networks dedicated more than five hundred hours to Aum coverage between mid-March and early June.”

This profuse level of media attention is important to note because just as perception can eclipse reality, that very same perception can lead to inaccuracy or misplaced fear. Returning again to McLaughlin’s Did Aum Change Everything?, it is worth noting that the post-1995 media coverage is specifically referred to as ‘the Aum media narrative’ – implying a degree of construction or manipulation in the story being conveyed by the media to the public. Indeed, employing terms like ‘swayed’ and ‘influenced’, McLaughlin goes on to discuss the potential of media conflation between Aum and another Japanese New Religious Movement; Soka Gakkai – something born out by sample reader responses that begun to associate Soka Gakkai with the same sense of danger as Aum.

The discussion elaborates on how in the post-1995 environment, whilst Aum’s ‘real world’ threat has been essentially removed – with its leaders in jail and finances/weapons seized – a fear of a perceived ‘threat’ persisted, equating to calls for legal measures to disband Aum and safeguards to protect against future violence from religious organisations. Here we have a prime example of how the degree of media coverage – and resultant manipulation of public consciousness – has in essence constructed a ‘proxy’ Aum; one that in reality does not exist, but in the potentially misguided belief that it does, has real-world ramifications, not only to other unrelated religious movements, but to wider society as a whole.

The ‘threat’ – and most significantly – a religious threat, remains enigmatic, intangible. While terrorist sects or ‘outsider’ cults can be eliminated through the death or imprisonment of its leaders, the root ideas behind these groups and – more widely – religion as an ‘existence’ in modern society can not be so conveniently locked up or swept away.

In April 2016, the BBC reported on the re-emergence of elements of Aum in Russia, with raids on dozens of properties linked to the cult. With a ‘new’ Aum renamed as Aleph, alongside a smaller group called Hikari no Wa (headed up by former Aum spokesman  Fumihiro Joyu), suddenly the ‘threat’ was manifesting itself in the real world again. Following a decade of post-1995 media narrative, had the cycle of catharsis flipped to anxiety again?

Once again, as with so many articles on Aum, the BBC piece highlighted the ‘elite’ nature of Aum’s former membership: “Much has been made of the group’s promise of a more meaningful life to young people from academically pressured backgrounds who had to look forward to similarly pressured careers.” Here, more than ever, there seems to be the application of a kind of universality to the conditions that spawned Aum – reduced down to a demographic that could reasonably be said to apply to a significant proportion of young people in the world today.

In narratives like this there is a sense, perhaps, that part of what drives the media fascination with Aum – beyond the sensationalism of the group and personas such as Asahara, as well as the raw historical facts of the 1995 attacks themselves – is this very notion that to live in a modern society is to live in a state where the component elements that make up Aum or Aum-like groups will always be inherently present.

The 1995 attacks were solid proof that given the right situational ‘ingredients’, a developed society could produce a group like Aum. A decade on – with monetary wealth, scientific acumen, religious ideals, the allure of charismatic personas, academic and workplace pressure remaining constants in a wider melange of contemporary lifestyles, the odds can only suggest that given the right impetus, said ‘ingredients’ could once again be assembled in a similar manner.

From Japan to the West – Translating the ‘alternative thrill’ of Aum via popular media

In his essay Perspective Chronologies, Commonalities and Alternative Status in Japanese New Religious Movements, Ian Reader focuses on how definitional frameworks and discussion of Japanese New Religious Movements invariably centres around “their public perception as “alternative” and “outsider” movements, and through their contradistinction to established mainstream traditions”.

Two elements are of note here – both the notion of ‘public perception’, and the continuing narrative strand of New Religious Movements (including Aum) as alternative / outsider. In combining the two, there is the inherent notion of conveying something non-mainstream to a ‘public’, ie. mainstream audience. And it is in this respect that we would argue that popular media and in particular, fiction, has a key role to play in generating and expanding upon what Aum means to a wider public.

A recent fictional work to place the concept of Aum – and by extension, the concept of a ‘Buddhist terrorist’ – at the centre of its narrative was BBC Radio 4’s audio drama Red And Blue. First broadcast in 2012, the radio play tells the story of military consultant Bradley Shoreham, who has been invited to discuss possible war game scenarios involving new terror attacks on London. In a key scene, Shoreham directly mentions Aum:

“Forget Muslim terrorism for the moment, what about Christian terrorism? But it’s not just Christians, it’s far more worrying than that. It’s all faiths. Many faiths. You have Hindu terrorism, Sikh terrorism, or come to that, Buddhist terrorism. Ah yes, that was the one. The one to fear. The harbinger. Aum Shinrikyo. A Buddhist cult with American new age leanings that sold drugs and murdered its own disciples… An army of monks, hard to swallow I agree, but look at what they did. What they achieved. They manufactured anthrax. They killed people with the botulinum toxin. Only one person in the history of chemical warfare has been killed by VX gas and that person was killed by Aum Shinrikyo cultists.”

Here, not only do we see Aum presented as a direct ‘alternative’ to Muslim or Christian terrorism, but with specific (and lurid) detail afforded to their methods of chemical and bio-terrorism. Couched in the language of chemicals, a contrast is drawn between the notion of ‘an army of monks’ and the frightening newness of science-as-weapon. The speech continues, this time focusing in on the unrealised potential of Aum having access to an atomic device.

“They say that Aum even detonated an atom bomb…. A bunch of yoga Buddhists setting off the first civilian atom bomb. There’s no doubt that Aum could have done it. They could have built a bomb. They had the money, they had the scientists. And that could have been a nuclear bomb exploding on the Tokyo subway, not sarin. They believed in ‘poa’… it means righteous murder. Killing someone so they can be more successfully reborn. Karmic murder.”

In mentioning ‘poa’, we see echoes again of the specific parallels between defined religious concepts and bodily violence. As Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence detail: “The most audaciously destructive theological invocation of the Aum scheme was a notion that the righteous killing of everyone in the world could confer immortality on sinful people who might perish for eternity if allowed to live out the normal course of their lives.”

In both senses, we see a neat juxtaposition of two parts – ‘karmic murder’. On one side – religion, on the other – violence. In the two descriptions of poa, we see a tendency toward bombast – it is ‘audacious’, ‘righteous’, ‘destructive’. Not merely violence, but full scale murder. In this – the fundamental ‘shock value’ of Aum to a Western audience, a subversion of received perception of Buddhism as something peaceful; now offered up in a work of fiction precisely because it allows scope for this dramatic ‘unveiling’ of hard violence. In Aum, the ‘otherness’ remains constant; and as such, the ‘overall strangeness’ is allowed to maintain its distinct narrative thrill – in both fiction and the news – when offered up as one of many ills born from modern society.

Many of these themes also emerge – albeit masked in layers of symbolism – in the 2011 anime series Mawaru Penguindrum, directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. The show depicts the lives of siblings Himari, Kanba and Shouma Takakura – whose missing parents have been accused of a terrorist attack that took place on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, drawing a clear allusion to Aum. At numerous points in the series there are references to an allegorical Child Broiler, a place for those who will ‘never amount to anything’, in a grim echoing of the real-world incident in which an Aum member burned the body of another cultist in a ‘man-sized oven’.

Whilst also touching on the shocking violence of Aum, Mawaru Penguindrum also alludes to the impact on the lives of the Tokyo populace post-Aum; a ‘traumatised zeitgeist’, as anime critic Andrew Osmond puts it. Tellingly, by casting its three central characters as the children of the initiators of the terrorist attacks, the show also alludes to Aum founder Asahara’s reported fathering of at least 15 children; the lasting impact best summed up in a Japan Times interview with Rika Matsumoto – one of Asahara’s children – who “realizes her father’s notoriety has made it impossible for her to live a normal life.”

The striking nature of using such shocking (and comparatively recent) real-world events as a basis for a popular anime seems to have provoked particular discussion within the West – where it becomes part of a broader theme of something ‘other’ than the norm depicted in Japanese mass-media. Indeed, a Google search for ‘aum shinrikyo penguindrum’ turns up no fewer than four full pages of results purely dedicated to English language fan-written essays and blog posts analysing the anime’s inclusion of Aum as a plot element. The apparent ‘mystique’ of Aum now viewed through the lens of a swathe of Tumblr thinkpieces and social-media-savvy online writers pushing these to a captive audience.

The dark irony, of course, is that in featuring Aum within an anime – direct parallels are being drawn with Aum’s own public relations activities, which utilised both manga and anime to project its ideals through a populist mouthpiece. Founder Asahara is even known to have discussed his fandom of classic anime series from the 70s and 80s with other Aum members. Via these processes of influence by and self-generation of media content – Aum was essentially already moving in the very same spaces that media about Aum would move in during the following decades. Aum wasn’t merely being consumed by a popular-media fandom, they were the fandom themselves.

Aum’s depiction in media – and crucially, popular media – as well as the continuing sense of it as something ‘alternative’ or counter-culture/counter-society bears particular attention precisely because this very notion of the ‘alternative’ serves as a kind of self-generating publicity outlet. As Tomohiro Osaki writes for the Japan Times: “Swayed by a mixture of dark fascination with the outlaw life and dissatisfaction with their own lot, a small but passionate group of young people are bound by their professed admiration for the criminal members… Calling themselves “Aumers,” some adore the cultists as if they were pop idols. Others say they feel excited by their insanity and even identify with them.”

As shown above, the language used to describe Aum – both in fiction and in reality – continually resorts to notions of excitement or even identification with their activities. When we are removed from the actual horror of Aum’s atrocities – when we aren’t the actual recipients of those atrocities – the ‘otherness’ begins to translate from fear to excitement. The ‘dark fascination’ becomes a kind of irresistible pull, primed to shake up a stagnant system of normality. The ‘scapegoating’ and fear-mongering discussed in the first half of this essay has now comes full circle – there is now also an attempt to explain and identify why people might have been led to join Aum. But is this a kind of catharsis, or simply another manifestation of our anxieties around contemporary society?

In an interview, Kunihiko Ikuhara – the director of the aforementioned Mawaru Penguindrum – spoke of the gas attacks and the climate of Japan at the time: “I suppose this world had become bipolar before we noticed. The feelings of those who were not able to get along with this world were ignored or how should I put it… That was left boiling in a place deep under the skin, I guess.” This sentiment hones in on a notion of displacement from society – that same sense of the ‘alternative’ or ‘other’ pushing individuals out of the mainstream.

Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche – which contains a number of interviews with people affected by the 1995 attacks – uncovers similar sentiments of alienation and ‘not fitting in’, with one of the interviewees stating: “You have to distinguish Shoko Asahara from the ordinary rank-and-file believers. They aren’t all criminals, and some of them have truly pure hearts. I know many people like that and feel sorry for them. They don’t fit into the system because they’re not comfortable with it or because they’ve been excluded from it. That’s the kind of people who join Aum.”

Conclusion

By analysing persistent themes in media coverage of Aum Shinrikyo, its activities and key personas within the movement, we can see the emergence of a specific narrative that acts as a crucial component in the shaping of a wider ‘public consciousness’ of both the group itself and religion in general. In the manifestation of fear and ‘threat’ – both real and perceived – we can understand an evolving cycle of anxiety and catharsis; which not only coalesces around certain salient points (eg. origins, key individuals) but also seeks to understand exactly why Aum resonated in the public psyche in the way it did.

Beyond this, Aum’s religious origins form an inherent part in its sense of ‘overall strangeness’ – the allure of the ‘other’ or ‘alternative’ which we have seen manifest itself in fictional works based around Aum. Here, many of the same notions of exaggeration and sensationalism employed by the news media help transform the ‘threat’ of Aum into a narrative ‘thrill’. Specifically, in conveying a notion of Aum to a populist audience potentially unfamiliar with its religious roots, we begin to see the development of a kind of fascination with its sense of the ‘outsider’, incorporating elements of excitement and potentially even identification.

The concept of a tragic real-world event becoming part of sensationalist narratives – both fictional and within news media – is nothing new. Rather, by analysing the lasting media footprint such an event creates, we can begin to gain a better understanding of the kind of societal forces at work both within the public consciousness, and the individuals that help make up that consciousness. Why did this happen? What was different about it? Why might people be interested in it? Could it happen again? The cycle of anxiety and catharsis continues.

References

Danzig, Richard; Marc Sageman; Terrance Leighton; Lloyd Hough; Hidemi Yuki; Rui Kotani & Zachary M. Hosford (2000) ‘Aum Shinrikyo Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons’ in Center for a New American Security

DiNitto, Rachel (2015) After Aum: Coming to Terms with the Aum Shinrikyo Tragedy Through Narrative, Post Bubble Culture – Contemporary Japan http://blogs.uoregon.edu/postbubbleculture/2015/03/22/after-aum-coming-to-terms-with-the-aum-shinrikyo-tragedy-through-narrative/ [accessed 23 December 2016]

Hardacre, Helen (2007) ‘Aum Shinrikyo and the Japanese Media: The Pied Piper meets the Lamb of God’ in History of Religions 47

Hirano, Keiji (2015) Asahara’s No. 3 daughter writes on life during, after cult, Japan Times (26 March) http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/03/26/national/asaharas-3-daughter-writes-life-cult/#.WFqeMWSLQfE [accessed 23 December 2016]

Hongo, Jun (2011) Last trial brings dark Aum era to end, Japan Times (22 November) http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2011/11/22/reference/last-trial-brings-dark-aum-era-to-end/#.WFu8JmSLQfE [accessed 23 December 2016]

Jewett, Robert & John Shelton Lawrence (2003) Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism. Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co

Kimura, Rei (2003) Aum Shinrikyo – Japan’s Unholy Sect. North Charleston: Booksurge LLC

Lifton, Robert Jay (2000) Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Macmillan

MacWilliams, Mark Wheeler (2008) Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime. Abingdon: Routledge

McLaughlin, Levi (2012) ‘Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyō Affair Tells Us About the Persistent “Otherness” of New Religions in Japan’

in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies Vol. 39, No. 1, Aftermath: The Impact and Ramifications of the Aum Affair

Murakami, Haruki (2003) Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. New York: Vintage

Osaki, Tomohiro (2014) Aum cultists inspire a new generation of admirers, Japan Times (20 March) http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/20/national/social-issues/aum-cultists-inspire-a-new-generation-of-admirers/#.WFpoN2SLQfG [accessed 23 December 2016]

Osmond, Andrew (2013) Penguindrum Anime Terror Tactics, Manga UK (21 October) http://www.mangauk.com/post.php?p=terror-tactics [accessed 23 December 2016]

Reader, Ian (2005) ‘Perspective Chronologies, Commonalities and Alternative Status in Japanese New Religious Movements Defining NRMs outside the Western Cul-de-sac’, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. Vol. 9, No. 2

Reader, Ian (2012) In the aftermath of Aum Shinrikyo: lessons learned from the Japanese response, Radicalisation Research (27 February) http://www.radicalisationresearch.org/debate/reader-2012-aftermath-2/ [accessed 23 December 2016]

Ryall, Julian (2014) Justice looms for Doomsday cult that brought death to Tokyo subway, The Telegraph (16 January) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/10576071/Justice-looms-for-Doomsday-cult-that-brought-death-to-Tokyo-subway.html [accessed 23 December 2016]

Smith, Brian. K, as cited in Wilkinson, Gregory E. (2009) The next Aum: religious violence and new religious movements in twenty-first century Japan. Iowa: University of Iowa

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(2014) Mawaru Penguindrum | Lost Trains and Fruit Girls, Special When Lit (12 January) http://redscullyrevival.tumblr.com/post/73114912986/mawaru-penguindrum-lost-trains-and-fruit-girls [accessed 23 December 2016]

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Selling the spectacle of destruction – The urban apocalypse in Rintaro’s Doomed Megalopolis (1991), X/1999 (1996) and Metropolis (2001)

 

Introduction

As one of the most acclaimed figures working in Japanese animation, Rintaro (aka. Shigeyuki Hayashi) has come to be known – particularly amongst Western anime fandom – as one of the most stylistically distinct directors working in the medium; fronting a body of cinematic work that stretches from the late 70s through to the 00s. From his early days as a disciple of ‘the God of Manga’ Osamu Tezuka at studio Mushi Productions to his co-founding of Studio Madhouse – now one of the most popular and prolific anime studios in the industry – his work is often characterised as being cinematically epic, profiling life and death struggles against darkly fantastical backdrops.

As three of his most recognisable works, Doomed Megalopolis (1991), X/1999 (1996) and Metropolis (2001) chart a distinct through-line across the course of a decade, capturing a crucial era in which the West was opening its doors to Japanese animation following the landmark screening of Akira (1988) at the London ICA in 1991. Simultaneously, the boom in the home video market – seeing both the maturation of the VHS format as well as the beginnings of the DVD as its successor – played a vital role, facilitating the development of an exciting new ‘cult’ environment where a niche medium like anime could bypass the cinema and be marketed directly to fans.

It is within the context of this era and this specific ‘fan-boy’ mentality that Rintaro’s position as a director is key – his works both pandering to the preconceived ‘tits and tentacle’ notoriety anime had (and arguably still has) as a medium, as well as adapting and evolving with the times to push toward new levels of critical recognition and mass-market reception.

With animation’s inherent advantage of being able to depict levels of destruction and violence not possible in live-action cinema, these three films stand uniquely placed in an era before CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) had become truly ubiquitous, capturing a snapshot of a decade in which anime’s allure as pure spectacle stood as a core selling point to Western audiences. It is here that the notion between cinematic spectacle and marketable medium meets – and which this essay will attempt to analyse; charting the course of these three films as both aesthetic and transnational objects, created in Japan, yet consumed in the West.

Japanese environments vs. Western environments

For a cinematic landscape to be destroyed, first it has to exist. For each of these three films, their setting remains crucial to the wider themes they are trying to convey – but also impacts on the kind of relationship the audience has with the film itself.

Doomed Megalopolis was released in 1991 as a four-part direct-to-video release, serving as an adaptation of Hiroshi Aramata’s best-selling 10-part Teito Monogatari novel series released over the course of 1985-1987 (a live action adaptation released in 1988 had become the third highest grossing Japanese movie of that year).

The film depicts early 20th century Tokyo, where historical events such as the great Kanto Earthquake are the backdrop to a supernatural battle taking place between between the powers of good and evil as they work to influence veins of spiritual energy that make up Tokyo itself. The plot is deeply involved with the Japanese esoteric cosmological concepts of the onmyoji, with evil mystic Yasunori Kato attempting various machinations over the course of the early 1900s in an attempt to destroy Tokyo and appease his ancestors, who battled against the Imperial Court in ancient times.

X/1999 deals with largely similar themes – released in 1996 and based on a long-running manga series by female collective CLAMP, the film once again sees an apocalyptic battle between good and evil play out over the control of ‘spiritual barriers’ in the heart of Tokyo in an effort to determine the fate of humanity. On one side, the ‘good’ characters wish to see the status quo of Tokyo maintained, whilst the ‘evil’ side wishes to see Tokyo (and by extension, the Earth) purged of the plague of humanity and returned to a state of natural, ecological order. It falls to central hero Kamui to choose which side he will pledge allegiance to, in a narrative that increasingly displays moral shades of grey to both sides of the conflict.

Lastly, in Metropolis – released in 2001 – we see the action transposed to the titular fictional futuristic city of Metropolis; where the tension is rising between the underclass of robot citizens relegated to the city’s lower reaches, and humans; who blame the robots for taking many of their jobs. Duke Red – the city’s proclaimed leader has overseen the creation of two significant constructions. One, a massive tower – the Ziggurat – that houses a powerful super weapon, and secondly, a robot girl – Tima – modelled after his dead daughter. As the plot proceeds, we see both of these constructions emerge as potential threats to the safety of the city, amidst weighty themes of the dangers of science and what it means to really be human.

Loosely based on Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga (which in turn was indirectly inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name), the film is said to have taken five years and $15 million to create – marking it out as a clear ‘prestige’ piece; and while it only grossed $4 million on its initial US release, the film is frequently critically praised for its detailed visuals.

Looking across the three films, we see a clear distinction. With both Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 – although highly fantastical – still based in real world settings, whilst Metropolis is placed within an imagined future; removed from the connotations of state and history that are inherently present in the former two movies.

Both Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 are suffused with a melancholy fin-de-siecle feel – further cementing their position within a real-world (and crucially, Japanese) landscape by positioning themselves at transitory moments in history. Doomed Megalopolis features the death of the Meiji emperor, reinforcing the constant march of time as the city increasingly moves to modernise – this element would have had special resonance for Japanese audiences of the time, as on the film’s initial 1991 release, the death of the Showa Emperor in 1989 would still have been fresh in their minds. Meanwhile, X/1999 deals with similar ‘end of an era’ overtones, both explicit in the imminent new Millennium referenced in the ‘1999’ of its title, but also in the generational change present in 90s Japan at the time – perhaps best summed up in the blurb of Tokyo Babylon – CLAMP’s manga which serves as a prequel to the events of X/1999:

“The last days of Japan’s bubble economy, and money and elegance run through the streets like rivers of neon. So do the currents of darkness beneath them – obsession, greed, and exploitation, nourishing evil spirits that only the arts of the onmyoji – Japan’s legendary occultists – can combat.”

In these two films, we see a Japan at the beginnings of the 20th century, and at the end of the 20th century – in both instances undergoing vast change; real world, historical narratives intermingling with fantastical, fictional narratives. And in so doing, breathing into life a cinematic world that becomes inherently darker, grittier and more believable to a Japanese audience precisely because it is the world they exist in themselves.

In X/1999, we see the specifically Japanese environment of the film outlined in language that attaches plot-significant meaning to real-world Tokyo locales. Against a backdrop of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building standing amidst a ruined, flooded Tokyo, one of the film’s villains – Kanoe – explains:

“The city has grown stagnant and foul. The slime will gradually cover everything unless a thorough cleansing can lead to a revival… The power shields that protect Tokyo have become central to the stability of the whole world – many shields make up the city’s umbrella. The skyscrapers of Shinjuku are the blinding beacon of the night. The tracks of the Yamanote rail line are the Buddha’s hand enclosing the Imperial Palace in its grasp. The Sunshine 60 Building is a focus of security on Tokyo’s shifting ground. And then there’s the Tokyo Tower. If all these shields are destroyed, Tokyo will fall. These obscenities that man has created – the corruption, the pollution – all these will be annihilated. Nature will reclaim its dominion. The Earth will breath again.”

Coming roughly halfway through the film, this speech is crucial as it draws together some of the most recognisable landmarks of Tokyo – both old and new. Just as in typical Western disaster movies we see iconic landmarks such as the White House, Eiffel Tower or Big Ben destroyed, here we see the physical destruction of Tokyo couched in the cinematic language of pin-point destruction of key buildings.

To the primary Japanese audience of the film’s original release, there is an inherent presence and meaning in these locales that lives beyond the film’s own narrative. This is typified in Susan Sontag’s The Imagination of Destruction where she outlines: “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view. Things, objects, machinery play a major role in these films. A greater range of ethical values is embodied in the décor of these films than in the people. Things, rather than the helpless humans, are the locus of values because we experience them, rather than people, as the sources of power.”

To a Western audience however, unless the viewer is already deeply versed on the urban environment of Tokyo, they are unlikely to come into the film with the same sense of meaning imbued into these specific buildings. As such, it is important to consider the more worldly outlook Rintaro would take with Metropolis – de-centering the film from a Japanese locale and placing it within an anonymised, transnational future-setting. In a note of dark irony, however, Metropolis and its future-city would stand as an all-too relevant reminder of the very real horror of large scale urban destruction – the film’s original 2001 US release postponed until several months later, following the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

It is important to note that Metropolis actually deals with many of the same themes as both Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 – namely, that of the irrepressible march of progress, as well as notions of man’s place in an increasingly urbanised, mechanised landscape. However, whereas the former two films present these within the specific context of Tokyo, Metropolis is – both through its own visuals and setting, as well as by virtue of its connotations to the Fritz Lang Metropolis – placed within a far wider oeuvre of mechanisation within science fiction as a whole.

Metropolis stands as a cinematic construction that consistently works to present itself as un-Japanese. The architecture of the city is distinctly Western, and so is the music – employing a Japanese jazz band to create a soundtrack that is firmly inspired by classic Dixieland jazz of the 1920s. In this, we are presented a fascinating intermingling of internationalities – a Japanese composer creating Western music, attached to a Japanese medium (anime) fashioned after another Western product of the 1920s – Lang’s original Metropolis (1927).

In a neat piece of meta-cinema, Rintaro’s Metropolis also flags up its awareness of its own transnationality in a reference back to James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), which is set predominantly in Japan. In that film, Bond orders a drink of sake as follows:

Tiger Tanaka: “Do you like Japanese sake, Mr. Bond? Or would you prefer a vodka martini?”

James Bond: “No, no. I like sake. Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.”

Tiger Tanaka: “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”

In the corresponding scene in Metropolis, detective Shunsaku Ban walks into a bar and asks for a hot sake, only to be told they have none and that he will have to settle for a hot whiskey instead, the bartender stating: “The best I can do for a Japanese detective”.

Scenes like this are important as they continually reinforce Metropolis’ cinematic existence as something outside the typical ‘anime norm’. Indeed, much of the commentary on the film makes note of this, with The DVD Stack proclaiming: ‘This-twenty-first century Japanese anime isn’t merely a cartoon version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic’ while Groucho Reviews compares the use of music during the closing scenes of the film to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964).

What stands before us then are three cinematically distinct cities – primed for destruction. Two are Tokyo – one of the past (Doomed Megalopolis), one of the then-present (X/1999). The third is a more unknown quantity – the imagined future of Metropolis. In each instance, the eventual destruction of the city takes on different properties – informed by the audience and the socio-cultural connotations they bring with them. On one hand, the experiences of their own life and the city/cities they live in – on the other hand, a more filmic notion of ‘experience’ informed by the cinema they have consumed in the past and all the expectations that brings with it.

Destruction of the female body as a prelude to destruction of the city

One consistent theme across all three films is that of bodily violence toward female characters as a kind of preface to destruction of the cities these characters reside in. In all three films, these female characters are characterised as either chastely innocent and/or possessed of an otherness and mystique that sets them apart. Through their destruction or degradation, we see a symbolic marring of ‘purity’; setting the scene for the larger-scale destruction of the urban environments that will play out around them.

As Lawrence Bird comments in Serial Cities: The Politics of “Metropolis” from Lang to Rintarô: “The city is central to the imagery of the animated film – or anime, and cities in this branch of popular culture generally come to a sticky end: they are blown sky high. This is often paralleled with the destruction or transformation of an iconic work of architecture or a human (or quasi human) body at the centre of the apocalypse.”

In Doomed Megalopolis, lead villain Yasunori Kato is depicted as forcefully pushing a pulsating purple orb of magical energy into the opened legs of young woman Yukari Tatsumiya, followed by a squirt of blood as the orb enters – effectively impregnating her. As he states: “You shall allow the curse of 2000 years by the unyielding people to come to fruition in your body” – essentially tying together the fate of her physical body and the city itself.

Commentary has focussed on how this rape-like scene – and the violent, sexually charged tone of the film as a whole – was likely inspired by the recent success of other direct-to-video anime products such as the notoriously graphic Legend of the Overfiend (1987), which was so explicit, over two minutes had to be cut out by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) before it could be released in the UK.

In the opening scenes of X/1999, we see the mother of lead protagonist Kamui pull a massive, ornate sword from inside her naked body; hands covered in blood and a white, semen-like substance. Upon handing the sword to Kamui, her body then explodes violently into clearly depicted individual pieces.

Later in the film, one of Kamui’s allies – 14 year old schoolgirl Yuzuriha Nekoi – is mortally injured, and as she lies dying in Kamui’s arms states: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t much good to you, was I? I’ve never been in love as a woman can be in love. I’d have liked to have known someone would cry when they buried me.”

As shocking or distressing as these scenes appear, they take on an important significance when discussed in relation to the ideas raised by Isolde Standish in Akira, Postmodernism And Resistance regarding the notion of the ‘tragic hero’ that dominates Japanese fiction – as directly opposed to more traditional Western concept of how a hero is represented on screen.

In Rintaro’s films, these heroines are tragically and dramatically violated as part of each movie’s depiction of battle against the forces of evil. But it is within this self-same violation that the films are afforded additional shock-factor as we see paragons of order and respectability disrupted and dismantled by pure chaos. Quoting Hebdige, Standish outlines: “Violations of the authorized codes through which the social world is organised and experienced have considerable power to provoke and disturb”.

In the closing scenes of Metropolis – as Ray Charles’ I Just Can’t Stop Loving You plays out – we see female character Tima with half of her flesh torn away to expose the reality of her robotic inner workings underneath. Crucially, Rintaro chooses to frame some shots so we only see the human side of Tima – her hair blowing animatedly in the wind –  whilst other shots deliberately display her ‘half and half’ nature. As the city collapses around them and the scene moves to a climax, we see Tima’s robot hand clasped by hero Kenichi’s human hand. She then slips and falls to her death, uttering one final line: ‘Who am I? I am who?’ – All concept of her as a person has now been erased – both physically and mentally – replaced by a lifeless robotic husk.

With particular reference to Metropolis it is important to note the film’s position within the transnational cinematic landscape at the time of its release. Crucially, it was released in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), which dealt with many similar themes of what it means to be human – amidst a backdrop of ruined cities.

By interacting with these themes, Metropolis elevates itself above the specifically ‘Japanese’ environments of Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 to handle a more universal question. As many reviews of the movie bear out, it is no longer merely operating within the tight anime ‘bubble’ but in the sphere of a wider (non-animated) science-fiction canon of output.

Across these three films, we see a gradual scaling-back of the intensity of the violence – from the 15-rated rape and dismemberment in Rintaro’s 90s work to the comparatively tame PG-rated destruction of a robot in Metropolis – inherently more palatable to a ‘mainstream’ Western audience – the focus of the violence arguably shifting from that of luridly visual shock factor to that of more thematic significance.

Whether female or machine (or both) however, there is a sense of potential fear or otherness present in the physical manifestation of said ‘body’ on screen. As Susan Sontag discusses in her essay The Imagination of Disaster, there is a long history of the notion of ‘dehumanisation’ in science-fiction. On one hand, this can manifest as a kind of animal bloodlust – standing in as a ‘metaphoric exaggeration of sexual desire’. In this respect, the symbolically sexual destruction of female bodies in Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 can be seen as a kind of erasure of the temptations of man implicitly present in the modern urban city.

On the other hand, Metropolis presents the flip side of the equation – the danger is no longer man’s potential to revert to base animal instincts, but now that he might dehumanise himself so thoroughly through robotics and science that he no longer resembles man himself. As such, the city remains the constant throughout – the signifier for all humanity is and can achieve – both soft flesh and hard artifice, base instinct and rational science, woman and man. One cannot exist without the other.

Marketing mass destruction – from the fanboys to the arthouse

One gauge of the three films’ varying endurance and success as transnational products is their availability on home video in the West. Doomed Megalopolis was originally released in the UK on VHS in 1995 by Manga Entertainment (the same company responsible for the UK releases of Akira and Ghost In The Shell [1995]), but never saw a subsequent DVD release (in contrast to the US, which saw the film released on DVD by ADV Pictures in 2001) – the original VHS tapes are now long out of print.

X/1999 saw UK release on both VHS and DVD in 2000 (again from Manga Entertainment) – making it one of the first anime to see release on the then-new DVD format. As with Doomed Megalopolis however – both editions are now out of print.

In both these titles, we see a snapshot of the UK anime market in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s – a collective effort by Manga Entertainment to build on the audience lured in by showpiece anime features such as Akira and Ghost In The Shell by offering them more of the same – in an interview with site The Raygun, anime writer and academic Jonathan Clements recounts the ‘fan-boy’ culture of the time:

“[Manga Entertainment] pandered to a significantly larger audience, the tens of thousands of consumers who bought Akira and might be persuaded to come back for more. There was a demonstrable demographic of 4000 or so young British males who could be counted on to habitually buy 18-rated cartoons, dubbed into English. Mike Preece spoke of the ‘beer-and-curry’ crowd who would enjoy anime in a raucous environment. We started calling such notional viewers ‘Mangatykes’, and as the decade wore on they began to crowd out the original fans, even at conventions.”

It is this ‘beer and curry’ crowd that films like X/1999 are specifically geared to target – with the DVD cover art plastered in a number of bright-red quotes from specialist fan-boy publications such as Animerica and Gamers Republic. A key quote from Fantasia adds a quasi-sexual tone to the effusive praise: “One of the greatest orgies of battle and destruction ever seen in a live action film or an animated one… A feast for the eyes”.

Here we see the clearest example of the transnational pull of a film like X/1999 when given distinct marketing impetus by a distributor like Manga Entertainment – the original animated feature dressed up in eye-catching pull-quotes and the allure of a large ‘15’ BBFC label promising violence and perhaps even sexual content. In essence, a checklist of ‘shock’ elements almost taking precedence over any notion of the film’s plot or characters.

These tactics are similar to those employed by Tartan Entertainment with their Asia Extreme label, focusing specifically on the allure of the exotic and dangerous to shift high volumes of home-video content on the assumption that it will provide thrills more extreme than those offered by standard cinema fare. As highlighted by Chi-Yun Shin in The Art of Branding: Tartan “Asia Extreme” Films: “the output of the label, and indeed the name of the label itself, invoke and in part rely on the western audiences’ perception of the East as weird and wonderful, sublime and grotesque”.

In contrast, Metropolis was released on DVD in 2002 by Sony Pictures (a major, mainstream distributor) with this edition remaining in print for over 10 years – with a new Blu-Ray edition set to replace it in early 2017 from Asian/arthouse movie specialist distributor Eureka Entertainment. This new edition is being marketed as a distinct ‘prestige’ edition (complete with premium collector’s ‘Steelbook’ packaging). Despite having released a number of live action Japanese films (as well as other world cinema classics such as Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari [1920]) Metropolis is the only anime title on their release schedule, marking it out as a product deemed by Eureka worthy of special attention and capable of sitting comfortably alongside the rest of their catalogue.

The case of Metropolis serves as an important exception to the norm in the UK anime market – here we see a feature-length anime product distributed not by an established anime purveyor (Manga Entertainment), but by first a mainstream distributor (Sony) and subsequently by a prestige arthouse label (Eureka).

In comparison to the lurid, fan-boy centric quotes on the DVD cover of X/1999, the DVD cover of Metropolis instead opts for a lengthy quotation from famed Hollywood director James Cameron: “Metropolis is the new milestone in Anime, a spectacular fusion of CG backgrounds with traditional character animation. It has beauty, power, mystery and above all… heart. Images from this film will stay with you forever. My congratulations to Rintaro-san for his masterpiece”.

Here, not only do we have an enthused seal of approval from an internationally acclaimed director from outside the enclosed sphere of anime-fandom, but a specific mention of ‘Rintaro-san’ as director – placing Metropolis as a ‘masterpiece’ that bears a specific authorial stamp and visual flair of its own.

Metropolis’ distribution in the UK on mainstream label Sony Pictures (specifically, sub-imprint Columbia Tristar) is a vital part of this picture – one in which the significance of the film becomes more than just the film itself – but the accoutrements that accompany its physical release. Suddenly, the film is empowered not only by the ‘press release’ allure of quotes from the likes of James Cameron, but is enfolded into a wider Sony Pictures structure that affords the movie equal opportunity within its wider catalogue.

This not only includes presence on the official Sony Pictures website, but also the inclusion of an entire extra DVD of special features within the product itself, as well as a booklet advertising ‘If you enjoyed this title, we recommend you try these’ – followed by a number of live action, Western films such as Bad Boys (1995), Apollo 13 (1995) and Jurassic Park (1993). Here we see evidence of the building of a consumer ‘habit’ that Oliver Dew discusses in ‘Asia Extreme’: Japanese Cinema and British Hype – Sony Pictures aiming toward a ‘key audience aggregate’ where foreign language films (in this instance, Metropolis) intersects with ‘cult’ genre film.

Dew goes on to explain that we see a specific awareness of a desire for more artistically-leaning productions to escape the derogatory ‘creepfest’ connotations associated with particular strands of Japanese cinema: “This combination, of the cult ‘fan-boy’ audience and art-house/world cinema audience, is by far the most common aggregation for a successful Asian genre film, as many other examples can attest: of Audition, Variety declares that its ‘[lyrical pacing] may allow it to break out of creepfest ghetto [sic].”

It is in this distinction – between the cult ‘fan-boy’ audience and the ‘art-house’, between the implication of low-brow and high-brow as distinct audience demographics in their own right, that we begin to see the role of Metropolis as a kind of bridging point between the two – and as such, reaping the benefits for existing in this transitory intersection between the two.

By looking at online movie database IMDB we can get a gauge for the corresponding popularity (number of users who rated the film) and reception (average rating out of 10) for these three films:

Doomed Megalopolis – Average rating of 6.5 (from 168 users)

X/1999 – Average rating of 6.2 (from 2,163 users)

Metropolis – Average rating of 7.3 (from 17,169 users)

Here we see Metropolis emerging with a clear lead, both in terms of rating – and more significantly – number of users who voted for the film, highlighting its broader appeal and elevation above the arguable ‘anime fans only’ space that Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 exist in – reflected by their far lower user count. Instead, Metropolis is now existing in a similar sphere of popularity to other auteur led animated motion-pictures – for example, Satoshi Kon’s acclaimed Millennium Actress (2001), released in the same year as Metropolis – which scores an average rating of 7.9 (from 15,403 users).

In Metropolis then, we see the creation of something different – a kind of emblematic transformation that sees the film existing as both ‘anime movie’, but also somehow ‘beyond’ other anime movies by the same director. It is telling to note that anime and Asian cinema critic Jasper Sharp on two occasions comments on Metropolis being an ‘accessible’ and perhaps more significantly, ‘safe’ entry point into the medium of anime for newcomers. Gone are the violent and sexual excesses of Doomed Megalopolis and X/1999 – in their place, a new, ‘safe’ sheen; and with it, Metropolis’ sleek entry into a perceived higher echelon of cinematic taste.

Conclusion

With these three films, Rintaro showed a deft ability to adapt to the rapidly changing consumer market of the 90s and early 2000s – from the direct-to-video thrills of Doomed Megalopolis, through the ‘beer and curry’ audience of ‘cult’ anime product like X/1999, to the big-budget international marketing of Metropolis as a more cultured art-house piece.

From their Japanese origins amidst disparate source material (manga and lengthy novel series), Rintaro has taken consistent themes and depictions centered around mass destruction of urban environments and applied a cohesive, yet evolving style to these cinematic works. It begins with the inherently niche – stories rooted in the very fabric of Japanese historical events and locales; yet playing with universal visual spectacle – offered through a transnational filter of the violent and sexual extremes that became in themselves key marketing components in the West at the time.

Moving beyond these cult, fan-boy orientated roots, we see Rintaro greet the 21st century with something new – in Metropolis, a film that speaks not only to an established, habitually-consuming audience, but that serves as an active entry point to the medium of anime. Dressed in the clothes of Jazz music, timelessly appealing science-fiction themes, flashy CGI and a link (albeit a convoluted one) back to one of the landmarks of Western cinema, we are left with a film that stands at a precise intersection between cult and art-house, low-brow and high-brow – and reaps the benefits of both.

The explosive, eye-catching statement of on-screen destruction remains, but now it takes on new meaning; part of a wider cinematic language – smoothed off and polished into a product that is arguably just as much influenced by the West as it is by the East. In a world of viewing tastes that were becoming increasingly transnational – swelled by the rise of the DVD medium and film distributors beginning to position anime (or at the very least, the ‘right’ kind of anime films) as something that could sit comfortably alongside Western live action films, it is only natural that it would fall to the most transnational of the three films to offer itself up to the widest audience.

References

Bird, Lawrence (2008) Serial Cities: The Politics of “Metropolis” from Lang to Rintarô, in Clare Market Review, London: London School of Economics

Bradshaw, Nick and Tim Robey (2007) The DVD Stack II: The Essential Guide to the World’s Best DVDs, Edinburgh: Canongate Books

CLAMP (2013) Tokyo Babylon – Book One. Milwaukie: Dark Horse

Clements, Jonathan and Helen McCarthy (2015) The Anime Encyclopedia, 3rd Revised Edition: A Century of Japanese Animation, Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press

Denison, Rayna (2015) Anime: A Critical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Dew, Oliver (2007) ‘Asia Extreme: Japanese Cinema and British Hype’ in New Cinemas vol. 5 n.1

Harper, Jim (2008) Flowers from Hell: The Modern Japanese Horror Film, Hereford: Noir Publishing

Hebdige, Dick (1991) Subculture, the meaning of style. London: Routledge

Hoad, Phil (2013) Akira: the future-Tokyo story that brought anime west, The Guardian (10 July), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jul/10/akira-anime-japanese-cartoon-manga [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Holmes, Chris (2013) Monumental Destruction — Top 10 Landmarks Movies Love to Destroy, Pop Dose (14 August) http://popdose.com/monumental-destruction-top-10-landmarks-movies-love-to-destroy/ [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Lee, Makela (2008) From Metropolis to Metoroporisu: The Changing Role of the Robot in Japanese and Western Cinema, in MacWilliams, Mark (ed.), Japanese Visual Culture

Reider, Noriko T (2010) Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present. Logan: Utah State University Press

Rintaro [encyclopedia entry], Anime News Network, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/people.php?id=2617 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Runyon, Christopher (2014) A Tale of Two Cities: Rebuilding a Metropolis, Movie Mezzanine (31 March) http://moviemezzanine.com/a-tale-of-two-cities-rebuilding-a-metropolis/ [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Sharp, Jasper (2014) 10 great anime films, BFI (13 May) http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-anime-films [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Sharp, Jasper (2014) Metropolis, Midnight Eye (29 June) http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/metropolis/ [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Shin, Chi-Yun (2009) ‘The Art of Branding: Tartan “Asia Extreme” Films’ in (eds) Jinhee Choi & Mitsuyo Wada Marciano, Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, Hong Kong: Kong Kong University Press

Sontag, Susan (2007) “The Imagination of Disaster”. In Redmond, Sean (ed.), Liquid Metal. The Science Fiction Film Reader, New York: Wallflower Press

Standish, Isolde (2008) ‘Akira, Postmodernism and Resistance’ in The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures (ed.) D.P. Martinez, pp.56-74, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sullivan, Timothy (2009) 007 on Sake: You Only Drink Twice, Urban Sake (12 June) http://www.urbansake.com/about-sake/007-on-sake-you-only-drink-twice.html [Accessed 20 December 2016]

UROTSUKIDOJI – LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND, BBFC http://www.bbfc.co.uk/releases/urotsukidoji-legend-overfiend-1992-0 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Metropolis, Groucho Reviews http://www.grouchoreviews.com/reviews/54 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Doomed Megalopolis, IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0337283/?ref_=nv_sr_1 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Metropolis, IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0293416/?ref_=nv_sr_2 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Millenium Actress, IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0291350/?ref_=nv_sr_1 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

X, IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0184041/?ref_=nm_knf_i3 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

(2002) Metropolis DVD cover, London: Sony Pictures

(2011) Look Back In Manga (Part II), The Raygun (13 July) http://www.theraygun.co.uk/?p=2665 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, Sony Pictures http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/osamutezukasmetropolis/ [Accessed 20 December 2016]

(2000) X DVD cover, London: Manga Entertainment

Filmography

Doomed Megalopolis (Teito Monogatari). Dir. Rintaro. Madhouse. Toei Video, Oz. 1991.

Metropolis (Metoroporisu). Dir. Rintaro. Madhouse. Kadokawa Shoten. 2001.

X/1999 (Ekkusu). Dir. Rintaro. Madhouse. Kadokawa Shoten, Victor Entertainment, Marubeni, Movic, Sega, Shelty. 1996.

Anime & Manga picks – 7th June 2016

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Tokyo Ghoul Root A

I’d read so much malign about the second Tokyo Ghoul season my expectations for this were relatively low. So when I picked this up at MCM ahead of its street date, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised – powering through the episodes in a single day, much as I did the first season. Yes, the pacing feels highly condensed and some of the character work a little limp compared to season one – but beyond that I found far more to love here than hate. Except the animation quality – which felt shockingly cheap at times, verging into scrappy shonen-level stuff at times that suddenly seemed to verify all the anti Studio Pierrot vitriol. But no, for the most part, I was immensely satisfied with my second Tokyo Ghoul outing, lapping up the one thing that remains at its core in both manga and anime formats – the story itself.

pingpong

Ping Pong – The Animation

My second pick-up from MCM – wonderfully early on its forthcoming proper ‘release’ date’. I haven’t sampled much of Masaaki Yuasa’s work before, but this had me rushing through the episodes like nobody’s business, spurred on by frenetic pacing and one of the finest Funimation dubs I’ve heard in a long time. It goes without saying the aesthetic is mindblowing – but the more you watch of it, the more it worms its way into your brain, dazzlingly you in ways you didn’t even think were possible. Much like my perennial go-to reference Space Dandy – this is one to really restore your faith in current anime output. Oh, and the soundtrack is ace too.

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Komomo Confiserie

My manga pick for this week. I previously read the first volume back in January but decided to finally plough on with volumes 2 + 3 this week, and am heartily glad I did, as the title character herself is a real gem at the heart of this. A neat twist on the classic Tsundere, the art style paints her with a wonderfully puffy gloss – all ample chest and Chaika-esque dark eyebrows that set off her blonde curls. Expect simmering shojo hijinks, sugary treats and borderline creepy antics from one of the male love interests, who likes to get a little ‘bitey’ at times…

bbk

BBK/BRNK

I’d followed this up to episode four while it was airing last season, but finally got round to finishing it this week, and found my impressions of it improving considerably the more I watched. If I could sum up the appeal – it’d be that of pure, pop corn spectacle. Michael Bay style widerscreen bombast, via the medium of weirdly charming CG character models, hot mechs and some outright bizarre comedy skits. I’m serious – the episode where the American team is introduced has some of the weirdest comedy ‘animation’ I’ve seen outside of RWBY. It must be the CG… If you dropped this the first time round though, like I did, I’d urge you to give it another shot, if only to chuckle at those more humorous touches that come to the fore in the series’ mid-section.

Gintama + Hunter x Hunter – the untapped Shonen masterpieces

One thing has always struck me, looking at the top-rated anime on MAL. Sitting pretty alongside fan favourites Steins Gate and Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood lie two long-running shonen standouts – Gintama and Hunter x Hunter.

In an age where streaming is already the consumption method of choice for the average anime fan, you might argue proper physical releases of shows like these (particularly ones with so many episodes) no longer matter. But personally, I’ve always longed for the added push something like this or Hunter x Hunter’s current run on Toonami would lend these shows – to help catapult them up into the wider consciousness occupied by shows like Death Note or Attack on Titan.

gintama

Let’s start with Gintama. For a long while, much like my relationship with One Piece, I was put off Gintama. Too long, too many references I didn’t get, too ‘high brow’ in comparison to other shonen shows. All excuses I conjured up before finally taking the plunge. But in the end, the show hooked me – and all because I didn’t start at the beginning.

Googling ‘best episodes of Gintama’, I drew up a list of recommended viewing and over the course of a lazy Christmas / New Year period, I worked my way through what I’d noted down. The infamous ‘toilet’ episode. The hot pot episode. The episode where Kagura can’t sleep. All had me in stitches – laughing to a degree in which I hadn’t laughed at an anime in a long time.

For me at least, this is the way to consume Gintama. A bite-size chunk at a time. While I can see merit in its longer, more ‘serious’ arcs, for me the show lives and dies by is episodic content – which for the most part is stellar; right up there with the likes of Space Dandy and Cowboy Bebop. There’s something about having to fit an entire story into the space of a 23 minute episode that does wonders for tight, witty writing.

I’ll always remember reading somewhere that described Gintama as ‘a Japanese Simpson’s – and it’s so very true. With a similar brand of zany, parody and referential-fuelled humour – the show feels thrillingly unique among its peers, operating with an intelligence that few others can match.

hunterxhunter

And so, to Hunter x Hunter (2011) – the show which I’d wager is a definite contender for my favourite anime series of all time.

What’s so special about the show? I think, as many others would testify – it’s the change the show undergoes across its duration. Like an elongated spin on the same dramatic tone shift Madoka Magica pulls, what begins as by-the-numbers, light-hearted boys-own shonen fare soon morphs into something infinitely darker.

My favourite arc has always been a toss up between the noir-ish mafia-centric Yorknew City segment and the epic Chimera Ant tale – and for good reason; in both these arcs the show reaches new heights of tension and awe-inspiring fear, scratching that ‘one more episode’ itch in a way I probably haven’t experienced since Code Geass (the show that first got me into anime in the first place)

I’ve pondered the philosophy and appeal behind these two arcs a great deal in the year since I finished the show – boiling it down to the singular essence of the human condition: survival, at any cost. The Chimera Ant arc in particular poses so many wonderful character moments that put forward the utter fragility of life against incredible odds, pitting the main characters against enemies so very many times more powerful than themselves, only to then empathise with those ‘enemies’ to such a remarkable degree that you find yourself rooting for them instead of the ‘heroes’. If ever there was a shonen series that was a true rollercoaster of emotions, Hunter X Hunter is it.

Every time I see someone discuss these two shows, I get excited, thinking about the first time I truly ‘got’ their appeal – coming at a time when I had started to become quite jaded toward longform shonen series. They revitalised my hope in the genre, and in Hunter x Hunter’s case, the medium of anime as a whole. Sometimes, from the smallest and most unassuming of beginnings, true surprises still await – much like the show’s philosophy, life’s true joy coming from the journey, as opposed to the end goal…

Noir: Institutionalized confidence and the aesthetic of power

I sat down to watch a little more of Noir earlier and it got me thinking again about a show that I feel has become rather criminally underrated these days.

You see, the thing this show does so well – beyond being gorgeous to look at, and gorgeous to listen to (courtesy of a stunning Yuki Kajiura soundtrack) – is a question of confidence in the two lead characters.

This most plainly manifests itself in Mireille. Blonde, achingly attractive, and always dressed to the nines, Mireille is in essence a female James Bond. There’s a kind of irony to the fact that throughout all the various antics of the series, she remains impeccably dressed in that miniskirt – why? It can hardly be the most practical of outfits.

But then – perhaps smartness, and the confidence linked with smartness, is part of the persona she portrays outwardly to the world (as well as inwardly to herself). Both her and Kirika are arguably monsters – they plow through hundreds of faceless thugs across the series without batting an eyelid. They are machines, ending lives with a single shot. Yet for Mireille, her confidence in her own abilities continues. Every time she makes a dash for it – the thought that she might die seems almost secondary – she has, in essence become institutionalized in the belief of her own survival strategy. For her, confidence is a means to continue onward, to continue avoiding the reality of her actions.

It reminded me at times of the novel Cocaine Nights by JG Ballard, which deals with some similar themes of an undercurrent of organised crime in a post-modern society. One where the police are non-existent, and policing thus falls to those able and willing to dispense it – in essence, those with that self-same institutionalized confidence and power (ie. the rich).

In the world of Noir – the activities of Mireille and Kirika continue in a space that is at once our everyday world, but also at a remove from our world. The physical space is the same, but it plays by a different set of rules. Here, disagreements are settled with a bullet, and life is cheap.

You’re left to ask yourself, who would want to live in a world like this? Or perhaps even, actively enjoy living in a world like this? Again, it comes back to that sense of institutionalization – of an activity and way of life becoming so ingrained in the persona that it becomes as natural to theme as breathing. Here, Mireille’s manner – that easy, classy confidence, that runs simultaneously to her glamorous disposition becomes part of that act. The persona she chooses to put on for both the world and herself.

Thoughts on: Negima!?

On my watch list this week was Negima!? AKA the absolutely mental Shaft version, and not the rather sweet original. I’m not too hot on which the anime community generally considers the best out of the two, but for me, it’s got to be the original, hands down.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m a massive fan of Shaft – and can totally see what they tried to do with the show, but so much of what made the original so charming is lost in the process. So I wanted to put pen to paper as it were, and jot down some pros and cons between the two.

PROS

Animation quality – Holy God does this show look incredible. OK, the DVD version I have (Manga’s Entertainment’s discs) is dog ugly in places – it looks like the original picture has been badly upscaled to fit widescreen tellies or something, because the picture is all blurry in places. But regardless, this is Shaft through and through, and it’s pretty enjoyable ticking off all the bits and bobs that clearly went on to be executed even more effectively in Madoka and Monogatari. The only bit where it falls down for me really is the ‘moving boxes’ / windows where it tries to show several elements at once on screen – this just feels cheaply done, and at odds with some of the other, more elegant visuals (AKA Evangeline’s fight with Negi in the early episodes)

Magic and cards – Did they ever try and turn the card element into an actually, physical real-world game? It seems like it was trying to set this up anyway, and while it’s executed quite poorly at times (and rushed, too) – it’s a clever concept and builds something new into the show in a fun way. The magic sequences look great too and see the show using its music to its best, too.

Chupacabra – You’ll probably either find this incredible annoying, or – like me – eventually warm to it and find it hilarious. There’s actually something quite sweet and inspiring about how dogged Asuna is about selling her ‘chupa-tees’. God bless.

Evangeline – Seriously, best girl, hands down. It needs to be said, but whoever decided to dub Evangeline, Chachamaru and Negi with proper English accents was a genius, and deserves a medal, or something. It’s hilarious, and inspired, all at the same time. She steals every scene she’s in, especially the tea scenes with the teacher, as well as the face pulling face-offs with Asuna. Basically, she’s the best pint-sized vampire you’ll ever see, aside from Shinobu from Monogatari.

CONS

OP and ED themes – I haven’t seen many anime where the OP and ED themes are dubbed over into English. I’m not a big fan of it, as I think Jpop tracks re-sung in English usually come out really badly as the rhythmic differences between Japanese and English can rarely reconcile. Plus also, difference in singing ability.

Characterisation – I was tempted to put this in PROS, as some of what Shaft’s version does with the characters is rather nicely done. I know a lot of people didn’t like how they made Asuna seem more ‘stupid’ / bratty, but in a way, I quite like how they make her even more bonkers in this – she just has SO MUCH ENERGY, you sort of can’t help but be swept up in her hairbrained schemes (and seriously, is there anyone that has longer twintails than her?!)

But on a more serious note – all the romantic poignancy of the original is left by the wayside. And for someone like me – who’s totally a sucker for a harem, it doesn’t feel great. For example, the stuff that happens with Nodaka, Konoka and Yue is heartbreakingly realised in the original as the girls come to terms with their feelings, but here they’re mainly all just foils for Asuna’s schemes.

They even largely gloss over the great moral dilemma that lies at the heart of Negima!? AKA – guess what, Asuna is in love with this absolute minor of a teacher (and let’s not forget she’s in love with a bloke old enough to be her dad, too). In the original, everyone’s favourite blonde Ayaka totally blasts her down to size for this and says, hey Asuna, you realise you might be pretty messed up liking these dudes? (despite being even more obsessed with Negi than Asuna herself) – But here, it’s just played for laughs.

Plot – What plot? Ok, joking aside – the plot in Shaft’s version is pretty damn hard to follow. But then, perhaps  that’s besides the point. You’re supposed to just sit back, let Asuna and her lackeys take the ropes, and enjoy. But really, while Negima!? Is first and foremost a comedy through and through, it kind of sucks that so much of the original (which could be both incredibly poignant and deep in terms of lore) is cast aside.

Every time I sit down to watch this show, I keep thinking there’s supposed to be some deep, other level of meaning beyond the wacked out visuals. Taken to its logical conclusion, Negima!? is anime on crack – almost to Excel Saga degrees (Asuna and Excel are totally cousins right?) – it’s the drugged-up Pink Floyd album of anime, he Monty Python of anime. Heck, even the Red Dwarf of anime (wait, no, that’s Space Dandy). It’s never not entertaining, never not a visual treat. And while it drags like heck, you know that another insane chupacabra reference or visual gag is around the corner. Hence, you’re held in a constant suspense of semi mediocrity that remains at worst a firm seven out of ten.

And after all, why have one best girl when you can have thirty-one?

Now, bring on the remake where the English dub actually gives Negi a Welsh accent. Get the bloke who did Mr Drippy in Ni No Kuni to do it, and away you go.

Man would that be amazing.