Nagayama Yoko – Hitomi No Naka No Far Away (Five Star Stories insert song)

Could you get any more 80s than this? One day I’ll write a post about how long-running epic Five Star Stories is one of the great ‘lost’ mega-franchises that could have been, a mainstay of NewType magazines even to this day, and even partially translated into English, but now largely all but forgotten in the West, except by die-hard mecha fans.

I could talk all day about how Mamoru Nagano’s mecha designs are some of the most bewitchingly beautiful in the business, all baroque, skeletally thin elegance – like something out of a fashion mag or pop concert design sketches. But no, today I’m here to talk about the key song – Hitomi No Naka No Far Away – from the 1989 OVA adaptation of Five Star Stories. This OVA was released in the States by ADV as a subtitled only DVD edition that is no sadly out of print. It’s never made it out here in the UK.

But while my love of the arguably flawed hour-long OVA has wavered since I first saw it, my adoration for this song only grows and grows every time I hear it. Sung by long-time enka singer and Kohaku Uta Gassen regular Nagayama Yoko, the song oozes a breezy 80s class, from the synth trills of the beginning to the soaring, catchy chorus line to my favourite part of the song – that little piano hook that feels like it could have come straight off a Deacon Blue album. I have so much time for the style of production most 80s anisong occupies, and this song epitomises so many of its best parts.

Why long videos are disrupting the anime YouTuber discourse field

A simple truth – I really don’t like long YouTube videos. Unless, in a few very rare cases when a YouTuber absolutely nails the art of crafting a longer narrative piece and turns it into a more full-on sit-down documentary piece, for the most part, anything longer than 15 minutes or so is an instant turn off – and even that’s pushing it.

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend amongst almost all of the biggest anime YouTubers toward longer videos. Apparently this is because viewing habits are shifting in this direction, while it simultaneously allows for the video to be surfaced more reliably by YouTube’s recommendation systems, as well as better ad return. I’m not a YouTuber myself, so I don’t profess to know the ins and outs of the systems, but as a lay viewer, it’s evident that many are now seeking to ‘game’ this system, or at the very least shift more in line with working to optimise it.

The downside is that many channels no longer output their videos in the way they did when – in my opinion – they did when they were operating at their best. Many now release overly long videos, stretched out by ad opportunities, pre-amble, post-amble or just general ‘filler’ that pads the video toward a longer run-time. Sometimes, when well-written and scripted, this works – but invariably, it forms part of the larger trend of freeform discourse that many lifestyle YouTubers are also tending toward – all in service of keeping eyeballs on the video for longer.

Alongside this, there is also a trend toward more channels mixing in ‘straight up’ videos with podcasts and webcasts – essentially, un-edited vocal only video, or just straight up vocal over still image. Stuff that runs for 30 mins to an hour-plus. Some YouTubers relegate this content to sub channels, while others release it as part of their main content stream.

The simple truth is that good video content takes a long time, and a lot of expertise (either the invidual’s own, or a paid-for third party) to produce. So in this instance, as the written online content industry found out many years ago, it becomes all about the content churn – minimising time input and maximising hits and sheer output. Why waste two days on a great video when you can bang something out in a couple of hours and potentially get just as many hits via a catchy video title or thumbnail? I’ve seen many YouTubers flat out ‘give up’ or reduce their uploads to once every month or two because they are unwilling to ‘play the game’. What was once a passion is now conflated into the tricky minefield of ‘To what degree am I going to ‘step up’ to play this as a business/full degree paid lifestyle’.

This is important, because as I discussed in a previous post, I believe, as with many other online media industries, video is more important than ever right now – moving to become the primary discourse field for media analysis. Companies that post-poned getting ‘in’ on YouTube for years are now finally realising all the eyeballs are there now, and that no matter what the skill or financial outlay is, they need to get on YouTube and start pushing high quality video content to keep those same eyeballs interested.

What it all comes back to is what function YouTube serves, and attention spans. As we are bombarded by more and more distractions and media outputs, we have to make more and more choices of how we compartmentalise our viewing time. A short, snackable five or ten minute video of dynamic, well edited, well soundtracked ‘impact video’ is perfect to fit into a short break. But a thirty minute diatribe or deep-level analysis of a show’s themes is something very different – more like an audiobook or radio programme.

The YouTube anime community continues to put out some remarkably high quality content – the likes of Super Eyepatch Wolf one of my continuing current favourites – but it also owes it to itself to keep itself in ‘good nick’ and not fall overtly prey to ‘the numbers game’. While the ‘vlogging’ model works for some YouTubers, and can certainly still be enjoyable in the right context (when you have unlimited time on your hands and can sit back an enjoy in comfort) – I personally believe that a continual strive toward short dynamic ‘impact’ videos remains one of the medium’s most powerful forms; the videos I, at any rate, still remember – that linger in my mind long after watching.

Asian Kung Fu Generation – Re:Re: (Erased OP)

Let’s cast our minds back to when Erased was the hottest thing in anime for one crazy season. For all the faults many came to lambast the season with post-Ending, the show seemed to capture bottled fervour in a lightning instant while it was airing. You just *had* to watch it – or so the stats on MAL or general pervasive online hype would suggest.

And something about AKFG’s propulsive, clockwork-like number Re:Re felt so perfectly matched to the show and its own feelings of time, tension and release. What’s more, the song itself was a re-release and re-recording of a song originally dating from all the way back in 2004 – the band reaching back through time to resurrect a relic of their own pasts, retooling it for a new generation.

And perhaps that’s why the song so strongly recalls the jangly, indie-pop/rock stylings of guitar rock’s mid 00s era – when the likes of Libertines and Razorlight ruled the airwaves and pop-punk still felt like the coolest thing known to man. Re:Re: is all that bundled up into a slick new suit and tie, another smash hit in the repertoire of one of anisong’s most consistently excellent rock outfits.

Anime’s early 00s flirtation with lad culture

I’ve been reading a lot of ‘older’ books about anime recently, mostly short, populist hardback tomes from the early 00s – an era when the medium was emerging from its more ‘cult’ overtones of the 80s and 90s and into full-fledged social phenomenon. This was the age of Funimation and ADV’s rise to ascendancy, of all the ‘classic’ series everyone still remembers today. Of Naruto and DBZ, of Tokyopop and the all round general construction of the trappings of the Western anime industry and fandom we recognise today.

And the thing that struck me most about these books (epitomised by 2004’s Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo) was how much their tone and writing style seemed aimed squarely at a sexed-up teen male audience. It was all shock-jock ‘WOW! Isn’t this just so darn cool!’ proclamations and a fixation on ‘experiencing’ the sexier side of fan/cosplay culture, about visiting maid cafes and chatting to hot female cosplayers. Of wheeling and dealing in the busy streets of Akihabara and grabbing all the gatcha prizes you could afford/carry. This was late 90s gaming magazine speak via Loaded/Nuts – an evolution of Manga UK’s tits n tentacles furtiveness into a new, glossy 00s laddishness for whom anime was simply part of a larger consumption of burgeoning geek culture.

And it all made me wonder about the evolution of how when we write about anime, in populist terms, it so overtly shifts with the times. These days, ‘intro to anime’ style books are arguably passe – anime no longer needs an introduction; those ‘in the know’ are already sated on the whole wealth of media the internet has to offer. But back then, there was this kind of wider affirmation of media culture. You subscribed to (a physical) Shonen Jump, you were part of physical mailing lists and mail order catalogues, you read physical books about physical anime releases. Everything was physical. Tactile. Consumptive. You touched. You felt.

These days, through the wealth of information available online, and the wealth of other fans we’re able to converse with via Twitter etc, anime fandom has arguably become a more open, equalised domain. But in looking back, I remain curious about how we’ve come so far from the zany, thrill-ride tone of the early 00s, when DVD blurb’s were plastered with tongue in cheek references to the sexual content.

The irony is that in wider media discourse, it’s my belief that the laddish tone of (youth culture) gaming and music mags of the late 90s and early 00s birthed what became the current style of intelligent but chatty, unformalised tone that now dominates liberal publications like the Guardian and a whole host of discourse blogs. Crystalizing in the mid to late 00s as a generation of journalists and writers brought up in the media climate of the 90s came of age and began dictating the leading edge of how we talk about media, the style soon came to suffuse the media itself. But in this process, there was evolution – and as such, looking back at works of the early 00s, we see an arguably ill-formed, incarnation not yet streamlined and and sublimated into the smooth, easy breeziness of what was to follow. Here, there remained off-taste jokes and a jocularity that still shifted between the triumvate of Playstation, lads mags and Babestation. An age where ADV could release an anime like Najica Blitz Tactics with an actual pair of panties with it.

Genocidal Organ and Ergo Proxy – Manglobe’s ‘thinky’ sci-fi aesthetic

Last week I caught the third in the Project Itoh ‘trilogy’ of cinematic efforts – Genocidal. I came away largely pleased with what I saw – feeling it was by far the strongest of the three movies – although I got the distinct impression many others in the audience found it overly cerebral – there were definitely a couple of walkouts halfway through, and the cinema was only half full to begin with.

 

And as I settled in with the film, soaking up its atmosphere – which if anything, is less anime, and more sleek Hollywood-esque Bourne thriller, I started to ponder why I liked what it was doing so much. And then, roughly halfway through, it struck me – it was so much like Manglobe’s other property (and in my opinion, their best effort) Ergo Proxy.

 

Now, these days, Ergo Proxy has something of a notorious reputation as being a real ‘marmite’ series amongst those fans that do remember it (it doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much as other Manglobe effort Samurai Champloo). For those that do remember Ergo Proxy though – fans typically fall into two camps – those that despise it as overly pretentious and inconsistent in its animation quality, and those that adore its aesthetic and theoretical approach to hard sci-fi. Suffice to say, I fall into the latter camp.

 

In summing up what I feel Manglobe’s aestheticism with Genocidal Organ and Ergo Proxy represents to me, I think it comes down to this kind of high-minded Greco-Roman velour – all statuesque and posey; cheaply animated in places, sure – but always *interestingly* animated. Framing and fluidity is prioritised over the kind of KyoAni / Ufotable digital processing visual gloss fans seem to work themselves into a frenzy over these days. In this way, Genocidal Organ very much seems to belong to an older school of anime – the kind of slick techno-thriller you could imagine Manga UK putting out in their mid 90s heyday. All fuzzy VHS grain and yellow subtitles included.

 

It’s the kind of film where you can call your main character ‘John Paul’ and get away with it – where you can deal with bombings in real world locales, and throw up pseudo-science as if it’s actually real-life lore, selling its principles so strongly, you start to take notes on what to search up on after the film to see if it really is real…

 

In its laconic swagger and brute-yet-effete masculinity, Genocidal Organ is the man who smokes a cigarette while reading a volume of French philosophy, before downing a whiskey and shooting down a building full  of terrorists. It’s mid 90s James Bond – still all relic of Cold War peril. It’s a beating heart of quantum computing, constantly, furtively twisting into something else – demanding you keep pace with both its ideas and its action.

 

This is my kind of sci-fi. Philip K. Dick lite for the anime generation – a cerebral pill of dissolved braininess. And in this aesthetic and mindset, it just makes me long for more – stuff operating on this cinematic level (or at the very least, doing what the likes of Psycho Pass did in its sheer quality of world-building). Bigger, better visions of dark futures through which we might explore our own present…

The gloss and majesty of Japanese anime artbooks

This weekend I headed down to London’s Tobacco Docks to check out this year’s Hyper Japan – a festivalian celebration of all things Japan. Set in an aging Victorian dockyard by way of a failed 90s shopping centre, it’s a place of misformed, malshaped lost ages – aging brickwork arches and twee ‘mini shops’ cupped away into alcoves. The usual vendors, good and bad – mountains of merchandise, mostly overpriced.

 

I make it sound like it’s a bad experience – it’s not. Hyper Japan remains one of the ‘must see’ events of any UK-based Japan-afficianado’s calendar, but the simple truth will always remain – it exists to sell stuff, laying the gauntlet at the feet of the multitude of the vendors to offer up their best wares to a crowd that seems to swell immeasurably every year. To such an extent that the show – for good and ill – now exists as a kind of mini MCM Comic Con.

 

Let’s talk about artbooks – without a doubt one of the most visually impressive, and resultingly expensive items on sale at Hyper Japan. Part of the allure of these for me has always been that they remain largely an ‘exclusive’ to events like Hyper Japan and MCM. Sure, you can order them online or import direct from Japan, but unlike manga or anime releases, you’re not likely to find them in your average high-street store. No, artbooks are the ‘rare beasts’ of anime fandom’s vast savannah – a ‘get em while you can!’ experience that promises pages and pages of visual splendour and mountains of Japanese text most fans probably won’t be able to read. But so what if you throw down £30 on one of these gorgeous books, flick through and then push its crisp pages into a bookshelf, rarely to be taken down again. It’s the experience that counts, right?

 

One thing I’ve always admired about Japanese anime artbooks is that the level of quality on display in them is so far away and beyond anything seen in the UK, it continues to blow my mind every time I see one. Outside perhaps lush art gallery hardbacks from the likes of the British Museum or something, you’ll very rarely see book productions of this quality in the UK. Anime Ltd have started to release artbook style content with some of their Ultimate Editions – and while their efforts are to be celebrated, frankly, the quality is still a far cry from the Japanese editions.

 

Maybe it’s the way the Japanese ones are always encased in their sleek dust jackets – so crisp and rounded. So pleasingly tactile. Whereas here in the UK, it’s the humble hardback that’s usually the sign of quality, in Japan, there’s something about the soft gentility of the slipcased softback that just feels so right in your hand. It beckons to you with a soothing call of exclusive imagery printed in eye-popping detail. Yes, those CLAMP illustrations will be yours. They will be!

 

I have to confess, I’ve largely steered away from amassing anime physical paraphernalia of any form over the past few years – driven by a lack of shelf space. But art books still seem to beckon to me – the missing link in a chain of globalized evolution. In a world where we now get so many anime and manga series translated into English mere days, weeks or months after their Japanese releases, artbooks remain tantalising out of reach and exotic.

Yuki Kajiura – Key of the Twilight (.hack//SIGN OST)

Ahhhhhh. That’s what listening to Key of the Twilight makes me feel. A little nostalgia. OK – a lot of nostalgia. Memories of a ‘story never ever told in the past.’ I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Hack franchise as a whole, but the quality of Kajiura’s soundtrack for the original series remains peerless, and in my eyes the greatest point of recommendation for the show as a whole. Coming as it did while she was arguably still in the formative years of her anime compositions in the early 00s, it still has this nubile ‘outre’, bizarre quality that matches the out and out weirdness that first Hack series has at times.

While it has Kajiura’s trademark synth/choral mash-up style imprinted all over it, what I love best about Key of the Twilight is the romano-Adriatic feel it has, some Aegean dream of softly strummed guitar and long nights of wine, candles and endless beaches of soft white sand. Summer Nights of endless heat-stroked perfection. There’s touches of the pan-European tropico vibe the Pet Shop Boys lent to their mid 90s album Bilingual to the mix of synths and guitar, and all in all, there’s just such a mystique to the song – especially when it delves into the hauntingly beautiful middle-eight section and really lets it all go with the choral elements. Simply stunning stuff.

Sawano Hiroyuki – WarCry (Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress OST)

You’ve got to love a Sawano Hiroyuki insert song. From Kill to Kill to Attack on Titan, Hiroyuki has become known, almost to a cliched degree, for his fist pumping, heart in your mouth ‘big drop’ power tunes. And WarCry is no different – offering up another dose of empowering, energetic awesomeness.

Coming when it did though, WarCry is very much a product of the post-Nzk Hiroyuki, taking the sound he distilled in his work for Seraph of the End and Aldnoah Zero and again going for all-English lyrics in a rollicking, soaring number that – when the chorus hits – doesn’t feel like too far a cry from something you’d hear on Eurovision. I’ve often pondered the Scandi-esque feel a lot of Hiroyuki’s vocal songs have, and it’s perhaps at its most prominent here – if someone told me that this song was from a big-hitting Swedish popstar instead of a Japanese composer, I’d probably believe them.

Thinking back to when Kabaneri aired, I still wonder whether it would have been a bigger hit if it’d aired on Crunchyroll instead of the then-in-its-infancy anime-streaming version of Amazon (soon to become Amazon Strike). But besides that, WarCry remains a poignant reminder of week-1 Kabaneri, where for a time being at least, we wondered whether we had another epic hit on the scale of Attack on Titan on our hands.

Makoto Miyazaki – Seigi Shikkou (One Punch Man OST)

When it comes to beefy inspirational anime OST tunes, they don’t come much bigger than this. One Punch Man is up there with Attack on Titan and Tokyo Ghoul as one of the most popular anime/manga properties in the West right now, and not to mention the outstanding OP theme, Seigi Shikkou, from the soundtrack-proper captures all the heroic power and puff-your-chest-out brouhaha that the series has to offer.

Very much in the same propulsive template as the likes of Yuki Hayashi’s compositions for My Hero Academia, Makoto Miyazaki’s track goes all in on live drums, crunchy guitar and a soaring central string arrangement that I have to confess nearly had my eyes misting up when it played during the iconic Mumen Rider vs Sea King battle in the anime.

I compel anyone to listen to the track without clenching their fist with heroic ambition.

Yoko Kanno – Dance of Curse (Escaflowne OST)

When it comes to Yoko Kanno’s orchestral work (as opposed to her pop material), I think I’ll always have to rank Dance of Curse up there at the top. The power of the track is just so palpable, right from the frantic, high-pitched strings and booming chants that open the piece, to the sheer glorious majesty and grandeur of the thing as it really gets going. The dynamism and scale is just mindblowing – and puts to shame 99% of everything else you’ll usually hear on any given anime soundtrack. Dance of Curse sounds like it was made to soundtrack some timeless cinematic epic, not simply some mid-90s TV series. And yet here we are, two decades on, remembering Escaflowne as one of the masterpieces of pre 00-s anime – and Kanno’s soundtrack is a massive part of it.

What I like too is that it remains so distinct from what she’d go on to do next with her Cowboy Bebop soundtrack. Dance of Curse is pure fantasy, especially when it shifts gear about 3-minutes in to the middle-eight, cresting and swelling through this sweeping movement that feels so inherently ominous. Anyone who’s watched the TV show will know that for all Escaflowne’s beauty and optimism, it’s not without its darker moments too, and here Kanno captures that all.

Dance of Curse is her One-Winged Angel. Her opus.