While studying photography on a secluded part of the south coast of California in the late nineties I dated a frisky young blonde co-ed for a little more than a year. In our breaks from study we camped in Big Sur, visited her father’s home in Palo Alto and accompanied her family to their cabin on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The overriding theme of these trips was sex, lots of it, anywhere we could get away with it: outside on a break from hiking, an impromptu picnic by the lake, inside on the ancient oak kitchen table, on the washer (or dryer), or even (yawn) in bed. We would often plan our next tryst during the big family meals prepared by her step-mother, which given the ages of her step-brother and sister who accompanied us on these rustic getaways, was usually spaghetti with meatballs, or some variation of meat and potatoes, typical American fare. Often after the meal we would happily volunteer as the cleanup crew and get downright sudsy with a five and seven year-old running about the kitchen, while her parents relaxed in the other room. We even went so far as to volunteer to babysit the kids, so they could run to the local pub for a few Vodka sodas before bed. My minxish lover all clad in tight blue jeans and form-fitting winter sweater would pop on a well-used VHS tape for the kids, give me a wink and dirty smile and we would jaunt off like hyenas smelling a kill to whatever part of the house had yet been christened by our more animal nature. This ploy worked like a charm the first few times, that is until the youngest started complaining of “scary animal noises” coming from inside the house, forcing mommy to stay at home and all of us to watch the video, of which these children were so enamored. I remember plopping nonplussed into a plush purple bean bag, hand in communal popcorn bowl, and perusing the well worn cover of the VHS tape, which read, My Neighbor Totoro and had a small girl standing incongruously next to a huge racoon-like panda. Odd, but what the heck? By the end of it, having forgotten all about my lover’s unfulfilled libido, I was right there cheering and crying alongside her brother and sister for little Mei and Satsuki. Sadly our wild outdoorsy ways did not last (we got caught in the bathtub and I was banned from subsequent conjugal family vacations), but I had found a new love, one that would be with me always. It was thus that I learned of the hypnotizing world of anime, and along with it, of the complex and mystifying country of Japan.
When most people think of Japan a flood of visuals rise up in the mind’s eye: samurai, geisha, sushi, bonsai trees, a single red sun on a white background—all of them gorgeous cliches. But the fact that it is easier to attempt to describe Japan in terms of the visual is no coincidence. In a place where words are used less than body language, and silence can suggest more than the direct verbal answer to a question, the primacy of the image has led to a strong history of pictorial artwork, ranging from colorful Ukiyo-e woodblocks with its erotic sub-category of Shunga, the Nishiki and Kakemono scrolls, and Bunraku puppetry, which have all been major influences of the serialized visual story-telling of Manga—and the main impetus of the current paradigm of Anime. Which begs the question: in terms of story, character and in relation to the pop culture zeitgeist, given the great lengths animation has come in the past fifty years, would Hokusai’s 1824 woodblock scene of Octopus and Pearl Diver be out of place on the big screen?
Since its inception in post-war Japan when television began offering opportunities that the neutered film industry wasn’t prepared to risk, anime stands directly opposed to the big budget Hollywood aesthetic. In defiance of the sappy American predilection for happy endings, here there endings are rarely anything but dark and very often end with the hero dying, goal unfulfilled. This, coupled with elongated storylines, allows for greater psychological development and more realistic characterizations, mirroring the society that creates them, and the global paradigm toward creative endeavor only as limited as the mind will allow. As Susan Napier says in the excellent discourse on contemporary Japanese animation, Anime From Akira To Howl’s Moving Castle, “Indeed anime may be the perfect medium to capture what is the overriding issue of our day, the shifting nature of identity in a constantly changing society. With its rapid shifts of narrative pace and its constantly transforming imagery, the animated medium is superbly positioned to illustrate the atmosphere of change permeating not only Japanese society but also all industrialized or industrializing societies.”The winner writes the history. And as we are seeing in perpetual-post-war world, the loser, too, also tends to write its own history. Such is the case with history-obsessed Japan, a place often reticent to recall the full breadth and subsequent impact of its decades of warmongering in China, Korea, Asia and the world. Despite this inner turmoil, Japan has had major success, more than just as the most successful industrialized society in Asia, but also by extending its soft power—that of its deep and specialized culture—far beyond its own borders, something China yearns to do in a modern way, yet continues to fail at. This extended recognition of Japan as active progenitor, and not just passive receiver, of its storied past as well as its innovative present and potentially avant-garde future has given rise to opportunities to illuminate the beauty of an isolated and inward-looking country as well as render itself in ways both true and perceived.
In the only country in the world to have experienced the atomic bomb—twice—, in the midst of a self-inflicted famine brought on by said warmongering, whereupon the replacement of the revered emperor with the cult of MacArthur, after whose reign, began an almost unprecedented spurt of industrial and economic growth, at the sacrifice of the populace, who was beset by disease (Minamata, chronic Hay Fever) and the destruction of their natural landscape in order to emerge from the radioactive ashes as a world leader, how does the world see Japan? A more enlightening question to ask might be, how does Japan see itself? As an economic world power equal to Europe and the U.S.? As a victimized country with only itself on which to rely? Embroiled in an ongoing battle to define the cutting edge of the next world order? Or perhaps some combination of all three, and more. Propped up by their rich history during such societal and economic upheaval in an extremely limited time period, is it any wonder that the most popular modern day art form is populated by fantastic tales of futuristic technology and peopled with vacillating humans/cyborgs who generally fight some kind of evil to no real tangible result? The most obvious metaphor in visual heavy anime is metamorphosis, from the literal act of Shinji donning the EVA suit in the popular mecha series Neon Genesis Evangelion to the figurative transformation undergone by Chihiro in Spirited Away, the highest grossing Japanese film of all-time. Although both characters undergo both literal and figurative metamorphoses, like Motoko Kusanagi’s change from sexy cyborg to disincorporated incarnation in Ghost In The Shell, the end result is vague and often dispiriting. Is it the ambivalent outcome of the apocalyptic vision of Tetsuo’s transmogrification in Akira from impotent biker thug to creator of a new universe that keeps us coming back?
The depth of the anime universe and the manga on which they are often based is as profound as the unconscious mind. Animated television and film have overtaken modern Japanese cinema as the mythological backbone of the country and, by extension of its popularity, the world. The worlds inhabited by the characters are as often unlike like our own as they are similar, yet the overriding thematic motifs that penetrate through the mystery of the unknown are universal.
The mind-bending metamorphosis of Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) requires more than just an open mind, but a strong stomach as well. Soaring through the vast 2D cosmos of the prolific Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, 1987; Ninja Scroll, 1993; Vampire Hunter D – Bloodlust, 2001) are good examples of lesser known productions that have had huge influence on the many up and coming independent animators. Before creating Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke 1997, Spirited Away, 2001), directed Lupin III – Castle of Cagliostro (1979) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Along with Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, 1995) of Production I.G, and the godfathers of anime, Osamu Tezuka, Rintaro, Osamu Dezaki, Shinichiro Watanabe, among many others, they are instrumental in creating a modern animation industry that produces more than 50% of the annual output of Japanese films, and has supported innovators like Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed, 2004) and the late Satoshi Kon.
Collaborating with Mamoru Oshii on Patlabor 2: The Movie gave Studio Madhouse’s Satoshi Kon some of the experience needed to produce his own psychedelic vision of reality. Writing Memories in 1995, he debuted his directorial talents with Perfect Blue in 1998, quickly adding to his oeuvre with Millennium Actress in 2001, Tokyo Godfathers in 2003 and before his big-screen pièce de résistance Paprika in 2006, he fathered his own television series, Paranoia Agent, arguably his most well developed work. Kon’s meteoric rise deserves more than a mere postscript to the world of anime due to his all too early demise from a rare form of cancer. His films are an ode to the simulacrum: the artful melding of real life (in anime form) within the realm of the unreal (dreams, thoughts, memories). Yet they defy being categorized as “fantasy”. Projecting the subconscious onto the flimsy scrim of daily life, we see touches of Kon’s absurdist-based humor paint surrealistic broad strokes which allow us to ascertain patterns for the living in a mad mad world.
Perfect Blue is an example of an animated feature (featurette really in that it weighs in at a welterish 77 minutes) that could be a psychologically taut live action film in its own right. Kon’s tendency of tinging the more surreal aspects of stress-induced self-realization with graphic violence and sex would be right at home in any thinking person’s film collection. Kon is particularly adept at using point-of-view to string the viewer along in an almost Hitchcokian way that slowly raises tension while still peeling back layer after layer of psychology until the final reveal. Much as in Psycho, we are one with the protagonist in search of their true identity. In a very real sense, we walk step by step in the shoes of the afflicted Mima, who undergoes some variance of metamorphosis, in this case a positive aspect of what Napier calls the “Disappearing Shōjo”, in that she is leaving her cute asexual persona of pop-star singer behind for the more mentally and sexually mature figure of television actress. This is a credit to Kon’s directorial talents in that he subverts the traditional shōjo genre, or in other words, provides a positive vision of a potential reflection of the societal backlash against the kawaii depiction of women as wanton receptacles for male voyeurism, women as purely homemakers, providers, nurturers and so on.
The vehicle of Kon’s second film, Millennium Actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara is an atypical version of the popular shōjo driven anime popular with young women. She represents the eternal youth, who is in the perpetual state of searching, inhabiting a liminal existence, consistently pursuing an elusive and essentially unattainable goal, in this case an attractive and mysterious stranger who dogs her throughout her life and career as a pop actress spanning the 20th century. Although a sense of self-realization does eventually take place, and she does depart into the depths of space, the popular western trope of riding off into the sunset never occurs. Ostensibly being interviewed at the end of her life by a sycophantic director, Chiyoko passes into the realm of memory and dream through a dérive of remembered films scenes in which the thin screen between fantasy and reality are consciously blurred until she vanishes, i.e. dies. This can be seen as another form of the unfulfilled pure youth of the disappearing shōjo. As a once again young Chiyoko says while blasting off into space, “だって私、あの人追いかけている私が好きなんだもの.” (After all, it was chasing him that I really loved.”)Yasutaka Tsutsui (Chūōkōron Shinsha, 1993), Kon’s final film, Paprika, focuses on a futuristic kind of psychoanalysis called “dream therapy”, in which a device called the “DC Mini” allows Nobel prize-winning scientist Atsuko Chiba to view people’s dreams and explore their subconscious thoughts via her dream avatar, Paprika, a piquantly cute alter ego who deftly turns the concept of amae (indulgent dependence) into a psychoanalytic tool to examine the dreams of troubled police detective Konakawa. Accompanying the detective throughout his cinematic dreams and employing multiple guises, she saves him time and again, allowing him the opportunity to reflect on the multi-layered meaning of it all.
Ambiguously childlike while maintaining an alluring sexuality just below the surface, she smiles and blinks her big eyes in order to gain the trust of the detective, as well as the audience. The DC Mini devices are stolen and all dream hell breaks loose as the so-called “terrorist” begins to break into the dreams of those who helped invent the still unregulated machine. The infected victims spew nonsense and march like automatons as they begin to inhabit a liminal existence between reality and the dream world, eventually causing schizophrenic breaks and even death. Alongside Konakawa there are six male characters depicted: Dr Inui, the old, paraplegic, luddite chairman; Dr. Shima, the old and friendly chief-of-staff, Dr. Tokita, the obscenely obese inventor of DC Mini; Dr. Osanai, a subordinate apparatchik; and virtual two bartenders working at an online meeting place called Radioclub.jp. Except for the detective, who embodies the peak of middle-aged masculinity, although distraught by his troubled past—all of these male roles portray the a very real aspect of modern Japanese society—the impotent and desexualized male: disabled, old, fat, whiny, internet otaku and so on. It’s a grim social reality indeed when there is nothing for the brilliant and attractive Dr. Chiba or the minxish and deep-seeing Paprika to fall in love with. No wonder dreams are the focus of reality. What else is there?
The mystery continues and the waking realities of the hospital staff who worked on the invention are invaded by the DC Mini, including Dr. Shima and to a lesser extent even Dr. Chiba, who experiences more than one near-death experience. This culminates in the appearance of a creepy procession led by a behemoth ichimatsu doll, and populated by western prairie dolls, daruma heads, samurai silouettes, faceless mannequins, manekineko, statues of liberty, kitchen appliances, and innumerable cultural references, marching in and around the traditional portable mikoshi shrine with an eerie and jangly musical accompaniment toward what Dr. Chiba calls “行けば二度と戻れない”, a place of no return. The idea of the endless parade could potentially recall the collective obeisance of World War II Germany and Japan, where anyone out of line was fatally dealt with by the Gestapo or the Kempeitai. Affecting the guise of a robotic avatar, the immature genius Dr. Tokita dives into the dream and becomes trapped in the hallucinogenic amalgam of fragmented thoughts, memories and ideas that threaten to turn waking life into a living nightmare. As Dr. Chiba becomes the last viable option to derail the dystopian plans of the dream terrorist, Paprika becomes more and more powerful until she is abruptly captured and, in the film’s only sexually tinged scene, has a hand plunged through her—from the pubic area to the face—that literally splays her identity like a rubber suit to reveal the unconscious and naked body of Dr. Chiba. Rescued in the nick of time by the troubled detective, who has both a literal and figurative breakthrough in his own case, gives Paprika (and the bartenders from the online chatroom) a chance to set reality straight and remand the world of dreams to their proper place. Paprika’s suggestion to detective Konakawa that the “ネットも夢も似ていると思うはない?” net and dreams resemble one another is perhaps a confession that while at first it may seem like yet another form of fantasy, this film is really a hallucinatory vision of a potential future where humanity must overcome its own inclination to allow technology—and those who create it—to run amok. There is never any hint of sexual tension between either one of Chiba’s personalities or Konakawa, who seems obsessed with his own troubled past. The one man able to physically please Dr. Chiba is essentially unavailable. What is Kon saying about modern-day relationships?
While any of Kon’s films could easily transfer to live action, I have often wondered why western animators never attempted to put attempt to portray more complex themes in their stories. Why not employ more “realistic” plot scenarios akin to live action sci-fi classics Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator, or Robocop and their ambiguously tortured protagonists, human or not? What about acknowledging the serious divide between Japanese animation and their western contemporaries? What is Pixar and DreamWorks Animation notable for other than Toy Story I, II, and III, Antz (Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson, 1998), the Shrek Universe (2001 Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson) and Seinfeld’s Bee Movie (2007 Simon J. Smith & Steve Hickner)? Aren’t these campy, cheesy representations just big budget attempts to glean more money from the wallets of parents trying distract their kids for a few hours? How deep do the American aces in Pixar’s pocket Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo 2004) or Brad Bird (The Incredibles, 2004, Ratatouille 2007) delve to find true humanistic storytelling? WALL-E is a valiant ttempt to further the conversation to a more adult level, but has anyone at Disney ever considered producing an erotic animated horror feature? A dystopian sci-fi post-apocalyptic tale with a philosophizing female android as the hero? A romantic comedy for young gay teens? I wonder what Walt would think of Wicked City.
From the earliest cave paintings to the Magic Lantern, Zoetrope and the flipbook, through to today’s massive CGI productions, do these esoteric beginnings of animation hold the keys to understanding the hold this supposed underground genre exerts on its ever-growing collection of mainstream fans and admirers? If it were possible to sit down with each successive artist, what secrets could we delve about how the flickering of light through drawn cels of imaginary characters has continually amazed even the hardest of hearts throughout history? Would it shed any more light on our collective love of seeing pure speculative imagination brought to the big screen? Doubtful. For what we bring to each darkened theater and living room is our own baggage. And so we help create the stories, and imbue them with meaning. This could be a clue into the extreme popularity of the medium. There is less and less a sense of nationality and separation and more and more a feeling of similarity and collective consciousness. Despite the fact that mainstream western audiences may think of anime as “cartoons”, thus dictating pop culture, the themes dealt with on a regular basis are often as deep as, if not more than, current live action Hollywood fare.
Did the discovery of anime, in the form of Totoro, really replace my lost love that night so long ago? Or had I known that that college dalliance was merely a natural progression in a complicated process and I had no chance at all with her? Did the complex and ambiguous nature of anime somehow give me ballast through the long years of sailing an empty ship through troubled waters of modern love? Who can say? Delicate and brutal as modern life, we need more of Satoshi Kon’s style of story-telling. Since his untimely death, production has begun, resumed and halted on Kon’s final work-in-progress Dreaming Machine, purportedly to be released in the next couple years, should Madhouse get the injection of funding they need to finish the ambitious postscript to the life of a thinking man’s artisan. Someone tell Spielberg he needs to produce another posthumous work of a genius (but this time, no annoying child actors please).