31 January 2008

Anne of Japan

In my quest for more information about the Japanese fascination with Anne of Green Gables, I found out about Terry Dawes's documentary-in-progress Anne of Japan. I have collected Lucy Maud Montgomery's novels, short stories, and poetry since I was a young child, and have been interested in the Japanese obsession with Anne ever since my husband and I happened upon the abandoned theme park in Ashibetsu, Hokkaido dedicated to all things Anne. It was called Canada World and they had built replica buildings of Avonlea (in a smaller scale and in unusual colours) and apparently had hired Canadians to dress in period costumes for the tourists. Just one of many unusual ventures to draw tourists to rural Hokkaido, but this one, unfortunately was a failure.

In the clip of Anne of Japan on Google Video, many Japanese tourists and emigrees about what drew them to Prince Edward Island and why they love Anne so much. The way they talked about their dreams of living in nature reminded me of the many stories we have heard while visiting friends in Hokkaido who moved there from central Japan. I'm really looking forward to seeing this documentary when it is finished.

Terry Dawes has also written an essay about why he decided to make the film, which you can read here.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

29 January 2008

Naruto (ナルト, 2002-2007)

Sakura's inner demon is revealed

I don’t often watch or read shōnen fiction (manga and anime for boys), but with a son rapidly nearing the age when boys become interested in such things, I thought I’d better start educating myself. There are so many popular shōnen animation series to choose from so I thought I’d start with one of the series that often makes the most-viewed lists on video-sharing sites.

The Studio Pierrot series Naruto is adapted from the manga of the same name by Masashi Kishimoto (岸本斉史). The title character, Naruto Uzumaki, starts off the series as a pre-teen ninja in training. His distinctive trademarks are his blue eyes, his yellow spiky hair, three marks on each cheek like the whiskers on a fox, his orange and blue jumpsuit, and his insatiable appetite for ramen. Shortly after his birth, the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox (Kyuubi no Youkou) attacked his home village of Konohagakure. Naruto lost both his parents during the fight to save the village. His father, who was the fourth Hokage (village leader), died while sealing the Demon Fox inside the infant Naruto, thus saving the village for further destruction.

Growing up an orphan, Naruto has a tendency to act the class clown in order to draw attention to himself. He has problems with concentration and controlling his powers, which leads his peers to believe that he is less-skilled and more stupid than the rest of them. He also engages in puerile jokes and pranks. Most of the older villagers shun Naruto for fear of the Demon Fox they know is sealed within him, but Naruto and his peers do not learn about the Demon Fox until well into the series. Naruto’s loud and often obnoxious exterior mask a good heart and true determination. He dreams of becoming Hokage one day in order to prove to his detractors that he is worthy of their respect. The clear message of the series, that reiterates itself repeatedly in each of the characters, is that no matter what your background, if you do your best (がんばって、ね!) and work well as a group, you can achieve greatness and the respect of your community.

The half hour episodes are cleverly designed to seduce viewers into becoming addicts of the show. Catchy pop songs during the intro and closing stick in the head for a long time. The soundtrack features rock inspired music designed to escalate the excitement during fight scenes. The soundtrack also includes guttural voices saying ‘huh!’ and ‘ha!’ like the sounds people make when practicing martial arts.

When watching multiple episodes of Naruto in succession, the repetition of story elements can get a bit annoying. The episodes are designed to be watched weekly with a commercial break in the middle. There is always a hook just before the commercial break and just before the closing credits to leave the viewer hanging with anticipation about what will happen next. When we return to the action (usually a fight or confrontation of some kind), the animators increase suspense by reprising what happened before the break. It’s not always shot for shot, but it is still a bit of a bother nonetheless.

One thing that is very different from the American action cartoons that I saw as a kid is that fights can go on for more than one episode…. sometimes even over three or more episodes. The action cartoons that I remember had the usual classical narration of a crisis which was resolved by a fight scene with the status quo returned in the end. The fights usually didn’t last longer than a few minutes, and there was little talking involved apart from witty repartee. Naruto, influenced by its manga origins, can have long spells of dialogue giving lots of new character information. It often seems like the two combatants are standing and chatting for ages. These scenes can involve complicated flashbacks than may also include fight scenes. Although I do find this elaborate unfolding of character information fascinating, sometimes even riveting, at other times I hear the voice of Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in my head saying: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.”

That pretty much sums up all things the producers intended to hook viewers like me into watching Naruto, but my real motivation for watching Naruto obsessively (101 episodes so far and counting) in recent weeks is my curiosity to see how far they would go with the female characters. The series has the usual generous helpings of sexism, typical of the shōnen genre, exemplified by Naruto’s Sexy no Jutsu (sexy ninja technique) when he transforms himself into a large-breasted female form in order to distract or play a joke on a male mentor. One of the Densetsu no Sannin (the Legendary Three Ninja schooled by the third Hokage), Jiraiya takes every opportunity he can to leer at women. This leads Naruto to insist on calling him Ero-sennin (perverted hermit) instead of addressing him by his proper name.

Naruto performs his Sexy no Jutsu.

I also find it disturbing that some of the evil characters take on female, or at least feminine forms. This is something I have encountered in Japanese fiction and films before. There are many tales of vengeful female ghosts in Japanese drama, so much so in contemporary Japanese horror movies as to constitute a sub-genre of its own. For an example of this see Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge (2003). Many of the characters in Naruto come straight out of Japanese mythology, such as the evil character Orochimaru, who takes on a feminine form and a snake form in the series. This combines the myth of the snake-god Orochi who lived in the mountains with the association of women with snakes in Japanese folklore. (See Ghosts, Demons and Spirits in Japanese Lore by Norman A. Rubin). Just because it has a tradition in Japanese folklore, however, does not make it any less creepy for the female spectator.

On the more progressive side, the series at least does try to include women as ninja. The ninja-in-training (Genin) are divided into groups of three and each group contains one token female character. Haruno Sakura, complete with hair the colour of cherry blossoms, is in Naruto’s group along with Sasuke Uchiha. Naruto has a crush on Sakura, who in turn is in love with Sasuke. Sakura is given a double personality: she can be extremely sweet and kind, but when angered the viewer sees the Inner Sakura who curses the person who has angered her (usually Naruto or her rival for Sasuke’s affections, Ino-chan).

As with all the female characters in the series, Sakura usually stays in the background in fights and is limited to the role of ‘guarding’ a non-ninja or injured character. After a while, it becomes exasperating to only see Sakura-chan standing to one side and providing close-up reaction shots to the action at hand. This usually involves her gasping or crying out “Sasuke-kun!” But I kept watching and watching, hoping that eventually we would get to see her fight during the Chuunin exam.

Sakura’s strengths, compared to Naruto and Sasuke, are her intelligence and her advanced ability to control her chakra (energy force that allows the characters to perform jutsu). Later in the series, I understand that she hones healing skills and is also able to master super-human strength. Her other important strength his her loyalty to her team, which plays a role when she finally has a starring role in a fight scene in order to protect Sasuke. She fights until she can fight no more, and eventually is helped by her rival, Ino-chan and Ino’s team.

The final stage of the Chuunin exam, which Genin like Naruto and his peers must pass in order to move onto the next level of Chuunin, takes its inspiration from the old gladiator fights in the forum. The Genin candidates must fight each other in one-on-one battles with a referee determining the end of a match. Here one had the exciting prospect of seeing the female characters fight for the first time without any help from their peers. Sadly, the decision was made that Sakura and Ino should fight each other instead of against a male character. This made the fight less interesting for me because the subtext became that of an emotional catfight instead of a serious battle. To make matters worse, they wimp out by having the fight end in a draw with both girls unconscious. Ino-chan has a rather cool skill of being able to perform a mind-body switch in which she can take over a human or animal form for a while, but she is mainly memorable for her envy of Sakura-chan.

Other female characters in the series include Hinata-chan, who possesses powerful inherited Byakugan powers, harbours a secret crush on Naruto, and whom I desperately wanted to win her fight against her male cousin. There is also Tenten, who is skilled with weaponry. She also has to fight another girl during the Chuunin exam: Gaara’s sister Temari. This really made me sigh. There was clearly reluctance on the part of Kishimoto to have male characters possibly injuring female characters, let alone having a female character show superior strategy and fighting skills to that of her male peers. Temari is skilled at strategy and wields a giant iron fan as a weapon, and I was glad to see that they let her win the fight instead of wimping out with yet another girl-on-girl tie.

Tsunade strikes a sexy pose.

There are one or two female ninja mentors, but finally, during the fourth season of the series, they introduce a female figure with some power: Tsunade. One of the legendary Sannin, Tsunade is asked to become the Fifth Hokage (village leader). My excitement at the first female to assume the highest honour in the village (and the position the title character of the series aspires to when he grows up) was short-lived. Tsunade is by far the most sexualised of any of the female characters. I thought it was bad enough with all the sexy poses and crotch shots Sakura-chan and Ino-chan where getting, but Tsunade has been given huge breasts, which the camera swoons over with close-up boob shots. There is a suggestion in the anime that her appearance has somehow been enhanced by magic, because she is meant to be fifty years old and has the body of a woman at least twenty years or more younger. She is also an inveterate gambler. To be fair, they do show each of the Legendary Sennin to have a weakness (Jiraiya has an obsession with chasing women and Orochimaru has turned to the dark side and is obsessed by power), but by visually sexualizing her and then giving her a bad habit that is also associated with dissipation really was a bit too much for me. On the positive side, she is a healer and does have a good heart under her stand-offish and often tetchy exterior.

I will continue watching the Naruto series - I don't really expect any change in the way women are presented anymore but the series is also interesting for its overlapping storylines and complex character development. I will probably end up skipping the filler episodes when I get to them and jump ahead to the series currently airing on TV Tokyo in Japan: Naruto Shippūden, which jumps ahead two and a half years in the lives of the characters. The series, and accompanying movies are ably directed by Hayato Date (伊達勇登) for Studio Pierrot. Naruto did not start showing in English on Television until 2005, three years after the Japanese debut, so it is unlikely the will get around to dubbing Naruto Shippūden for some time yet.

For an interesting discussion about the female characters in Naruto, see the blog femtique.

For all you ever wanted to know about Naruto and more, see the wiki Narutopedia.

For a laugh: some fans of this show take it so seriously that they write lengthy wikipedia entries on Naruto trivia. For example, they have given the term jutsu (術) a lengthy description (171 A4 pages when I did a print preview), without giving any indication that jutsu is not a word made up by Kishimoto himself, but is actually a common Japanese word meaning technique or skill. To put this in perspective: could you imagine a 7,500 word encyclopedia entry on the use of the word ‘power’ in the He-Man animation series? Not likely. [I noticed the other day that someone has put a please edit warning on the aforementioned wiki page, so it may be altered soon]

NARUTO / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

27 January 2008

The Japanese Maud Squad

Akage no An (Anne of Green Gables, Isao Takahata, et al., 1979)

While doing some research totally unrelated to my interest in all things Japanese, I came across this wonderful CBC news clip from July 2002 covering a Japanese news crew doing a week-long special on Canada. The Japanese news crew are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables in Japanese. The story goes that Canadian missionary Loretta Shaw, when forced to leave Japan at the outbreak of the Second World War, gave a copy of the novel to her student Hanako Muraoka. Muraoka was so delighted with the novel that she translated it and sought a publisher. The novel has been a sensation in Japan ever since.

What I love about this news item is how it demonstrates the contrast between the low-key CBC journalism style and the super-genki style of the Japanese presenters. Key iconography designed to delight the Japanese television viewer include the 'original' Green Gables house, breath-taking landscape views, kawaii costumes, and seafood.

My top three classic Japanese television elements demonstrated in this piece:
  1. the live seafood demonstration when the girls in period costume squeal at the live lobster on the table / cut to said lobster cut into a visual appealing dish for the girls to eat
  2. when one of the Japanese girls in period costume covers her mouth to conceal her emotional response to the hyperbolic mumbo-jumbo of the museum curator
  3. when the TV hosts back in the studio in Japan use a cheesy cardboard map of Canada instead of making use of their computer technology
I started a review of the Japanese anime series of Akage no An, back in November 2006, when I was living in Tokyo and was unable to watch the whole series at the time. I know it exists here in Germany so I keep my eyes open for it. With any luck, it will come back on TV just like Heidi did!

Anne of Green Gables / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

11 January 2008

Heidi, Girl of the Alps (アルプスの少女ハイジ, 1974)

The best gift of the New Year here in Germany is that Heidi (アルプスの少女ハイジ, 1974,) is playing on Kika this season. I had toyed with getting the DVD box sets for my kids for Christmas, but as I knew it would be more of a present for me than for the kids I decided to wait. Now we can watch it together every evening after Franklin.

I have wanted to watch the series for a long time because it demonstrates the early talent of the creative minds behind Studio Ghibli: Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata directed the series for Zuiyo Eizo (which later became Nippon Animation) and Miyazaki is rumoured to have animated most of the opening sequence. It went on to become a sensation in every language in which it was broadcast. Strangely, it has never been released as a full series in English. I say ‘strangely’ because it would certainly make a profit. Ghibli fans would jump on the chance to see it, and even though it was produced in the 1970s, the colours are still brilliant and it would captivate young audiences in the English speaking world.

Part of the reason I want my children to watch the series is that there are not enough animation series for young children with strong female protagonists in them. My children, especially my daughter, love Dora the Explorer, a U.S. series designed to teach children Spanish. It is a great show for vocabulary building, but before too long they will outgrow the repetitive, didactic plot style. They are also fond of the English series Angelina Ballerina, which features the voice acting of Judi Dench’s daughter Finty Williams, but I must admit that Angelina’s constant whining tone gets on my nerves.

Heidi (the full Japanese title translates as Heidi, Girl of the Alps) presents a young girl who is hard-working and eternally optimistic. In each episode, she is presented with a daunting situation of some kind and through determination and resourcefulness she perseveres. Although the setting seems very idealistic, I can attest to the fact that the Swiss Alps really do look that pristine. The attention to detail in the mise-en-scene shows that the animators must have gone to the Alps to do sketching before the series began. There are, admittedly, some unrealistic touches such as Heidi not wearing a hat, coat and mittens in the winter, but I have seen much more outlandish representations of Europe in anime. I am trying to convince my husband that we should take a short holiday down to Maienfeld to see the Heididorf in person – I am curious not only with how it is portrayed in the anime but also to see how it has been packaged for the onslaught of Japanese tourists.

If watching with very young children, I would advise sitting with them as the climax of each episode can sometimes be a bit scary for them. It usually involves fear of some kind of danger. For example, in one episode Heidi’s pet bird Peep gets attacked by a bird of prey. In another, two of the goats are fighting and one almost falls to his death, but Heidi manages to rescue him. In the most recent episode two hunters almost freeze to death in the mountains because they fail to heed Grandfather’s warning. My son always sticks his fingers in his ears until the climax has passed and the episode returns to end on a cheery note with a glimpse of the episode to follow (52 episodes in all).

The most fascinating thing about the Heidi phenomenon in Europe is how a story originally written in German has been eclipsed in the public imagination by the Japanese animation of the tale. Colouring books and puzzles such as the one below, make no mention of the Japanese animators, but are clearly using it as their inspiration.

In this pre-1970s German edition of the novel, the cover illustration of Heidi showed the girl in a white blouse with a blue skirt and shawl.

In the more recent editions of the novel, she’s usually wearing the iconic red dress popularized by the animation.

As the German dub of Heidi is so famous within Germany, I am curious to find out if a Swiss German dub was also done of the film. It would be a shame if Swiss kids were watching the series in High German instead of in their own dialect.

The German dub of Heidi is available for sale at amazon.de. There are two box sets containing 4 DVDs each. In Japan, they have released a box set commemorating the 35th anniversary of Heidi (which is strange because the 35th anniversary should be in 2009), available at amazon.co.jp. A movie spin-off was also produced in the late 1970s and was released on video in the U.S. as an English dub. I have found very little about this version of the film. The German amazon.de lists Heidi in den Bergen as a 90 minute film directed by Takahata, but it does not appear on imdb.com. I will keep my eyes open for a copy of the film and report back when I find it.

For your amusement, here is the original Japanese opening sequence:

And here is the German opening (warning, this is a very catchy tune and the yodels will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day!):

Heidi (Alps no Shojo Heidi) / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008


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