27 March 2008

Winter Days (冬の日, 2003)

My review of the poem adaptation Winter Days (Fuyu no hi, 2003) has been published at Midnight Eye. Unfortunately the official website, which was full of great images and biographies seems to have been taken down. I have a copy of the biographical information they had, so if I get the time (After Nippon Connection!!) I will try to translate some of the info about the more obscure animators for this blog.

Here is a list of the 35 artists featured in Winter Days, with relevant links:
(Links updated July 2016)

Yuri Norstein ユーリー・ノルシュテイン
Kihachiro Kawamoto 川本喜八郎
Fumio Ohi 大井文雄 
Tatsutoshi Nomura 野村辰寿
Shinichi Suzuki 鈴木伸一
Hal Fukushima 福島治
Takuya Ishida 石田卓也
Raoul Servais ラウル・セルヴェ
Noriko Morita 守田法子
Tatsuo Shimamura  島村達雄
Reiko Okuyama and Yoichi Kotabe and 奥山玲子・小田部羊一
Aleksandr Petrov アレクサンドル・ペトロフ
Maya Yonesho 米正万也
Yoji Kuri 久里洋二 
Uruma Delvi うるまでるび
Seiichi Hayashi 林静一 
Azuru Ishiiki 一色あづる
Bretislav Pojar ブシェチスラフ・ポヤール
Katsushi Boda 保田克史
Masahiro Katayama  片山雅博
Mark Baker マーク・ベーカー
Yuichi Ito 伊藤有壱
Keita Kurosaka 黒坂圭太 
Reiko Yokosuka 横須賀令子
Yuko Asano 浅野優子
I.K.I.F. (aka Tokumitsu Kifune and Sonoko Ishida)  
Bai-Rong Wong (aka Bairong Wong) (Shanghai Animation Studios) 王柏栄
Isao Takahata 高畑勲
Nori Hikone

Masaaki Mori 森まさあき
Taku Furukawa 古川タク
Co Hoedeman コ・ホードマン
Jacques Drouin ジャック・ドゥルーアン
Fusako Yusaki 湯崎夫沙子
Koji Yamamura 山村浩二 

Renku Animation "Fuyu no Hi" / Animation
This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008 / updated 2016

25 March 2008

Nodame Cantabile (のだめカンタービレ)

Nodame Cantabile (のだめカンタービレ) is a popular, award-winning shōjo manga by Tomoko Ninomiya (二ノ宮知子). The series debuted in Kiss magazine in 2001 and the story is on-going with 19 volumes currently in print.

The manga’s popularity has only increased in recent years with Fuji TV producing both a live action drama series and an anime based on the story. The drama ran from October 16 to December 25, 2006 and was revived for a two-episode special set in Europe in January 2008. The animation ran from January 11-June 28, 2007. Nodame Cantabile gets its name through a combination of the nickname of the main character and the musical theme of the story. Nodame, whose full name is Megumi Noda, is an eccentric young student at a music college in Tokyo. She majors in piano and dreams of one day becoming a kindergarten teacher. At every turn, she defies society’s expectations for young women: she gets so caught up in her music and her love of a quirky tv animation that she neglects her apartment and her physical appearance. Her room is filled with clutter and decaying remains of meals, and she has been known to go for days without washing her hair. In Japan, where bathing is an important social ritual both at home and in pubic baths, Nodame’s behaviour seems extraordinary.

The second half of the title, cantabile, is a musical term meaning singable or song-like. This refers not only to the musical theme of the story, but also to Nodame’s unconventional style of piano playing. She finds it difficult to sight-read, and picks up most pieces just by listening to them once. Playing the piano is an emotional experience for Nodame, and she has a tendency to get so wrapped up in the experience that she forgets the composer’s intentions and plays purely for her own enjoyment.

As with most manga, Nodame Cantabile, balances a number different plots and sub-plots, but the central storyline that brings readers back for each new episode is the unlikely romance between Nodame and her fellow student and next door neighbour Shinichi Chiaki. Whereas Nodame comes from a modest working class background in southern Japan, Chiaki was raised in a wealthy family with a professional musician for a father. As a child, he was introduced to the musical capitals of Europe and aspires to become a conductor like his idol, Sebastino Viera.

Nodame and Chiaki’s relationship begins as an unusual friendship. Although Chiaki thinks that Nodame is a nuisance, he somehow can’t help but want to look after her. He nurtures Nodame’s unique talent for piano and, discovering how inept Nodame is at looking after herself, Chiaki finds himself cleaning up her apartment and cooking meals for her. Nodame falls head over heels for Chiaki from the outset, and does nothing to hide her affection. She comes to depend on his friendship and guidance, and dreams both of his future success as a conductor and of one day becoming his wife.

Both the anime and the drama are engaging. What I like best about the story, is that it turns the conventional gender roles on their head. All the characters, no matter what their sex, have set high career goals for themselves, and the romance is incidental to those goals. Nodame’s complete ineptitude as a cook and as a housekeeper makes for some great comedic moments, and allows the male lead to demonstrate his domestic talents. If I have any critique of the two main characters, it would be that I would wish Nodame to be a little less needy, and Chiaki to be more compassionate with others.

I have a high tolerance for cheery melodrama and slapstick comedy (I am a huge fan of Buster Keaton), but no matter how much I loved the unconventional romance and character development of Chiaki and Nodame, my enjoyment of both the anime and the drama was marred by the extreme slapstick and the terrible stereotyping of gays and foreigners.

By extreme slapstick, I mean violence. Having characters engage in moments of extreme rage or violence for comic effect is a trope of manga and anime. In most cases, such as in Nodame Cantabile, it is meant as a visual representation of inner turmoil, not as an actual display of real violence. When Nodame gets upset, her violent outbursts are usually accompanied by a comical shout of ‘gyabo!’ In the anime, these outbursts are tolerable, but in the drama I don’t find the slapstick fights between Nodame and Chiaki very amusing. There is a big problem with unreported domestic violence in Japan, and I don’t think that it is something to joke about.

Slapstick violence does has a long tradition in Japanese drama. The harisen (paper fan) that Nodame’s piano instructor, Etou-sensei uses as a form of discipline comes out of this physical comedy tradition. However, the thin border between comedy and tragedy is ruptured in Nodame Cantabile when it is revealed that Nodame’s fear of the harisen stems from a brutal punishment she received from a piano teacher when she was a child. For me, this just emphasized the inappropriateness of the physical comedy. It is possible to have slapstick comedy without it involving real physical violence.

I also did not enjoy the gay stereotyping of percussionist Okuyama Masumi. While I do like the idea of both men and women having crushes on Chiaki, the rivalry between Masumi-chan and Nodame could have been handled in a more adept way. Masumi-chan’s stereotyping as an over-the-top, afro-headed, hysterical gay character does nothing to aid the cause of gay men in Japan. While a certain kind of feminized man is considered attractive in Japan, openly gay men and women are decades behind North American and European gays and lesbians in terms of acceptance in society.

The third thing that made me uncomfortable about Nodame Cantabile was the portrayal of conductor Franz von Stresemann. Stresemann falls into the disturbing trend of having hentai (perverted) characters for comical effect in manga and anime. Perhaps the most popular such character is Jiraiya in Naruto, whom Naruto refers to has ero-sennin (the perverted hermit). In the Nodame Cantabile anime, it is bad enough that the pervert is not only the only foreign character, but also tolerated because of his status as sensei. In terms of the story, this is done, I suppose, to contrast with Chiaki’s more pure character, but it is truly disturbing to have a male character in a position of power whose perversions are excused rather than punished.

In the live-action drama, the absurdity of the Stresemann character is increased by having a Japanese comedian play the role. Naoto Takenake dons a ridiculous prosthetic nose and long-haired white wig and plays the role with an over-the-top accent that sounds more Yankee than German. If it weren’t for the great chemistry between Juri Ueno as Nodame and Tamaki Hiroshi as Chiaki, the whole series would have been in danger of slipping entirely into the realm of farce. I don’t understand the casting of Takenake as Streseman, as they certainly were able to find foreigners who could speak Japanese for the European special that showed in January of this year. Perhaps they could not find a European actor willing to play a pervert who lusts after Japanese girls half his age. I’m not saying that Western perverts in Japan don’t exist, on the contrary they’re a real problem and it’s not comedy material.

I felt that it was important to highlight some of the reservations that I had about Nodame Cantabile to counterbalance the glowing fan sites out there on the web. The anime and the live-action drama are certainly important to watch. While I may object to the violence and stereotypes, it is important to recognize these trends in Japanese manga and anime and what they say about contemporary Japanese culture and society. To end on a positive note, Nodame Cantabile has done much to make classical musical cool for a young generation of women, and the romantic conclusion of the live-action drama is perhaps the best love scene of 2006.

Nodame Cantabile / Japanese TV Series

Japanese TV Series

Anime Nodame Cantabile Original Soundtrack / Animation Soundtrack (Music by Suguru Matsutani)
Music by Suguru Matsutani

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

21 March 2008

Doraemon Becomes International Ambassador

It was announced this week that Japan's foreign minister, Masahiko Komura, had appointed Doraemon as Japan's first ever "animation ambassador" in its drive to increase the popularity of Japanese pop culture overseas. Like Snoopy in the United States, Doraemon is a beloved cartoon character whose annual film outings are a much anticipated event by many Japanese families. Although he is little known in the English speaking world, Doraemon is well-known throughout Asian countries.

Perhaps Doraemon, a helpful time-travelling cat from the 22nd century with a pocket full of gadgets, could pull out a gadget that would allow for Japanese anime to be subtitled and distributed over the internet in a more efficient manner. I find it bewildering that Japanese production companies and manga publishers have not yet managed to harness the keen enthusiasm of fans of Japanese pop culture overseas. Not only does it take sometimes well over a year for popular series to be distributed outside of Japan, but there are tons of older series that would be received with open arms if it were made available in European languages.

Take the popular manga and anime series Nana, for instance. The manga is only up to book 9 in the States (fortunately, for me here in Germany they are up to book 17 of 18 volumes so I am not too far behind where I left off reading in Tokyo last spring) and the anime has not been dubbed or subtitled at all. Judging from the intense interest on discussion boards on the internet and the popularity of the fansubs of the anime, Nippon Television could make a tidy profit from distributing the series with subtitles via download on the internet. Even more surprising, is that many of manga-ka Ai Yazawa's equally popular older titles are not available in English either. The 50 episode anime of Gokinjo Monogatari would surely find fans if it were distributed with subtitles or dubs, with 7 books of manga as tie-in. It seems so strange to me that there are so many great manga and anime series out there with fans desperate to get their hands on the material, and a bunch of rookie subtitlers are reaping all the profits online for material they didn't even create. How is it that a group of unpaid fans are able to distribute such material more quickly than Japanese production companies. I partly know the answer to this, but I won't go into a rant on the short-sightedness of Japanese corporate culture here. I suspect that the biggest reason is ignorance. In Japan, the focus is always on the new, so perhaps they don't realise that their foreign market might enjoy their old anime and manga just as much as the newer stuff. Fans are collectors, and they will lap up anything that is made available to them.

I don't think that the Japanese government should focus their energies on generated interest in Japanese culture abroad. They should invest in translators and subtitlers in order to make the wealth of literature and visual culture more readily available for distribution over the internet. I'm sure that fans would be happy to pay a monthly fee to have access to professionally subtitled versions of their favourite anime through legitimate means, instead of downloading grammatically challenged content through illicit means.

Source on the Doraemon news: The Guardian

16 March 2008

Yoshishige Yoshida

Yoshishige "Kiju" Yoshida's work is being honoured by a retrospective called "Visions of Beauty" at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Click above to watch the spectacular trailer for the event. The trailer also mentions that Eros + Massacre and two DVD box sets of Yoshida's work will be released on DVD in France on April 9th.

The retrospective runs from March 26th until May 19th.

14 March 2008

Anime! High Art - Pop Culture

I had the opportunity this week to check out the Anime! High Art – Pop Culture exhibition at the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt am Main. The exhibition has been timed perfectly to coincide with Nippon Connection next month as well as Neo Tokyo3: Architecture in Manga and Anime running next door at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (until June 8th).

The exhibition is broken into six main sections: Children’s Anime, Shōjo Anime, Erotic Anime, Shōnen Anime, Amano Yoshitaka’s art, and Futuristic Visions (mechas, AI, and 3D). The exhibits consist mainly of sketches (genga), drawings (dōga), and cels from anime, as well as clips from the featured anime playing on screens throughout the exhibition. The lobby also features a display of figurines and other memorabilia.

The first section was particularly informative for me. I had not realized that many of the old cartoons that my husband and his friends grew up with in Germany in the 1970s were actually animated in Japan. Wickie und die Starken Männer (Chiisana baikingu Bikke, 1974) and Die Biene Maja (Mitsubachi Maya no boken, 1975) don’t have the typical ‘anime’ look about them and I always presumed that they were designed in Europe. Heidi, Girl of the Alps has what I call an ‘anime’ look: kawaii characters with big round eyes. I had always thought that these projects were conceived in Japan and then sent around the world for dubbing, but it turns out that international co-productions were more extensive than I had realized. European broadcasters, particularly ZDF in West Germany, sought out co-productions with Japanese animators in order to keep costs down. The character design and story for Biene Maja was initiated in Germany, but animated in Japan with some contributions from animators at Warner Brothers. The most interesting evidence of this were the drawings with notes written on them in English and Japanese. The resulting series is actually a West Germany-Austria-USA-Japan co-production.

The next three sections of Anime! High Art – Pop Culture give an overview of some of the sub-genres of anime, with nods along the way to Studio Ghibli and Osamu Tezuka. The section on Amano Yoshitaka features twelve paintings that feature off-centre details from anime characters, with particular emphasis on the eyes. His large mural Universe (lacquer on aluminum, 2002) is most impressive and requires quite a bit of time to take in all the details on it. The final section looks at the futuristic genres in anime and ponders whether or not there is a future for 3D animation in Japan. So far, the Japanese seem to prefer using 2D animation for reasons that range from financial (cheap to make) to the aesthetic (a cultural tradition of ‘flat’ aesthetic).

I am not sure why the title of the exhibition puts high art before pop culture, because the only section that could be considered high art are the paintings and the mural by Amano. If I had any criticism to make of the curatorial choices, I would suggest the inclusion of more ‘high art’ for one to compare and contrast with Amano’s work. Amano, like so many Japanese animators, has one foot in the popular culture scene and another in the world of high art. He is most famous for his design work for the Final Fantasy computer games and popular anime like the Gatchaman series and Tekkaman.

The best part about the exhibit is the book Ga-Netchū! Das Manga Anime Syndrom that they commissioned to complement the ideas raised by the selection of art they selected. The book features essays from a wide selection of authors written in German or translated from Japanese or English to German. As the exhibit will be moving to the States later this year, it seems likely that the book will also be translated to English at some point. The book features a lot more art than was in the museum. I was pleased to see the inclusion of a short piece by quirky manga artist and animator Shiriagari Kotobuki whose work I have reviewed before on this blog.

Anime! High Art – Pop Culture runs at the Filmmuseum until August 3rd. It will head to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art this autumn (October 8th, 2008 – February 22nd, 2009) followed by a stint at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences next year (May-August 2009).

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

09 March 2008

Nippon Connection

The Nippon Connnection film festival in Frankfurt has finally unveiled its program for this year. Tickets go on sale March 17th and can be ordered via their website or from the venues. I'm excited to see that they will be doing a retrospective on Japanese Independent Animation from the 1960s until the present date. The only individual artists they mention are Renzo Kinushita, Yoji Kuri and Taku Furukawa. The only other short animation listed is under the umbrella Nippon Digital, so I'm feeling a bit deflated. I had hoped that Koji Yamamura's Kafka Inaka Isha and Tomoyasu Murata's new shorts might show at Nippon Connection this year. I'll have to see if I can make it down to the Internationales TrickFilm Festival in Stuttgart in May.

There are a lot of feature films I have been wanting to see on the Nippon Connection program including Naomi Kawase's much celebrated film The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori, 2007),
Nobuhiro Yamashita's A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Tennen kokekkou, 2007), and Ting Li's controversial new documentary Yasukuni (2007). For the full program, check out the Nippon Connection website.


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