Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The older I get, the more I start to wonder if the messages in anime are still relevant to my life.   I’ve even started getting self conscious about what I watch.  After all, what long term artistic value is there in something like To aru no Index Season 2?  Don’t get me wrong, Index is a fun show, but it’s generally not very thought provoking.  So when I hear about a more mature show like Bartender I get excited.  Finally, a show I can watch and still feel like an adult!  I was generally impressed with Bartender. However, I think the show erred by relying only on episodic stories instead of doing multi-episode arcs.
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The secret life of the otaku

(dengar is the newest addition to this blog, which brings our numbers up to 3 and closes May’s recruitment drive in fine fashion. He’s based in Boston (United States) and with Celeste in Vancouver (Canada) and myself in Cambridge (England,) we’re an international bunch, which is sure to prove interesting. Anyway, it’s now time to let the dust settle on this new format, so, please enjoy dengar’s first post, and, here’s the future! Thanks for sticking with us until now!)
How would you like to be thought of as a weird, socially inept person who has an unhealthy obsession with imaginary characters? While harsh, these unfortunate stereotypes of otaku are certainly widespread.  After hearing the same generalizations again and again we expect our friends and family to mischaracterize an otaku as someone obsessed with watching cartoons, playing dress-up, and reading comics. Understandably many anime fans choose to stay “in the closest,” and hide their interest.
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“Next time, let me see a Matsuri Special.”

Something about the transience of adolescence never fails to inspire. More often than not we wake up, 20, fully grown, and confused as to how we got there. For this reason, mangaka like Kamio Youko are a particularly rare breed. Time and time again, she manages to lushly recreate both the frame of mind and the emotional state of adolescence for her readers. Matsuri Special, her latest manga in a successful career is no exception.

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People with cold hands have warm hearts (Air Doll review)

Two years is a long time.
Just two years ago, I’d seen very few Japanese live-action films, only to eventually realise that my interest in anime was linked to a broader fascination with the whole spectrum of Japanese art; what I get from anime, I hear in Japanese music and see in Japanese film, too. This runs deep for me and I can’t explain why, but anyway, since that point, I’ve seen dozens of Japanese films; I have favourite directors and keep finding new music (the latest being World’s End Girlfriend).
Every new film is just the tip of another ice-berg, revealing only further depths of art and beauty. One of my biggest regrets about this blog is that I haven’t documented this journey into live-action nearly well enough, so, I’m sorry about that, guys, but this post, I hope, will at least go some ways to making amends, because last night I watched Air Doll and just had to write something.
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Bitter sweet school days; All About Lily Chou-Chou

Back in June, I reviewed a Japanese live action film called Linda Linda Linda. It was a great movie, so great, in fact, that it encouraged me to dig deeply into the depths of Japanese cinema. Since then, I’ve been working my way through the recommendations in the comments of that post. It has been a joy to explore an area of film that, until a few months ago, I’d barely even scratched the surface of. It’s all so new and exciting, and confirms something about me that I’ve always suspected anyway, that, rather than being a fan of just anime, I’m a fan of Japanese cinema full stop. Be it the vivid style of filming, the use of music to accentuate emotion or the emphasis on character over plot, whatever it is, it’s an abstract, bitter sweet quality that really helps me escape into the “ether” of imagination.

On Tuesday night I watched a film called All About Lily Chou-Chou. Sometimes, if I can catch a good movie late at night, I’ll go to bed right after it finishes and find that even my dreams are trapped by its influence. On Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling groggy and restless, precisely because I couldn’t shake my thoughts from this film, so, I had to write about it, no choice, really.
Just going back to how I felt about Linda Linda Linda, it was a bright and romantic ode to youth, more akin to a dream than reality, in love with (the memory of) being young. Similarly, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about Japanese school life, but this isn’t a happy film, the kids are cruel, hopeless and sad, yet presented in such a way that is beautiful; lush green fields and bumpy concrete roads are fine company for despair.

At school and after, Hoshino and his gang pick on the shy Yuichi. They beat him up, take his money and embarrass him in public. During one particularly harrowing attack, they trash Yuichi’s bike and force him to strip naked and masturbate in-front of them as they throw stones and jeer. That is their reality, Hoshino the bully has lost faith in life and Yuichi the victim has no courage. Yet they both passionately admire a singer/song-writer called Lily Chou-Chou and hang-out on the same Lily Chou-Chou internet forum, often chatting online with each other anonymously, sharing their mutual passion for her music and explaining how it inspires them with such vivid and strong feeling. They become friends online. Spiritually, Hoshino and Yuichi are good friends, but when they meet in reality, with their true feelings concealed from one-another, they hate each other. It’s a contradiction of truth and a very sad, very human tragedy.

Another of Hoshino’s victims is a girl called Tsuda, he blackmails her into becoming a prostitute. We follow her on one of her ‘jobs’; a date with a middle-aged salary man. In the immediate aftermath, she doesn’t seem to be particularly effected, it’s only when she is almost home that she breaks down and loses control, literally stamping her pay into ground and soaking herself in a river near-by. That’s the kind of person that Tsuda is, she might portray herself as strong and streetwise, but it’s all just a mask. Deep down, she loathes herself for being so weak as to go along with Hoshino’s blackmail, yet pride prevents her from crying for help. She yearns to be free, desperately so, and in the most bitter sweet scene of the film, stumbles into a kite flying club, almost overcome with the euphoria of just watching them glide in the wind, so carefree and simple. “I wanna fly in the sky”, she said.

At two and a half hours, it’s a long movie, packed with intimate character vignettes and filmed in this very personal, modern style that is a feature of Japanese cinema, it’s very cool looking. It’s also slow building, sparse in dialogue and, at times, hard to follow, as the narrative jumps back and forth in time and names and faces come and go. Even still, it has an ethereal quality, an atmosphere that quietly fades in and envelopes us into this world of bitter sweet reality, I could almost describe it as an out of body experience. Anyway, All About Lily Chou-Chou isn’t a nasty film; it doesn’t delight in the suffering of its characters. It knows that life can be harsh, yet has moments of beauty too.

Linda Linda Linda; slice of life done good

While I’m fairly confident that I’ve built up some decent knowledge of anime over the past few years, I can’t say the same for Japanese live action. Sure, I’ve watched many of the cult classics; Audition, Azumi, Battle Royale, Ringu, to name but a few, and there’s no denying that they are cool movies (albeit enjoyed mostly for their superficial excesses), but what I’m looking out for are the understated dramas, the good movies that don’t have to rely on violence, ghosts or samurai to attract attention. Movies like Ping Pong, Blue Spring and Go. May be it’s just that I’m not looking in the right places, but so far, I’ve found it really hard to get good recommendations for these kind of films, yet I’ve adored what I’ve seen enough to know that I really want to see more, so when someone throws me a bone in this area, I’m happy to go chasing. And guess what? I’m so glad I did. Introducing Linda Linda Linda.

These days, we’re so saturated with media that it’s fairly rare to start a movie without having read even so much as a plot synopsis, yet so it was for my introduction to this movie; all I was going off of was a personal recommendation and a decent IMDB rating, everything else was irrelevant. Anyway, the film is best described as a very Japanese slice of life, focused on a quartet of school girls who create a rock band for their fast-approaching school festival. That’s it. The plot is undeniably thin on twists and turns, quite unspectacular and straight-forward, but this movie isn’t about story, it’s about characters, a group of friends hanging out together, practicing music, and looking out for each other. Its some parts funny, charming and heart-warming, others reflective, nostalgic and introspective. Some of my favourite scenes involve the girls just wandering through grassy fields and hanging out on empty roof-tops, laughing and joking and singing, doing nothing of note, just being together, being young. It’s a movie about friendship.

One character in particular is worthy of note. She’s a Korean exchange student (called ‘Son’, played by actress Bae Doona) who can’t speak (or even understand) Japanese well. Son doesn’t have any friends and spends most of her time bored, with no-one but a bilingual teacher for company. She falls into the band almost by mistake, yet finds herself at its very center – as the singer.
Because her grasp of the language is so basic, she has to practice alone, for hours, at the local karaoke bar, just to keep up with the others, and through all of that hard graft, her funny personality gradually blossoms. She goes from being the alienated foreigner, almost completely isolated, to having found some intimate friends, staying up all night and goofing off. You can see just how much it all means to her; her happiness is scrawled all over her beaming smile.

It’s a warmly nostalgic take on youth and, much like Honey & Clover, there’s a very clear sense that this is an ephemeral era, knowingly short-lived, passing-by too fast. Towards the end of the film, one of the girls (the drummer, played by Aki Maeda) carefully plans to confess her love to a long-held crush. Everything is right about the scene; it’s pouring with rain, they are all alone, the guy is shielding her with his umbrella, but when the moment of truth comes, the girl still can’t find the courage in her heart to explain her feelings, and so, nothing happens. Often times, that’s the way it goes. Besides, there is always tomorrow.

Don't cry… it was Only Yesterday

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In a very profound way, our memories define who we are; their sudden recollection can be empowering or haunting, yet we can’t control what we remember or the sudden feelings they conjure inside. The emotions we feel at these times, the memories we recall; they are often so insignificant, not our greatest successes or even our worst failures, but random chinks of light from childhood, the foolish interactions, smiling faces and feelings from years past that now seem so free and exciting… But times change, and we can’t be kids forever. I suspect at some point we all struggle to let go of those confused and nostalgic echoes, that innocence and naivety seems so appealing now, but fact is that this was all yesterday, and life moves on.
The poignantly named “Only Yesterday” follows the introspective Taeko, a single Japanese woman at the “not really anywhere” age of 27. Constantly being hassled about getting married and rapidly losing her time to a desk-bound job in Tokyo, she takes a holiday from her busy city-life and retreats to the quiet Japanese countryside, a peaceful alternative to the constant hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s concrete jungle. This break from the daily grind allows her time for reflection, to bathe in memory and realise a life caught in the past. Read more

"If I told you that I came from the future, would you laugh?" Review of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

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If a good movie is hard to come by, surely a good anime movie is like one in a million; what a relief then, because for now, my long search is over – The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is that one in a million. Dubbed in some quarters as the anti-Ghibli, it offers a refreshing emphasis on characters over expensive-looking visuals, and as a result, we are left with a film that may look decidedly uncinematic, yet engages us on core emotional level above and beyond likes of Advent Children; basically, a rare triumph of good old fashioned story telling. Read more

Hataraki Man – Entering the hard boiled wonderland

While the spring season blossoms with new anime, I’m still frozen in winter wonderland with Hataraki Man. This is another show that, for whatever superficial reasoning, I had managed to avoid until this past weekend. Fate conspired to bring us together. These are my thoughts so far, but be warned, Hataraki Man is a (rather nutritious) slice of life anime; a genre that I’m well aware inspires as much boredom as it does admiration.
Adapted from an original manga by Moyoco Anno (wife of Gunbuster’s deranged genius Hideaki Anno), the main character is 28-year-old Matsukata, a sex-starved weekly-magazine editor who devotes 99.99999% of her life to slaving away on her next big feature. Between the long hours spent writing, interviewing ungrateful celebrities and hanging around with the office crowd, her social life and relationships have faded. The conflict central to Hataraki Man is Matsukata’s constant striving for a so called “normal” home life when she desperately craves success as a writer too. She could just take it easy, turn up at the office and work a regular joe 9 to 5 shift, but she wants to create something special; something to be remembered by.
Matsukata’s lofty ambitions are nothing new (especially to us Shonen Jump enthusiasts!), but to be a fiery female in modern day Japan (where the still-prevalent gender roles for a woman of her age dictate she should be a house-wife) gifts Hataraki Man a refreshing sense of gender role reversal. Indeed, even the title is an ironic twisting of words, given the “Hataraki Man” is actually a woman.
I’m making an issue of the sex politics, but the truth is that this is simply where Matsukata as a character is either coming from or fighting against, the show itself is tightly laced with the kind of sharp tongued and bitter sweet humour that wouldn’t feel out of place in your average sitcom.
Of course, there is more than one character — in fact, most episodes are scattered glimpses into the fractured lives of Matsukata’s colourful co-workers – take for example Fumiya Sugawara, a pissed off 30 something photographer who’s job it is to track down the dirt on celebrities and capture their scandals on camera. The man hates his job, is paranoid about people looking down on him and so, in his spare time, takes to snapping beautiful sun-lit landscapes. Despite his apparently shady and hectic job, that he still has the chance to capture something so calm, natural and endless is enough to keep him going.
Since it’s inception in 2005, the noitaminA anime block in Japan has set out to push the boundaries of TV anime beyond the teenage (boy) audience. As a twenty-something male, I can confirm they have succeeded. With the likes of Honey & Clover, Paradise Kiss and now Hataraki Man, noitaminA have more than proved themselves capable of deftly producing affecting adult drama that, while occasionally romantic, raises questions relevant in a young adult’s life. I think that’s why I’m enjoying Hataraki Man— being early 20s myself, anime is mostly a visual experience, I may enjoy something like Naruto because of the action, but when I find a show with characters I can empathise with on such a tangible level, it means that much more to me.