Ghost in the Shell: The Matrix of Sci-Fi Anime

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In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. Coming soon, our article about the Hollywood remake. 

 

In my mind, anime can be categorized into two varieties: action-based/artistic ones, and teenage school kid soap operas. The former is what western critics typically consider to be “good”, anime like The Cat Returns or Cowboy Bebop, which contrast beautiful hand-drawn landscapes and well-trodden stories with violence and distinctively weird characters that could only be thought up in Japan. Along with Akira, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the big grandfathers for sci-fi anime, and more importantly black leather-clad sci-fi such as The Matrix. Even in the ‘making of’ videos for The Matrix, creators shamelessly admit they wanted to take Ghost in the Shell‘s stylish film noir settings and fight scenes and recreate them in live action. With the newest full-length film in the Ghost series, Kōkaku Kidōtai – Shin Gekijōban, released in late June and in theaters until July 17th), and a live-action version on the horizon, it’s important to look back to see what it was about the original film that turned the manga into an international favorite.

Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 film directed by Mamoru Oshii, revolves around a group of cyborg law-enforcers in the future tracking down a hacker called the Puppet Master, who hacks into the minds of unsuspecting civilians and erases their memories in the process of controlling them. One of the cops does refuse to grade-up and is 100% flesh.  The protagonist is the beautiful but coldhearted Motoko Kusunagi, a cyborg cop and one of a handful of heroic female protagonists in anime.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t cater to the male sexual fantasies many have about robo-cop girls in the future. Viewers might be a bit puzzled after one of Kasunagi’s final fight scenes in which she celebrates her victory by tearing off her clothes (the film claims it allows her to scan the room, but it doesn’t explain the two other times she fights criminals naked). It does vary from similar western sci-fi films in that Kasunagi is never treated like a damsel in distress requiring someone like Neo to save her, but it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that director Oshii is simply giving viewers that dreamlike fantasy they unknowingly coveted in Japan’s workaholic society. It’s suggested in Roger Ebert’s 1996 review of the film that Japanese salarymen become so exhausted and dehumanized by the 80-hour work weeks that they “project both freedom and power onto women, and identify with them as fictional characters.”

Aside from the cop chases and virtual missions Kasunagi embarks on within the minds of those possessed by the Puppet Master, the deeper question the film’s moody plot somewhat attempts to ask is whether robots should start being considered human. Most of the conversations between Kasunagi and Batou (Kasunagi’s friend and fellow cyborg-cop), consist of debating whether their ability to think makes them human, think Descarte’s saying “I think, therefore I am.” Thankfully Ghost in the Shell throws in a couple one-liners to make sure it never takes itself too seriously:

Motoko- “Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny.”

Batou- “You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.”

Much like Akira, the draw of Ghost in the Shell is the stunning and complex drawings of the futuristic city. In daytime scenes, it looks orange and very much apocalyptic. However, when Kasunagi enters someone’s mind or tracking someone at night, the futuristic scenery seen in Gundam and Akira takes center stage. However, one thing that distracted me from the beautiful futuristic settings were the eyes of the characters. In both this and Akira, the eyes are much more akin to those in a western comic book, rather than more recent anime that give characters blocky, rectangular eyes. The more realistic character designs create the effect of each character having a certain ‘fleshiness’ to them. This is great if the main focus over the top violence and sexiness, but I believe it reduces some of its artistic merit. The extra contour lines provide more opportunities for limbs and blood to go flying in the fight scenes, but it does so at the expense of placing characters in an uncanny valley of halfway between realistic and cartoony, thereby taking viewers out of the experience. Just as we increasingly demand our fruit to lack any blemishes or obscurities, anime has come a long way in shrinking noses, rounding eyes and turning lips into straight lines for the sole purpose of immersing you in its universe. I once read a book on the history of cartooning that explained how we more easily identify emotions when complex facial details are taken away, and by the end you are left with blank dots and lines for faces (see Gudetama, for example).

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Aside from the characters the film succeeds in its mission to create the coolest futuristic vibe that had been seen so far in anime, something that inspired many movies after it, both anime and live action.

Several Ghost in the Shell films have been made, along with the original 1989 manga and an upcoming live action film set to release in March, 2017. This live action version, directed by Rupert Sanders, will be featuring Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kasunagi. However, many took to social media to state their displeasure that a white actress is taking the role of a well-known Japanese heroine. Personally I don’t find much wrong with it considering the history of anime characters combining aesthetics of Asians and westerners. Porco Rosso, one of my favorite movies of all time, takes place in a fictionalized Italy with clearly white humans everywhere. But that doesn’t take away from Porco (the main character) being a distinctly Japanese character in how weird the anthropomorphic pig man is. As long as it can recapture that image of the rainy neon-lit streets with robo-cops fighting huge mech tanks, it won’t really matter who’s doing the killing.

Anime Jazz: A Japanese Genre that Really Swings

Japan has a knack for adapting foreign cultural genres. But once you get past the corny western-themed bars and pop boy bands, you’ll find that the country has taken once-respected American art forms such as jazz and animation and helped them regain their former glory. While some might argue that Japanese musicians can’t truly play jazz since they are so far removed from the African American community that developed the genre, they have—in similar fashion to Charlie Parker and Chick Corea—put their own spin on it through a Japanese lens. In the words of Miles Davis: “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath, as long as he can swing.”

In my freshman year at Oberlin College, I had to come up with a theme for my first radio show and decided without any prior knowledge to mix two of my biggest passions: jazz and anime. After finishing my semester DJing “Pacific Bebop” (a title that combines the robot-flick Pacific Rim and Cowboy Bebop,) I realized I had uncovered a number of hidden gems in this tiny category of anime shows with sophisticated jazz soundtracks. Here are a couple of the anime soundtracks that took center stage on “Pacific Bebop.”

Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Aporon)

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For those who enjoy angsty drama-filled anime but also want to learn a bit about jazz, this is the show for you. Whereas Cowboy Bebop features the freeform, Afro-Bop side of jazz anime, “Kids on the Slope” is a much quieter show that focuses on fleshing out its main characters and ties in nicely with its jazz standard soundtrack.

Taking place in the 1960s in Kyushu, we are introduced to Kaoru, a timid high school student who becomes friends with a half-American bad-boy/drummer named Sentaro. After Sentaro takes Kaoru to the local jazz record store he hangs out in, the two begin bonding over their mutual love of music and soon form a jazz trio with the record shop owner on bass, Kaoru on piano and Sentaro on drums.

Produced by anime director and jazz-lover Shinichiro Watanabe, “Kids on the Slope” features live recordings by young Japanese stars Shun Ishiwaka (drums) and Takashi Matsunaga (piano). Not only is the music good, Watanabe insisted that the animators painstakingly animate each musician’s hand and arm motions so each key press or drum hit you see perfectly mimics the real thing. Some of the highlights from the show include a heart-melting rendition of “My Favorite Things” by the lone female character and a battle of the bands that symbolically pits the jazz duo’s unrecognized talents against a rock band (rock being the genre that essentially killed jazz’s status as a popular genre).

From a musical perspective, “Kids on the Slope” focuses mostly on standards and the hard bop subgenre that developed in the 1950s-60s. During this time, American jazz musicians had to tour the world due to the Beatles’ newfound popularity and added aspects of R&B and gospel into their songs. This meant places like Switzerland, France and Japan were exposed to jazz greats like John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Charles Mingus. The cover versions in the show do a great job at both honoring these past legends while also putting a new spin on each song.

Check out this culminating moment of the show when Kaoru and Sentaro perform a medley of three standards:

 

Cowboy Bebop

While “Kids on the Slope” represents the quieter, cafe appropriate side of the genre, “Cowboy Bebop” showcases the rambunctious and party-like aspects of jazz. Instead of handpicking musicians, composer Yoko Kanno brought in her big band Seatbelts to record the new music for the show. Just from listening to the intro song “Tank!” listeners are given a taste of what this sci-fi/western/jazz anime is all about.

Somewhat a Japanese version of Dirty Harry, “Bebop” focuses on the space bounty hunter Spike and his friends as they chase down the galaxy’s most notorious villains. Each fight scene is accompanied with either a modern or funky jazz tune, ranging from the more laid back “See You Space Cowboy” to speedy bop tunes such as “Rush.” While nowhere nearly realistic as “Kids on the Slope”, “Bebop” is excellent in that it translates jazz into this cool futuristic world. For me, the best thing about jazz is that when you’re listening to a legend like Cannonball Adderley, all you can think about is how cool he is and how badly you want to be like him. In “Bebop,” Kanno’s music really helps sell Spike as the badass cowboy we all want to be; especially when he’s flying through space and an echoing ballad accompanies his travels. Yoko Kanno also has done the music for the much loved sci-fi police series The Ghost In The Shell which inspired The Matrix. 

One thing in common with both of these shows is that Shinichiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno have both worked on them. Yoko Kanno composed and arranged the music for both shows, while Watanabe is the mastermind director who seems to always take on jazz-influenced anime. In Baltimore’s anime convention Otakon a couple years ago, I got the chance to interview Mr. Watanabe and ask him a bit about his interest in jazz.

“I don’t remember exactly how I met jazz, but I remember I walked into a record shop and I was listening to ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis,” he said. “It really inspired me, it really hit me, and I fell in love right then and I left the store with the record.”

Whereas American jazz musicians are always harping about returning to the roots of jazz in the form of blues and gospel, Japanese musicians seem more interested in paying reverence to the “cool” image created by guys like Miles Davis.  In both “Bebop” and “Kids on the Slope” there’s a visualization of the coolness of jazz that is rarely seen. Even though there are just a handful of anime jazz shows(including others such as Lupin III), I recommend everyone check these two out if you’re a jazz fan having difficulty getting into anime (or vice versa).

Here are a couple more jazz anime tunes you may enjoy:

Yuji Ohno- Love Theme, Lupin III

John Coltrane- My Favorite Things, Kids on the Slope

Seatbelts- Rush, Cowboy Bebop

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ioTPEbl49w

 

 

Tokyo Pop: See it, believe it, breathe it. (Especially if you’re human sculpture)

Updated on December 1st.
Talk a walk on the wild side…of Tokyo.

Androniki Christodoulou has spent a decade shooting the photos of Japan’s subculture and its quirky side, with many fine prints of them assembled at the exhibit Tokyo Pop  at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan in Hibiya. They are part of a visual diary formed as she walked the city streets and met Tokyo’s people, through work-related assignments or in the course of doing street photography.

Japan’s unique and colorful popular culture was one of the reasons that brought her to Tokyo in 2004, although she originally hails from Greece. She notes: “Tokyo is a place where tradition and new trends exist side by side. There are zones in the city that have specific character and others where everything is possible. From the surface uniformity of salarymen, the mania of Otaku, to the extremes of fetish culture, there is space for everything. Popular culture in Tokyo isn’t something fixed that can be described in one set of photos. It flows and changes all the time.”

RUBBER BRAIN party (in club Mandala). Tokyo. RUBBER BRAIN party is more about the fashion of dressing up in rubber (with a very strict dress code! you don't get in unless you are dressed up as something) and watching the shows which are quite artistic. In this party, there was Butoh dancing, a comedy show and in the end there were sheets of rubber and a rubber chamber where people would go in wearing a mask to breath with when the air between their bodies and the rubber was extracted. They would stay there for a few seconds until they had their picture taken as a live sculpture, and then an other person would take their place.
RUBBER BRAIN party (in club Mandala). Tokyo.
RUBBER BRAIN party is more about the fashion of dressing up in rubber–with a very strict dress code! you don’t get in unless you are dressed up as something–and watching the shows which are quite artistic. In this party, there was Butoh dancing, a comedy show and in the end there were sheets of rubber and a rubber chamber where people would go in wearing a mask to breath with when the air between their bodies and the rubber was extracted. They would stay there for a few seconds until they had their picture taken as a live sculpture, and then an other person would take their place.

In her photos currently on display at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, she captures the mood and atmosphere of places and venues that many native Tokyoites never have experienced. She isn’t as entranced by the bondage, fetish and sleazy side of Tokyo as she once was but this exhibition captures some mind-blowing moments of revels past in the murky metropolis. The show ends November 5th. The photos are scattered throughout the club, in the bar, the hall and the sushi restaurant as well. It’s worth the trek–if you’re feeling inspired after the show,, you can even go to Bic Camera when you’re done and get your own camera. The road to Street Photography is just a street away.

HARADAAndroniki Christodoulou freelances for international media and corporate client as a photographer expanding more into the world of video and multi-media. She has worked with Patrick Galbraith on the counter-culture classic, Otaku Spaces and self-published Underworld about the 2011 tsunami.

Harada Mariru (原田まりる),24, at the time of the picture was named race queen of the year in 2006, but in her room you won’t find fashion makeup and designer shoes. In their place are over 13,000 manga, enough to earn her the title “manga sommelier,” 1,000 limited edition anime DVDs and 7,000 videogames, including dating simulator games.”  (from the book OTAKU SPACES, text by Patric Galbraith.) The original photo used for the cover is on display at the exhibition.
Harada Mariru (原田まりる),24, at the time of the picture was named race queen of the year in 2006, but in her room you won’t find fashion makeup and designer shoes. In their place are over 13,000 manga, enough to earn her the title “manga sommelier,” 1,000 limited edition anime DVDs and 7,000 videogames, including dating simulator games.” (from the book OTAKU SPACES, text by Patrick Galbraith.) The original photo used for the cover is on display at the exhibition.

 

 

Competition In Japanese Digital Comics Gets Bloody; Mamoru Oshii haemophobic?

The competitive world of digital comics is about to get a lot bloodier. Japanese digital publisher, Comic Animation Inc, has just released two new types of hybrid manga/anime  for the iPhone/iPad that add new dimensions to the digital comic platform—and include new original works by legendary manga character designers and creators Mamoru Oshii (Ghost In the Shell) and Kamui Fujiwara (Dragon Quest).

Today at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan press conference (January 23rd, 2013)  the usually somber Oshii spoke about his latest creation, Chimamire Mai Love (My Soaked In Blood Love or Blood-Stained Mai Love), which is a black comedy about a high school student with a fetish for donating blood and his strange friendship with Mai, a wandering Transylvanian vampire–who is too timid to actually bite anyone. When the two form a friendship–well in situation comedy parlance, “whacky, blood chaos ensues.”  The young boy’s attempts to procure more blood for his beloved turn into low comedy far removed from Let The Right One In.

“I can’t stand the sight of blood myself but I love getting IV transfusions. I get them whenever possible. It makes me feel great.–Mamoru Oshii

Mamoru Oshii's dark comedy, "My Soaked In Blood Love aka Blood-Stained Mai Love"
Mamoru Oshii’s dark comedy, “My Soaked In Blood Love aka Blood-Stained Mai Love”
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Mai-chan may be a vampire too timid to bite her victims but she’s very fussy about her blood and has quite a temper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the kind of slapstick comedy that Oshii said he has not done in years.

The story is told almost from entirely from a first person perspective, with a minimal amount of animation, highly detailed drawings which are intricately colored, and some sparse sound effects.

When we asked Mr. Oshii why he thought so many Japanese teenagers were drawn to giving their blood, the so-called 献血マニア (Kenketsu-mania), he laughingly quipped, “I can’t stand the sight of blood myself but I love getting IV transfusions. I get them whenever possible. It makes me feel great.”

He then launched into a long monologue on Japanese fascination with blood, including the practice of defining people’s personalities by their blood types. “Blood is the only part of the body that we can take into ourselves and put back. It has no shape in and of itself.  We can store it up and put it back—derive power from it…. Like certain athletes,” he added, making an oblique Lance Armstrong joke.

Mamoru Oshii laughing. Apparently, this is not as common as imagined.
Mamoru Oshii laughing. Apparently, this is not as common as imagined.

Oshii stated that part of the inspiration for the comic strip were his thoughts on blood itself and from wondering about how different types of blood would effect a vampire. He himself seems to have more sympathy with the vampires than with the serial blood donators but did admit, “I don’t want to sound like a dirty old man but I don’t think I’d mind having almost all of my blood drained out of me by a very attractive young vampiress.”

Kamui Fujiwara’s Gin-Iro-no-Usagi (Silver Rabbit) follows the the adventures of a boy who wakes up as a Cyclops with magical powers, such as near X-ray vision, in a world populated by Japanese mythological characters and monsters, including everyone’s favorite, monster umbrella (傘お化け)*.

Don't you hate waking up as a cyclops in a Japanese mythological world? If you'd only stopped before having that final glass of 東洋美人.
Don’t you hate waking up as a cyclops in a Japanese mythological world? If you’d only stopped before having that final glass of 東洋美人.

Fujiwara has modeled the structure of the comic book artwork so that it is presented in three layers; if the reader gently shifts the iPad, objects slide, other layers can be seen, giving the work a faux 3-D aspect. “There are changes in color and close-ups available with a flick of the finger, or even a change of perspective with minimal movement. However, if you just want to read the work as a plain ordinary digital comic strip, you can do that as well.”

The structure for Fujiwara’s piece was inspired by the 18th century Nozoki Karukuri, which were viewing machines for looking at comic-like art. These viewing machines and the stories told with them  are considered the roots of Japanese anime. If you’re not a student of Japanese culture but you’re old enough to remember the stereoscopic 3D wonder-toy called the Viewmaster, you may find that reading Silver Rabbit seems oddly familiar and fun.

The U.S. version of the app is in English—and to be honest, the English is a little off, but readable. The app download for the comics is free, but chapters are $2.99.

There have been many attempts to popularize digital comic books but both Oshii and Fujiwara said they participated in the project because they feel the app allows them to utilize technology to give a better reading experience for the manga fan and make their original work more widely accessible.

Check it out here. You may feel it’s worth $2.99 and you don’t have to donate any blood to read the work either. (Although, no one will stop you if you want to….)

 

 

*Personally, I’ve always felt that that monster umbrella wasn’t mythological but an actual creature in Japan because every umbrella I’ve ever had here vanishes after a few rainstorms or walks away. And since Japanese people are generally very honest, I can’t believe people are taking my umbrella. So it only makes sense that after a certain amount of time neglected umbrellas become sentient and roam the land causing trouble.