Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: September 2004, 21

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

11:37:34 pm , 1294 words, 16432 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde, Movie


The Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival rolls around this year again between October 14 and 17 at the Shinjuku Milano-za. Besides the standard sci-fi and fantasy fare, they'll be showing three anime features.

Yoshiyuki Tomino is at it again. The festival will be showing part one of his Mobile Suit Z Gundam: A New Translation, a trilogy scheduled for theatrical release next year. Like the trilogy he made two decades ago from the original 1979 Gundam series, released in 1982 in theaters, this one will be a re-edited version of the followup TV series, Zeta Gundam, which aired three years after the trilogy in 1985 as a followup to the popular original. And the rest is history. I thought it was unimpressive enough for him to go on making one Gundam series after the next, but he's reached new heights of shameless self-recycling here.

Perhaps more interestingly, the festival will feature a screening of Kakurenbo, a 25-minute independent feature made by the three-man team at Yamato-Works, comprising Shuhei Morita (director), Daisuke Sajiki (designer) and Shiro Kuro (writer). The film's visual style brings to mind Studio 4°C, with 3D animation made to look and feel like 2D animation. The film had its first major screening at a festival in Stockholm last month.

But the real centerpiece of the festival for anime fans is the screening of what is surely one of the most bizarre and mystery-shrouded anime features of the last decade: Midori. The name will probably not be familiar, but the comic on which the film was based has been released here under the title Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. Yes, this film is an adaptation of a comic by the uncontested king of ero-guro, Maruo Suehiro. It's remarkable enough that a Maruo Suehiro anime exists in the first place, but no less remarkable are the circumstances surrounding the film's origin and presentation to the public.

Where to begin? First of all, Midori is a rather hard film to classify. It's anime, but it's not. Anime is known for being rather limited, but this film takes limited to a whole new level. It's closer to a kami shibai or paper play, a type of one-man entertainment that was popular in pre-WWII Japan. Maruo's original comic is in fact an adaptation of a kami shibai, so it's an appropriate analogy. And the remarkable thing is that this anime version really is a one-man entertainment: every drawing you see in the 52 minute film was drawn by one person, thereby making it true to the spirit of the original - a modern kami shibai. Attempting such a thing is pretty much pure insanity. It wound up taking this person five years to make the film. The madman in question is one Hiroshi Harada 原田浩.

Who is this guy, and what inspired him to do such a thing? Apparently he got a regular start in the anime industry in the 70s, but became fed up with the conservatism of the establishment, in which animators are trained to be unthinking cogs in a machine who churn out whatever the TV stations and sponsors tell them to, and decided to go independent to make the sort of films that he would never have been able to make working from inside the industry. His first film was 1979's City Nocturne, and his next two came out in 1985: Eternal Paradise and Lullaby to the Big Sleep. Lullaby turned out to be his big break, because underground filmmaker Ishii Sogo, who was on the judging panel at the Pia Film Festival where the film was screened, loved it and gave it his endorsement, which got Harada instant recognition and made it possible for him to get started on his next project: Midori.

He knocked on doors everywhere conceivable looking for sponsors, but no company was willing to back the overly daring project. So he did the only thing he could: he broke open his piggy bank and threw his life savings into the project. Having been decisively refused by the establishment for the last time, he finally did the obvious, and turned to the underground, which is where his audience had been all along. By gathering support from various sectors including avant-garde theater, his film became a sort of emblem of the 80s subculture scene. The music was contributed by J. A. Caesar, who had taken over as the leading figure of the underground theater after the death of guru Shuji Terayama. He started in 1987, worked from home, and drew everything himself. Only finishing was done elsewhere. Five years later, the incredible task was done, and Midori, the sad, strange story of a young girl sold to a travelling freak circus, was premièred in 1992.

But this is where things get interesting. Harada had already shown that he wasn't satisfied with going the normal route as a creator, and perhaps it was taking inspiration from the underground theater that he now went in a really new direction. Rather than doing regular advertising to attract the public to see the film, and holding an ordinary screening somewhere, Harada instead kept things hush hush and staged the screening as a fantastic show complete with tent, strange exhibits, music and theater -- just like the freak show in the story -- with the film as the centerpiece of the event. To accentuate the mood of the film, smoke machines filled the room with an eerie fog and fans blew cherry blossom petals through the air. At another screening, people who had reserved tickets were given maps providing directions to a secret location, where people were then individually separated and sent through a series of mazes and rooms in order to arrive at the screening room. The audience, no passive spectators, had to make considerable efforts to take part in the experience.

Rather than a mere night at the movies, then, going to see the film thus became a new kind of theatrical experience, bringing together various underground arts and artists under one three ring tent. Harada has in fact refused to allow the film to be screened without a number of these theatrical devices, nor to allow it to be released on video. So the film also comes across as a statement against the behind-closed-doors consumerism represented by the video. It is an event to be experienced in public among others on a special occasion only. For all anybody knows, the screening at the FFF, which will be a full-fledged kosher screening with attractions and all, could very well be the last. Every instance thus takes on an incredible immediacy because it is (for now) shut off from this on-demand media age. In the end, all these clever theatrical ploys have only succeeded in adding to the film's eerie mystique.

Of course, there's also the fact that the film contains graphic depictions of animals being killed, pubic hair, taboo sexual acts, and discriminatory language, which would probably be enough to prevent the film from being shown in almost any regular theater without considerable cuts even if Harada hadn't taken steps that happen to keep that from becoming an issue. The film also contains direct depiction of the emperor Hirohito, which, unless I'm mistaken, was illegal while he was still alive. The complete, original film was in fact confiscated and banned from being shown in theaters in Japan by Narita Customs (though full video prints still exist), but apparently this doesn't hold any force, since the film is still being shown, albeit presumably in censored form. Even if one never gets to see the film, as is quite likely, it's still a film that fires the imagination, and it almost beckons one to try to come up with it in one's own head, which is perhaps what was intended from the start.