Friday, 2 May 2008

Scientific Romances in the Land of the Rising Sun

It is spring, the season when Cherry Blossoms are falling from the trees, their petals drifting gently to the ground over which you walk. It is peaceful in this open glade, there in the shadow of the sacred mountain Fuji... All that can be heard are the chirping of birds and the tap of the bamboo water-clock. The scene is like a painting, with the sun's rays shining through the trees inspiring a deep sense of inner peace. Then without warning, a Samurai bursts through the trees. She stops halfway through the meadow, and with a rush of wind, the Cherry Blossoms swirl around you as her pursuer reveals itself: a 20 foot tall steel-plated, smoke-belching automated monster! The Samurai releases an inhuman, otherworldly howl, brandishes her sword, and shoots an incredible blue fireball at the steam-powered beast. The blast is received in full, the robot is critically damaged and, deploying it's sails, takes off to the flying temple fortress you can barely make out above you. The Samurai turns to you, giving you a cold, analytical stare, and with that disappears into the thicket. Welcome to Japan in the 1880s.

While the Western world has been somewhat slow to develop an affection for modern Scientific Romances, the Japanese comic, animation, and video game industries have not. Anime and manga, Japanese animation and comics respectively, have long been fertile ground for telling any and every type of story imaginable. The period of comics and cartoons being considered a children's genre was relatively short in Japan, especially compared to North America where it is still considered "kid's stuff". Following World War II, a creator by the name of Tezuka Osamu broke on the scene, selling over 400,000 copies of his 1947 manga New Treasure Island... An unthinkable number at the time. Tezuka went on to adapt many more works, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and a Metropolis very loosely based on the 1927 film, as well as inventing new characters of his own like Kimba the White Lion and Astroboy.

The influence of Tezuka cannot be overstated. Himself influenced by Walt Disney's animations, Tezuka pioneered many of the archetypal aesthetic sensibilities of anime and manga, including the characteristic oversized eyes. It was also Tezuka who imbued them with mature storytelling and developed themes that appealed to both children and grown-ups. Science fiction stories, action adventures, coming of age tales, high drama and art... Tezuka did it all. One Japanese newspaper summed up his significance by saying,
Foreign visitors to Japan often find it difficult to understand why Japanese people like comics so much. One explanation for the popularity of comics in Japan, however, is that Japan had Tezuka Osamu, whereas other nations did not.

From that background, many excellent Voyages Extraordinaires have been produced, often serving as a unique fusion of Western and Japanese history, fiction, and sensibilities... Almost as unique and interesting as the Edo, Meiji, and Taisho eras themselves. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of transition for Japan, with the Edo period forming the last era of the Tokugawa shogunate. It was during this time that many of Japan's most well-known cultural institutions emerged, including Kabuki theater, the tea ceremony and Ukiyo-e art. Following a violent and bloody civil war in 1867/68, the Meiji Restoration saw the return of the Emperor to the throne and radical changes to the country's social, economic, and military structures. Rather than remaining in unequal treaties forced upon them by Commodore Perry in the 1850s, Japan sought to close the gap with the West. Religious freedom came in 1873, the class and feudal systems were slowly broken down, industrialization began, and Japan received it's first European style constitution in 1889. After the death of Emperor Meiji and ascension of Emperor Taisho in 1912, political power shifted from the class of ruling oligarchs to the parliament and democratic parties. The era of Emperor Taisho came to an end in 1926.

Like many Scientific Romance stories on this side of the Pacific, Japanese ones often delve into this real history to create an alternate history, here owing equally to Jules Verne and the samurai. One of the foremost of these stories is Sakura Wars. Taking place during an alternate Taisho era, the earth is just recovering from the first Demon War, a horror which humanity barely won. All is not well however... Demon hordes are on the move again, but this time the world is ready. Japan is the leading manufacturer of steam technology and Kanzaki Heavy Industries is developing it's most advanced military hardware yet. There's the bullet train Gouraigo and the zeppelin Shougeimaru ("Flying Whale"), but the centerpiece is the Oubu: robot battle suits driven by steam and spiritual energy. Unfortunately, the suits require so much power that only a limited number of people in the world can possibly operate them, and all but one just happen to be girls. After gathering together the team, they are christened the Imperial Floral Assault Unit and sent on to combat the evil sweeping over the land of the rising sun.

The appropriately titled Spirit of Wonder: Miss China's Ring is an enjoyable short film consisting of an extended flashback to the time when Earth had a moon rather than a glittering golden ring of space dust. In the 19th century, there was a young Chinese girl who owned an inn on a British island. Above the inn was a financially troubled mad scientist who had invented a device to venture to the moon. The scientist also had an assistant who was trying to court the young inn owner, but with limited success. But the scientist and the assistant hatch a plot to solve both of their problems, which also explains why Earth no longer has a moon! Miss China's story, as well as that of the 1950's-based Scientific Boy's Club, continues in the Spirit of Wonder DVD.

Where Spirit of Wonder exemplifies the Vernian Voyages Extraordinaire heady delight with the cosmos, Otomo Katsuhiro's Steamboy more darkly exemplifies Wellsian dystopia. Like Katsuhiro's previous Cyberpunk film, Akira, Steamboy addresses the problem of exponential technological development against humanity's stunted moral development. The central conflict is within Ray Steam, third in a line of pioneer inventors, over how to use the mysterious and powerful "steam ball"... A magnificent source of unparalleled power that is key to opperating an apocalyptic Steam Tower. On the one side is Ray's grandfather, who envisions a bright age in which science betters the human condition and builds the Steam Tower as a giant amusement park. On the other is Ray's father, who sees science as the road to power and the Steam Tower as an indefeatable weapon, which is demonstrated by an inscrupulous corporation to the highest bidders at the Crystal Palace.

A wonderful fusion of the light and dark pulses of Scientific Romances comes in the form of the Read-or-Die 3-episode direct-to-video series. In R.O.D., a malevolent organization of clones of historical figures are attempting to acquire a lost manuscript of Beethoven's that is instrumental in their plans to reshape humanity. Standing in their way are the superpowered agents of the British Library special forces, lead by the bookish Yomiko Readman, who has telekinetic sway over paper. Though it takes place in the modern day and spans the globe, the villains of the piece are some of the most inventive characters ever to come into the genre. There is Jean Henri Farve, a real-life 19th century French entomologist, who commands a giant grasshopper with brass pipes, and 19th century German glider expert Otto Lilienthal and his steam rocket-glider-bird-thing. Other slandered historical figures include the samurai and electronics pioneer Gennai Hiraga, steam pioneer Stephen Wilcox, legendary Chinese figure Genjo Sanzo, World War I spy Mata Hari, and Buddhist monk Ikkyuu Soujun. In keeping with stereotypes, the agents of the ridiculously serious British Library special forces are Victorian right up to their stiff upper lips.

Another historical Voyages Extraordinaire series, which is also one of the most beloved anime series on both sides of the ocean, has a much more direct debt to Jules Verne. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is based loosely off of Verne's Captain Nemo books: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. In it, a mysterious orphan girl Nadia meets a young inventive genius named Jean at the Paris Exposition. Unaware of her past, Nadia carries with her a shimmering cobalt jewel called "Blue Water" which possesses incredible powers, making it and her the target of many nefarious plots. Escaping a trio of jewel thieves, Nadia and Jean eventually find themselves on the famous Nautilus where they are soon embroiled in a war between Captain Nemo and the secret society of Neo-Atlantis. This adventure takes the duo to all seven seas, beneath Antarctica, to an ancient Devonian reef, the Mysterious Island, the ruins of Atlantis, darkest Africa, and even to outer space. Along the way they discover not only the dark origins of humanity and villainous designs on its future, but they also discover themselves.

If Osamu Tezuka was the Walt Disney of the Japanese comic and animation industry, then Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is the entertainment juggernaut that is the Walt Disney Company. Formed in 1985, Ghibli has risen to international acclaim with films like Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies and Spirited Away, and an American distribution deal with Disney. The first of Ghibli's films also demsontrates the lingering love affair of Miyazaki with Victorian Scientific Romances. Castle in the Sky is a Gulliver-inspired story about sky pirates, flying machines and the last rulers of the lost floating city of Laputa. While working amongst the black pits and railway tressles of a Welsh mining city, young Pazu meets the mysterious Sheeta when she literally floats down from the sky. Hot on her trail are a gang of theives and a government conspiracy seeking her crystal necklace, which is the key to finding long lost Laputa. Victorian and Pulp themes continued throughout the work of Ghibli, from films like Porco Rosso and Howl's Moving Castle to the architecture of the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.

Not content to just borrow literature from Western culture, Japan has it's own heritage to draw from. One of these is the film A Night on the Galactic Railroad, based off of the late Taisho era novel by Miyazawa Kenji. Based to a large degree on his own memories of adolescent adventure and bittersweet experience of coming into adulthood, Miyazawa's novel takes two boys (who in the film are made into anthropomorphised cats) on a steam train ride through the cosmos. Through the rich and deep symbolism the viewer is presented with, Miyazawa relates his views on creativity and imagination, sacrifice, and ultimately, death. This novel inspired Leiji Matsumoto to create his own universe in which a spacefaring steam train ferries a young man to his destiny in the futuristic Sci-Fi Galaxy Express 999.

Character growth and life lessons are of order in another anime series which manages to defy any real attempt to classify it. Escaflowne focuses on Japanese high school student Hitomi Kanzaki, a spiritualist who also suffers from depression, as she is whisked away from Earth to the strange world of Gaea, where both the Earth and the Moon hang in the sky. Here she meets Van Fenel, the last king of a ruined kingdom, and joins him in his fight against the evil empire of Zaibach. Beginning with high school drama on modern day Earth, the story crosses fantasy, romance, and the giant gilded battle suits used by warriors, including Van's suit after which the series is named. There are also other pieces of industrial and mediaeval hardware, such as war chariots and floating fortresses.

Here at Voyages Extraordinaires, we'll examine both the real and the fictional history and romance of Japan... From anime with giant, steam-powered mecha to geisha drifting gently beneath falling sakura petals.

1 comment:

MarkW said...

I also humbly submit "Clockwork Fighters" -- a show which, while definitely geared towards children, examines an alternate past vision of the Japanese "karakuri ningyo" automatons just before the Meiji restoration. It also delves into the pros and cons of isolation versus opening up to the west, peaceful and martial use of technology, etc.

Hm. All that makes it sound much more evolved than it is. It's essentially the story of a group of children from a village of clockwork artisans who go in search of their father after their village is destroyed by a rival clan that plans to use steam-powered mecha to overthrow the shogunate.