Friday, 30 May 2008

Videos of 1930's Japan

To bid sayonara to the Land of the Rising Sun, we have another pair of videos for you. These are very short colour films of the harbor of Yokohama in 1932 and 1935 respectively, as a steamship ocean liner departs amidst antique junks.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Hyakkai Zukkan (1737)

The Japanese pop-culture and history weblog Pink Tentacle has a wonderful illustrated article featuring Edo era paintings of Japanese monsters and ghouls by Sawaki Suushi, from his 1737 book Hyakkai Zukkan.

Click here to read it.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Robot Carnival (1986)

Robot Carnival is an anime-lover's dream, a sort of mecha Fantasia that covers practically every genre of anime: from comedy to drama, from action to art. As the film opens, we see a desert village in a panic as they learn that the Robot Carnival is coming soon... And eventually it does, in the form of a gigantic circus tank with artilery fireworks and explosive robot ballerinas. Imagine what would happen if the circus rolled over town rather than through it!

What follows are seven magnificently animated segments by nine of Japan's leading anime creators, set to atmospheric Japanese pop-instrumental music. Some are frightening, like Chicken Man and Red Neck's cross between Disney's "Night on Bald Mountain" Fantasia sequence and their Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In it, the midnight hour strikes and appliances all over the city begin to transform into machines from Hell, resembling the most fevered demon paintings of the mediaeval mind. Unfortunately, a hapless little drunk guy is caught in the bacchanal, and chilling hilarity insues. Other sequences are dreamy and artistic, like Cloud, where a child-like robot drifts through the years, eventually becoming a real boy. Two, however, are well within the realms of the Scientific Romance.

First is Franken's New Creation, being the story of a mad inventor whose lifetime project of a living robot is finally reaching its end. Entering the depths of his laboratory and moving past the rusting hulks of past attempts, Dr. Franken throws the switch on his latest creation. Following a spectacular light display, the experiment seems to be a failure... Until the robot starts to stir! We're treated to another lightshow (including a scene animated in negative) as the creation rises to life. Alive, it takes to imitating the actions of it's "father"... Much to his chagrin.

The more upfront Scientific Romance story, and the most hilarious after the the opening and closing sequences, is the Strange Tale of Meiji Machines: The Episode of the Red-Haired Man's Invasion. In it, a European mad scientist has come to Japan in search of the gold promised in Marco Polo's journals, bringing along with him his giant electric armoured mecha called "Tinkerbell". Facing off against him are a gaggle of teenagers in their own steam-mecha, made out of wood! After some initial volleys of European canonballs and oriental fireworks, the machines rush at each other in battle fury... with the famous anime speed lines and everything... but technology being what it is, they finally lock horns several hours later, each party too exhausted to fight. Fight they do, however, with spectacularily bad results.

It's a great segment with great designs, and its only a pity that Strange Tale of Meiji Machines is limited to this film... I would love to see a whole series (or at least more segments) of these characters and their wooden machines. Such sheer lunacy and Japanese self-parody, curiously in the Vernian tradition of Scientific Romance as satire, is just a heck of a lot of fun!

Finally, when the movie comes to a close and all it's stories are told, the Robot Carnival continues on its way. Under the rolling credits we see a closing montage of other cities it has rolled over... But alas, the Carnival gets stuck on a dune and explodes from the pressure build-up. Years later, a lone wanderer picks up the Carnival's last remnants: an automated ball with a pretty little ballerina. Taking it back to his family, it pleases the kids until... well... I won't spoil it for you.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Ecology and environmentalism, as well as war and aircraft, figure prominently in maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s films. The encounter between humans and the environment is a subject of dear interest to him, and he explores both its positives and negatives throughout his body of work. In My Neighbor Totoro (1988), a modern-day Japanese family moves out to the country, where the two daughters meet the furry and rotund god of the forest, Totoro, his assistants, and the somewhat unsettling Catbus. In a very Lewis Carroll-inspired excursion down the rabbithole, the girls are ushered into the wonderland of the forest spirits and the simple value of intimacy with nature.

The three themes of airships, war and ecology unite in Miyazaki’s very first Ghibli production (actually a pre-Ghibli film) entitled Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Taking place over 1000 years in the future, a devastating “Seven Days of Fire” involving bioengineered “God Warriors” has reduced humanity to small pockets of civilization amidst endless deserts and a newly-forming ecosystem of toxic fungal spores and giant insects. After the warlike kingdom of Tolmekia recovers a dormant God Warrior, they hatch a plot to use the ancient weapon to subjugate the remaining human kingdoms and purge the poison jungles… Bringing them and their air-warships into direct conflict with the glider-bourn Nausicaa and the forest-spirit-like Ohmu insects.

While coming together in Ghibli’s first feature, the three threads are exquisitely tied in their second film, 1986’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. In what appears to be an alternate earth of the 19th century, humanity had long since achieved the age of heavy industry. Divorcing themselves from the earth and its environment, they fashioned all manner of aircraft, culminating in massive flying island fortresses. With great power came greater violence and destruction, bringing this society and its great flying islands crashing back to the ground. The only one to remain was the mighty Laputa – a massive weapon-fortress and heart of the aerial empire – and eventually its memory was forgotten… Relegated to myth and Jonathan Swift’s storytelling.

Castle in the Sky’s story commences when humanity is once again learning heavy industry and building their own new airships. After an airpirate attack on a passenger airship, a girl with a mysterious blue crystal necklace levitates to the ground in front of the young miner Pazu. Pazu, a pre-teen mechanical genius, has been haunted by the spectre of his aeronaut father’s all-too brief sighting of the flying castle Laputa. Despite snapping a photograph of the island amidst its stormy cloud of protection, no one believed him, and he later lost his life hunting it down. Using his meager wages from burrowing into the earth to build his own plane, Pazu hopes to vindicate his father by finding Laputa. And Sheeta, the unconscious girl who fell literally into his lap, is his key to finding it.

She is, however, also the key for others. The airpirates are hunting her down in the hopes that her levistone – the blue crystal – will lead them to Laputa’s legendary riches. The military is also looking for her, intent on resurrecting Laputa’s unstoppable power for themselves. In the background is the lingering bloodline of Laptua's ancient rulers, looking to return to their former might.

Upon reaching the fortress, they find that the abandoned structure has become overgrown, it’s former army of robot soldiers having become gardeners tending after the plants and wildlife that call the Edenic oasis home. Far from its past as alienated humanity’s engine of domination, a giant tree has grown from the skylight greenhouse and extended its roots deep into Laputa’s innermost sanctums, turning the island into a floating incarnation of the World Tree. What Laputa will become, however, rests in the hands of Sheeta and Pazu.

As Ghibli's first official film (Nausicaa being the film that actually led to the creation of the studio), Castle in the Sky is an excellent starting point. It lays the groundwork of what would become Ghibli staples, in air chases, excellent animation, case scenes and fantastic mechanical designs. More than that, it set the pace for Ghibli's elevated consciousness about character and conflict, treating characters as the complex human beings they are and violence like the tragedy it is.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is often, and rightly, compared to Walt Disney. His films, and those produced by his collaborators at Studio Ghibli, have become beloved favorites around the world, charming children and adults alike in their homeland and beyond. Usually whimsical and sometimes grotesque, the films of Miyazaki and Ghibli are upheld by popular and professional audiences as pinnacles in animation art. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Disney company acquired the global distribution rights to Ghibli’s films, or that Disney/Pixar animation head John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki share a personal friendship.

Miyazaki’s films feature several recurring themes that, sometimes ahead of their time, have helped his films to capture the imaginations of the theatregoing public. Growing up during and in the aftermath of WWII, the subject of warfare and its human costs have imprinted themselves on Miyazaki, his work, and that of Studio Ghibli. Having essentially instigated the conflict in the Pacific theatre and then losing it in dramatic and apocalyptic fashion, Japan has been given a unique voice in telling the story of war. Though not produced by Miyazaki, Grave of the Fireflies - a gutwrenching WWII survival story of Japanese children orphaned by American bombers – was the only Ghibli film for which Disney did not pursue distribution rights.

War, then, figures highly in most of Miyazaki’s films. His pentultimate film, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), based on the novel series by Diana Wynne Jones, deals with love and war as a young girl, Sophie, is transformed into a 90-year old hag by the wicked Witch of the Waste, in order to trap the master sorcerer Howl. Howl hangs his hat in the titular moving castle: a jumble of metal and machinery powered by the demonic fire of Calcifer, a shooting star whose life Howl saved and with whom he now shares a symbiotic relationship.

Against the developing story (and affections) between Sophie and the vain, insensitive Howl is the background of war fought between two kingdoms of this alternate earth-like setting. One of the magical properties of the moving castle is that it holds portals to a “magic shop” façade present in each of the countries embroiled in violence. Initially eschewing the violence, Howl is eventually sucked in. Fighting in the form of a giant, black bird-of-prey, he and Sophie fear that the price to his own soul may become so great that he can never change back to his human self.

Howl's Moving Castle forms an unfortunately harried swan song for the master animator. Production problems pulled Miyazaki out of a retirement he had already announced in order to meet the film's deadline. Whether a product of this crisis or a fault of the source material, the film lacks the same cohesion of Miyazaki's other work. The story bolts from one place to another and attempts to fold in elements from the novel, even in the closing minutes of the movie, that give it the feeling of an adaptation done on the fly. Watching it and having these scenes and characters sprung on you, you know that there's probably a good reason for it in the Wynne Jones novel, but it is sorely absent in the finished film. Perhaps these contributed to Miyazaki's decision to continue with his next film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.

It is still a Hayao Miyazaki work, however, full of wimsy, wonder, grotesqueries and magic. But it is a footnote... An "also-ran" compared to his true masterpieces. Even Walt Disney had his off-films though, so it's nothing to be ashamed about.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Sakura Wars 2 OVA (1999)

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

The second Sakura Wars OVA is unlike the first in a number of ways. It is not one continuous story, but rather, a number of character studies which are more comedic than serious. Also, aside from the opening, there are no robot battles. The first episode is set during the first game; but the others take place at different points within the second and include the new characters of Orihime, a half-Japanese Italian aristocrat, and Reni, a German girl who was the subject of testing to enhance her spirit powers which made her loose her ability to emote. Each episode is set up as the newly promoted Lt. Oogami packs his bags to depart for his new post in Paris and remembers the stories behind various mementos.

The Sakura Wars: Return of the Spirit Warriors DVD of the OVA features a trio of episodes about various members of the Hana-gumi. In one episode, a grizzled Russian man named Valentionv arrives in Tokyo, confronts an inept group of gangsters called the Dandy Gang, and plants a bomb in the theatre. The ghosts of the past have caught up with Maria, and she must do battle with Valentionv while testing her own compassion and humanity to save the theatre.

The following episode has Iris seeing a film about the dragon boat festival, resulting in her going out of control down the canals of Tokyo in a craft stolen from the Dandy Gang. Meanwhile, in the next episode, the Hana-gumi are appearing in a movie adaptation of their play Benitokage, but not everything is going according to plan. Not only is Sumire holding up production by throwing tantrums, but it turns out that Stage 13 is in fact haunted by the vengeful spirit of an actress from the silent-era of films. This time, salvation is up to Sumire, who must prove that she has the heart of a real actress.

In the following episode, Kouran is asked to pose as a cover model for a superhero book, only to be mistaken for the hero herself while fighting of a gang of thugs. Their target is to demolish the shacks of the poor so the property can be developed, forcing Shounen Red - aka: Kouran - to become their protector.

The second disk, Sakura Wars: Wedding Bells, focuses on Sakura. A case of misheard conversations and escalating gossip leads the rest of the Hana-gumi to think that Sakura is getting married. While they blow things out of proportion amongst themselves,Yoneda and Sakura catch a train to Sendai to attend her relative's wedding. On the way there, Yoneda reminisces about Sakura’s father and the first demon war. The story continues after the wedding, when Sakura’s mother wonders about the day Sakura will leave the Shinguji family to join her future husband. Sakura’s grandmother, on the other hand, says that will not happen: the groom will have to join the Shingujis so Sakura can produce an heir to the blood of the destroyers of evil. Meanwhile the girls find a note that Sakura had been writing before she left, and they misinterpret it to mean that she’s being forced to marry against her will. Immediately they head off to Sendai to “rescue” Sakura, with comic consequences.

The first and second Sakura Wars OVA are available separately or compiled into a three-disk OVA Collection set from ADV Films.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Sakura Wars OVA (1997)

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

The first Sakura Wars original video animation (OVA) is a prequel to the first Sakura Wars video game; we are introduced to a Tokyo which is rapidly rebuilding after being nearly destroyed by a demon invasion a few years before. The city is prosperous due to the cutting edge steam technology of Kanzaki Heavy Industries, but there is no doubt in the mind of General Yoneda, leader of the anti-demon unit in the first war, and Count Hanakoji that the city will need protecting again. The Kouma Demons can only be harmed by spirit energy, and Kanzaki Industries is tasked with developing a suit of armor that will enhance the spirit powers of the person operating it. The development has been stalled due to the fact that no one they’ve been able to find has enough spirit power to move the armour; that is until the Kanzaki Sumire, the granddaughter of the company owner, comes by for a visit. Her spiritual power breaks the meters and she becomes the new test pilot. With this, they discover that it is generally only young women who have enough spiritual power to operate the machines. A premadonna, she also insists on naming the prototypes after herself: the Three Colored Sumire... Japanese for the flower Pansies.

Eventually, the Imperial Floral Assault Unit forms out of the Pansies when Iris Chateaubriand from France, Russian Revolutionary War veteran Maria Tachibana, Karate expert Karishima Kanna, and Chinese inventor-mechanic Ri Kohran join the dance troupe. The girls are put to work training for plays and combat to raise their spiritual powers. Meanwhile Shinguji Sakura, daughter of Shinguji Kazuma - the martyr who gave his life to ensure victory in the demon wars - trains in the use of her family’s spirit sword Arataka and discovers that her destiny lies in fighting the demons that plague Tokyo. Later, Oogami is brought on board to help train and harness the Hana-gumi's (Flower Division's) power, and the third episode ends with Sakura and Oogami’s meeting, which kicks off the start of the game.

A note about the fourth and final episode of this OVA: this episode doesn’t flow with the rest in the story. With bulk of the story finished at the third episode mark, this final installment is just a visual treat for the fans and a series of in-jokes. For example, all the tasks that girls have Oogami perform are actually based on the mini-games within the larger game: cleaning the theatre with Sakura, saving Sumire from drowning, cooking with Maria and so on. During the battles you get to see all the girls perform their signature attacks from the game. In the final scene of the episode, Oogami comes face-to-face with the player, presented as a duplicate of himself.

The Sakura Wars TV series was a part of the anniversary Sakura Project 2000 and tells an alternate version of the first game’s events. There are significant changes to both story and characterization, and non-game fans usually enjoy it more than the already initiated, since it tells the complete story without relying on knowledge of the games. However, one might notice the jarring change in characterization as they move on to other Sakura Wars films.

For another adaptation of the video game's story, Tokyopop has been publishing the manga version of Sakura Taisen. It is a faithful adaptation of the video games, with plenty of expanded material. The first couple of volumes in particular can seem to go pretty slow, but the additional characterization, historical flavor and sidestories are a treat for any fan. However, this is the only way to experience the full canon story in English. Tokyopop’s translation was lacking on the first few volumes and brush over a lot of the Taishou Era historical backdrop, but the translation picks up as the story progresses.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Sakura Wars

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

The Taishou Era was a time of rapid growth for Japan both artistically and technologically. Japan was reaping the benefits of the borders opened in the previous Meiji Era, famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright built the Imperial Hotel in this period, and Albert Einstein came to Japan to receive his Nobel Prize. This era also gave birth to a new form of theatre when Kobayashi Ichizo, president of Hankyu railways, combined Parisian dance revue, Broadway musicals and traditional Japanese theatre to create the Takarazuka Kagekidan. Kagekidan all female dance revue quickly became a popular past time for the Japanese, dominating the entertainment industry up to the 1970s, with other theatres like the Shochiku Kagekidan and Osaka Shochiku Kagekidan competing with Takarazuka for patrons’ attention.

Japan's Sakura Wars (aka: Sakura Taisen) video game franchise captures this sense of wonder and rapid progress by combining a dating simulation game with strategic battle role playing to create an interactive serial about a Taishou Era Kagekidan theatre whose members use steam- and spirit-powered battlesuits to protect the Imperial Capital from invasion by dark, demonic forces. Yes, it is a combat-dating game!

Introduction to the Playstation version of Sakura Taisen.

In the games, you play the role of Oogami Ichirou, a recently graduated officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who has been given the prestigious task of commanding a secret task force that protects the Imperial Capital from the demon forces that attacked an alternate history Earth in the late 1910's. This unit is the Teikoku Kagekidan. Teikoku means "Imperial" and Kagekidan can read as "Musical Revue Troupe" or "Assault Force" depending on the kanji used to spell it, making this secret task force both the Imperial Musical Revue and the Imperial Assault Unit.

Not catching the joke, Oogami is shocked when he arrives in Tokyo and learns that he has been assigned to be a ticket clipper for a musical theatre in Ginza. Despite developing a fondness for the troupe members - all nubile teenage girls - there comes a point where Oogami just can’t take being placed on the sidelines when Japan needs protection. Just when he’s fed up enough to resign his post, the truth is revealed: the theatre is a façade, the defense force is real, and the actresses are all pilots of the steam powered robots called "Koubu" who were chosen for their spiritual powers. Oogami learns that he is one of the only men in the world with enough spiritual power of his own to pilot a Koubu and is placed in command of the squad. Further installments of the series change the scenery to Paris (at a cabaret) and New York (at a Broadway theatre).

A sample of Sakura Taisen gameplay from the Playstation version.

The Sakura Wars franchise is one of Sega’s biggest in Japan, boasting its own theme café and store in Ginza, dozens of software releases including the five main games thus far, over ten years of live musical performances with the voice cast, an ongoing Manga adaptation, five direct-to-video mini-series (also called OVA), a TV series, a theatrical movie and much more. Sadly, despite the occasional promise from Sega, the games have never been published in North America. The only accessible installments of the series here are the manga and the different animations.

We'll be taking a look at some of these chapters in the Sakura Wars saga, but in the mean time, be sure to visit the English-language Sakura Wars resource: Taishou Legend

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Vision of Escaflowne (1996)

Was it all just a dream? Or maybe a vision? No, it was real... Hitomi Kanzaki was a regular schoolgirl in Japan before it all happened. Loved by her friends, admired for her performance in her school's track team and sought after for the accuracy of her Tarot card readings, Hitomi was caught in a love triangle between herself, her best friend Yukari and record-breaking track star Amano. Doing a reading for herself and Amano, she saw the card of love... and distant separation. Did this mean that Amano was going to leave for America, never to be seen again?

Then on his last night in Japan, a mysterious armoured knight appeared on the school's outdoor track. Following him was an honest-to-goodness fire-breathing dragon. After using her suddenly accelerating psychic abilities, Hitomi helped the young knight defeat the fantastic creature, only to be caught up herself in a shaft of light that carried them both to the world of Gaea.

On the mysterious world of Gaia where both the Earth and Moon hang in the sky, Hitomi formally meets Van Fanel, king of Fanelia and descendent of the ancient and cursed Draconian people of Atlantis, whose powers created Gaea and now threaten to destroy her. Led by the misguided Emperor Dornkirk and Van's own brother Folken, the empire of Zaibach has razed Fanelia to the ground and is waging an apocalyptic war against all of Gaea with his floating fortesses and giant, steam-powered "Guymelef" mecha. Guided by the Fate Alteration Engine, Dornkirk hopes to reshape Gaea in the image of his ideal future, where violence and suffering will be no more.

Unfortunately, Dornkirk's ideal future seen through the telescopic lenses of the Fate Alteration Engine goes out of focus whenever the Dragon and the girl from the Mystic Moon come together. The girl from the Mystic Moon is, of course, Hitomi. The Dragon is Van and his own Guymelef, the majestic Escaflowne. The birthright of the kings of Fenelia, only one of their blood can activate this machine warsuit, which opperates on the energy from the crystalline hearts of dragons and can transform into a mechanized dragon itself. But who really holds the key to the ideal future? Dornkirk, or Van and Hitomi?

Shown briefly on North American television, The Vision of Escaflowne series - co-created by Macross maestro Shoji Kawamori - is a powerful, mythic fantasy set in gilded steel. While it is full to the brim with steam-powered battlesuits, nifty gadgets, ships and fortresses that fly using "levistones", the Fate Alteration Engine itself and a Fantasy version of an atom bomb, the fact is that this is a story about the characters... A fact that supports the fundamental contention of the series.

The basic question asked by the series is who, or what, shall form the future? On the one side is Emperor Dornkirk and his Fate Alteration Engine... A device created from cursed science that peers into destiny to focus on the ideal trajectory of the future, and from which calculations can be derived and geometry traced that manipulate fortune. Dornkirk's goal is a noble one, to be certain: the abolition of war, suffering, violence and potentially even death. Though spurred on primarily through his own relentles pursuit of scientific knowledge - the true identity of Dornkirk, though never spelled out, is nevertheless quite ingenious - there is a trace of genuine sympathy in his grand speeches.

Dornkirk is hampered in his mission by his logic... The cold, alien, analytical logic that can't account for individual human agency and doesn't require individual human change and growth. His is very much the logic the states that we will absolute peace after just one more war, "once we get rid of the bad people who want war." In Dornkirk's case, he is waging a final war to bring about Gaia's destruction so that a new world may be formed in her place, causing the very violence and suffering he claims to tryng to bring an absolute end to. It is strictly externalistic change done to people rather than by people.

Because of this ethic, Dornkirk spends a good portion of the series trying to drive apart the Dragon and the girl from the Mystic Moon. When they draw closer together, the ideal future seen in the Fate Alteration Engine becomes dim... Diffused into the chaos of individual personality, will and experience. While they are apart, Van and Hitomi are powerful, but they are still limited quantities that can be successfully calculated for. However, when they are together, that power combines and increases beyond Dornkirk's ability to compensate for and control. This is because together, they exemplify the one subjective, incalculable force that may, in fact, be the actual salvation of the world: love.

Will love conquer all, including the apocalypse? Thankfully, Escaflowne manages to veer away from the comical, sentimental place where such an affirmation could (and usually does) lead. What Van and Hitomi experience isn't the sappy sort of cinematic romance that we're all too accustomed to. Rather, it is the deep and driving force of personal change as individual meets individual in their utter vulnerability and total humanity. It is this power - the power of human beings to actually change themselves in union with one another - that may hold the actual key to remolding the world into a better place, where the inhuman logic of the Dornkirks may annhilate it.

Nor do the other characters in this Fantasy drama get shortchanged. In Escaflowne, we see character development the way that only a finite series can provide it. Knowing that the series would not go beyond 26 episodes, it manages to actually take its characters places. We see the development of pampered palace brats into experienced human beings, we see into the inner brokeness of the gallant knight, and the wealthy, empty-headed, decadent merchant's son is revealled to be the most genuinely wise and charitable character of the whole cast.

All of these elements combine to make The Vision of Escaflowne the finest example of blending Fantasy with the Scientific Romance and perhaps even the greatest example of Scientific Romance anime entirely... easily matching gear-for-gear with any other property and going beyond with so powerful a story.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Videos of Traditional Japan

I did not lie when I talked about geisha and sakura... Does it get more stereotypically Japanese than these videos? The first was filmed in 1934, but it could be practically any time, as the subject matter is timeless. First we see the serenity of geisha in the bloom of spring, sailing along a treelined canal beneath the pink blossoms of the sakura. Then we see the extensive preparations that go into transforming a girl into a geisha. The second video was filmed some time in the 1930's and is a short half-minute depicting the imperial castle and a Sumo tournament.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Kintaro the Golden Boy

May 5th is set aside in Japanese culture for "Boy's Day", the celebration of masculine youth and the promise of another batch of fine young men to carry on the traditions. In every household with a son, paper streamers and colourful carp windsocks are left to flutter on the breeze, signifying the statue of one of Japan's most beloved folkloric characters mounted within. It is the mighty Kintaro, the Golden Boy.

The origins of the Golden Boy are shrouded in time, though it is thought that he had his origins in a real historical figure. This figure was Sakata no Kintoki, a retainer for Minamoto no Yorimitsu, a great samurai of the Heian period, approximately 794-1185 CE. This period marked the height of Chinese influence in Japanese history and left its mark on the legend of Kinatro.

THere are, of course, many different versions of his story. One version, from the book Japanese Fairy Tales, is as follows:
Long, long ago there lived in Kyoto a brave soldier named Kintoki. Now he fell in love with a beautiful lady and married her. Not long after this, through the malice of some of his friends, he fell into disgrace at Court and was dismissed. This misfortune so preyed upon his mind that he did not long survive his dismissal--he died, leaving behind him his beautiful young wife to face the world alone. Fearing her husband's enemies, she fled to the Ashigara Mountains as soon as her husband was dead, and there in the lonely forests where no one ever came except woodcutters, a little boy was born to her. She called him Kintaro or the Golden Boy. Now the remarkable thing about this child was his great strength, and as he grew older he grew stronger and stronger, so that by the time he was eight years of age he was able to cut down trees as quickly as the woodcutters. Then his mother gave him a large ax, and he used to go out in the forest and help the woodcutters, who called him "Wonder-child," and his mother the "Old Nurse of the Mountains," for they did not know her high rank. Another favorite pastime of Kintaro's was to smash up rocks and stones. You can imagine how strong he was!

Quite unlike other boys, Kintaro, grew up all alone in the mountain wilds, and as he had no companions he made friends with all the animals and learned to understand them and to speak their strange talk. By degrees they all grew quite tame and looked upon Kintaro as their master, and he used them as his servants and messengers. But his special retainers were the bear, the deer, the monkey and the hare.

The bear often brought her cubs for Kintaro to romp with, and when she came to take them home Kintaro would get on her back and have a ride to her cave. He was very fond of the deer too, and would often put his arms round the creature's neck to show that its long horns did not frighten him. Great was the fun they all had together.

One day, as usual, Kintaro went up into the mountains, followed by the bear, the deer, the monkey, and the hare. After walking for some time up hill and down dale and over rough roads, they suddenly came out upon a wide and grassy plain covered with pretty wild flowers.

Here, indeed, was a nice place where they could all have a good romp together. The deer rubbed his horns against a tree for pleasure, the monkey scratched his back, the hare smoothed his long ears, and the bear gave a grunt of satisfaction.

Kintaro said, "Here is a place for a good game. What do you all say to a wrestling match?"

The bear being the biggest and the oldest, answered for the others:

"That will be great fun," said she. "I am the strongest animal, so I will make the platform for the wrestlers;" and she set to work with a will to dig up the earth and to pat it into shape.

"All right," said Kintaro, "I will look on while you all wrestle with each other. I shall give a prize to the one who wins in each round."

"What fun! we shall all try to get the prize," said the bear.

The deer, the monkey and the hare set to work to help the bear raise the platform on which they were all to wrestle. When this was finished, Kintaro cried out:

"Now begin! the monkey and the hare shall open the sports and the deer shall be umpire. Now, Mr. Deer, you are to be umpire!"

"He, he!" answered the deer. "I will be umpire. Now, Mr. Monkey and Mr. Hare, if you are both ready, please walk out and take your places on the platform."

Then the monkey and the hare both hopped out, quickly and nimbly, to the wrestling platform. The deer, as umpire, stood between the two and called out:

"Red-back! Red-back!" (this to the monkey, who has a red back in Japan). "Are you ready?"

Then he turned to the hare:

"Long-ears! Long-ears! are you ready?"

Both the little wrestlers faced each other while the deer raised a leaf on high as signal. When he dropped the leaf the monkey and the hare rushed upon each other, crying "Yoisho, yoisho!"

While the monkey and the hare wrestled, the deer called out encouragingly or shouted warnings to each of them as the hare or the monkey pushed each other near the edge of the platform and were in danger of falling over.

"Red-back! Red-back! stand your ground!" called out the deer.

"Long-ears! Long-ears! be strong, be strong--don't let the monkey beat you!" grunted the bear.

So the monkey and the hare, encouraged by their friends, tried their very hardest to beat each other. The hare at last gained on the monkey. The monkey seemed to trip up, and the hare giving him a good push sent him flying off the platform with a bound.

The poor monkey sat up rubbing his back, and his face was very long as he screamed angrily. "Oh, oh! how my back hurts--my back hurts me!"

Seeing the monkey in this plight on the ground, the deer holding his leaf on high said:

"This round is finished--the hare has won."

Kintaro then opened his luncheon box and taking out a rice-dumpling, gave it to the hare saying:

"Here is your prize, and you have earned, it well!"

Now the monkey got up looking very cross, and as they say in Japan "his stomach stood up," for he felt that he had not been fairly beaten. So he said to Kintaro and the others who were standing by:

"I have not been fairly beaten. My foot slipped and I tumbled. Please give me another chance and let the hare wrestle with me for another round."

Then Kintaro consenting, the hare and the monkey began to wrestle again. Now, as every one knows, the monkey is a cunning animal by nature, and he made up his mind to get the best of the hare this time if it were possible. To do this, he thought that the best and surest way would be to get hold of the hare's long ear. This he soon managed to do. The hare was quite thrown off his guard by the pain of having his long ear pulled so hard, and the monkey seizing his opportunity at last, caught hold of one of the hare's legs and sent him sprawling in the middle of the dais. The monkey was now the victor and received, a rice-dumpling from Kintaro, which pleased him so much that he quite forgot his sore back.

The deer now came up and asked the hare if he felt ready for another round, and if so whether be would try a round with him, and the hare consenting, they both stood up to wrestle. The bear came forward as umpire.

The deer with long horns and the hare with long ears, it must have been an amusing sight to those who watched this queer match. Suddenly the deer went down on one of his knees, and the bear with the leaf on high declared him beaten. In this way, sometimes the one, sometimes the other, conquering, the little party amused themselves till they were tired.

At last Kintaro got up and said:

"This is enough for to-day. What a nice place we have found for wrestling; let us come again to-morrow. Now, we will all go home. Come along!" So saying, Kintaro led the way while the animals followed.

After walking some little distance they came out on the banks of a river flowing through a valley. Kintaro and his four furry friends stood and looked about for some means of crossing. Bridge there was none. The river rushed "don, don" on its way. All the animals looked serious, wondering how they could cross the stream and get home that evening.

Kintaro, however, said:

"Wait a moment. I will make a good bridge for you all in a few minutes."

The bear, the deer, the monkey and the hare looked at him to see what he would do now.

Kintaro went from one tree to another that grew along the river bank. At last he stopped in front of a very large tree that was growing at the water's edge. He took hold of the trunk and pulled it with all his might, once, twice, thrice! At the third pull, so great was Kintaro's strength that the roots gave way, and "meri, meri" (crash, crash), over fell the tree, forming an excellent bridge across the stream.

"There," said Kintaro, "what do you think of my bridge? It is quite safe, so follow me," and he stepped across first. The four animals followed. Never had they seen any one so strong before, and they all exclaimed:

"How strong he is! how strong he is!"

While all this was going on by the river a woodcutter, who happened to be standing on a rock overlooking the stream, had seen all that passed beneath him. He watched with great surprise Kintaro and his animal companions. He rubbed his eyes to be sure that he was not dreaming when he saw this boy pull over a tree by the roots and throw it across the stream to form a bridge.

The woodcutter, for such he seemed to be by his dress, marveled at all he saw, and said to himself:

"This is no ordinary child. Whose son can he be? I will find out before this day is done."

He hastened after the strange party and crossed the bridge behind them. Kintaro knew nothing of all this, and little guessed that he was being followed. On reaching the other side of the river he and the animals separated, they to their lairs in the woods and he to his mother, who was waiting for him.

As soon as he entered the cottage, which stood like a matchbox in the heart of the pine-woods, he went to greet his mother, saying:

"Okkasan (mother), here I am!"

"O, Kimbo!" said his mother with a bright smile, glad to see her boy home safe after the long day. "How late you are to-day. I feared that something had happened to you. Where have you been all the time?"

"I took my four friends, the bear, the deer, the monkey, and the hare, up into the hills, and there I made them try a wrestling match, to see which was the strongest. We all enjoyed the sport, and are going to the same place to-morrow to have another match."

"Now tell me who is the strongest of all?" asked his mother, pretending not to know.

"Oh, mother," said Kintaro, "don't you know that I am the strongest? There was no need for me to wrestle with any of them."

"But next to you then, who is the strongest?"

"The bear comes next to me in strength," answered Kintaro.

"And after the bear?" asked his mother again.

"Next to the bear it is not easy to say which is the strongest, for the deer, the monkey, and the hare all seem to be as strong as each other," said Kintaro.

Suddenly Kintaro and his mother were startled by a voice from outside.

"Listen to me, little boy! Next time you go, take this old man with you to the wrestling match. He would like to join the sport too!"

It was the old woodcutter who had followed Kintaro from the river. He slipped off his clogs and entered the cottage. Yama-uba and her son were both taken by surprise. They looked at the intruder wonderingly and saw that he was some one they had never seen before.

"Who are you?" they both exclaimed.

Then the woodcutter laughed and said:

"It does not matter who I am yet, but let us see who has the strongest arm--this boy or myself?"

Then Kintaro, who had lived all his life in the forest, answered the old man without any ceremony, saying:

"We will have a try if you wish it, but you must not be angry whoever is beaten."

Then Kintaro and the woodcutter both put out their right arms and grasped each other's hands. For a long time Kintaro and the old man wrestled together in this way, each trying to bend the other's arm, but the old man was very strong, and the strange pair were evenly matched. At last the old man desisted, declaring it a drawn game.

"You are, indeed, a very strong child. There are few men who can boast of the strength of my right arm!" said the woodcutter. "I saw you first on the hanks of the river a few hours ago, when you pulled up that large tree to make a bridge across the torrent. Hardly able to believe what I saw I followed you home. Your strength of arm, which I have just tried, proves what I saw this afternoon. When you are full-grown you will surely be the strongest man in all Japan. It is a pity that you are hidden away in these wild mountains."

Then he turned to Kintaro's mother:

"And you, mother, have you no thought of taking your child to the Capital, and of teaching him to carry a sword as befits a samurai (a Japanese knight)?"

"You are very kind to take so much interest in my son." replied the mother; "but he is as you see, wild and uneducated, and I fear it would be very difficult to do as you say. Because of his great strength as an infant I hid him away in this unknown part of the country, for he hurt every one that came near him. I have often wished that I could, one day, see my boy a knight wearing two swords, but as we have no influential friend to introduce us at the Capital, I fear my hope will never come true."

"You need not trouble yourself about that. To tell you the truth I am no woodcutter! I am one of the great generals of Japan. My name is Sadamitsu, and I am a vassal of the powerful Lord Minamoto-no- Raiko. He ordered me to go round the country and look for boys who give promise of remarkable strength, so that they may be trained as soldiers for his army. I thought that I could best do this by assuming the disguise of a woodcutter. By good fortune, I have thus unexpectedly come across your son. Now if you really wish him to be a SAMURAI (a knight), I will take him and present him to the Lord Raiko as a candidate for his service. What do you say to this?"

As the kind general gradually unfolded his plan the mother's heart was filled with a great joy. She saw that here was a wonderful chance of the one wish of her life being fulfilled--that of seeing Kintaro a SAMURAI before she died.

Bowing her head to the ground, she replied:

"I will then intrust my son to you if you really mean what you say."

Kintaro had all this time been sitting by his mother's side listening to what they said. When his mother finished speaking, he exclaimed:

"Oh, joy! joy! I am to go with the general and one day I shall be a SAMURAI!"

Thus Kintaro's fate was settled, and the general decided to start for the Capital at once, taking Kintaro with him. It need hardly be said that Yama-uba was sad at parting with her boy, for he was all that was left to her. But she hid her grief with a strong face, as they say in Japan. She knew that it was for her boy's good that he should leave her now, and she must not discourage him just as he was setting out. Kintaro promised never to forget her, and said that as soon as he was a knight wearing two swords he would build her a home and take care of her in her old age.

All the animals, those he had tamed to serve him, the bear, the deer, the monkey, and the hare, as soon as they found out that he was going away, came to ask if they might attend him as usual. When they learned that he was going away for good they followed him to the foot of the mountain to see him off.

"Kimbo," said his mother, "mind and be a good boy."

"Mr. Kintaro," said the faithful animals, "we wish you good health on your travels."

Then they all climbed a tree to see the last of him, and from that height they watched him and his shadow gradually grow smaller and smaller, till he was lost to sight.

The general Sadamitsu went on his way rejoicing at having so unexpectedly found such a prodigy as Kintaro.

Having arrived at their destination the general took Kintaro at once to his Lord, Minamoto-no-Raiko, and told him all about Kintaro and how he had found the child. Lord Raiko was delighted with the story, and having commanded Kintaro to be brought to him, made him one of his vassals at once.

Lord Raiko's army was famous for its band called "The Four Braves." These warriors were chosen by himself from amongst the bravest and strongest of his soldiers, and the small and well-picked band was distinguished throughout the whole of Japan for the dauntless courage of its men.

When Kintaro grew up to be a man his master made him the Chief of the Four Braves. He was by far the strongest of them all. Soon after this event, news was brought to the city that a cannibal monster had taken up his abode not far away and that people were stricken with fear. Lord Raiko ordered Kintaro to the rescue. He immediately started off, delighted at the prospect of trying his sword.

Surprising the monster in its den, he made short work of cutting off its great head, which he carried back in triumph to his master.

Kintaro now rose to be the greatest hero of his country, and great was the power and honor and wealth that came to him. He now kept his promise and built a comfortable home for his old mother, who lived happily with him in the Capital to the end of her days.

Is not this the story of a great hero?

Statues of the Golden Boy, usually bearing his axe and his bear friend, are placed around a child's room on Boy's Day in the hopes that his courage and strength will rub off on the youngster. Another one of the specials of Boy's Day is the Kintaro candy, which when cut shows a stylized image of his face. More of the story of Kintaro is told through famous Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which have been graciously supplied by Pink Tentacle.

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.