and featured anime
One doesn't often associate "November" and "Minnesota" and "warm" (not to mention "anime") in the same sentence, but that's exactly how it was in Minneapolis from November 16th through the 18th. Warm, comfortable, and perfect for an anime workshop/conference.
"Schoolgirls & Mobilesuits" is the official title of the workshop, held at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) (www.mcad.edu). The workshop had been postponed twice -- the second time because it was scheduled for the weekend after September 11th -- and I'm sure it was a relief to the organizers that it was finally happening. The organizers were Dr. Nancy (Frenchy) Lunning and Barbara Schulz, two amazing women who pulled together a great event with full support from MCAD.
Speaking of September 11th.... I had been struggling with what to present at the workshop. For lack of better ideas, I had decided to rehash my old 1997 essay from the University of Victoria conference, updating it with newer examples and adding material about Japanese culture and the state of Japan today. When the terrorist attacks happened, however, I knew I had a slightly different message to give, and that it was an important one. But more on that later!
After dinner, back at MCAD, Dr. Lunning officially opened the workshop in front of the audience of over a hundred (mostly) young people from high school and college (some of whom were taking it for credit). And then we settled back to watch some anime!
First up came all 6 OAVs of GAINAX's FOOLY COOLY (pronounced "Furi Kuri" and written "FLCL"). This was the ideal opener to what I have come to call the "Wacky Weekend." When a collision with a guitar-wielding young woman on a yellow scooter eventually culminates in giant robots popping full-formed out of our hero's forehead ... you know things are going to be strange. A mixture of blaring punk rock, weird images like having a giant clothes iron perched on a hill emitting steam or watching someone's eyebrows fall off, weird plot twists like seeing our hero grow cat ears or seeing him reconstitute his dehydrated father by adding water, strange giant robot battles that might involve hot curry and always involve wielded guitars, and just the weirdness of the guitar-wielding extraterrestrial super-woman who acts like a version of COWBOY BEBOP's Edward pumped full of steroids, depressants, hallucinogens, and caffeine ... well, it really has to be seen to be understood ... or, as is more likely, not understood.
Next came a short (6 minute 40 second) Miyazaki Hayao (Studio Ghibli) 1995 music video production for the piece ON YOUR MARK by singing duo Chage & Aska. No words are spoken in this beautiful SF spectacle, and numerous different possible endings, from tragic to triumphant, flash through the video -- but overall we see the story is about two police or special forces men who rescue a winged girl from, first, a cult's headquarters, and then later from what appears to be a government research laboratory. We can only hope the last version of the future is true, and that the angelic being is set free. Perhaps, though, the video fails on one point -- the story and animation are so captivating it was hard to focus on the music.
Last on Friday night came Sony Music Entertainment's YOKOHAMA SHOPPING TRIP (EX article and another EX article). While this one also has a yellow scooter and contained robots, the pacing and story were just about as completely opposite to FLCL as anyone can get. Dr. Marc Hairston, who brought this and the Ghibli short, noted that YOKOHAMA was the most hopeful apocalyptic scenario he's ever seen -- "Humanity is dying out and it's so beautiful." The heroine is a robot who was left in charge of a coffeeshop in a beautiful post-catastrophe world. The two OAVs depict a world where humanity has been drastically reduced and Japan is slowly being covered in water -- but in counterpoint, Nature is at its most beautiful. A glorious sunset paints the sky; a summer storm brings wind, rain, and clouds; a flooded city's lights turn on underwater, creating the illusion of the lost civilization. Slow-paced, gentle, thoughtful ... unfortunately, too slow for some in the audience.
I got to see a bit of the MCAD building. Student art is displayed prominently, every studio has natural light access, and the shop room looked spacious and well-stocked. As another bonus, the school is obviously psyched to attract and help out students interested in manga and anime. Bonus!
The first lecture of the day was ....
Dr. Sharon Kinsella is the British author of ADULT MANGA, a book that describes the social machinery of the Japanese manga industry, the politics of the medium, and recent trends. She is currently based in the Department of Sociology at Yale University. Dr. Sharon Kinsella's lecture focused primarily on the fascinating school girls media craze phenomenon in the 90's. According to Dr. Kinsella, early 90's reports of school girls prostituting themselves to businessmen for money ("enjo kousai," or "assisted dating") sparked a huge media frenzy. The media leaped into the lives of the girls. Within a couple years of this "discovery," journalists, scientists, and students had begun camping out in known school girl "hangouts," hoping to capture the activities and thinking patterns of girls for articles, studies, and academic papers. The school girl eventually became a two-sided image: she was seen by some as a lost soul trapped in materialism (such as in reported cases of enjo kousai), and by others as a refreshing, free spirit with the power to transform Japan (as seen in comics where vigilante school girls enforce justice by using enjo kousai as a tool). From this came an image of the "golden-hearted whore," and this theme gave rise to the "prostitute look" in fashion.
Dr. Kinsella also showed that school girls' image is deeply tied into Japanese history, the government, as well as their uniforms. After WWII, children had become the focus of immense governmental influence (because the military was no longer a viable focus); their uniforms, for example, are modeled on military uniforms, and are "loaded with nuance." This gives a new dimension to the school age rebellious act of customizing or defacing one's own school uniform. Children are also seen as the linchpin of social order, potential solutions to social problems, yet also potential problems.
Into all this heavy-duty social connotation and expectation came real school girls. Despite the fact much of the frenzy rose out of the media, the media tried denying responsibility, and moreover, presented the girls as being pure-hearted and strong enough to not be affected by the media coverage. However, the girls quickly came to manipulate the media themselves, such as by going out of their way to hang out where they could be seen, posing for the cameras in a deliberately "spontaneous" way (to highlight their role as refreshing transcenders of society), getting paid to provide information on being a school girl, and eventually creating their own images of themselves in the media spotlight (such as one group who created "Asian workerist" or "poverty" chic). The girls played along in the fame game, and media manipulation was met by the subjects' manipulation of the media.
The media frenzy has died down since then, and Dr. Kinsella ironically notes that there never was much good evidence that "enjo kousai" prostitution was really happening on any significant scale.
This was my presentation, and since I am also writing this article, I will summarize my message as follows:
1. The stereotype of the Japanese as unimaginitive, conformist, unemotional, ant-like workers is in stark contrast to the Romantic nature of anime, manga, and console games, where we see passion, emotion, individualism, epic stories, fantasy, and profound themes.
2. The stereotype of anime as "sex, violence, and mechs" is in contrast to the powerful spiritual message that imbues many works of anime, manga, and console games. Characters in many works learn the value of perseverence in the face of terrible odds or opposition; many struggle to find a niche for themselves, or they fight society for what they believe is right. Heroes must overcome their own insecurities and inner weaknesses in order to succeed against external enemies. They also learn that it is only through honesty, caring for others (including enemies), and being cared for by others, that they can succeed; they learn that love is stronger than hate, truth is stronger than lies.
To support these themes, I presented images and examples from numerous manga, ranging from GALAXY EXPRESS 999 to FUSHIGI YUUGI and FINAL FANTASY VII; and as far as music goes, I played the finest example of richly expressive anime music I know: "Kimi o Nosete" ("With You Onboard") from LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY.
But the third and last part of my talk was really the most important in my opinion, and this is the section that was shaped by September 11th:
3. From all the email I have seen over the years, from reports about the problems in Japanese youth culture and the anime industry, and from seeing the growing popularity of anime across the world, I know that the US will be part of anime's future. But it is too easy to forget about the spiritual, or to cheapen it as many American shows from my youth seem to have done. We cannot afford to create shallow works which are just like the fluffy American cartoons I remember, except with sex and violence and mechs added on to make it "look cool." Pretty young girls may be great to look at, but what are you going to do when you, your spouse, your friends are no longer young? We can't forget there are more important, lasting, eternal things in life. In this day and age, it is vital that future artists and storytellers remember this in their works.
Lea Hernandez is writer and artist of the popular graphic novels "Cathedral Child" (1998), "Clockwork Angels" (2000-2001), and the series "Rumble Girls." She explained that traditional American cartoon stories held nothing for her, but that Japanese cartoons struck a chord with her. Humorously, energetically, and with great enthusiasm, Ms. Hernandez then exhorted the audience of hopeful future artists and creators to never settle for form without substance in their own works. "You've got the surface gloss, but not the inner stuff. You're retelling Ranma (RANMA 1/2). Take the stuff and make it your own." She also encouraged artists to study the basics of art, and to hold themselves up to high standards. However, she noted, it is easier to read good writing with mediocre art over a work with good art and a bad story. "If I can't read it, it's not a comic; it's a pin-up book." She also encouraged the audience to do activities and read material outside of comics, as broadened horizons would make one's works better.
Ms. Hernandez made a point of acknowledging that sexism exists in the comic industry, and illustrated the point with a few examples. She then went on to dispense professional advice in response to questions from the audience, ranging from the value of self-promotion, to the means of overcoming the artistic equivalent of writer's block ("If you're going days and weeks without drawing, you're afraid.... time to start throwing paint around"). For those would-be comic artists who cannot attend college art courses for whatever reason, she highly recommended PERSPECTIVE! FOR COMIC BOOK ARTISTS by David Chelsea, and also the first 3-4 books of the Blue Line Pro (www.bluelinepro.com) publications HOW TO DRAW MANGA. She also noted that whether one can survive by doing comics depends on one's lifestyle, and recommended artists get health insurance through whatever means possible. As for tools, she said one should get "whatever gets your job done."
Wow! After Ms. Hernandez's talk, it felt like I could jump in and put in the hard work and come out a published mangaka!
Dr. Marc Hairston is a space physicist ... but that has nothing to do with his love of anime. He has written several articles for the US magazine "Animerica." In 1999 and again in 2000 he co-taught with Dr. Pamela Gossin a course called "Natural Wonders" at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Today, he presented essentially a two hour introduction to REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA, which he views as a descendant of works such as Tezuka Osamu's RIBBON NO KISHI (PRINCESS KNIGHT) and Ikeda Riyoko's BERUSAIYUU NO BARA (ROSE OF VERSAILLES). Showing entertaining clips from the TV series, he conveyed the essential story of Utena. Utena is a girl at a mysterious boarding school who, after a childhood encounter with a strange prince who gave her encouragement, decided that she would also like to become a prince. The role of a "prince" is to rescue people in trouble, and in that, she figures, there is no male or female. Yet, despite this resolve and her own great courage (and sword technique), Utena has to struggle with her desire to be the passive princess, dependent upon an external prince to fulfill her wishes and desires. In the series, Utena finds a princess in need of rescue: the "Rose Bride" Anthy, who is essentially a slave to whoever wins duels among certain of the school's students. Utena becomes friends with Anthy and acts as her knight (and, contributing to "Wacky Weekend," Utena's sword rises hilt-first out from Anthy's chest), but gradually the audience sees more and more that is sinister going on with Anthy and powerful authority figures at the school. With themes of incest, immortality, sexual slavery, courage, seduction, corruption, deceit, and you-name-it -- all combined with surreal settings and events, UTENA winds up being thematically heavy-duty, but with lots of humor, ridiculous situations, and spoofs to lighten the mood.
Eventually, Dr. Hairston suggests, the story is really about leaving the fantasies of childhood behind and entering the adult world. To enter the adult world, one must let go fantasies of the world being a perfect place, but must yet cling fast to the ideals so as to not become lost in one's own vanity and ruthlessness.
After Dr. Hairston's talk we broke for dinner, which for the presenters was at a bustling and tasty Chinese restaurant called the Rainbow. As far as I know, a good time was had by all.
REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA (movie)
The evening's showing starts off with, appropriately enough, the UTENA movie. Some of the premises have been changed from the TV series, and Utena has disconcertingly short hair for much of the time. Still, if you thought the series was weird, the movie is even weirder. The hints of homoeroticism are overt, this time, but so is the obvious symbolism. The movie proceeds more like a dream sequence than even a fairy tale, especially toward the end. Anthy becomes something of the main character at the end, as she is the driver of Utena-transformed-into-a-car (don't ask), fleeing the boarding school. The overtness of the symbolism makes it clear that Anthy is the one most transformed: she is the one who has really changed, who wakes up to the fact she need not remain trapped in the nightmarish world of abuse that she had suffered for so long. Through Utena's efforts, Anthy breaks free.
And yes, this definitely qualified for "Wacky Weekend" status.
Yoshitaka Amano, known for his art for FINAL FANTASY, THE SANDMAN, and other famous manga and anime, worked with composer David Newman to help produce this short (roughly twenty minute) piece that combined both low- and high-tech techniques ("3D/2D" is how many websites describe it). Featuring fantastic images of jinn, fairy, flying beasts, with the primary focus on two young lovers, this animation was somewhat reminiscent of FANTASIA's "Night on Bald Mountain" on psychedelic drugs.
MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM 08 MS TEAM (EX article)
Well, this was the one exception to "Wacky Weekend" -- plaid, simple, straight-shooting GUNDAM. Six episodes of this series were shown, from Amada Shiro's encounter with a Zeon woman pilot, to his command of the 08th MS Team in the southeast Asian jungle. Gundams tromping through forest may be a bit wacky (this anime jungle seems to have a lot of clearings), but our hero is such a straight-laced, normal "good guy" character that the series was almost irritating. (If you read the EX review, you'll see that the lack of angst and the straight forwardness are unusual for this franchise.) The stories therefore had to rely on good old interesting events to keep up audience interest, rather than deep and painful emotional distress in the hero -- and here it did a fine job. Still, I felt better when Dr. Marc Hairston took me aside later and told me about the ending.
Dr. Couch is a respected scholar of comic art and of the art of Latin America, and furthermore is an author and comic book editor who came to CPM after five years as senior editor at Kitchen Sink Press. He is editor-in-chief at CPM Manga and CPM Comics. And, like Dr. Sharon Kinsella, he knows a lot and had hardly enough time to scratch the surface.
Dr. Couch started off with the history of the American comic book. Back in the late 1800s, Joseph Pulitzer began putting free magazines into newspapers. The free magazine was successful and became two magazines, a serious one and a humorous one. The humorous magazine eventually became pure cartoons, and the recycling of the cartoons (using the same newspaper presses) resulting in comic books. The American comic book was sold as the newspapers were, on the street, and is clearly a descendant of newspaper humor magazine. Comics were then, as they are now, intended for readers of all ages, not just children. SUPERMAN was the first really popular commissioned work, and at first the series was socially aware and pro-working class, but this had faded by WWII. By the 1950's, the comic books were losing readership -- a result of McCarthyism and censorship, which forced many comics from the newsstands. Starting in the 60s, the underground comics movement began gaining steam, but the limited retail channels (mostly comic book stores) meant the audience remained small and stagnant. In 1978, Will Eisner coined the term "graphic novel" and published CONTRACT WITH GOD, and the use of direct marketing systems with non-returnables allowed graphic novels to flourish. These days, even superhero comic books are gone from newsstands, but comics are starting to reappear in bookstores.
Europe, meanwhile, experienced a parallel evolution of comics from 1920s funnies into serialized children's magazines. Eventually, these became "album books," newspaper face-sized hardcover compilations of serialized stories, less than 100 pages. Later on adult-oriented material started being produced in magazine and album compilation form, including the original HEAVY METAL.
Japan's system seems based on the European model, but, Dr. Couch suggests, the interruption and devastation of WWII seems to have pushed Japan to the current model of publishing fat, phone-book like weekly and monthly black and white comic magazines on cheap newsprint paper, and then republishing the same material in book (tankobon) format -- the equivalent of American "graphic novels" and European "album books."
The changing, and often parallel, evolution of these comics formats was fascinating to observe.
Maggie Weidner graduated with a degree in Japanese and a minor in Studio Art from Stanford University, and conducted research during her year abroad in Kyoto. She's now working on her Animation MFA at UCLA. For this presentation, Ms. Weidner delved deeply into the world of Evangelion. Using material from the "Red Cross Book" (official information about Evangelion given out in Japan), as well as numerous re-watchings of the series and the movies, she has found interesting themes of motherhood, power, and control throughout the story.
(WARNING: Contains SPOILERS)
Our hero Ikari Shinji is surrounded by strong female characters. Misato and Ritsuko are women with authority, and also take care of Shinji, but they are emotionally unstable and are ultimately punished. Asuka is a girl who, like Shinji, pilots the giant robot-like EVAs, but she knows power through force and violence, born of her own insecurity. Rei is another girl pilot of an EVA who also represents a mother figure, and rules through mystery. But just as much as the women, the giant EVA (based on "Eve" and "Evangel") represent motherhood. These giant entities have absorbed the soul of their pilot's mother (with the exception of Rei's). Each EVA houses and protects the child pilot, who are kept in "embryonic fluid," and Shinji's EVA at several points acts on its own to protect him. Hence, these powerful weapons of the future are essentially feral pregnant women. But they are controlled by their children, who are in turn controlled by Ikari Gendo, who is our hero's father and leader of the secret agency NERV. Hence, the father controls the children, who control the mother.
Later on in the EVANGELION story, we find out that Gendo is trying to completely change humanity by using the DNA of Lilith (in Jewish mythology, Adam's rebellious first wife) and Adam. However, Rei, who comes to contain all the necessary DNA, chooses son Shinji instead. At this point, because Rei is in part Shinji's mother, she represents the mother sacrificing everything for her son's desires. Unfortunately (in the movies), emotionally immature Shinji at first wishes for everyone to die. Obediently, Rei carries out this wish. Hence, Shinji represents the child that wishes to return to the womb, the space in which only he and the mother exist. However, he changes his mind and wishes to be "born," and Rei makes this wish come true for him as well and dies in the process. Shinji discovers himself in the position of Adam, with an oddly Rei-like Asuka as Eve. Overall, the mother-figure is thus a tool, a monster, as well as a transforming god.
Ms. Weidner saw the new beginning suggested by the movies' end as a hopeful one, in which, perhaps, women and men may be equal. She went on to mention the notion that EVANGELION was based in part on the Buddhist legend of Prince Ajase, a moralistic tale about revenge and forgiveness. Also, Ms. Weidner reports that, in a survey of 54 young people in Osaka and Tokyo, there seems to be good support for the idea of having more equality between men and women. Perhaps there is hope.
Phil Anderson, a 1993 Fulbright Lecture/Research Scholar, has been teaching media studies courses at MCAD since 1979; he has also been a regular film critic, arts writer, and freelance writer. Some years ago, Mr. Anderson had the opportunity to interview Tezuka Osamu, the much-respected "father" of manga. Now, Mr. Anderson showed us one of the less well-known aspects of Tezuka: the experimental animator. Avant garde animation is hardly Disney animation; it also takes advantage of "weird" transitions and animation techniques. Tezuka, born the same year as Mickey Mouse, in 1928, himself did a lot of experimental works. And, Mr. Anderson argue, he was more than the "Walt Disney of Japan."
Mr. Anderson showed avant garde works from other animators, such as "Viewmaster" by George Griffin, and Ferenc Rofusz's Oscar-winning "The Fly". Of Tezuka's works, Mr. Anderson showed "Legend of the Forest" (1987), "Broken Down Film" (1985), and "Jumping" (1984). "Legend of the Forest" is a fascinating story-within-a-story. It follows the life of a flying squirrel as told through various historic means of animation, starting from highly detailed still frames, to Disney era caricatures, and onward into more modern animation styles. "Broken Down Film" is a hilarious "Old Western" take-off on old films, with those irritating aged film streaks, spatters, fuzzies, skips, and other mishaps affecting our cartoon cowboy hero, heroine, and horse. "Jumping" starts off with an unseen person (small girl?) jumping up and down and taking the camera's view with her; gradually the jumps go higher and further, and we go from quiet neighborhood, to a bloody war, to the depths of a silly cartoon Hell, and finally, back to the neighborhood. In other words, we get a whirlwind jumper's tour of the Earth.
But aside from just presenting interesting situations, Mr. Anderson argues that these and other bits of animation serve as ways of communicating experiences. He suggests that by seeing some of these films, the audience can come to know something; the audience can learn from the point of view in the film. For example, through "Jumping," we see a tour of human kind. Mr. Anderson suggests that thought, reflection, even hope itself, can be transmitted through these experimental works of art.
MCAD graduate Christopher Schons presented this session on how to draw anime-style mobilesuits (aka mechs). First, however, he reiterated Ms. Hernandez's words of wisdom: Go to college to learn art, be honest about your own art, and don't skimp on the basics.
To draw a mobilesuit, he starts with a frame or skeleton, which is then broken into geometric basics -- "stupid cubes," between which are cylinders (except the feet, which are wedges). The rest of the task is learning where to add and subtract from the cubes and cylinders.
Mr. Schons also suggested using dynamic gestures to liven up the art. Generally, he also recommended: stealing designs for practicing; absorbing the designs one really likes (since everyone always has influences, it's OK to be influenced); looking carefully at existing real-world machines like trains, car factories, weapons, and so on, so as to really understand the aesthetics of engineering; and buying plastic mech kits to get practice drawing them from all angles. He also stressed the importance of knowing anatomy (such as for how to draw EVANGELION-style Evas).
Mr. Schons reiterated this idea: "It will show if you don't know what you're drawing. Reference the real world. Understand how it looks and goes together. Think about function." Anything and everything is fair game to incorporate into artwork, but the artist must immerse himself into the realm of real-life before this is possible.
Ms. Hernandez (introduced earlier) walked the auditorium audience through the basics of building a "cute face." But before that, she showed off her cute new cat-face shoes and reminded the viewers: "Life is short. Art is long and time is fleeting. Do what you can while you can."
She then went on to encourage the class to learn the basics of anatomy and proportion before breaking the rules. She also gave the admonition to learn why a particular line on a manga face "works" to represent a nose or mouth.
At one point, she had audience members stand up and demonstrate to themselves that the tips of the fingers come down to the mid thighs, that arms raised above the head will have the elbow at the top of the head, and other such basics of proportion. From there, the lesson proceeded with the nitty-gritty of drawing a cute manga face. She walked through the basics of a three-quarters view head, with construction lines drawn to guide the placement of eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and iris and pupils. Afterward, Ms. Hernandez was available to review the cute faces created, to dispense advice, and to even peg the era in which the artist had first started watching anime (purely based on the style and proportions of the figures).
And that was the end of a remarkable weekend of discovery, sharing, and lots of manga and anime. If there's something anyone should come away with from the sessions, perhaps it's that "life is short -- do what you can while you can, but don't you dare do a cheap job. Learn the basics, dig down deep, and go for it."