Sunday, July 1, 2007

Studio 4º Celsius: Mind Game, Genius Party, Deep Imagination, Tekkon Kinkreet (Film and Soundtrack), and the Future of Anime - PART ONE

So it all started in early 2005 when I watched a mind-blowing anime by Studio 4º Celsius called MIND GAME. (Acutally, I could take it back to seeing 大友克洋 Ōtomo Katsuhiro's MEMORIES in Shinjuku back in December 1995, but I won't for the sake of this piece.)

Directed by Yuasa Masaaki (湯浅政明) MIND GAME is without a doubt one of the best animated movies that I have ever seen and certainly one of the best made in the last ten years. I was so floored by it that I recommended it very highly to my pals at the New York Asian Film Festival. They loved it too and were able to book it for their festival.

When they screened it at the 2005 NYAFF it was the NORTH AMERICA PREMIER** and it played to a sold out house and I was asked to interpret for the head of Studio 4ºC: Tanaka Eiko (田中 栄子)(whom I also interviewed for Midnighteye). (**Note: contrary to what MOMA NYC states; they did not have the North America Premier-- they found out about MIND GAME from the 2005 NYAFF and screened it several months later. They also screened it off of beta while the NYAFF had a rare 35mm with soft-subtitles projected on it.)

At any rate, at that time I struck up a friendship with Ms. Tanaka and another producer and was corresponding with them through out the following year. The next summer, several staff members from 4ºC were in NYC and I met up with them again, and we made a date to meet up at their office the next time I was in Japan.

But it was during this NYC visit I was first told about GENIUS PARTY. They gave me all sorts of shwag including an early chirashi (promo poster) and a keitai strap (cell phone strap). (They also gave me a full-size TEKKON KINKREET poser! Ii ne!) I was intrigued about GENIUS PARTY and what they told me was that (at that time) there was only a plan for ONE movie to be released in the spring of 2007. That was before the heads of 4ºC realized that there was so much more by many different directors that they wanted to share. Now there are two GENIUS PARTIES set to be released.

The first will be out this month (July) in Japan and the latter is now slated for early 2008 (it was supposed to be fall 2007 the last last time I'd heard) and while I have yet to see the films, I have seen enough clips to know that it will be amazing (certainly in parts).

This weeks Japan Time's film section includes Marc Schilling's review of GENIUS PARTY and a feature article on STUDIO 4ºC up on the Time's site. (Check Jason Gray's thoughts here.) They are both worth a read.

One of the amazing and frustrating things about Japan is their special editions and sales only DVD releases. This feeds directly into the fan/collector market which Japan seems to have a glut of. Studio 4ºC has been happily pimping their wares through this non-rental market for years and as a result there are plenty of releases that are hard to see if you're not willing to shell out MANY ducats. (My days of carefree spending are over, unfortunately...)

What proves to be a problem is that these small run, 'sales only' DVDs are often omnibus collections that showcase new up and coming animators and what hot new things they are doing at 4ºC. Ms. Tanaka and the other head's of 4ºC belief is that the only way to inculcate, stimulate, and support new creativity is to give the hard working artist a chance. When I commented to her about how cool I thought this was, Ms. Tanaka seemed taken aback by the obvious necessity of this endeavor: "How else are you going to find new talent?" And she's right.

It's worth noting that these compilations don't always work as a whole, but that's not a bad thing. When I was last in Okinawa I rented their 2007 compilation DEEP IMAGINATION. (Clip below) Fans of 4ºC will note that some of the shorts had been previously released on the GRASSHOPPA! compilations (those, too, are seriously hit or miss-- but definitely worth a look if you can track them down). Taken together, the compilation is supremely weird (which is par for the course) but the quality and the ideas are so incredibly fresh and intriguing that you can't write it off. Singing soy bean sisters? A night at a friend's pad after a punk concert leads to a battle in an alternate universe? Yes, it makes our soft Western brains push up against our skulls trying to compute the madness of it all. So is it worth watching? Yeah. But it's not worth buying at ¥6,000 a pop.

Around the same time that I was in Okinawa, I had a chance to catch TEKKON KINKREET in the theater. Previously, I'd had the privilege of meeting Michael Arias at Studio 4ºC office back in the fall of 2006 and I found him to be a quiet, nice guy from New York. He downplayed the work he did in directing TEKKON-- especially when I pointed out to him that as far as I knew (which is probably not much) he was the first non-Japanese (perhaps Western is better?) to direct an entire animated feature film in Japan. (Readers, is this correct? Let me know!) At any rate, since I was unable to catch as press screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival I was forced to wait for the film. So when I finally did get to see it, several months later, it was after a lot of anticipation.

The title, TEKKON KIKREET is a play on the Japanese word for reinforced concrete Tekken Konkretto and that kind of intertwining of metal and concrete basically sums up the theme of the movie: together they're stronger. The story is simple: it's Yin and Yang, Black and White, Good and Bad. It's about the friendship between two street urchins: SHIRO and KURO (See? Black and White) and how they tire of each other, get into trouble while striking out on their own and then discover that they are two parts of a whole and need each other to survive. That's it. Really.

I liked the film a lot, but I'll be frank: it's weak in the second act (read: sluggish) and since the story is so... hackneyed... it threatens to sink under its own weight at points. But what saves it is dynamic animation-- some of the most stunning I've ever see-- and a director's hand that seemed influenced by the new Hollywood Golden Era of the 1960s and 70s. I mean, I've NEVER seen an anime with hand-held camera, snap zooms, jump cuts, and film grain. Michael Arias clearly was raising the bar with this film and wanted to show that as an animator you could dip into the regular cinema tool box and use some of their tricks. If for no other reason than this, the movie is highly recommended.

But additionally, much bally-hoo has been made about the soundtrack by British techno duo PLAID. I quite like it and find that some of the tracks echo the strongest moments of their best album (in my humble opinion) DOUBLE FIGURE. There is a more rhythmic approach to the score in general, but it has a structure which is similar to the films: dreamy and airy, dark and nightmarish, the dream becomes reality. Think chimes, bells, and soft synths and then dark drumming and heavy baselines, finally ending in a more traditional pop structure. All in all, worth a spin, especially if you like techno. (Suggestion here: since this too is priced at brutally steep ¥3150, it's worth renting from your local Tsutaya the next time you're in Japan!)

So what does this all mean? Well, folks, I'm at a loss for time right now, so I will return to this in my next post to talk more about the future of anime and how 4ºC are leading the way-- torch in hand. (I predicted this way back in 1995.) More to come...


logboy said...

i would have hoped to see 4C stick subs on their releases then, as although they're a known connection to 'animatrix', 'mind game' kind of came-and-went under many peoples radar even though the thing accidentally got subs on the japanese DVD and plenty have spoken at great length about it...

it's had plenty of festival love too, but still no disc outside japan, which, although we known 'tekkon kinkreet' is roughly slated for USA DVD in september 07, kind of makes it a shame they dont sub-to-ensure of exposure and followers outside of japan.

old issue, still persists thoguh.

Nicholas Rucka said...

Hi logboy,

You bring up a good point-- which is a point that exists across the board-- and that is why aren't there more subs on Japanese discs?

The answer is pretty simple, though terribly myopic: these films are designed for the domestic market with an eye towards finding foreign sales on a region by region basis.

When I told the 4ºC folks that I'd seen MIND GAME on DVD with great subs they were shocked. At that time Eiko Tanaka didn't know they were on there!!! I couldn't believe it. I mean the translation and subs are so good that you'd think there'd been some sort of plan behind it-- but apparently the parents didn't know what the children were doing while they were out...

At any rate, since I've been such a HUGE fan of MIND GAME (and the mind blowing, long out of print, manga which continues on a full third longer than the movie!!) I've been working hard at getting it put out in the US. While I can't go into the details of why it's been having such a hard life I can boil it down to two reasons: a) the license is TOO expensive and b) the US domestic distributors feel that the anime has too narrow of an appeal for them to recoup costs. (That last point is total shit, imo, and a good PR team could get it out and seen.)

I wasn't aware that TEKKON was only getting a DVD release. (Same with the UK?) When I'd talked to Michael Arias last fall he said that Sony Pictures Classics was picking up the Int'l distro and that a theatrical release was slated. Guess the Sony folks felt it was too difficult to know what to do with it.

At any rate, I agree that adding subs would be a really smart thing for companies in Japan to do, if for no other reason then it would just expand their international horizons. But in their business mind it's more trouble than it's worth.

In the meantime we have to resort to gray market discs and fan-subs. (While I like the community that that engenders, I have seriously mixed feelings as a filmmaker as to the money it takes from the creator's pockets.)

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

Scott Frazier may be up there for U.S. person to direct anime, but I'm not sure about the director credit.

Actually these days I'm not even sure if 'Scott Frazier' is the same or different person as 'Jan Scott Frazier' (tg changes? Unsure), I've been out of keeping tabs on Japanese animation for a while, and wikipedia & google are less than useful about old information for someone with a foggy memory.

At any rate, might be something to look into - definitely one of the first U.S. citizens to work on Japanese animation.


Nicholas Rucka said...

grey, thanks for posting and thanks for the Scott Frazier tip. Was he a director or not... I wonder... Will pursue.

logboy said...

tekkon kinkreet will get a cinema release. though, as usual, it's a limited one, a token gesture at best, i think. the issue is that long before the cinema release (which i think might be this month in america) there's already a date set for a quick DVD release (september 25th, i think it was) and that's how most will access it.

if it hadn't been for the late, accidental addition of 'mind game's subtitles on the japanese DVD, a large percentage of those that have now seen it would have arguably not been able to do so - now, people will still be buying boots of it, still be downloading it, but if there's an option for it to be bought with subs, at least it's one option and not no option.

remember the talk about 'mind game' making it to america, with altered westernised faces? well, i think this, and the perceived lack of a market shows how there's no one true definitive opinion on how well anime can or can't do in a non-domestic market - the film's not got a typical anime style to it, and this will be for a larger non-anime audience perhaps the key charm to it, for the dedicated otaku audience it may also be a key charm but could also be described as a key detractor because some want new and some want same old. i'm still surprised that there's not more discussion of the studio and this particular film within anime forums - it seems restricted to import DVD forums, animation fan forums (not specifically anime, jsut fans of animation) and those that frequent festivals... still, that shows that people are finding it and loving it to some extent.

personally, if your interest is in good films with good stories, if you like first rate animation, there's very few examples that can surpass 'mind game' as a feature length animation or an example of very lucid and imaginative filmmaking in general. i say, "4C! stick subs on all your japanese discs!" as they may never be licensed, they gain attention online from people being able to see them and talk about them (companies in japan used to often say fansubs were a good way of growing the market - a loss leader at one time can still later become a big seller once officially available) and unless we can pay for them, they'll be doomed to be talked of as downloads, which is a step down from an alternative choice being available in one or more other given countries.

i want kemonozume in the USA too...

Nicholas Rucka said...

You're right, of course. The best thing to do would be to slap subtitles on and just try to get the work out there and seen. Eventually someone savvy and smart will come along and figure out how to market it right? That's the hope, at least.

One of the weirdest phenomenons for me and my friends who were into anime from way back in the day is the fact that at that time it was outsider art for outsider fandom-- meaning, it was stuff in Japan, in Japanese and the aesthetic and everything was just so different. Most people DIDN'T get it, and that suited us just fine. (Might have been a plus, actually.)

Now anime is the toast of the 14-year-old girl set. Wuh??? I would NEVER have seen that coming. Back in the day it was more mech stuff and a lot of hentai anime. There was other stuff out there to be sure, but the merch room at a anime convention reflected what the popular tastes were-- sex and mech. Give us a pin-up of a chick on a tank with laser goggles on, and we'll buy it! Now it's all shojo manga.


But what that should show us is that it's possible to find a market for anything, you just have to be creative. In the case of 4ºC, their stuff is HIGH quality. It basically can sell itself. And look at how popular Animatrix was! The audience gets it when it's packaged well.

The fact that MIND GAME is _still_ unknown to the majority of animation fans (that goes for any type, anywhere) is a sad state of affairs. The guys at 4ºC are still royally confused and bummed-out by the fact it still hasn't gotten a int'l release. They've pretty much given up on it at this point. So when I've got some money, I want to license it and put it out. Maybe package the Manga with it and the Remix DVD that they did. Nice.

ps - I haven't seen Kemonozume. Is there a Japanese DVD release of it? I'll have to track down a copy. Anything by Yuasa is required viewing, imo!

logboy said...

there's a japanese DVD set (very expensive, of course) for kemonozume out there - only issued recently.

i would love for you to contact 4C and tell them to stick subs on things - there's clearly a perception issue that if they release in one country with subs, then another country won't license it. now, i think that this policy actually encourages the connecting thinking to gestate, and american companies sense it and react in an appropriate fashion; they demand no subs on the japanese edition....

now, i personally feel that sticking subs on as many editions as possible actually encourages companies to compete, presents opportunities for the home domestic market to broaden their own representation (allow peoples tastes to diversify, open new markets and genres up), manage their own image (i.e master the stuff right), and open the market without being reliant on fitting with eternally narrow (and occasionally shifting) tastes, markets, deal with odd company policies on licensing... japanese companies also set licensing costs far too high, effectively talking themselves out of a chance of representation on foreign soil by virtue of seeing the population of america as an indicator of how large a potential market there is - get this, not everyone in japan buys your stuff, so why would they in another country?!

once you've got a subbed variant on sale (even a limited edition, available via a company site for example) you've at least opened up peoples ability to understand your work, give it a review and reaction, generate a following, and you do all those things to increase the market rather than narrow it down, drip-feed the stuff in as and when it suddenly fits into foreign requirements. in the end, if the consumers can't drive their own purchases according to their own freedoms, you're doing one basic business thing wrong - you're not giving yourself chance to make money.

i don't know how long back you're talking of old anime fandom. i'm part of the akira generation having seen it on a cinema screen locally during a UK tour in 1990 (1989?) and 'laputa' on tv around then too. these are the days of manga entertainment arriving on the scene, anime UK magazine and helen mccarthy, and yes there was a narrow representation in the west of what japan was turning out that was (to a large extent) defined by manga's policies.

anime still suffers from a broad misconception based upon how little snippets of coverage relating to mangas output in the west, how it was tentacle sex and SF stuff, and the same is happening the japanese cinema now because an opportunity to diversify and set themselves up for a dynamic business is being intentionally scuppered in favour of scraping the barrel of j-horror and similar mediocrity.

it's taken a whole other generation, some brave thinking shining out from within the dross to get another demographic to take note of anime, and yes it's a surprise yaoi stuff is popular, but hey there's a comparable market out there that simply takes some lateral thinking to spot - markets already existing that aren't specifically manga or anime but which might augment their interest and lifestyle with an aspect of anime or manga, if given the chance to find and experience it.

Nicholas Rucka said...

You're right, that Kemonozume Box-set is pricey at ¥ 27,405. And that _includes_'s 25% off! I also think it's for sale only-- not rental. What a bummer...

i would love for you to contact 4C and tell them to stick subs on things

I've suggested it many times, but they're not into it for some reason. I agree with you in general that it would behoove them to have subs on their-- if for no other reason than it would expand their infiltration into the ex-pat market within Japan. (A small one, I would imagine, but not any different than including US dvds with a Spanish language/sub track.)

in the end, if the consumers can't drive their own purchases according to their own freedoms, you're doing one basic business thing wrong - you're not giving yourself chance to make money.

I really agree with this. But the Japanese film companies are now notoriously myopic (and hostile) when it come to foreign markets and press. This comes from the business men not really getting what the fan community is about nor what freedom of the press is. What I mean here is that they're entrenched in something like an old Hollywood studio system where if they don't control the flow of all information coming out of their company then they feel like it's a bad thing. This is counter to the internet and the Web 2.0 system which is predicated on a global community that finds what they like through consensus and group support. (But good luck trying to get people to invest with that explanation...)

As for my interest in Anime, it started with the Akira Comic and then I got a boot of the movie from the Japanese Laser Disc before finally seeing it in English when it came out in the late 89/90. I'd been a fan of Starblazers and Captain Harlock, but that was nothing to do with Japanimation really.

I agree that Tokyo Pop and Viz and some of the other big publishers of Manga in the States really did a good job of identifying the Shojo manga market and marketing to it. But for a while there it seemed like Tokyo Pop was a goner. (I remember seeing their booth at a San Diego Comic Con some years back and they were HURTING. They were blowing out their stock towards the end at huge discounts.)

logboy said...

i'm thinking an international edition of any given film would be a good idea - companies could completely control information if they served the outside markets themselves, so if they're control freaks it's a wonder they're so lacking in concern for how it's all handled by others - you could, for example, have an edition with english subs that would be offered up to non-japanese ISP addresses... you'd know that at a certain quantity of discs you'd cover costs, announce 3k copies of a limited run would be made available, and if all 3k copies are signed-up for in advance, the process continues and the disc is pressed, shipped.

for me, one key thing is how manga and anime, any given country or genre can be portrayed (continually, short-sightedly) as inherently of value - it's wrong, plain wrong... if you say 'there's good, there's bad, there's a variety' and try to apply the elements of the original product to a comparable market abroad, you'll find there's markets you'd not access if you're simply trying to sell manga to the manga fans, or any medium to fans of that medium. it's an inverse situation few seem to see.