Friday, March 27, 2009

Memories of Anime Insider: ME AND GOKU

It's time for me to talk about Anime Insider, a little magazine that shut down this past Thursday.

I was an associate editor at Anime Insider from August 2005 to May 2008, spanning issues 25 through 58. I previously wrote some dull Livejournal entry about my time at the magazine, but I can summarize all of it by saying this: I enjoyed working there, no matter how dumb it was. And here's what I remember most about my time spent on an anime mag at the height of the manga/anime/Japan-crazy bubble.

Best Cover: Issue 50, far and away.



For our 50th issue, the company higher-ups surprised us all by paying for an exclusive illustration from Gainax. Rei, Asuka, and the cake were drawn by Fumio Iida, an artist who’s worked on a staggering variety of animation, from the original Macross movie to that Little Nemo film to Gurren Lagann (plus Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates). I also like how Rei’s head obscures just enough of the magazine’s name to possibly make it “Anime Insidious.”

My second favorite? I liked the front of issue 46. Most of the magazine’s covers used backgrounds of subtle patterns and bold colors, but this one slapped on the white space to imitate Rolling Stone.



Seldom did we use concept covers, and I think our imitation music mag came together nicely, even if the Beck kid’s eyes are strangely off.

My favorite cover artwork would be this Cowboy Bebop piece from issue 20. It was another illustration made especially for Anime Insider, though you'll also see it preserved in a recent book of Toshihiro Kawamoto’s art.



The overall cover isn’t as striking as the openers that the magazine had in its later years, but I’ve always been a fan of Kawamoto’s style. Besides, Faye and Spike are observing proper trigger discipline with their firearms, and we were all about setting good examples for the republic's impressionable youth.

My Favorite Feature: The more I think about it, the more I like that BEST ANIME EVER list we did for the 50th issue. It was a gimmick, but it was also a pleasant change of tone for a magazine that frequently sidestepped any real opinions. Of course, it prompted plenty of complaints about our exclusions of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z.

My Favorite Feature That I Wrote: A “lost anime” piece from issue 58, which went to press just before I got laid off. It was an ancillary project of mine for some time, as I spent time tracking down the details on a bunch of canceled anime, rounding up obscure production art, and chatting about Ulysses 31 and Lupin VIII with some DIC executives. It was the most challenging feature I had to write, and that made it the most fun.

Best Contest Entry: That contest trumpeted on the cover of issue 50 was a haiku challenge. Some of the entries were quite clever. Some were, I hope, elaborate trolling.



No, it didn’t win.

Biggest Mistake That I Made: Someone in the public-relations pipeline told us that the name of a city from Ergo Proxy was spelled “Romd” in the official English-language version of the show, so I plastered that spelling all over an Ergo Proxy feature. Then the show came out and spelled it “Romdo.” It wasn’t truly my fault, but boy, did I feel stupid. I kept a post-it with ROMD on it tacked above my desk for years afterward.

Memorable Interviews: Ron Perlman, who was great and friendly and totally cool about calling some jittery nerd reporter on the phone. Kouta Hirano, who chuckled along with his publishers and then said “video games” when I asked him his favorite hobby (which he lists as “beating off” in his Hellsing manga). Seiji Mizushima talked about his favorite hats. Tomoki Kyoda confessed how he’d rather be watching the World Cup than going to an anime convention. Dai Sato explained how Eureka Seven was like Teletubbies, and then Shuhei Morita explained how he didn’t rip off The Matrix with the ending to his Kakurenbo short. I also dug the interview where a company representative said that otaku should be crossbred with plants so they could give off oxygen and thereby contribute something while they’re just sitting around. I was asked not to print that.

Best Fan Art: Anime Insider's readers, young and old, sent in all sorts of artwork over the years. A lot of it was amateurishly charming, like this mock-up cover.



One particular submission still stands above the rest, for it was the standard against which all other bizarre reader creations were judged. That benchmark was a girl’s vision of herself as Goku’s “sexy new wife.”



Farewell, Anime Insider. Good or bad, you were the American anime subculture’s sexy new wife for eight years. I’m glad I was along for even part of the ride.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Miyazaki's Travels Beyond Gulliver

It’s easy to overlook Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon. Toei really tried to make this 1966 film, known in Japan as Gulliver’s Space Journey, an international hit, but it fared poorly in American theaters and stayed quite obscure throughout the age of VHS tapes. A cheap DVD release crept out in 2003 from Catcom, which bundled the film with the Fleischer brothers’ better-known 1939 Gulliver’s Travels movie and shipped the result to a handful of Half-Price Books outlets around the country. Once again, few people noticed it.



The cover hardly suggests an unappreciated landmark in animated cinema, yet Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon is an intriguing study. On one hand, it’s a routine, unchallenging kids’ movie about a boy named Ricky who joins an elderly Gulliver and some animal friends (and a pompous toy soldier) for a trip to a far-off planet called the Star of Hope. There they meet a race of bizarre semi-humans and save a princess from robots gone mad. On the other hand, it’s a visually remarkable film. Toei was clearly aiming to establish their children’s fare as a success outside of Japan, and Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon takes more inspiration from bleaker, stranger European animation than the Tezuka-derived imagery of its Japanese contemporaries. From its alien landscapes to the jagged, windup-toy inhabitants of the Star of Hope, the movie often has a haunting, surreal quality that clashes with the somewhat cartoonish heroes. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t win over too many kids.



The DVD release of Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon slipped by many, but Let’s Anime took a detailed look at it, while one kind soul uploaded a few clips from the movie. Among them is the memorable montage of "Rise, Robots, Rise," which makes a sudden, nightmarish switch from smiling little Rocky and Bullwinkle automatons to an army of stovepipe-legged robot fascists stomping on human faces forever.



There’s another reason to check out Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon: it was supposedly the first film truly influenced by a young Hayao Miyazaki, who’d go on to co-found Studio Ghibli and polish up anime’s public image worldwide (he’d also borrow the floating island of Laputa from Gulliver’s Travelers for his own Castle in the Sky). A possibly apocryphal story has it that Miyazaki, despite being a lowly and uncredited animator who'd worked on only one other Toei film, changed a climactic scene in Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon. The original script painted the people of the Star of Hope as doll-like creatures cast out by their own mechanical creations, but Miyazaki wanted to take the idea further, and director Yoshio Kuroda let him animate a new ending.



Even if the tale of Miyazaki’s creative coup is a fabrication, it’s not hard to see his influence in this scene. There’s a jab at dehumanizing technology, of course, and the princess, upon reclaiming her true self, brings to mind Clarisse from Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro. They’re both pale, gentle spirits to be rescued and shepherded through their first independent steps, all quivering gazes and confused innocence.



This raises a troubling question or two. While Miyazaki never intended it, Clarisse is often viewed as the start of the moe fan base, that cuteness-fetishizing movement that’s currently ruining Japan’s anime industry by heaping praise and money upon mediocre shows about goo-goo-eyed cartoon preteens. Can we trace this odious cult back to the Star of Hope’s princess? Is every freakish, pedophile-courting modern moe series really the result of Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon?



No, of course not. Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon is just a creatively animated kids’ movie, an example of Toei’s early steps onto the cosmopolitan stage, and, perhaps, a look at Miyazaki’s first true professional creation. At this writing, Catcom’s DVD can be had only through a single seller on eBay. As you can see, the picture quality is crude, with “IMAGE CALIBRATION” even flickering on the screen five minutes into the film, but it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get another chance to own Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon on DVD. For this scrap of history, it’s well worth the trouble.