The Superversive from the East: Giant Robo – The Animation

Giant Robo is, as the linked article states, both one of the oldest of Japan’s comic franchises and the source of one of the best original animation series in the last 30 years. As such there’s some familiar issues that any franchise faces, starting with multiple continuities that often drastically reshape the premise into something very different from other versions. That’s why I’m specifying the OVA series: “The Animation”.

The reason for this specific incarnation’s enduring appeal is that this story is one of the most boldly Superversive stories to come out of Japan. Just take a good look at the trailer below:

That’s all you need to know, right there. The details that really deliver on the story’s promise aren’t in the trailer, but you will see that every element gets used–and used well–to tell a tale that uplifts the audience, inspires them to face great fears with courage, and press on even when you think you’re done for. That boy, Daisaku, is your protagonist and he gets put through the ringer over the course of this short series, but he does make it happen at the end–albeit with help (and a Pellenor Fields moment that is ridiculous, awesome, and (by that point) makes logical sense).

And it is thoroughly entertaining at all levels. The music is fantastic, the aesthetics are brilliant, and the production team did your Avengers or Justice League style of “heroes band together to stop a world-wide doom” story better than Marvel or DC have to date, in any medium. Daisaku’s the plunky youth you want to cheer for, Big Fire’s villains range from love-to-hate to completely despicable, and the other Experts of Justice may be rough around the edges but they are still heroes.

And, as for the necessity of virtue, the plot centers around two virtue-related matters: the origin of the Shizuma Drive, and the truth about the disaster that nearly derailed its introduction. Big errors got made, and everything about this story is a logical consequence of those errors, but there is no fixing it without fixing those errors- and that final bit shows this story’s value as a Superversive work.

The commercial availability of this animation isn’t what it once was, but you can get it at Amazon in a boxed set on DVD at a reasonable (for commercial anime) price. It’s not a long series: just under 6 hours, total. Agent Carter‘s first season ran longer. Recommended highly!

The Superversive from the East: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross

Japan has several long-running science-fiction franchises, but few are truly global in reach. Mobile Suit Gundam is one. Space Battleship Yamato is another. Both got their start in 1979, but the third part of that era’s triumverate came in 1982: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross, what many in North America may (unfortunately) know better as the most popular part of Robotech.

I won’t go into the details of what makes the original Macross great–you can read the TV Tropes article for that–so I’ll skip straight to why I’m marking this out as a Superversive work. First, and foremost, this is series is a counter-balance to the downbeat stories that the Gundam franchise often did; this was the era was “Kill ‘Em All” Tomino’s penchant for nihilism, despair, and audience-unfriendly narrative decisions were at their worst. While tragedy and loss are present in Macross, they are Things To Overcome and not You Suck Forever elements.

The story, despite the massive warfare going on, ends on a hopeful note that’s borne out before the credits roll for the final time and expanded upon in the many franchise expansions ever since. Brotherhood is rewarded, faith in things greater than oneself key to victory, beauty and culture are explicit superpowers (but that is not enough; Right Needs Might), and real love is not narcissistic delusion.

The transformable fighters and the Space Opera story are what many remember, but what gives Macross its heart is much like what we see with Gurren Lagann: an earnest, relatable hero who struggles to do what is right while doing what is necessary, overcoming his losses by keeping faith with his people (which is also difficult at times for him to do), and in time he becomes a leader in his own right. Maturity, marriage, and the embrace of responsibility are shown to benefit him and make him into the hero he saw in his big brother.

This theme persists across the series: those who embrace the elements necessary to build up a healthy culture with concern for the future are those that succeed, whereas those that embrace nihilism and succumb to despair are those that fail. Not only does this persist throughout the series, it persists throughout the franchise.

While not perfect, Macross is a beloved classic for good reasons- and if “Superversive” was a part of the vocabulary of the culture then, you would’ve seen it used prominently. Recommended.

The Superversive from the East: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

In the 1980s, one of the greatest works of science fiction ever to come out of Japan first hit the shelves as a light novel: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It would later get adapted into a 110-episode anime series, produce two movies, and several side-stories mini-series. Unfortunately, only recently did the original light novels get licensed for release into the West. (You can fix that here)

Whether you read the novels or watch the anime, you’ll find a truly epic Space Opera that hits most of the things you want out of a Superversive work. While the moral clarity is muddled at times, as this story reflects the mood of its day, the protagonist and the deuteragonist (and their key allies) are clear heroes with heroic virtue and epic flaws.

There are no supernatural powers. There are no aliens. There are no giant robots, laser swords (save for those shown as part of an in-fiction feature film), transformable machines, or other tropes popular with the famous SF/F franchises arising in Japan at this time. The fantastic elements are confined to FTL travel, cybernetics, the many technologies implied by the fact that galaxy-wide human colonization occurred, and high-end medical technologies. Yet there are massive fleet battles only eclipsed by E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, and cultural conflicts (with attendant political intrigues) that drive the plot overall (and thus many subplots therein).

What there is, however, is true love (but often filial instead of romantic). What there is, however, is courage against often ridiculous odds. Faith held against powers willing and able to destroy you and yours, and fortitude in times of struggle are what you will find here. And, while individuals can succumb to their tragic flaws, the overall conclusion is hopeful in both absolute and practical terms. If you can find a good playlist online, and you can deal with subtitles, the long-running series and its related works will bring you up without lying to you on what it often takes to climb that mountain to a better tomorrow.

Moreso than any other work of science fiction or fantasy out of Japan, I recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes, especially if you like your key characters to be competent as well as their opposition. Victory here is earned, and therefore deserved- including the hopeful end.

The Superversive in Film: Char’s Counterattack

Today, I direct your attention once more across the Pacific to Japan. While I can–and do–recommend Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Studio Ghibli films, that’s not the man behind this film. The film is Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and the man is Yoshiyuki “Kill ’em All” Tomino.

The protagonist and antagonist are, once more, Amuro Rey and Char Aznable. This movie is the end of their story, which began with the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, and it brings their conflict to its conclusion. However, that doesn’t mean you need to watch that series (or Zeta Gundam, or ZZ Gundam) to appreciate this film; you’ll be fine going in cold.

The reason for me marking this out as Superversive is due to the root of the conflict: Despair-fueled egotism, expressed as fanatical terrorism. Char does what he does out of a deep-seated obsession with Amuro, whereas Amuro had moved on and began to–at last–find the possibility of happiness in a future of family and fatherhood as he serves Mankind as part of an autonomous elite unit. (This is mirrored in Bright Noa, the unit’s commander. He is married and a father, happily so, and has only gotten stronger as a character because of that.)

It is also because of that root of conflict that you need not see the previous series to appreciate this film; the root reveals itself early to the audience, as shown by Char’s behavior before executing the big villainous plot to force Mankind off Earth entirely. That root comes full circle in the end as everyone sees through to that root and Char gets his comeuppance in spectacular fashion in the climax.

The film’s theme of Hope v. Despair shapes everyone in the cast, for good or ill, and while the villain’s plot is ended it comes as a high cost. (Another regular Gundam trope.) You can see how each character’s embrace of hope, or succumbing to despair, leads to that character’s fate. Tomino has his status as a master for a reason, and you see it in action here.

Thus the ending is bittersweet, but overall a positive one, but not without leaving some matters unfinished and exposing others heretofore buried. (This would set the stage for Gundam Unicorn, which takes place three years after this film.)

And, for all the men-with-screwdriver sorts out there, yes there’s plenty of science in this fiction- the plot (as it often does for a Gundam title) revolves around dropping very big things on to very populated places on the surface of Earth. (Remember that this is the franchise that destroyed Sidney, Australia by dropping a space colony bigger than Babylon 5 on it.) The robots, even the psychic powers, are consistent if unreal (and have other purposes for their presence).

Recommended. It’s the final chapter of a classic saga of Japanese science fiction for a reason.

Ghibli Retrospective: “Whisper of the Heart”

What a charming film, and what a tragic history behind it. “Whisper of the Heart” was written by Miyazaki, produced by Miyazaki, and had its storyboards supervised by Miyazaki, but it was not directed by Miyazaki, nor Isao Takahata. The director of “Whisper of the Heart” was Yoshifumi Kondō (creating that line over the o is annoying, so with all due respect to Kondo I’m done with that). Ghibli had a significant problem, then and now, of developing a new class of directors once Miyazaki and Takahata retired (the problem is so significant, in fact, that after Miyazaki’s latest non-retirement is was an open question whether or not Ghibli would be making any more films at all). Some people rose up and made good films – Goro Miyazaki, who directed “Up on Poppy Hill”, Hiroyuki Morita, who directed the sequel/spinoff “The Cat Returns”, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed “The Secret World of Arrietty” – but none of them were truly designated the successors to the Ghibli brand like Kondo was.

Kondo was to be the next Miyazaki – indeed, Miyazaki himself had essentially hand-picked him as his successor. And it’s hard to ask for a better debut than “Whisper of the Heart”. Tragically, though, Kondo died not long after “Whisper” of an aneurysm, which Miyazaki himself blamed on overwork (another way of saying that he blamed himself for Kondo’s death, being the one who pushed him so hard).

And it’s such a shame, not only for him and his family, of course, but for the world, because “Whisper of the Heart” is truly an excellent film. I’d probably rank it above at least “Ponyo” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. “Whisper of the Heart” is the story of Shizuku, a young teenage girl on the cusp of her entrance exams for high school, but whose real ambition is to be a writer. Shizuku struggles from insecurities about her art, as well as the normal trials and tribulations that a young Japanese girl goes through regularly in suburban Tokyo. Along the way she discovers that a boy named Seiji has been checking out the same books as her at the library, and after rocky introductions the two fall in love quickly thanks to their shared ambitions – Seiji wants to be a violin craftsman.

The more I think about this film the more I realize how much I liked it. The movie is clearly a movie for girls, but it’s more than that. It’s a movie for writers. I don’t know a writer in the world who can’t empathize with Shizukui’s lack of ideas followed by her sudden burst of inspiration that causes her to spend up to four in the morning writing. This happens to me all the time; I’ll be run dry of ideas, and then I’ll get the BEST IDEA EVER, and I’ll have to get the story out RIGHT NOW. It is more than once that I have stayed up until four in the morning writing.

And I can empathize surprisingly well with Shizuku’s romantic life. There is a scene when Shizuku, who has never really shown interest in boys before and is quite shy, is talking with Seiji alone, but unbeknownst to her the entire class is hiding behind a nearby door and eavesdropping. When she figures it out, she’s furious.

This is me. I am not outgoing, and so people find it amusing or entertaining when I take an interest in someone, and I HATE that. I have made excuses to leave my house in order to talk to people without worrying about eavesdropping, so Shizuku’s reaction rang VERY true to me.

The direction in the movie is indeed fantastic, if not quite flawless. Some of Kondo’s visual themes and motifs are brilliantly subtle, to the point where I’ve had to read other reviews to actually catch them, but some are rather on the nose, like the scene where Shizuku tells Seiji that she does not want to be a burden on his life, but wants to aid him, while she is helping him push his bike up a steep hill. This is effective, I suppose, but blunt enough that you can sort of see the gears working in the background. “Hey, you know what would make a good metaphor…” But it’s also something that is quite easy to chalk up to directorial inexperience, and his use of visual storytelling is so on point, so razor sharp in so many other places that his skill and talent is readily apparent.

The script is Miyazaki, and thus excellent. It is much less whimsical than most of Miyazaki’s fare (most; remember that one of the things that makes Miyazaki great is that he could tackle ideas from any direction and knock them out of the park regardless), but it has as much heart as any of them. The story is only barely less slight than “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, but Kondo treats it with the utmost respect; maybe what’s happening here isn’t a big deal in the sense that, say “Princess Mononoke” or even “Porco Rosso” was, but it’s a HUGE deal for Shizuku, and Kondo doesn’t minimize that.

When a boy Shizuku’s friend Yuko has a crush on upsets her, Shizuku and Yuko are both angry, but also both mature enough to talk it over and come to a more rational decision about what to do about it. What happens to them isn’t something for us to laugh at, but a real crisis in their lives that they handle; the only difference is that it happens not to be the sort of crisis we face often as adults. Later, when Shizuku bursts into tears after hearing Nishi’s opinion of her story, we empathize and understand why. To Kondo, being a teenager just means you deal with different issues than adults do, not that they’re less important.

This goes all the way down to the controversial ending. Sure, a marriage proposal is sudden, and they’re too young to act on it anyway, but then the whole point is that being young doesn’t mean your decisions don’t matter. Miyazaki said that the reason he added that ending is that he wanted the protagonists to commit to something; again, it all comes down to respect for the characters. Their choices are not unimportant. They matter. Them being teenagers doesn’t change that.

The ending, by the way, is also EXTREMELY refreshing. Both Seiji and Shizuku, when given the option to go the path of the starving artist to chase their dreams, reject it, and choose to finish their schooling so they could come back to their ambitions after standing on more solid ground. There’s something particularly Miyazakian about that touch, a level of sophistication and maturity lacking in most western films.

Also worth noting: The love story might be the closest of all of them to the Miyazakian ideal of “Two people inspiring one another to live”. This is basically the sole reason Shizuku and Seiji believe they’re suited for each other; both of them are inspired by the other’s dedication to their dreams, and both agree to help the other fulfill them. You can see why Miyazaki decided to adapt the original manga in the first place.

“Whisper of the Heart” is an underappreciated entry in the Ghibli canon. It’s something of a bittersweet pill when you realize we’ll never have another Kondo film to watch, but he left us with – to use a metaphor from the film – a real gem. Perhaps it is rough and unpolished occasionally, but beautiful regardless. And, ah, when it sparkles…!

We’ll never know what Kondo could have been, but we know what he was, and that is the director of a beautiful, moving, and inspiring piece of meticulously crafted cinema. And that’s a better legacy than most of us will ever leave.

The Superversive in Film: Ozamu Tezuka’s “Metropolis”

In 2001, the anime adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis released in Japan. It came to the West some time later, and–having watched both–I find the adaptation to a more powerful story because it relies even more on the bedrock of Western culture (Christianity) than the original.

The difference is the establishment of a reason for the erection of these skyscrapers and the industrial complex that drives that powerbase: the explicit attempt to create a second Tower of Babel. If you are at all familiar with that story, then you already know how this is going to end.

What matters here is the execution. Instead of our protagonist being the villain’s son, he’s an outsider who visits the titular city alongside his uncle (who’s there on a case) that gets wrapped up in a mess of a plot over a child-like gynoid that’s central to the villain’s plans. The brewing revolution, with ready revolutionaries, from the original is carried over and developed further into a vital subplot whose conclusion ignites the climax.

All of which serves to underpin a consistent thread that, as with the original, the industrialization that the city presents (and represents) is dehumanizing to everyone captured by it. Only our protagonist, being an outsider, retains the human humility necessary to see the folly in all of the plotting going on and implores with the one other character immediately able to stop it to do so- and, at the last moment, succeeds.

The story goes to the effort to show how the apparent peace and prosperity of the city and its inhabitants comes at the cost of subverting the population’s dignity, which they return in kind to the elites preying upon them as well as to the robots who often are the means of this dehumanization, which has exactly the effects that are known to happen to a culture over time: a downward spiral of degeneracy into savagery and despair as the real needs of one and all are unmet as they should, symbolized by the story’s setting degenerating into ever-meaner locations and ever-more-desperate maskings thereof before the pressure is too much as everything (literally and otherwise) blows apart. Fortunately, our hero’s essential innocence allows him the means to see through this tragedy and plant the seed of a better tomorrow.

While there’s no confounding of language, the result is the ruin of the attempt and its abandonment by the survivors in favor of reconciliation and reformation into something that this renewed humility in the (surviving) people can accomplish without dehumanizing themselves, their creations, or each other. As both an homage to the original that equals, if not surpasses, Lang’s film as well as on its own merits this is a story that ends in a bittersweet, but, hopeful mood after seeing great amounts of hubris result in self-destruction as pride goes before a fall. Recommended.

If you would like to see for yourself, you can buy a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis at Amazon. The soundtrack is also worth getting a physical copy of, as this playlist shows.

Ghibli Retrospective: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Isao Takahata is Studio Ghibli’s second critically acclaimed director. He is neither as good nor as prolific as Miyazaki, but he is, for lack of a better word, “artsier”. Takahata’s best known film is “The Grave of the Fireflies” (which I will NOT be getting to), the notoriously sad and depressing wartime classic about two children who starve to death in WWII era Japan. “Grave of the Fireflies” is universally acclaimed, undeniably brilliant, profound, moving, and something nobody ever, ever desires to watch twice. Takahata is not a crowd pleaser like Miyazaki is.

…Which isn’t to say that he’s bad. Quite the contrary, Takahata is very good, and certainly interesting. He has two of the most artistically unique Studio Ghibli films, “My Neighbors the Yamadas” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”.

The first and most obvious thing to note is that yes, the pencil-drawn “Kaguya” is a beautiful film. The story of the film is taken from the Japanese folktale (or, technically more accurately, Monogatari) “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. The plot is that a bamboo cutter discovers an infant the size of his thumb inside of a magical stalk of bamboo, an infant he immediately recognizes is a Princess with no name. Together with his wife, they raise the infant as she grows with supernatural speed into a young woman of exquisite beauty. At the same time, the Bamboo cutter finds gold and fine clothing appearing inside other stalks of bamboo, and takes it as a sign from Heaven that he is to move to the capital and raise the Princess as actual royalty, where she learns the duties of a real Princess and leaves her friends back in the bamboo valley behind.

The movie is – bluntly – rather dull, but it is an interesting look at Japanese culture and history. However, this is also its biggest failure. Miyzaki is often cited as a feminist, but he is not in the way westerners think of the term, at least as far as his movie go. If this movie is anything to go by, Takahata is. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is profoundly and obnoxiously anti-men, and the truly harmful thing about this is that to reach that point the movie needs to lie about its past and its origins.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” tries to paint a picture of an old Japan where young Princesses were swept up against their will by the whims of the patriarchy, unable to make their own choices or escape the expectations of a male-oriented society. The Princess is clearly far happier at her original home by the bamboo forest, playing with other children and living among the beauty of nature, than she is living at the cold, sterile palace. But her father essentially forces her to live at the palace he builds for, claiming the entire time that royal life and marriage are for her happiness but obviously thinking more about his own newfound status.

The royalty who come to visit the Princess and ask for her hand in marriage clearly know absolutely nothing about her and don’t care, comparing her to various objects and completely uninterested in getting to know her personally. The Emperor almost kidnaps her. The one male character originally portrayed as positive in the film considers leaving his wife and children to run off with her. Literally none of the male characters are portrayed positively. The father has a change of heart at the end of the film, but he has been such a negative influence up until then that it very much comes across as too little, too late.

The big issue here is that this isn’t how the original 10th century story went; put another way, this movie is portraying a lie. This is not what all men were like. Her father did not shop the Princess out to various men like a slave in the market, but rather tried to protect her from the outside world; he was not happy about making her choose among the royalty who come to court her, but is pressured into it.

When the Emperor comes to court the Princess, he does not attempt to kidnap her, and when she rejects him, he does not vow to return and make her marry him whatever her issues on the matter. In fact, the Emperor treats the Princess with great respect the entire time. He continually proposes to her, having fallen in love, but accepts her rebuffs with grace. When the moon people come for her at the end of the story, the Emperor tries to stop them despite the fact that she rejected him. In the original tale, the roles of the men and women are, if anything, reversed; the Princess has the royalty wrapped around her little finger while her father is forcibly bullied by them despite his best efforts to help her.

At the end of the story, the Princess and the Emperor have such a close relationship that the Princess writes a letter to the Emperor herself before she is taken back to the moon, and the Emperor is so overcome with grief he sends men to the top of Mount Fuji – the mountain “closest to heaven” – and tells them to burn the letter in the hope that it will one day reach the Princess.

And ultimately this is the biggest issue with the film: It tries to paint an image of a time gone by when women were treated as objects and men were selfish boors and jerks, when the original story simply doesn’t portray a world like that. The point of the film is a lie, and if the movie is most interesting as a piece of Japanese culture, it is highly disappointing to see it wear its anti-men agenda so proudly on its sleeve like that.

If you like the idea of watching an experiment in pencil drawn animation and semi-dreamlike storytelling, then you might find the movie of interest; I can’ really say I regret watching it. But for most people, it’s not recommended.