Nostalgia - The First Lesson

by T Strife, Jun 25th 2009

Tezuka: The Experimental Films - "I Was Probably Supposed to Review This"

People grow up.

This is a lesson that I've been learning over the past couple of years. Why I've not been learning it over the course of my entire life, well, I'm not entirely sure. Maybe I have. Maybe it was just less pronounced when compared to the louder, more amplified realisation of recent times. I'm twenty-five now, and have been consciously interested in Anime since I was fifteen.

Such a stretch of time constitutes a full decade. Ten years. More than a third of my life! When I turn thirty I will have been into all things animated and from Japan for half of my entire existence, and I'm closer to thirty now than I was to twenty-five back then.

Perhaps I want to spell this out to myself as a long time because things have certainly changed and I'd hate to think that I blinked and missed it. Back when I was fifteen, those videos that I managed to get my hands on were hard-won exotic wonders. Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus, Angel Cop, Bubblegum Crisis, Akira… the diversity of genre wasn't great, but the kind of entertainment on offer was new and exciting. Hyperkinetic future worlds ruled my waking and sleeping life, and I had to go out of my way to use the Internet in order to research this stuff and discover that genres did in fact go beyond cyberpunk. There were other shows – things like Escaflowne, Ranma ½ and Tenchi Muyo! that had their own cult followings, and that promised an all new viewing experience. It seemed like a vast ocean of new, enticing adventures.

Over the past month I've been taking in a DVD of Osamu Tezuka 's experimental films. This was sent to me as a review copy and as such I really should be reviewing it, but it's gotten me thinking a freight-train's worth of digressions. Everybody my age now knows who Tezuka is – Astro Boy was famous, even back when we didn't actually know that it was from Japan. We just knew of it as a cartoon, although we eventually sussed it out. Personally my memories of it are in the form of scant flashes from very early childhood, eating a bowl of cereal on what I seem to recall being a cold winter's morning, watching fragments of high-pitched, hyperkinetic action on a pot-bellied TV that had been rotated to be comfortably viewable from the kitchen table. For some reason, amid all these snatches I mostly recall the closing credits; perhaps due to the DVD I've just recently put back on the shelf.

I really admire this release and once I got into the grove of the varied contents I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of it. It's a marvellous example of various animation styles, narrative forms and heavy-handed moral messages. But it also shows its age and I have to wonder how open I would have been to watching it through when I had just discovered Dominion Tank Police. I took in an amount of 80's Anime when I first got into the medium, but this may very well have been because there wasn't a whole lot else. Things were like that in the 90's.

This was back when the Manga Video label actually meant something.

Cast your mind if you can back to the label's foundation (1991), and public perception and awareness of anime in western culture was very different. Such cartoons were a cult interest; wholly underground, and probably not even always associated with being Japanese. What was managing to trickle its way to our shores was riding a very specific wave. As Manga Video's own montage voiceover put it: “One video company single-handedly popularised a new genre.”

Genre.

Anime is not a genre. But then, hell, it's not manga either, but that's what most of us knew of it as in those days. We just knew it as something exciting and different, presenting animation for an adult (or adolescent, as may more likely have been the case – Persepolis is adult animation, most anime is not) audience with enthralling new ideas. Ideas we had not come across before. Of course, by ‘we’ I suppose I actually mean my own predecessors – the people who were latching onto this stuff a good five or ten years before I began to.

But I got to relive the experiences that most of these people did, however, because I joined the fold at the very beginning of the change. I was one of but a fistful (and I do mean only a fistful) of posters on Madman Entertainment's online discussion forum at the time, and new releases were so slow that I had little choice to scrounge through an increasingly dusty collection of old tapes at my local Video Ezy. I ended up buying most of these when they sold them all off at $3 a pop on my 17th birthday. Providing me with one massive history lesson in the one fell, $150 swoop. Many of these titles have not been re-released on DVD, as reflected by forward-looking market change.

I learned a lot from that purchase and caught up on much of what people had previously had waited to buy after agonising drought periods. You wouldn't believe what the original release schedule for Macross Plus was like. Sure, fansubs were running rampant, but you had to pay for a VHS and postage instead of directly downloading them much of the time back then and I didn't have free access to a credit card. Nor did I live in the right community. Thus, with the not-so-admirable (and in terms of both manufacture quality and legality) efforts of a little video company called Kiseki causing an Australia-wide choke on the wider variety of anime that was starting to trickle into the States, it would take a while for the grime and grit of dystopian future settings to wash away.

So I was weaned on tanks and mechs and cyborgs with an oddity known as The Wings of Honneamise thrown in for good measure. Heaven knows what Manga were trying to do with that one. As a break from their usual output its slow pace and meditative storyline made it an odd choice when compared to some more kinetic alternatives, but props to them for at least trying to expand their own niche a bit.

And so this is how it is: am I a totally different anime fan to the sort going through high school today, because of my origins? Anime is its own culture in Australia now. It was hardly even a scene when I got into it. I mean, I was alone – I had to rely upon rationed Internet time to even find someone else who cared about the stuff, let alone trade tapes with them. Occasionally I would take a two hour trek to visit an anime fan club at a Sydney University (wherein the likes of shows such as Revolutionary Girl Utena would show off just how diverse things could be). I grew up loving anime as a sub-sub culture.

As for my Film Lecturer when I myself attended University? Different again – to her Akira was a monumental moment for cinema, something completely different, fresh and unprecedented. She accepted the good in it, but Anime was never separated from the larger cinematic landscape. I sometimes wonder if she was then able to detect the rumblings of movement happening below.

Hell, I wonder what it would be like to be 18 and to see Akira or Ghost in the Shell at a cinema when it was just a hot new curiosity. To be going in just to see a film, only to be blown away by the unprecedented, stylised animation on the screen, to say nothing of the themes and ideas that assaulted the audience. It's a sensation I've come close to feeling when I first traversed the VHS landscape but it remains a nostalgia towards which I feel the odd twinge of envy.

What I idealise most is the concept that this product – this collector's phenomenon – was once just a scant series of releases, a kind of vibe or idea that cold be held in the hand, charged with the power to excite without overwhelming. The effort had to be put into actually finding it, not in being struck by too many choices on a menu. Back when I was new to anime I knew more of what there was to know than I do now, even though I've since I've been involved it in enough ways to fluff a résumé that could make me look like some kind of world-leading, disembodied anime Zeitgeist. I'm not, in case you were wondering.

So, what do Tezuka's experimental animations represent to me? Well, they represent a fear that I've gotten older and have grown somewhat apart from the larger anime fan culture. I really enjoyed these films, but I enjoyed them from the perspective of someone who has himself produced roughly an hour of solo, hand-drawn animation, as someone who has briefly lived in Japan, and as someone who has studied – and enjoyed studying – film as a larger art form. All of which is quite ironic, as surely this is what I've been striving for since I was fifteen?

Maybe it has, but the lesson learned here is that if you undergo a ten year race then the objective may very appear different to how it once did when you first started chasing it. And the people you thought that you were running with have all changed, as well. Perhaps that's the point of writing all this. Perhaps the point is to acknowledge Hyper for running anime reviews, frequently of import titles, before anyone cared. To be thankful for the very existence of The Cartoon Gallery, a small specialist store that used to operate in Sydney's Queen Victoria Building before moving sites and then eventually closing its doors a few years ago now. The service its mere existence provided the scene was fantastic and was a portal to a world that Madman Entertainment was yet to unleash in more mainstream retailers – it no longer exists as a physical store because of this, but I'd like to think that the memory remains. But then, accessibility probably shouldn't be frowned upon, so props also to AnimeEigo for entrusting a little (well, actually quite tall) bedroom dreamer by name of Tim Anderson with the rights to release Bubblegum Crisis down under. Everything from then on has changed the scope of Australia's anime landscape as we know it.

Australian anime culture is a behemoth now, and in spite of what my ideals tell me I can only look at this with mixed feelings. Madman got to where they were largely by listening to fan-feedback (their original DVD pressings were to be dub-only, but they let fan outcry overrule market research and statistics) and I can't hold this against them for so much as a second. However, for all that is now available at everyone's fingertips, I miss the sense of the unknown that many of finer anime titles were once able to elicit. Perhaps I just want this trajectory to be recorded. Perhaps amid this increase in variety I'm finding it harder to find that spark, that certain something different - that one release that I can fondly cling to, and announce to people who've not yet seen it.

All of which brings me back to Tezuka. These experimental films are fascinating and are probably aimed more at cinemaphiles than your typical otaku type. But then, that's how it all started – Akira marked a new type of motion picture for many peopleand exploration of similar topography ensued. Perhaps this is a part of why I like this DVD so much. The other part being, ironically, that it's the sort of thing that never would have gotten time of day during the Manga Video era, because its visual stimulation shares more in common with Fantasia than Blade Runner.

But I digress from my own digressions. Anime has grown in Australia at an almost frightful rate, and I should be happy about this. New things are available all the time, and the wait is now measured by weeks rather than months, and the diversity is mind-blowing. But amid all the sheen and CGI that the latest IG and Gonzo productions, it never hurts to look at a little history – back to the 80's for a start, and then eventually back to where it all began: Tezuka. This DVD is actually very good.

Ed's Note: Welcome to Tim Henderson's new column, Nostalgia, where he looks back at growing up with anime and how it compares with what he knows today. We already have several in the pot and hope to be sending them out every few weeks. Please let us know what you think of this meal in the forums!


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